Sunday, August 13, 2006

Looking at the Shiite revival -- Vali Nasr in Foreign Affairs

Sorry, ya'll. I'm getting tired of reading, too. And this is another long one -- eight or nine pages printed out, depending on how you format. But it's important. (Don't you get tired of hearing that?) Hat tip goes to 3 Quarks. LINK HERE to the Foreign Affairs piece.

When the Shiites Rise

VALI NASR is a Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at CFR, and author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

...The Bush administration thought of politics as the relationship between individuals and the state, and so it failed to recognize that people in the Middle East see politics also as the balance of power among communities...

This writer knows Shiites like LBJ knew Texas. Even the layman can tell when someone knows what he's talking about. The disturbing part is that he is probably right about a lot of things. This is realpolitick at it's most uncomfortable. He speaks about the savage gangs now ravishing Iraq as dispassionately as an oncologist talking about a lab report. He lays out Washington's options as though he were counting squirrels in the back yard. Worst of all, he advances the notion that the US has a lot to gain or lose in how Iran is handled diplomatically. And he isn't talking about "regime change" either.

Best you read for yourself. Here are a few lines that jumped out at me.

***Washington complains that Iran supports insurgents, criminal gangs, and militias in Iraq; it accuses Tehran of poisoning Iraqi public opinion with anti-Americanism and of arming insurgents. Washington failed to anticipate Iran's influence in Iraq largely because it has long misunderstood the complexity of the relations between the two countries, in particular the legacy of the war they fought during most of the 1980s. ...But the war's legacy did not divide Iranian and Iraqi Shiites as U.S. planners thought; it pales before the memory of the anti-Shiite pogrom in Iraq that followed the failed uprising in 1991. Today, Iraqi Shiites worry far more about the Sunnis' domination than about Tehran's influence in Baghdad.

***...The repeated shuttling of Shiites between Iran and Iraq over the years has created numerous, layered connections between the two countries' Shiite communities. As a result, the Iraqi nationalism that the U.S. government hoped would serve as a bulwark against Iran has proved porous to Shiite identity in many ways.

***There is no such thing as pan-Shiism, or even a unified leadership for the community, but Shiites share a coherent religious view: since splitting off from the Sunnis in the seventh century over a disagreement about who the Prophet Muhammad's legitimate successors were, they have developed a distinct conception of Islamic laws and practices. And the sheer size of their population today makes them a potentially powerful constituency.

***The Middle East that will emerge from the crucible of the Iraq war may not be more democratic, but it will definitely be more Shiite.

***...the emerging Shiite revival need not be a source of concern for the United States, even though it has rattled some U.S. allies in the Middle East. In fact, it presents Washington with new opportunities to pursue its interests in the region. Building bridges with the region's Shiites could become the one clear achievement of Washington's tortured involvement in Iraq.

***Since 2003, Iran has officially played a constructive role in Iraq. It was the first country in the region to send an official delegation to Baghdad for talks with the Iraqi Governing Council, in effect recognizing the authority that the United States had put in power....extended financial support and export credits to Iraq and offered to help rebuild Iraq's energy and electricity April 2005, high-level Iraqi delegations visited Tehran, reached agreements over security cooperation with Iran, and negotiated a $1 billion aid package for Iraq and several trade deals, including one for the export of electricity to Iraq and another for the exchange of Iraqi crude oil for refined oil products.

***Iran's unofficial influence in Iraq is even greater. ...Iran has built an impressive network of allies and clients, ranging from intelligence operatives, armed militias, and gangs to, most visibly, politicians in various Iraqi Shiite parties. Many leaders of the main Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Dawa...spent years of exile in Iran before returning to Iraq in 2003. (SCIRI's militia, the Badr Brigades, was even trained and equipped by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.) Iran has also developed ties with Muqtada al-Sadr, who once inflamed passions with his virulent anti-Iranian rhetoric, as well as with factions of Sadr's movement, such as the Fezilat Party in Basra. The Revolutionary Guards supported Sadr's Mahdi Army in its confrontation with U.S. troops in Najaf in 2004, and since then Iran has trained Sadrist political and military cadres. [In case the reader is wondering, this is a veritable Who's Who of savage vermin in Iraq, otherwise known as The Insurgency] Business has followed religious fervor. The Iranian pilgrims who flock to the hotels and bazaars of Najaf and Karbala bring with them investments in land, construction, and tourism. Iranian goods are now ubiquitous across southern Iraq. The border town of Mehran, one of the largest points of entry for goods into Iraq, now accounts for upward of $1 billion in trade between the two countries. Such commercial ties create among Iranians, especially bazaar merchants -- a traditional constituency of the conservative leadership in Tehran -- a vested interest in the stability of southern Iraq.

