Iran and the great Shiite-Sunni divide in the Mideast

Jan 17, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 17, 2007
Number 07/01 #07

This Update deals with the growing importance of the divide in the Middle East between the aggressive Shi’ite block – Iran, Syria, and their non-state allies – and the majority of Sunni Arab states.

It opens with Iranian exile author Amir Taheri describing how Arab leaders apparently view a military showdown with Iran as inevitable. Taheri compiles an impressive array of information, most of it little known in the West, about how both sides are increasingly preparing for major conflict. For this must-read article calling attention to a very important but widely under-estimated trend, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a thought-provoking view from well-known strategic analyst Edward Luttwak, who emphasises that the current Shi’ite- Sunni divide actually provides an opportunity for the US to achieve Western interests in the region. He asserts that, unintentionally, the Iraq war has created a situation where the Arab states have no alternative but to take account of US views and needs in a way that they did not have to in 2000. For Luttwak’s controversial argument, CLICK HERE.

Finally, the reliably insightful British journalist and author David Pryce-Jones has an analysis of the reaction to the execution of Saddam Hussein which shines much light on regional developments and realities. He has a great deal to say about the Shi’ite-Sunni split over the execution, but also makes some good points about what is revealed by the limited nature of the Sunni reaction to the execution. For Pryce-Jones’ many insights, CLICK HERE.



New York Post, January 10, 2007

 FRENCH Foreign Minister Philippe Douste Blazy calls it “unthinkable his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov prefers “unimaginable.” The terms are also used in Western diplomatic circles to describe an event few wish to contemplate: a military showdown with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet a recent tour of Arab capitals presents a different picture: Arab leaders appear resigned to such a showdown as inevitable, and are preparing for it.

The first sign came at last month’s annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, a group of six oil-exporting Arab states) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “There were four items on the agenda,” says a participant. “As we examined each, we found out that in every case we faced Iran.”

* One item was Iraq: The leaders concluded that Iran had already developed plans to dominate that country once the U.S.-led multinational force withdraws.

* Another item was Lebanon: The Arab leaders agreed that Tehran, using Hezbollah, was working to attach that country to an emerging “Shiite Crescent.”

The Islamic Republic is also consolidating its hold on Syria, whose weak and isolated regime now depends on Iranian economic and military support.

Last year, the Islamic Republic asked two official clerics, Ayatollah Shirazi and Ayatollah Lenkorani, to recognize the Syrian Alawite sect as a branch of Shiism. Mainstream Shiites (like Sunnis) regard Alawites as a heretical sect. Thus, the Iranian move may seem designed to rehabilitate the Alawites. More, the fatwas open the way for Iranian missionaries to pursue a mass conversion of Syrian Alawites to the Khomeinist version of Shiism.

* On another item, the Palestine-Israel conflict, the Arab leaders agreed that Iran was the chief stumbling bloc to a revival of the peace process.

Tehran’s influence among Palestinians had hitherto been limited to small groups such as Islamic Jihad. In the past two years, however, Tehran has spent “vast sums of money and energy” to procure clients in the Sunni Islamist Hamas movement and leftist guerrilla groups. The Islamic Republic has launched a new program under which thousands of Palestinian “volunteers for martyrdom” are trained in Iran, Lebanon and Syria to fight both Israel and the secular faction of Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

* The fourth key issue discussed in Riyadh was more directly linked to the Islamic Republic: the potential threat that Iran’s nuclear program poses to the region’s ecosystems.

While the West worries about the program’s military aspects, the Arabs see it as a threat even in its civilian version. Iran’s only nuclear plant – at Hellieh on the Bushehr Peninsula – is some 80 miles from the capital cities of Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia’s main city on the Gulf. “There was agreement that we would be the first victims of any mishap in the Iranian nuclear plant,” says a participant.”

The Arabs feel especially frustrated because Iran’s new leadership under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refuses even to consider their grievances. During the 2005 presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad described the GCC states as “gas stations, not countries.” Last autumn, when the GCC sent a senior team to discuss Arab nuclear fears, Ahmadinejad dismissed the whole thing as “yarns woven by Jews.”

“He told us that the Iranian nuclear sites were so safe that he would build his own offices on top of them,” a member of the Arab delegation says. “The man is f—ing delusional.”

