Reconciliation of Sunni and Sh’ia

The United States assumes that only western initiatives can resolve Middle East problems, many of which western nations helped to create. In effect, Middle East nations cannot take care of themselves.

Using slogans of democracy, freedom, and nation building as the path to peace and stability, the U.S. in the last ten years has brought neither peace nor stability to the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Guided by encouraging words rather than meaningful deeds, the U.S. has deceived itself with illogical maneuvers, hypocritical behavior and contemptuous meddling in the Arab world. Smug attitude and self-interest prevents a Bush administration from realizing that invigorated Middle East nations can stabilize themselves. The present inward looking U.S. administration would never contemplate that Iran and Saudi Arabia could lead the advance.

What! Iran and Saudi Arabia, two implacable foes and authoritarian nations governed by Islamic law, are going to cooperate and lead their fellow Middle East neighbors to a long desired exit from turmoil and solidify their presence as progressive forces in a family of nations? Maybe not entirely; maybe only a cool meeting of minds rather than warm embraces. But why not, if this rash route for achieving peace and stability might be the only possible approach for accomplishing the extraordinary mission, and if the lack of its occurrence presages a destructive conflict between the two opposing Islamic nations? Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and King Abdullah must comprehend that they are being drawn into a clash and should preferably get together before they pull themselves apart.

The Arab nations of the Middle East realize that the U.S. will secure the monarchies as long as these governments protect U.S. interests – until now. U.S. failure to protect its interests in Iraq portends an eventual failure to secure the Middle East governments against internal and external conflicts. Middle East stability dictates reconciliation between the Arab world and Iran, between Sunnis and Shiites, and specifically between Saudi Arabia and Iran. By cooperation, Iran and Saudi Arabia can stabilize and democratize Iraq. This does not mean that the two authoritarian nations should be excused for suppression of internal democratic movements and be able to avoid responsibility towards their own peoples. Nor does it mean that their accord should be allowed to prompt an arrangement that subverts other nations or constructs an anti-American coalition. It only means that, by peculiarities of international politics, these nations happen to have significant power to resolve a crushing situation. The world should be aware of this unique power and use it to advantage. Trace the situation. It methodically leads from U.S. failures, which predict a U.S. loss of influence, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims will create a political vacuum, which is filled by oil rich Iran and very oil rich Saudi Arabia, which merits a repair of the Sunni and Sh’ia divide and which leads to Middle East peace and stability. Start with the factors that produced a U.S. loss of influence.

Illogical Maneuvers — The U.S. military overthrow of Saddam Hussein removed a countervailing force to Iran and expanded the Islamic Republic’s power and influence. The U.S. participation in an ongoing civil war in Iraq, its cooperation with Israel in the latter’s conflict with Lebanon, the continuous and ineffective saber rattling against Iran, and inability to resolve the Israel/Palestinian conflict have lowered U.S. prestige to that of a barely tolerated benefactor.

Hypocrisy — Support of autocratic monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf State nations has strengthened these regimes and delayed them from extending sufficient freedoms to their populations, including Sh’ia. The latter ethnicity is important because U.S. proclamations of freedom of religion and minority rights, except for Iraq, are rarely applied to the Sh’ia — just the opposite — the victimized and mostly powerless Sh’ia, who have been attacked by Sunnis from India to Saudi Arabia, are constantly portrayed as aggressive, terrorist prone and always ready to seize control. This depiction disguises government corruption, reinforces Sunni domination and exaggerates a Sunni/Sh’ia divide that seeks amelioration.

The U.S. has never recognized that the Shiites, who are an overwhelming majority in Bahrain (55-70%), have only five of 22 cabinet positions, 8% of total governmental posts, and 18 appointed (by the King) members of 40 in a Shura council.

