The Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front's (IAF) withdrawal of its six ministers from the cabinet on August 2, following the failure of Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to meet their demands, has shaken the governments in Baghdad and Washington. The IAF's list included such patently unrealistic demands as disbanding all (Shia) militias.
"Clearly the withdrawal of the Sunnis from the government is discouraging at the national level," said US defence secretary Robert Gates. "We probably underestimated the depth of mistrust [between Sunnis and Shias]."
This is disingenuous. While bemoaning the "depth of mistrust" between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, the Bush administration has been playing it up in the rest of the Arab Middle East. Two days earlier, Gates and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice announced a massive $63bn arms sale to the Sunni monarchical regimes in the Persian Gulf and Egypt - ostensibly to counter the influence of Iran, a predominantly Shia state.
Their criticism of the Sunni Arab regimes for failing to implement the commitments - specifically setting up embassies in Baghdad - they had made about backing the Shia-led Maliki government two months earlier, highlighted the contradictions in America's policy in the region.
It has been crystal clear that the government of Maliki - who spent several years in Iran as a fugitive during the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 - is on the friendliest of terms with the regime in Tehran. This was also the case with the preceding Iraqi government led by Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shia leader who had also taken refuge in Iran in the 1980s.
So, here is the Bush White House trying, on one hand, to secure support for the pro-Tehran, Shia-led Iraqi government from other Arab regimes, all of them Sunni; and, on the other hand, encouraging the Sunni Arab leaders to be robust in their public rejection of Iran.
As for the Sunni Arab monarchs in the Persian Gulf, while, for historical reasons, they are prejudiced against the Shia minorities in their countries (Bahrain, with a Shia majority, being the exception), they are realistic enough not to provoke Iran. After all, Iran is the most populous country in the region, and is governed by sharia law, which is also the case with most of the Sunni monarchies.
Moreover, the Bush administration's policy of showering the Sunni Arab regimes with expensive, sophisticated weaponry is misconceived. It seems to be following in the footsteps of the Reagan administration, which started an arms race with the Soviet Union in the 1980s and bankrupted the Kremlin.
Nothing could be more wrong than drawing parallels between the Soviet Union of the 1980s and Iran of today. Unlike the Soviet Union, Iran is not a military behemoth. Its domestic military industry is smaller than Belgium's. During its eight-year war with Iraq, it imported weapons worth $11bn, whereas Iraq's imports of foreign arms amounted to $102bn. Therefore Iran is unlikely to get into an arms race with the regional Arab states now.
Any attraction that Iran holds in the Arab world stems from its being an Islamic republic in the true sense of the term. Iran is administered according to Islamic law, and is ruled by a government that draws its mandate periodically from the electorate.
Tehran is buoyed by the fact that recent polls in Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt have highlighted the popularity of political Islam in the Arab world. In the freest and fairest parliamentary election in the region, Hamas won in the Sunni Palestinian territories. In Sunni Egypt, despite the strongarm tactics of the Hosni Mubarak government to bar Islamist voters from reaching the polling stations, the Muslim Brotherhood won 60% of the parliamentary seats it contested. And in Lebanon, pro-Tehran Hizbullah won a record number of seats allocated to the Shia community.
This enabled Iran's supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamanei to declare recently: "Today, if a referendum is held in any Islamic country, the people will vote for individuals supporting Islam and opposing the United States."
Little wonder that the Bush administration has stopped preaching the virtues of multi-party democracy in the Arab Middle East.
Dilip Hiro's latest book is "Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World's Vanishing Oil Resources," published by Nation Books, New York.
© 2007 The Guardian