The Shia Turn in U.S. Policy
by Stephen Schwartz
The first quarter of 2005 has seen increasingly dramatic news from the Middle East, but equally significant developments, relevant to the future of Islam and the whole world, continue to emerge in Washington. When the United States took leadership of the Iraq intervention in 2003, few Beltway insiders grasped the immense importance of liberating an Arab country, with a Shia Muslim majority, that included in its territory the holy sites of the Shia sect, Kerbala and Najaf.
In a previous TCS column I described the U.S.-backed establishment of Shia governance over Iraq as "A Turning Point in Islamic and World History". This analysis was not a reactive one, but, to emphasize, embodied prior anticipation of a positive outcome from American involvement with the Shias -- an attitude not widespread in Washington in 2003. Indeed, when the Iraq intervention began, it was rare within the Beltway for anyone who supported the military campaign to discuss the Shias' significance to a successful strategy for victory in Baghdad. Much more common was anxiety over their supposed susceptibility to Iranian influence, which impelled most supporters of the anti-Saddam offensive to shy away from discussing the Shias. The Iraqi Shias themselves believed they had few friends. In another TCS column, I pointed to the small group that seemed to foresee the impact of such an innovative policy: "President Bush himself, [now-former] Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, certain other members of the cabinet and defense establishment, and a highly exclusive media list: Bill Kristol and crew at The Weekly Standard, myself and some others writing on TCS and a handful of other publications."
I sought to indicate the benefits of a "Shia strategy" for the democratic coalition engaging with Iraq the week before military action, in a Weekly Standard article, "Fear Not the Shias". Soon after, Wolfowitz expressed his confidence in the Shias in a speech at the first annual convention of North American adherents to their tradition.
On March 16, 2005, almost two years later, a broad new direction in American policy was recognized by mainstream media, when Washington Post writer Robin Wright published a fascinating article, "In Mideast, Shiites May Be Unlikely U.S. Allies". Wright's coverage of the region has been controversial, and the indicated reportage was certainly provocative: it began with a reference to the long-standing tensions between the United States and Shia Iran.
Wright wrote, "A quarter-century after its first traumatic confrontation with the Shiite world, when the U.S. Embassy was seized in Iran, the United States is moving on several fronts to support, recognize or hold out the prospect of engagement with Islam's increasingly powerful minority. The White House is now counting on a Shiite-dominated government to stabilize Iraq. In a tactical shift, the United States is indirectly reaching out to Iran... And in Lebanon, President Bush suggested yesterday, Washington might accept Hezbollah as a political party... 'I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not [a terrorist organization] by laying down arms and not threatening peace.'"
Wright paraphrased Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East expert at Boston University, in pointing out that "Shiites are 10 percent to 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. But almost half of Muslims from Lebanon to Pakistan are Shiites." Her observation about President Bush and the option of a fresh approach to Hezbollah had been pre-empted on March 10 by Steven R. Weisman, in a New York Times story titled "U.S. Called Ready to See Hezbollah in Lebanon Role". Weisman reported, "After years of campaigning against Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim party in Lebanon, as a terrorist pariah, the Bush administration is grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer the party into the Lebanese political mainstream, administration officials say."
Here a digression is in order: the likelihood of an immediate and thorough triumph of democracy in Lebanon remains uncertain. The February assassination of Refiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, mobilized Lebanese Christians and Sunni Muslims to protest the country's domination by Syria. But while the Syrians were widely blamed for the Hariri death, bizarre elements in the background of the killing were traceable to Saudi Arabia. Saudi dissident sources, which cannot be openly named, emphasized that a Palestinian depicted in a video broadcast on al-Jazeera, 24-year old Ahmed Abu Adas, was an adherent of Wahhabism, the ultrafundamentalist and terror-inciting state religion in the Saudi kingdom. In the video, Abu Adas, who appears to have been a suicide agent in the slaying of Hariri, said the crime had been committed by an al-Qaida ally, the Jihadist Community for Combat in Syria. (The group's name more indicates the past inclusion of Lebanon as a region within Syria, than a focused attack on the Syrian regime.)
Saudi dissidents ascribe several possible motives for a Saudi/Wahhabi assault on the fragile peace in Lebanon. Hariri, a holder of a Saudi passport, was the financial adviser and political beneficiary of Saudi King Fahd, and allegedly became embroiled in an internal fight among the Saudi royals over the handling of his assets. Equally significant, however, is the argument that, having suffered a serious defeat in the form of the recent Iraqi elections, Saudi-financed terrorists hope to shift their jihad to Lebanon, where they may resume killing Shia Muslims, which figures among their main goals, while also causing problems for Israel in its détente with the Palestinians. When Saudi Arabia suddenly joined the chorus demanding a rapid Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, allegedly in the interest of freedom in Beirut, the situation became even more peculiar. One could legitimately ask why Riyadh, which would not take action to encourage popular sovereignty in Iraq, had suddenly become solicitous for the cause of democracy in Lebanon.