Granted, the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraqi nationalism, and, especially, ethnic differences between Arabs and Persians have historically caused much friction between Iran and Iraq. But these factors should not be overemphasized: ethnic antagonism cannot possibly be all-important when Iraq's supreme religious leader is Iranian and Iran's chief justice is Iraqi. Although ethnicity will continue to matter to Iranian-Iraqi relations, now that Saddam has fallen and the Shiites of Iraq have risen, it will likely be overshadowed by the complex, layered connections between the two countries' Shiite communities.

***These connections, moreover, are likely to be reinforced by the two communities' perception that they face a common threat from Sunnis. Nothing seems to bring Iraqi Shiites closer to Iran than the ferocity and persistence of the Sunni insurgency...

***If there is an Iranian grand strategy in Iraq today, it is to ensure that Iraq does not reemerge as a threat and that the anti-Iranian Arab nationalism championed by Sunnis does not regain primacy...

***...If bringing democracy to the Middle East means empowering Shiites and strengthening Iran, [Shiites] argue, Washington would be well advised to stick to Sunni dictatorships.

***Iran's aspirations leave Washington and Tehran in a complicated, testy face-off. After all, Iran has benefited greatly from U.S.-led regime changes in Kabul and Baghdad. But Washington could hamper the consolidation of Tehran's influence in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S. military's presence in the region threatens the Islamic Republic. In Iraq especially, the two governments' short-term goals seem to be at odds: whereas Washington wants out of the mess, Tehran is not unhappy to see U.S. forces mired there.

So far, Tehran has favored a policy of controlled chaos in Iraq, as a way to keep the U.S. government bogged down and so dampen its enthusiasm for seeking regime change in Iran....[ed. How do you spell stalemate?]

***Iraq's troubles today offer Washington and Tehran a second great chance not only to normalize their relations, but also to set the stage for managing future tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. The Shiites' rise to power in Iraq sets an example for Shiites elsewhere in the Middle East, and as the model is adopted or tested it is likely to exacerbate Shiite-Sunni tensions. Better for Washington to engage Tehran now, over Iraq, than wait for the problem to have spread through the region. Although Washington and Tehran are unlikely to resolve their major differences, especially their dispute over Iran's nuclear program, anytime soon, they could agree on some critical steps in Iraq: for example, improving security in southern Iraq, disbanding the Shiite militias, and convincing the Shiite parties to compromise.

But if Washington and Tehran are unable to find common ground -- and the constitutional negotiations fail -- [You don't want to know. Either go to the link or move on to something less dismal.]


The author was a guest on C-SPAN's Washington Journal this morning (Monday, August 14). The program should be in the archives by tomorrow. He is an articulate young man, born in Tehran of a family that was part of the power center before the revolution. If I heard correctly, his father was on staff with the Shah's wife (?) in some capacity and they left the country soon after the fall of the Shah. Mr. Nasr has not been in Iran for eight years. He comes across as smart, calm and extremely diplomatic. I sent in a couple of questions by email that the host was kind enough to use and Mr. Nasr's replies, though interesting, avoided the kind of details for which I was fishing.

One caller inquired about the efficacy of US support for expat groups advancing the cause of democracy in Iran. I was interested in his response because I have contemplated the same idea as a possibly less-violent alternative to open military conflict. Mr. Nasr pointed out that real change has not ever been effected by any group outside a country, no matter how well-intended it might be. He cited the Bay of Pigs as well as the failed attempt of the US to put Chalabi and company into power in Iraq. He carefully but clearly said that any efforts along those lines that had US fingerprints on it would do more harm than good. I think he is correct and I have changed my mind about putting too much stock in The National Council of Resistance of Iran, although I still think they are a valuable source for information and are to be encouraged and supported in every way possible.

The Foreign Affairs article referenced above is excellent, but I think it is the result of hopeful thinking on the part of someone who has grown up with a silver spoon and does not have first-hand experience with the tragic impact that wholesale, uncontrolled, savage mob behavior has on ordinary people. His is not exactly a let-them-eat-cake attitude, but it is not far removed. I am not as optimistic as I was after reading the article, and I really want to be wrong about this. But unless and until Iran tastes the bitter fruit of their leaders' (both Ahmedinejhad and the Mullahs who egg him on) inflammatory rhetoric, the political will to bring about meaningful change internally will not materialize.

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