Although a more positive trend is occurring, the desert kingdom has discriminated against its Sh’ia minority (5-10%). A 2001 Human Rights Watch Report:

Shia Muslims, who constitute about eight percent of the Saudi population, faced discrimination in employment as well as limitations on religious practices. Shia jurisprudence books were banned, the traditional annual Shia mourning procession of Ashura was discouraged, and operating independent Islamic religious establishments remained illegal.

Contemptuous Meddling — The U.S. has taken several initiatives to resolve problems of Middle East nations. From Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush, U.S. presidents have sent the U.S. marines to Lebanon and naval armadas to the Persian Gulf in order to “solve” Middle East problems. Iraq has been attacked on two occasions.

After all these military adventures, the Middle East remains with its problems and seems ready to explode. By this time, Arab leaders must recognize that the U.S. cannot solve their problems and can exacerbate them. Consider Iraq.

U.S. involvement in resolving an Iraq crisis that it created gives an appearance of providing a solution that favors U.S. interests, and structuring Iraq as a vassal of the U.S. Imagine the feelings of the Arab leaders who contemplate an Iraq allied with the U.S., a nation allied with Israel , and the three nations forming a dynamic combination that can dominate the entire Middle East — a neo-con victory over the Arab world.

Iran and Saudi Arabia border on Iraq and are nations most affected by an unstable and insurgent Iraq. Self-interest forces Iran and Saudi Arabia to frame the future of Iraq. History shows that the former nation fears a Sunni dominated government at its border, and for good reasons; these include a possible reawakening of former disputes between Iraq and Iran that led to war, an adjacent space for Iranian dissidents to operate, and the natural tendency to co-opt Iran into Iraq’s ethnic disputes in order to protect the Sh’ia.

Similar to Iran, Saudi Arabia fears a Shiite dominated Iraqi government. Despite insufficient proof, the Saudi monarchy has been accused of assisting elements of the Sunni insurgents in their battles against the sectarian Iraq government and has been quoted as pledging support for Sunni militias who defend themselves against Shiite militias. Jordan’s King Abdullah has pledged support against what he views as an attempt to establish Shiite dominance from Iran to Lebanon.

A Shiite dominated government in Iraq that suppresses Sunnis will infuriate Saudi extremists. The porous Saudi border (The kingdom mentions building a barrier between the two countries) will become a superhighway for insurgents from Saudi Arabia racing to assist insurgent Sunnis and for Shiites arriving from Iraq in order to foment rebellion in Saudi Arabia. Battle trained Saudi insurgents returning from Iraq become an eventual threat to the kingdom.

A sectarian government in Iraq increases the probability of a continuous and crushing civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis. The strife could undermine and consume the opposing Islamic states. A stable and non-sectarian Iraq at their borders relieves these states of responsibility to assist opposing factions and limits charges of neglecting brethren from attack. A non-sectarian government serves as a buffer between Shiite Iran and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. An added advantage is that a non-sectarian government is more likely to unite Iraq and prevent Kurdish independence. Iran will relish that situation. Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, Executive Director, Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) has said it well: “Saudi King Abdullah, who always favored change in his kingdom, is smart enough to understand, as any common sense individual will, that a fire next door can burn his own house down.”

What should these two antagonists do? What they do might be less important than what they not do. Pacification of Iraq depends upon halting increase of hostilities between Sh’ia and Sunni groups. Iran and Saudi Arabia should make sure they don’t assist any side in promoting civil war. With that known, they can use their influence with ethnic representatives to bring about a reconciliation that favors a non-sectarian government whose direction has no favoritism and no connection with adjacent states.

Is cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia far fetched? Major problems exist between Iran and the Arab states — territorial disputes, threats of closing the Straits of Hormuz, Arab states’ alliances with the United States, claims that Iran supports a Sh’ia uprising in Bahrain, and the Sh’ia /Sunni divide. Nevertheless, events indicate that Iran and Saudi Arabia are tending to diminish antagonisms and more eagerly cooperating in stabilizing their Middle East.

