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Why America must throw in its lot with the Shia

Authors: Nikolas Gvosdev, and Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
February 14, 2007
Financial Times


Despite the rhetoric about bringing “freedom to the peoples of the Middle East ”, the Bush administration’s “new approach” to the region looks suspiciously like the ones his predecessors pursued. It is hoped in Washington that an alignment with Sunni monarchs and authoritarian regimes will contain Syria, Iran and Hizbollah. Gone are the heady days of calling for transformation of the Middle East, as the US once more finds solace in the complacent House of Saud and the stagnant Mubarak dynasty in Egypt.

The Bush administration has dispensed with the notion that reform in the region will bring to power political forces that will advance the USagenda for the Middle East . It seems far easier to deal with the existing strongmen and monarchs than to try to negotiate with a variety of Muslim Brotherhood-style parties. Moreover, at a time whenWashingtonis calling for Egyptian support to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hoping that the Gulf sheikdoms would assist Washington in isolating Iran, it is hardly going to press for free elections and political reform.

But the Bush team is in for two disappointments. The first is that the region’s Sunni powerhouses are much less inclined to support US efforts and, in fact, may obstruct them.

The Mecca accords between Fatah and Hamas did nothing to advance the peace process. Meanwhile, Cairo is not willing or even capable of imposing a solution on the Palestinian government barring significant territorial concessions from Israel.

Despite being flush with oil revenues, the Saudi and the Gulf states are not rushing to provide financial assistance for the reconstruction of Iraq, nor are they restraining their Sunni clerical and intellectual classes from fanning the flames of the insurgency. The under-reported story of Iraq’s sectarian convulsions is the extent that Sunni rebels enjoy financial and material support from the wealthy donors in the Gulf sheikdoms and Jordan.

The second is that the very notion that the Middle East can be stabilised by reconvening a 1980s-style alignment of Sunni states is fallacious. The identification of Shia power with anti-American radicalism and frantic efforts to try to overturn the realities of Persian Gulf geography, however, are not only old policies but failed ones. The removal of Saddam Hussein from power has forever shattered the possibility that Baghdadwill take the lead as an Arab bulwark to Tehran—and the power and status of Iran simply cannot be contained or negated by the weak city-states on its periphery. Without Iraq’s participation, there is no viable constituency for America’s attempt to insulate Iranand obstruct its influence.

To extricate itself from its predicament, America must make some difficult decisions, beginning with Iraq. The surge of American troops with their commitment to disarm the Shia militias will not just exacerbate the existing sectarian conflict in that country but further estrange the Shia majority—without any corresponding shift in the attitudes of the Sunni minority toward the US.

It is finally time to appreciate that no American gesture of inclusion and pacification can propitiate the recalcitrant Sunni minority displeased with an invasion that cost it its monopoly on power.

Washington should once and for all make clear its commitment to the majority of Iraq ’s population and to its elected government. After four years of war and a raging insurgency, it is too late to try to placate the Sunnis. A choice has to be made to side with the party that is likely to win the civil war—the Shia.

A Shia-dominated Iraq will not carry American water vis-à-vis Iran, Lebanon or Israel —but Iraq’s Shia also have no wish to become Iranian satellites. Indeed, many Shia movements in the region are not implacably anti-American. It is only the perception that the USseeks to marginalise the Shia at all costs which has, in the past, forged the idea of a hostile Shia crescent.

As Washington wrestles with the means of stabilising Iraq, it must look beyond retrogressive shibboleths for a new way of approaching Shia actors and states that can no longer be contained or easily submerged under Sunni power. It must accept that the result of political reform—in places such as Iraq, the Gulf emirates and Lebanon—will be the empowerment of governments much less interested in pursuing America’s strategic agenda. It may be too much to expect new allies for the US, but neutrality is far better than active opposition.

The writer is the editor of The National Interest. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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