The idea of a single, united "Arab World" has never moved very far beyond the realm of wishful thinking. The history of the Middle East comes filled with countless chapters on intra-Arab warfare and numerous tomes on political enmity and intrigue pitting Arab states against each other. From the earliest days of Islam, when the Sunni-Shiite divide tore the believers apart, to the late 20th century, when conflicts such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent U.S.-led counterattack divided Arab loyalties, unity has proven elusive. At times, it was possible to downplay the split. Now, however, all pretenses have disappeared. The Arab world is as sharply divided as ever.
Today, Arab countries have taken their positions on two distinct sides of a dividing line. The source of the split is the growing power of the Arabs' long-time enemy, Persia, in its modern embodiment: The Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran's support of militant groups has always worried regimes seeking to hold on to power. In recent years, Iran's ability to sow unrest has become plainly visible, with fighting in Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq led by militias funded and trained by Tehran.
Iran's relative power in the region grew as a result of the conflict in Iraq, which weakened the one country that had managed to keep Tehran's ambitions in check. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq took on Iran head on, sapping the revolutionary regime's ability to cause mischief beyond its borders.
Tehran's ambitions are rather plainly stated in its constitution, which calls for spreading Islamic revolution beyond the country's borders. Arab regimes know this is not a vague notion. According to a Kuwaiti newspaper, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently told members of the ruling party that, "The Persians are trying to devour the Arab states."
Arab regimes worry that Tehran, with its revolutionary ideology and proxy militias will destabilize their countries. And that is even before Tehran achieves its nuclear goals. If it succeeds in developing nuclear weapons, the Islamic Republic could prove unstoppable.
Leading the effort to block Iran's objectives are Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Saudi Arabia, the birth place of Islam, has long feared Iran's efforts to delegitimize Al-Saud family rule. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, worries about Iranian influence in general, but has particular concerns over Iran's support of Hamas, an outgrowth of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the country's main opposition group.
On the other side of the division, Iran's main ally is Syria. Tehran also enjoys enormous influence stemming from the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, particularly in Gaza. Also seeming to side with Iran is the Emirate of Qatar, although Qatar has a history of playing both sides in an effort to punch above its diplomatic weight.
The most visible signs of the Arab schism emerged during the 22 days of fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. The so-called "Arab street," as it is often called with a measure of disdain, sided squarely against Israel, if not quite so unequivocally behind Hamas. Arab governments, however, took a much different position. While public rage grew with the constant stream of images of Palestinian casualties on Al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite stations, the response from inside Arab palaces was another matter.
The government of Egypt, despite popular anger, essentially sided with Israel, accusing Hamas of provoking the conflict with its rocket attacks. Cairo blocked the Gaza-Egypt border through which Hamas could have resupplied its munitions stock. Other countries also spoke carefully about the conflict, especially in the early days of the fighting. They may have condemned Israel and expressed solidarity with Palestinians, but most were careful not to stand with Hamas.
The one government that, somewhat surprisingly, positioned itself on the Iranian side was the emirate of Qatar. The tiny Gulf state, which has close relations with the U.S., took a strong pro-Hamas stance, calling for an emergency Arab League summit as soon as the fighting started. The plan, backed by Iran's close ally Syria, was to present a united Arab front against Israel. Saudi Arabia, however, blocked the idea. Qatar continued working to bring together all Arab heads of state. When the meeting finally happened, key countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, stayed away and the meeting could not reach a quorum. The gathering did not qualify as an Arab League summit. Instead of presidents and kings, the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, sat at the table, angering the Palestinian Authority, the official government of the Palestinians. Also in attendance was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Jordan, which also sides with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, found the conflict particularly excruciating. With a majority Palestinian population, it sought to play a role that highlighted its solidarity with Palestinians without siding with Hamas and its Iranian sponsors. In the end, Jordan also boycotted the Doha meeting.
Interestingly, the divisions place much of the Arab world on the same side as Israel (and the United States) on a key strategic interest.
Since the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel went into effect, visitors to the region say they have heard profound disappointment in Arab capitals about Israel's failure to overthrow the Hamas regime. Such statements can only be uttered in quiet meetings out of earshot of the media or the "Arab Street."
Egypt has started speaking even more bluntly about Iran's clients in the region. An Egyptian government statement accused Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah of being "an agent of Iran." That was not meant as a compliment. The underlying charge is that doing Iran's bidding means betraying your Arab brethren.
The current tally of the two sides seems to favor the anti-Iran side. After all, only Syria and Qatar can be counted as having stood up firmly in Hamas' (read Iran's) corner during the Gaza conflict. In the coming months, the leaders of the anti-Iran block of the Arab schism will try to enlist more support for their side. (Keep an eye on efforts to lure secular Damascus out of Tehran's tent.)
The divide will mark the path of Washington's two principal strategic efforts in the region: the move to stop Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the push for peace between Israelis and Arabs.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.
Gerardo Joffe, President