One explanation of Saudi behavior by a non-Muslim expert, which possesses a certain symmetry with perception of a pro-Shia trend in American policy, was that the kingdom looks with anxiety toward the Lebanese election scheduled for May. Shia Muslims now represent a plurality of Lebanese citizens, and Hezbollah and other Shia parties will take a major share of the ballots. The Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia might then face what for them would be a real nightmare: Shia-led governments in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. (The Ba'athist regime in Damascus is controlled by Alawites, a heterodox sect considered by some Muslims to be Shia, and by Sunni radicals to be non-Islamic.) Shia power outside Saudi Arabia always evokes the specter of discontent among the Shias on the territory of the kingdom, who are grossly oppressed, and comprise a majority in the oil-bearing Eastern Province.
But for most Westerners, and many Muslims, Iran remains the most challenging issue, and in responding to Tehran and its nuclear blandishments the Bush administration has taken its most remarkable new steps. Beginning with his trip to Europe in February, Bush adopted a surprising idiom in discussing the Iranian problem: the U.S. would cooperate with the Europeans in offering incentives for Tehran to restrict its nuclear ambitions, rather than threatening direct action. National Security Adviser Stephen R. Hadley has been described as encouraging this approach. Hadley was formerly widely baited by isolationists and leftists as a "hardline neoconservative," but it has been observed for some time that the neoconservatives do not share a uniform opinion regarding Iran.
Lawrence F. Kaplan, for example, wrote grumpily in the March 28/April 4 issue of The New Republic,
"Not since Reykjavik -- the 1986 summit at which Ronald Reagan emerged
Two fascinating items were missing from Kaplan's polemic, and their absence summarizes, in my view, a failure of imagination visible among many Washington figures claiming expertise on Iran, and on the Middle East in general. Before citing these lacunae, let me note that some "experts" assailed the "Shia turn" from the beginning of the Iraq war.
They attacked Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iraqi Shia leader, as a dangerous theocrat. They still clamor that Iranian radicalism is a bigger threat to the world than Saudi Wahhabism (the danger of which they dismiss with a contemptuous wave of the hand, although few among them know anything serious about Islamic history). Some claim Iran created al-Qaida, although Bin Laden's legion is nothing if not homicidal in its Wahhabi hatred of Shias. They have insisted that America protect Saudi Arabia as a moderate ally rather than compelling Riyadh to adopt political reforms and religious pluralism, beginning with the arrest and trial of al-Qaida financiers, who flaunt their impunity within the borders of the kingdom, and abolition of state subsidies for Wahhabi clerics.
The details that might have been included in Kaplan's commentary, but were not, are easy to identify. First, regardless how it discomfited some observers at the time, President Reagan's action at Reykjavik was notably successful. As a consequence, Soviet Communism is no longer with us. The other element lacking from the picture is the presence of liberated Iraq on the border of Iran. Kaplan, who urged on the Iraq intervention and then declared a mea culpa when things looked bad, may not want to dwell too extensively on Iraqi affairs. In the cited article, he mentioned Iraq only as a metonym for European finagling.
I believe the "Shia turn" in American policy may prove extremely fruitful. But I would suggest more than immediate advantages. President Bush may take lessons from the experiences of two of his outstanding Republican predecessors. Free Iraq may become what Poland was for Reagan; an example for the people of neighboring Iran, as Poland was for the captive nations of the Soviet dictatorship, in their quest for democracy. Millions of Iranian Shias now visit Kerbala and Najaf for Shia religious commemorations. In doing so, they cannot help experiencing the progress made in a non-theocratic Shia-majority state.
But in a genuine leap of inspiration, President Bush could emulate President Richard Nixon by a new opening to Iran. As I have written and said elsewhere, Saudi Arabia resembles the Soviet Union in that extremist ideological dictatorships afflicted by public hypocrisy are typically the most habituated to international trouble-making. Because their ideological claims are undermined by their internal contradictions, they must constantly reinforce their credibility through global adventurism. Such is a major cause of Wahhabi initiatives to impose their control over Sunni Islam worldwide; their extremism is aggravated by Muslim contempt for the flagrant vice among the Saudi monarchical caste and their dependence on American power for their survival.
But like the Maoist Chinese, the Iranians enjoy a different reputation. Their regime is internally corrupt, but it never depended on foreign support. For this reason, in the present Islamic world, they have nothing to prove. And in addition, as Shias, they cannot pretend to assume domination over the vast Sunni majority. Like the Maoists, they may be more quickly and easily induced than their Wahhabi counterparts to break their ties with extremism and become a normal state.
Either way, the Shia turn in American geopolitical thinking is now reality. Where it will lead will be a product of further experience and, God willing, a permanent commitment to democratization of the Islamic world.