As if Ahmadinejad’s shenanigans were not enough, Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has added his venom to relations with Arabs.

Earlier this month, he decided, for the first time ever, not to attend the Feast of the Sacrifice, the most important date on Sunni Islam’s calendar, triggering rumors of his death. A few days later, however, he appeared in ceremonies to mark the Feast of the Khom Pond, the most important day on the Shiite calendar. According to Shiites, it marks the occasion when Prophet Muhammad chose his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his heir. Sunni Muslims dispute that account and insist that Muhammad did not choose an heir, leaving the choice to the ummah – community of believers.

Moreover, Khamenei went out of his way to brand Sunni beliefs as “deviant” and “misguided,” claiming that the Sunni refusal to recognize Ali as the Prophet’s legitimate heir lay at the root of Islam’s subsequent decline. He then invited the Arab states to distance themselves from the West and accept Iranian leadership – an implicit invitation to covert to Shiism.

“We had hoped that Iran’s current delusions were limited to Ahmadinejad,” says an Arab leader. “But Khamenei has shown that he, too, may have become intoxicated.”

“The Khomeinist leadership is clearly seeking a military showdown,” says Sami Farraj, one of the Persian Gulf’s noted strategic analysts. “The reason is that they have been pushing the knife in the butter without hitting anything hard. They will not stop; indeed they cannot, until someone stops them.”

One reason for Tehran’s “increasing cockiness” is Ahmadinejad’s success in convincing the Khomeinist leadership that the United States is in “strategic retreat.”

“The American Great Satan is wounded and bleeding,” says Hassan Abbasi, Ahmadinejad’s strategic advisor.” Bush is the last U.S. president to make a stand. And he, too, is weakened by the victory of his enemies [in recent U.S. elections].”

Abbasi believes that the Islamic Republic should adopt “pre-emptive discouragement” to break the will of the American leaders that will succeed Bush. “If we break Bush, no other American leader would have the heart to defy Islam,” he says.

American politics may be heading for uncertain waters. The Arabs, however, appear unusually determined to resist the tide of Khomeinism.

* Last autumn, the GCC states – plus Jordan and Egypt – asked Washington to review their defenses in case of a showdown with Iran. The mission, led by the then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman, presented its report last month.

* Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan have concluded partnership accords with NATO, and two more Arab states, Kuwait and Bahrain, have opened talks for a similar relationship with the alliance.

* Last month, British Premier Tony Blair proposed an alliance of moderate Arab states, backed by major Western powers, to contain the Khomeinist threat. At least 10 Arab states have indicated interest.

Fear of a showdown with Iran has triggered an arms race. The GCC states have placed orders for 150 ultra-modern European and American fighter jets and are negotiating massive purchases of surface-to-surface missiles from China and Russia. Average defense budgets in the region show a 17 percent increase.

The GCC group and Egypt have also launched studies to create a nuclear industry – ostensibly for peaceful use, but clearly designed to meet a Iranian military threat.

Tehran started beating the drums of war over a year ago. If one listens carefully, one can now hear the response from the Arab side – in the form of faint drumbeats that are bound to get louder in the months ahead.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe.


Two Alliances

President Bush has managed to divide and conquer the Middle East.


Wall Street Journal, Sunday, January 14, 2007

It was the hugely ambitious project of the Bush administration to transform the entire Middle East by remaking Iraq into an irresistible model of prosperous democracy. Having failed in that worthy purpose, another, more prosaic result has inadvertently been achieved: divide and rule, the classic formula for imperial power on the cheap. The ancient antipathy between Sunni and Shiite has become a dynamic conflict, not just within Iraq but across the Middle East, and key protagonists on each side seek the support of American power. Once the Bush administration realizes what it has wrought, it will cease to scramble for more troops that can be sent to Iraq, because it has become pointless to patrol and outpost a civil war, while a mere quarter or less of the troops already there are quite enough to control the outcome. And that is just the start of what can now be achieved across the region with very little force, and some competent diplomacy.

