JERUSALEM—Iran, whose pursuit in recent years of imperial ambitions in the Middle East has seemed inexorable, found itself over the weekend confronting a hostile coalition of nine Sunni states ranging from Morocco to Turkey, with nuclear-armed Pakistan a possible add-on.
The bombing in Yemen of Iranian-linked Houthi rebels that began last Thursday by the Saudi-led coalition marked the unexpected emergence of a unified Sunni front to counter the threat of regional dominance by Shiite Iran. Egypt, one of the central members of the coalition, has already dispatched naval forces to the waters off Yemen to prevent Houthi militants, acting on behalf of Iran, from threatening shipping to and from the Suez Canal.
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The new Sunni militancy follows the accession two months ago of King Salman in Saudi Arabia. His son, Mohammad bin Salman, whom he appointed as defense minister, has taken the leading role in organizing the coalition and planning the strikes against the Houthis, assisted by U.S. intelligence.
Pakistan was named as a member of the coalition by Saudi officials. However, a spokesman for the Pakistani government subsequently said it had not yet made up its mind whether to join. Turkey, which like Pakistan is a Sunni Muslim state but non-Arab, took a clear stand alongside the Arab Sunnis. "Iran is trying to dominate the region," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey told a press conference. "This is intolerable and Iran has to see this."
By arming and encouraging Shiite groups in various countries in the region Iran has extended its influence to the point that two major countries, Syria and Iraq, have in effect become Iranian protectorates. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia is the dominant group in Lebanon. The Saudis feared Iran had begun to undermine Saudi influence in neighboring Yemen by using the Shiite Houthis. If successful, Iran would be able to use its Houthi proxies to close the Bab-el-Mandeb Straits to shipping to and from the Suez Canal.
Although the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world are Sunnis, Sunni nations have come to fear the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Heightening the tensions are boasts by Iranian leaders, who are non-Arab, that they are already the dominant influence in four Arab capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and, now Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, which was captured by the Houthis last September. In addition, prominent Iranians speak ever more openly of Tehran’s aspirations to achieve regional hegemony on the scale of their forefathers, the Persians. The mooted agreement between Tehran and the international community on the Iranian nuclear program also adds to the nervousness of its Arab neighbors.
The Saudis have announced their intention of building a 40,000-man Arab intervention force made up of soldiers from Gulf states and Egypt who could intervene if insurgents threaten the stability of Sunni states. Saudi Arabia has already achieved a major diplomatic coup in persuading Sudan, traditionally in Iran’s camp, to join the anti-Iranian coalition. The United States has avoided direct involvement in the formation of the coalition but it has shown support. Should Pakistan decide to join, that would be a significant step because it is the only Muslim nation with nuclear weapons.