The Washington Post ran a story last week about some 200 retired generals and admirals who sent a letter to Congress “urging lawmakers to reject the Iran nuclear agreement, which they say threatens national security.”
There are legitimate arguments for and against this deal, but there was one argument expressed in this story that was so dangerously wrongheaded about the real threats to the United States from the Middle East, it needs to be called out.
That argument was from Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, the retired former vice commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, who said of the nuclear accord: “What I don’t like about this is, the number one leading radical Islamic group in the world is the Iranians. They are purveyors of radical Islam throughout the region and throughout the world. And we are going to enable them to get nuclear weapons.”
Sorry, general, but the title greatest “purveyors of radical Islam” does not belong to the Iranians. Not even close. That belongs to our putative ally Saudi Arabia.
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When it comes to Iran’s involvement in terrorism, I have no illusions: I covered firsthand the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, both believed to be the handiwork of Iran’s cat’s paw, Hezbollah. Iran’s terrorism, though - vis-à-vis the U.S. - has always been of the geopolitical variety: War by other means to push the U.S. out of the region so Iran can dominate it, not us.
I support the Iran nuclear deal because it reduces the chances of Iran building a bomb for 15 years and creates the possibility that Iran’s radical religious regime can be moderated through more integration with the world.
But if you think Iran is the only source of trouble in the Middle East, you must have slept through 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam - the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions - and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.
It is not an accident that several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent the Islamic State donations. It is because all these Sunni jihadi groups - Islamic State, al-Qaida, the Nusra Front - are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrassas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.
And we, America, have never called them on that - because we’re addicted to their oil, and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.
“Let’s avoid hyperbole when describing one enemy or potential enemy as the greatest source of instability,” said Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, who is an expert on Islam at the Hudson Institute.
“It is an oversimplification,” he said. “While Iran has been a source of terrorism in supporting groups like Hezbollah, many American allies have been a source of terrorism by supporting Wahhabi ideology, which basically destroyed the pluralism that emerged in Islam since the 14th century, ranging from Bektashi Islam in Albania, which believes in living with other religions, to Sufi and Shiite Islam.
“The last few decades have seen this attempt to homogenize Islam,” claiming “there is only one legitimate path to God,” Haqqani said. And when there is only one legitimate path, “all others are open to being killed. That has been the single most dangerous idea that has emerged in the Muslim world, and it came out of Saudi Arabia and has been embraced by others, including the government in Pakistan.”
Consider this July 16, 2014, story in The Times from Beirut: “For decades, Saudi Arabia has poured billions of its oil dollars into sympathetic Islamic organizations around the world, quietly practicing checkbook diplomacy to advance its agenda. But a trove of thousands of Saudi documents recently released by WikiLeaks reveals in surprising detail how the government’s goal in recent years was not just to spread its strict version of Sunni Islam - though that was a priority - but also to undermine its primary adversary: Shiite Iran.”
Or consider this Dec 5, 2010, report on BBC.com: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned last year in a leaked classified memo that donors in Saudi Arabia were the ‘most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.’ She said it was ‘an ongoing challenge' to persuade Saudi officials to treat such activity as a strategic priority. The groups funded include al-Qaida, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, she added.”
Saudi Arabia has been a U.S. ally on many issues and there are moderates there who detest its religious authorities. But the fact remains that Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabi puritanical Islam has been one of the worst things to happen to Muslim and Arab pluralism - pluralism of religious thought, gender and education - in the last century.
Iran’s nuclear ambition is a real threat; it needs to be corralled. But don’t buy into the nonsense that it’s the only source of instability in this region.
Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.