On March 4, 2007 the Iranian president and Saudi leaders had official talks in which they “pledged to fight the spread of sectarian strife in the Middle East, which was the biggest danger facing the region.” Following this meeting, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, on Oct.4, 2007, highlighted what he has said is the emergence of a “power vacuum in the region,” and indicated Iran’s readiness to fill that vacuum, while encouraging cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia to achieve that goal. On August 18, 2008, seven Arab countries, including Kuwait, announced their intentions to reopen their embassies in Baghdad. The Arab Interim Parliament (AIP), which has been active in addressing Arab Nations’ social and economic affairs, stated on August 25, 2000, “it was examining a proposal to have its chairman hold a dialogue between the Arab and Iranian nations.”

A series of economic agreements between Iran and Gulf State demonstrate a recognized dependence. London-based economic weekly MEED reported on August 3, 2008 that UAE-based Quest Energy and an Iranian company are developing a project to build a 1,000 megawatt power plant in Iran. On August 17, 2008, the Saudi Press Agency reported that “Iran signed a deal to export gas to Oman that could open new export routes well beyond the neighboring Arab state.”

The Sunni/Sh’ia divide shrunk slightly with an arrangement between Hezbollah and Salafists, belligerent foes in Lebanon. Ya Libnan, August 18, 2008, reported that the two sectarian forces signed a memorandum of understanding that briefly: (1) Condemned any Islamic group that assaults another, (2) Abandoned incitement, which creates trouble and allows enemies to take advantage of the situation, and (3) Confronted the American agenda, which creates division.

The territorial disputes between Iran and the Gulf states started long before the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran’s independent actions, such as constructing two naval offices on the disputed island of Abu Musa in the eastern Persian Gulf, has fueled the dispute and angered Gulf State leaders. Nevertheless, many of the world’s adjoining states have territorial disputes that linger for centuries and the antagonists remain friendly.

Gulf States’ anxiety that Iran will try to close the Straits of Hormuz is mainly due to Iran’s previous attempts in the tanker war during the Iran/Iraq war. On the other hand, Iran fears the Gulf States acquiescence of the presence of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf is an attack on its sovereignty and invites interference with its shipping. Freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf emphasizes the need for cooperation. Removing the U.S. warships will lessen confrontation and reduce fears.

The Sunni/Sh’ia divide, portrayed as a religious conflict, is actually an economic conflict. Caliphs and Imams who centralized rule of each of the two Muslim sects no longer exist as temporal leaders, and therefore no leadership, other than spiritual Imams, is a focus for a divide. Differences between the two Muslim groups on Mohammad’s succession, Muslim prayer and Koran interpretation incite resentment between Muslim’s extreme religious leaders, but are not sufficiently significant for many of the 1.2 billion Muslims to waste their time and energy in futile battles. A Muslim is defined by adherence to the five pillars of Islam. Both Sunnis and Shiite follow those principals and are therefore ‘fellow’ Muslims. The masses of Islam are no different than the masses of Protestants who don’t care to whom and how their neighbor prays.

Similar to Northern Ireland, where Irish Catholics protested against their second class citizenship and economic persecution by English Protestants, the deprived Sh’ia minorities (majority in Bahrain) legitimately protest their economic subservience. Hezbollah has led the venture to equality in Lebanon, and due to their efforts, despite contrary western propaganda, Lebanon is evolving to a more democratic, egalitarian and stable state. Anti-Shiitism is one of the most punishing of the anti-isms and is aggravated by a western world that excuses nefarious policies by its anti-Shiitism. Recognition of the rights of the Sh’ia will diminish the Sunni/Sh’ia divide.