On Dec. 4, 2006, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of Iraq’s largest political party, went to the White House to plead his case with President Bush. The son of an ayatollah, and himself a lifelong militant cleric, Mr. Hakim is hardly a natural partner for the U.S.–while living in Iran for 23 years he must have declaimed “death to America” on many an occasion. But as the chief leader of Iraq’s Arab Shiite population, he has no choice. Each day brings deadly Sunni attacks, and just as the Sunnis are strengthened by volunteers and money from outside Iraq, the Shiites, too, need all the help they can get, especially American military training for the Shiite-dominated army and police. For President Bush, the visiting Mr. Hakim brought welcome promises of cooperation against his aggressive Shiite rival Moqtada al-Sadr as well as the Sunni insurgents. It no longer even seems strange that the best ally of the U.S. in Iraq is Mr. Hakim’s party, the Sciri: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose very title evokes the Iranian model of radically anti-Western theocracy.

Just as the Sunni threat to majority rule in Iraq is forcing Sciri to cooperate with the U.S., the prospect of a Shiite-dominated Iraq is forcing Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Jordan, to seek American help against the rising power of the Shiites. Some Sunnis viewed Iran with suspicion even when it was still under the conservative rule of the shah, in part because its very existence as the only Shiite state could inspire unrest among the oppressed Shiite populations of Arabia. More recently, the nearby Sunni Arab states have been increasingly worried by the military alliance between Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah of Lebanon. But now that a Shiite-ruled Iraq could add territorial contiguity to the alliance, forming a “Shiite crescent” extending all the way from Pakistan to the Mediterranean, it is not only the Sunnis of nearby Arabia that feel very seriously threatened. The entire order of Muslim orthodoxy is challenged by the expansion of heterodox Shiite rule.

Although it was the U.S. that was responsible for ending Sunni supremacy in Iraq along with Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, it remains the only possible patron for the Sunni Arab states resisting the Shiite alliance. Americans have no interest in the secular-sectarian quarrel, but there is a very real convergence of interests with the Sunni Arab states because Iran is the main enemy for both.

At this moment, it is in Lebanon that the new Sunni-U.S. alliance has become active. With continuing mass demonstrations and threatening speeches, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is trying to force the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to give way to a new coalition which he can dominate. Syria and Iran are supporting Mr. Nasrallah, while the U.S. is backing Mr. Siniora. He has the support of the Druze and of most Christians as well, but it is also very much as a Sunni leader that Mr. Siniora is firmly resisting so far. That has gained him the financial backing of Saudi Arabia, which is funding Sunni counterdemonstrations and has even tried to co-opt Hezbollah, among other things. It was in their Arab identity that Hezbollah claimed heroic status because they were not routed by the Israelis in the recent fighting, but evidently many Sunni Arabs in and out of Lebanon view them instead as Shiite sectarians, far too obedient to non-Arab Iran. That suits the U.S., for Iran and Hezbollah are its enemies, too.

The Sunni-U.S. alignment in Lebanon, which interestingly coexists with the U.S.-Shiite alliance in Iraq, may yet achieve results of strategic importance if Syria is successfully detached from its alliance with Iran. Originally it was a necessary alliance for both countries because Saddam’s Iraq was waging war on Iran, and periodically tried to overthrow the Assad regime of Syria. Now that Iraq is no longer a threat to either country, Iran still needs Syria as a bridge to Hezbollah, but for Syria the alliance is strategically obsolete, as well as inconsistent with the country’s Arab identity. True, Syria is ruled primarily by members of the Alawite sect that is usually classified as a Shiite offshoot. But that extremely heterodox faith (it has Christmas and the transmigration of souls) is far different from the Shiism of Iraq, Lebanon or Iran–where it would be persecuted; and besides, at least 70% of Syrians are Sunnis. That may explain why the Syrian regime has not used its full influence to overthrow Mr. Siniora: His stand against the Shiite Hezbollah resonates with his fellow Sunnis of Syria. But another reason may be the promise of substantial aid and investment from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates for Syria’s needy economy, if the regime diminishes its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, or better, ends it altogether. The U.S., for its part, is no longer actively driving Syria into the arms of the Iranians by threatening a march on Damascus, while even the unofficial suggestions of negotiations by the Iraq Study Group made an impression, judging by some conciliatory Syrian statements.

The U.S.-Sunni alliance, which is a plain fact in Lebanon, is still only tentative over Syria; but it would be greatly energized if Iran were successfully deprived of its only Arab ally. At the same time, the U.S.-Shiite alliance in Iraq has been strengthened in the wake of Mr. Hakim’s visit. The Sunni insurgency is undiminished, but at least other Shiite groups are jointly weakening the only actively anti-American Shiite faction headed by Mr. Sadr.

