Monday, August 07, 2006

Iraq and the Rise of Shiite Hegemony in the Mideast

Last Friday's Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article on Vali Nasr, a political scientist and Middle East expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. The article, "Rising Academic Sees Sectarian Split Inflaming Mideast," is available online only to subscribers (which is not good, because WSJ's front page stories are routinely among the best published in journalism, but remain inaccessible to bloggers behind the subscription firewall).

That said, this piece is particularly worth citing here, as Nasr's thesis is having significant influence within the Bush administration. Here's a quote from the article:

Mr. Nasr's analysis begins with the idea that the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has transformed the Mideast, but not in the ways promised by President Bush. By replacing Iraq's Sunni-led dictatorship with an elected government dominated by the country's Shiite majority, the U.S. destroyed the Sunni wall that had contained the restless Shiite power to the east, Iran. The clerical regime in Tehran was immediately strengthened.

This power shift, Mr. Nasr argues, has reopened an ancient fault line between Shiites and Sunnis that crosses the entire region. The schism dates back to the prophet Muhammed's death in 632, when his companions -- the forebears of the Sunnis -- chose Muhammmed's close friend and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to suceed him and become Islam's first caliph. Shiites believe Muhammed's son-in-law, Ali, was more deserving.
Nasr's analysis continues with the notion that the Shiite-Sunni split will have growing significance throughout the Middle East in coming years. Events in Iraq are emboldening Shiites living in Sunni-dominated regimes throughout the region -- from Lebanon, Pakistan, to Saudia Arabia -- firing aspirations for a pan-Shiite revival, bolstered by the leadership of Iran, the Mideast's top Shiite power.

For the Bush administration, the policy implications of the analysis suggest increased diplomatic engagement with Tehran. In Iraq, the removal of Saddam has increased the Iranian intelligence and security presence in the country, and the Sunni insurgency is deepening ties among Iraqi Shiites and the Iranian regime. This situation gives Iran leverage in creating a lasting political and constitutional settlement in Iraq, and it presents Tehran with the opportunity to improve ties to the United States, perhaps by helping to broker negotiations between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni factions in exchange for security guarantees from Washington.

Nasr's full thesis can be found in his recent article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Overall, I find the idea of a U.S.-Iran diplomatic renewal -- emerging out developments in Iraq -- an interesting thesis. I nevertheless remain skeptical of the idea of giving Iran more say in Iraqi politics -- particularly since Iran's long-term objectives include Mideast regional domination, destabilization and weakening of the Iraqi democracy, and the destruction of Israel. The U.S. may, unfortunately (though I hope not), find a Tehran gambit more attractive, as we continue with the long, hard job of building democracy in Iraq, amid continuing casualties and growing doubts about the ultimate success of the operation in American public opinion.

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