Today there is a deep divide between the Arab states, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim, and the Shiite Muslims, who are more numerous, but are generally politically underrepresented. We know the conflicting powers in the region and understand their animosity through their divergent brands of Islam. The Arab kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula stick together on international issues. The general consensus is that their main threat is Shia Iran. First and foremost, they see Iran as a dangerous example for their own restive Shiite populations. This is especially true for countries such as Saudi Arabia, where the state aids a hardline version of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, and the Shiite population is historically located atop the countries lucrative oil reserves. Secondly, the Arab states are wary of Iran's geopolitical ability to stack the Middle East in its favor. Iran has already proved adept at reaching out to its neighbors in ways that directly appeal to the people. In Lebanon, Iranian funded Hezbollah garnered support not only from their sympathetic Shiite constituents, but also from many Sunni and Christian Lebanese. Iran's policy towards Israel has also engendered admiration from the masses. Most importantly, Iran has the legitimacy that most Arab countries lack. It was founded on a popular revolution, and while it is still fundamentally an authoritarian theocracy, the Iranian regime has slowly been exhibiting a growing willingness to expand popular participation in the government. Predictably, the nascent liberalizing movement in Iran was deferred by blundering U.S. foreign policy following 9/11, but the fact that it was allowed to come into existence in the first place and that the liberal sentiments are still alive, well, and free to speak out - to an extent - shows that popular will can move the Ayatollah.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
Iran looks back at its neighbors with the same sort of icy skepticism that it receives, especially the countries that choose to align themselves with the United States. The ideology of the Iranian revolution is set upon empowering Shitte Muslims the world over. When it comes to Shiite neighbors, such as the large Shia Iraqi population, it is only natural that they would lend a helping hand. This is especially true since Iraq is home to some of the holiest Shia sights - one of which, the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, was destroyed in two separate bombing attacks in 2006 and 2007. Iran is also deeply aware of recent history. It remembers Arab backing of Saddam Hussein during his brutal "imposed war". It also remembers the Pan-Arabist movement, and especially the Baathist incarnation of Pan-Arabism that took root in Syria, and most infamously, in Iraq. Lastly, Iran recognizes who supports who in the Arab world. The Arab states get their backing from the United States, a sworn enemy of the Iranian revolution, and a regional irritator that has tried on numerous occasions to depose the Iranian government.
It is very hard to imagine a scenario where relations between Shia and Sunni could be placated. Yet there are numerous examples of equanimity between the sects that give hope for the future.
It is not written in stone that Sunni and Shiite can not get along. Iran and Syria have had friendly relations for a long time now, created by both countries realistic approach to foreign relations. Iran and Syria are motivated towards friendship because both countries realize that the relationship is mutually beneficial, especially as the specter of U.S. military action grew. Similarly in Lebanon, where we are accustomed to hearing of perpetual ethnic and religious strife, Hezbollah, a Shia organization backed by Iran and Syria, is viewed as a heroic national organization for its war against Israel which culminated in Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and its successful humanitarian intervention following the 2006 Lebanon war. Recently, with the release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iranian nuclear ambitions, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been warming up to each other. There is still a long way to go, but the Saudi King Abdullah's invitation to Iranian President Ahmadinejad to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, the first invitation of its kind to an Iranian President, shows that relations are becoming friendlier.
The question now becomes what will it take for a real and pronounced break from past hostility, and is such a change possible? Currently change seems very unlikely. In terms of Saudi-Iranian relations, the fact that the Saudi Shia population is restive and sitting upon all the countries oil reserves means that it will take a dramatic change of events to see the two countries reconcile in any meaningful way.
Such a dramatic event has occurred on Saudi Arabia's doorstep, unwittingly of course, because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What once was a strongly Sunni country has been transformed into a predominantly Shia country, and while its international stature is anemic its border still encompasses the largest oil reserves in the entire world, giving it immense power. This change of events has resulted in giving Iran considerable regional power, an unexpected gift, and especially ironic since, in the run up to the Iraq invasion, Iran was incredibly fearful of what it saw as inevitable U.S. encirclement. As was made clear in Iraq, it is the autocratic nature of most Middle East governments that keeps Sunni-Shia relations chilly. Until some sort of participatory democracy is instituted in the currently dynastic and autocratic Middle Eastern countries, leaders will find it more beneficial to play the people off against each other and outside forces than make peace.
U.S. power plays a key role in keeping the current conflict ridden system well-oiled and malignantly efficient. A waning of U.S. power in the region, while possibly internationally destabilizing, could work wonders for Middle Eastern self-determination. By the way that most U.S. Presidential wannabes talk about their Iraq policy it seems that the U.S. will be in the region indefinitely, so the end of U.S. meddling is far from over.
The most hopeful aspect of the current situation in the Levant, Arabia, and Persia, is that it appears that the major regional actors are reasonable. History has shown that all of the countries act in very predictable ways to guarantee very predictable outcomes. They care, first and foremost, about preserving their regimes, usually built on very unstable, but remarkably resilient, foundations. Because reasonableness reigns supreme in relations between Sunni and Shia powerhouses it seems that the most dangerous scenarios in Eastern Asia right now do not involve Iran, which is relatively stable and, as was made clear by the N.I.E. report, completely rational, but instead could involve chaotic countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan. In those countries there are numerous situations that could be explosive and cause real damage domestically and internationally. Those situations do not necessarily involve the Sunni-Shiite factions. What these urgent threats involve is the loss of order. The devolution of order may be rooted in an ethnic or religious divide, but such divides need not be the cause of conflict. If there is order and the government is functional, conflicts can be stymied through diplomacy, an option not available to the chaotic countries.
This brings us back to the divide between Sunni countries and Shiite countries - country really: Iran. Because a majority of these countries have the order necessary for meaningful diplomacy there is a real opportunity for the countries to bring their concerns to the table and develop a system - necessarily different from the current one - for peaceful relations. Peaceful relations can, I believe, be forged through diplomacy. If disorder grows in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan, the appeal of finding solid security guarantees between more stable Sunni-Shiite countries will grow. Out of such a situation we could begin to see the sun shine over Sunni-Shiite relations.