When the Bush administration came into office, only Egypt and Jordan were functioning allies of the U.S. Iran and Iraq were already declared enemies, Syria was hostile, and even its supposed friends in the Arabian peninsula were so disinclined to help that none did anything to oppose al Qaeda. Some actively helped it, while others knowingly allowed private funds to reach the terrorists whose declared aim was to kill Americans.

The Iraq war has indeed brought into existence a New Middle East, in which Arab Sunnis can no longer gleefully disregard American interests because they need help against the looming threat of Shiite supremacy, while in Iraq at the core of the Arab world, the Shia are allied with the U.S. What past imperial statesmen strove to achieve with much cunning and cynicism, the Bush administration has brought about accidentally. But the result is exactly the same.

Mr. Luttwak, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of “Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace” (Belknap, 2002).


An Unusual End

Saddam Hussein is tried and executed


National Review, January 29, 2007

Saddam Hussein was a ruler in the mold familiar for centuries in the Arab and Muslim world, disposing of life and death as he saw fit. About the only thing to be said in favor of absolute rule of this kind is that it makes life broadly predictable. Such a ruler rewards family and tribal and sectarian loyalty, and punishes all conceivable disloyalty: Everyone can take intelligent or at least self-serving precautions. Saddam cannot have expected to go to the gallows for ordering the killing of the villagers of Dujail, but after his genocidal brutalities neither can he have expected to die in his bed.

Caliphs, sultans, and emirs — and, in the modern age, Middle Eastern kings, presidents, and prominent personalities — have all died violent deaths, so many victims of the culture in which they were operating. In all probability Saddam would have continued in power until such time as one of his sons shot him, or the Iranians clandestinely backed some cleric or general to mount a successful coup and suspend his corpse from the gateway of one of his palaces.

It is a vital interest of the United States that absolute rulers of Saddam’s kind do not ravage the whole Middle East. Saddam evidently miscalculated American resolve to stop him from doing his worst, and to impose a Pax Americana. In one sense, the hanging of Saddam is only what victors do to losers, and therefore no shock to anyone on the street. But in another sense, the whole process of bringing an absolute ruler to account for his crimes in a courtroom cuts right across the culture. Reaction to this novelty remains uncertain because nobody quite knows what to make of Pax Americana as it unfolds. Throughout history, whoever broke the old absolutism put in place his own version of it. Pax Americana in stark contrast aims to set up power-sharing arrangements of which there has hitherto been no trace. How are Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish inhabitants of the country to meet on these new terms? Ultimately, who will be the winners, who the losers? American military intervention has made the future unpredictable, not to say unfathomable, and therefore ominous.

Had Saddam not been executed, certain of his fellow Sunnis would have tried every legal and violent maneuver, however desperate, to free him and restore him to power. Miscalculating right up to his death, Saddam himself evidently believed that he would be reprieved in order to lead the Sunnis once again, helping the Americans with their new order. Saddam then handled himself with courage and dignity, a very different figure from the disheveled fugitive not long ago pulled out of a hiding-hole. Some guards filmed Saddam on the scaffold. Every media outlet in the world has shown this film, expressing various degrees of outrage, but like the film of his sons, Uday and Qusay, it serves the important purpose of providing irrefutable evidence that the tyrant really is dead. Guards also taunted him by shouting the name of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose power-mania and bloodlust is driving him and his so-called Mahdi militia back towards absolute rule in defiance of Pax Americana.

Ugly and primitive as it may be, Shiite triumphalism of the sort is an inherent aspect of the culture, inspired by centuries of oppression at the hands of the Sunnis, and it is merely Eurocentric to deplore it, as so many non-Muslims are doing. In any case, in the exactly chosen words of an Iraqi-American commentator, Nibras Kazimi, “there is something wrong with your inner core of decency if you are not moved by the sight of a horrible tyrant meeting a just end.”

Iran is today driving Shiite triumphalism, and its leaders naturally sounded even more confident and smug than usual as they celebrated Saddam’s execution. He had waged a costly war for eight years against Iran, severely setting back the ambition of the ayatollahs to be the undisputed regional power in the Gulf. Saddam had also attacked and devastated Kuwait, and there too spokesmen welcomed his execution as a “gift to humanity.” The Middle East, according to a Kuwaiti intellectual quoted in the West, “is coming to a conclusion and learning from the Saddam lesson.”