Iran and Saudi Arabia fear that each nation wants to overthrow the other. This type of fear disturbs all authoritarian and sectarian nations that create dissension and then seek scapegoats for their despotism. U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s close relations with U.S. administrations support Iran’s arguments. Arab hostility to Iran occurs from an issue reflected in a recent statement by former Iranian diplomat Adel Al Asadi: “Bahrain had suffered due to Iranian interference in its affairs through various undercover operations, especially the recent disturbances by Bahraini youth.” Bahrain Salafist Member of Parliament Jassim Al Saidi exploited Al Asadi’s words to berate Iran. Note that Adel Al Asadi is a dissident diplomat who left Iran, and has not had his words verified. Charges of Iranian interference in other nations usually surface from dissidents and are rarely verified. In contrast, the Bush administration has made bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East an essential part of its foreign policy program; interpreted as intending to replace the authoritarian regimes. Bush’s words have not caused alarm or had an effect on policies of Middle East authoritarian nations.

An Iraq that evolves into a non-sectarian and independent democracy initiates a hopeful path to stabilization of the entire Middle East. This task cannot be accomplished before the western world recognizes its role in aggravating the problems of the Middle East. Instead of inciting division and hatred, and juggling Middle East lives to favor their own interests, shouldn’t western agencies and governments encourage an Arabian and Iranian reconciliation?

Dan Lieberman publishes commentaries on foreign policy, economics, and politics at  He is author of the non-fiction books A Third Party Can Succeed in America, Not until They Were Gone, Think Tanks of DC, The Artistry of a Dog, and a novel: The Victory (under a pen name, David L. McWellan). Read other articles by Dan.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Susan said on September 17th, 2008 at 4:05pm #

    March 12th 2007
    The tension between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq is completely an American doing, as other colonizing powers like the British imperialism have done in the past.

    There had been no conflict between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq before the imperialist invasion.

    The uprising of the Iraqi peoples, just after the first Persian Gulf War in1991, against Saddam’s Regime, was not a religious one. Both Arabs (Shia and Sunni) and Kurds (Shia and Sunni) were involved in those revolts.

    Iraq is mostly a tribal society, which contain both factions. Furthermore, Shias and Sunnis have intermarried and the majority of the people are mixed. Just until recently many people did not know if they were Shia or Sunni, or even the difference between these two sects.

    It is necessary to say that the same plots are planned for oil rich Iran, to divide this country between the different ethnics and religions in order to conquer it.

    However, when a disturbance occurs in a body by a foreign object, the best cure is to remove it!


  2. AJ Nasreddin said on September 20th, 2008 at 4:48am #

    Susan, you said: “There had been no conflict between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq before the imperialist invasion.” And this is not true. In the past there have been bloody confrontations between Sunnis and Shias – and one can say these started almost immediately after the Prophet Muhammed died.

    What you say about tribal society is true. Most Arab countries run themselves along tribal lines, subtlety or overtly. While the colonial powers drew the boarders of the modern Middle East, the concept of nationhood is not strong. For over a millennium, the Muslim world was more or less one entity. Although often divided into principalities, Muslims traveled relatively freely and kept their ethnic and familial identity – even religious identity – while living in the broader Islamic milieu. This mindset is still present today – so it is no surprise that Saudi Arabia and Iran, though religiously at odds, are willing to come together and talk as Sunnis and Shias have several times in the past, especially in cases of outside aggression.

    I would argue that the Americans, and western nations in general, have always been keen on keeping divisions. Popularly for Arabs, the idea of Panarabism still has appeal – on the political level it can be seen through economic agreements such as the Greater Arab Free Trade Area.

    The Kurdish-Sunni-Shia split doesn’t make sense in the Middle East because they are not clear divisions for them – although they make it convenient to draw lines on the map by outsiders. Kurdish is not a religious sect but an ethnic one. So a logical split would be Kurdish-Arab. Kurds are by in large Sunnis. This would put Sunnis in the majority in Iraq. But of course no one defines themselves based on one criterion. Lines are drawn depending on the circumstances. The faulty logic used by western powers is to force a reality that doesn’t exist.

    Dan Lieberman’s article raises some good points. However, he seems unaware of the long undercurrents of tension between Sunnis and Shias in the broader context. Reconciliation between the two cannot be expected. All that is really needed is a respectful tolerance.