From the Sunnis in general, however, the response has been thin and ragged, far from militant. In what seems like a distraction, spokesmen in Sunni-majority countries, even in Syria, tried to make political capital out of the fact that Saddam was hanged on a major Muslim holiday. In Iraq itself, a sheikh from a mosque named after Saddam was found to utter the customary overblown wish-fulfillments: “Saddam Hussein is a martyr and God will put him along with other martyrs. Do not be sad nor complain, because he has died the death of a holy warrior.” In exile in Amman, Rana, one of Saddam’s daughters and a widow since her father had her husband killed, gives weepy interviews. Here and there in Sunni towns, dejected handfuls of demonstrators did gather, only to go home soon.

An adviser of the Iraqi prime minister appears to have started the rumor that among Saddam’s last words were “Palestine is Arab” — the video of his execution at least does not substantiate it. Even this was not enough to activate a mob. Palestinians in Bethlehem opened a “house of condolence” where a few men gathered and drank coffee. In Jenin, also on the West Bank, some hundreds held a mock funeral and there was a small parade in Saddam’s honor in Gaza. They were mourning in him a sponsor who paid up to $25,000 for acts of terror and suicide bombings.

Libya, it is true, decreed three days of official mourning, most probably because its absolute ruler, Moammar Qaddafi, is aware that like Saddam he may well not die in his bed. Egyptian journalists are among the last to cherish the flame of Arab nationalism, and their professional guild held a mourning session for a Saddam still perceived as a nationalist hero. In November, President Hosni Mubarak took a position against executing Saddam, and he is now deploring every aspect of what happened. One of the leading Cairo papers, regime-controlled of course, echoed him by speaking all in its own heroic idiom of “a crime whose perpetrators will be pursued by history with rage and shame.” From the Arab League with headquarters in Cairo, and supposedly the umbrella organization of Arab states, however, not a word.

Al-Jazeera television has a crafty way of bringing together Arabs and Western fellow-travelers in defense of tyranny. Its website has declared: “The late Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, has become an Arab icon and a Muslim martyr after his execution by the US-backed government. Rallies in his honour were organised in Jordan, Yemen, Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, and in Iraq.” The language insinuates that the Iraqi government has no standing or credibility, and more falsely still that the Arab world is exploding with anger over the execution. On that same website is a plethora of supporting commentary by Muslims (Pakistani, to judge by their names), as well as Westerners, under headings such as “When Justice becomes personal revenge,” “Saddam’s execution is inhuman,” and “Reflections on US crimes in Iraq.”

Abdul Bari Atwan is editor of a Saudi-owned newspaper in London. An enthusiastic apologist for Saddam and Osama bin Laden, he is a regular commentator on the BBC, a network whose outlook is hard to distinguish from al-Jazeera’s. But the best that even he could do was to deplore the “silence and indifference” of Arab leaders to Saddam’s fate.

Why this silence, this indifference, this failure of all efforts to incite? In part, it is because would-be apologists for Saddam necessarily have to put themselves in the position of defending tyranny, obliged to turn a blind eye to its reality of violence and backwardness.

Another motive may be in play. I am not privy to the circles where Sunni leaders meet and confer, in capitals such as Riyadh and Cairo and Amman, but I suspect they leave apologies to their servants on the understanding that Saddam has become yesterday’s man, and not to be regretted, because he has made such a mess for them to clear up. Thanks to him and his miscalculations, the regional balance of power has swung away from the Arab Sunnis towards the Iranian Shiites. Palpably, Shiite triumphalism is only another variant of absolute rule. In addition to the prospect of Shiite supremacy in Iraq, there are Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and elsewhere, with powerful potential to disrupt.

Week after week, the Shiite triumphalists in Tehran boast about their military capacity; they test weaponry and utter threats to ravage all points of the compass. Nobody and nothing is apparently going to interrupt their nuclear program. Surely, Sunni leaders must be speculating to one another, a nuclear Iran would be a travesty of any Pax Americana, and the Americans would never stand for it. Their silence and indifference may look like evidence of helplessness, but it also masks subterranean expectations that the Americans are bound to rescue them quite soon from the Shiites. In which case, the world might become predictable again to them.



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