Whither Arab Shiites

Vali Nasr has written very persuasively that the US must accommodate Iran as a new Middle East leader and deal with the new Shiite bloc which is beginning to flex its muscles. Scott Sullivan takes issue with Nasr in this article, copied below, arguing that Nasrallah, Asad, and Muqtadda al-Sadr will emerge as a new Arab bloc within the Shiite alliance to counter-balance Iran’s drive for leadership in the region.

The implication is that Arab nationalism remains a galvanizing force, even in the face of religion. If Bashar al-Asad emerges as the leader of such an alliance (he is the only one who heads a state among them), Syria would gain important leverage in mediating the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It would also potentially make him a key player in mediating the conflict between Israel and Iran.

This is very provocative, but little suggests that either Washington or Israel has the foresight to assist the emergence of such an Arab-Shiite bloc, not to mention the diplomatic skill to then accommodate it sufficiently in order to dull the force of Iranian meddling in the region. Two headlines in today’s papers make it clear that Israel is heading in the opposite direction: Israeli Foreign Minister Rules Out Peace Talks With Syria and the London Times article this Sunday entitled, “Israel plans for war with Iran and Syria,” suggesting Israeli leaders are coming up with contingency plans for attacking both Syria and Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt will have to take the lead in feeling out Asad and Nasrallah to see what possibility exists for their trimming Iran’s sails. That will be the only way to preserve a modicum of Arab unity in the region. Massoud Derhally argues in his article, “The Rise of Shiites” that Saudi Arabia has been reforming its anti-Shiite, Wahhabi doctrine in order to ensure that its Shiite citizens remain loyal to the monarchy and resist Iranian temptations. Is it possible that Riyadh may generalize this policy to the rest of the Arab World in order to keep Arab nationalism a more powerful loyalty than religion?

Here is Scott Sullivan’s interesting but flawed (see comment section remarks by Raf and Why-discuss on this – I had called it “smart” since retracted!) article:

Syria and Hezbollah Will Stop Iran
by Scott Sullivan
The Conservative Voice
September 03, 2006

Normal and inevitable checks and balances are coming into play in the Middle East that will defeat Iran’s efforts to dominate the region. This development should be more widely understood as it will refute the scaremongers who say the region will inevitably fall into Iran’s orbit. The scaremongers use this reality of growing Iranian/Shia power in the region to justify a policy of appeasement of Iran.

The most recent proponent of appeasing Iran is Vali Nasar, author of “The Shia Revival,” who appeared on Meet the Press last Sunday and who has met with President Bush. In meeting with President Bush, Vali Nasar was preaching to the choir, as certain of President Bush’s policies — such as the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, as well as Bush’s continuing acceptance since early 2006 of Hezbollah hegemony in Lebanon and Iranian hegemony in Iraq — were the primary cause of the Iranian/Shia revival.

Vali Nasar makes a strong case for the US and the Arabs to talk to Iran, in other words, to make more concessions to Iran. Nasar’s assessment of Middle East realities, however, goes off the mark when he says Iran will shape the region. This is because Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, whose genuine interests move in the direction of opposing Iran, will shape the region.

In fact, the reality of rising Iranian power in the region puts power increasingly into the hands of Syria and Hezbollah, as well as the anti-Iran Shia in Iraq such as Muqtada al-Sadr. Both Iran and the West are appealing to them for support, which puts them in the middle position as regional power brokers.

Moreover, President Assad of Syria, Sheik Nasrallah in Lebanon, and Muqtada al-Sadr are natural allies because they agree on the necessity of a unified Iraq and a unified Lebanon. They also represent the forces of Arab nationalism. Iran, in contrast, seeks a new Persian empire and is relentlessly sectarian. To this end, Iran perceives opportunities for spreading its influence in the breakup of Iraq and Lebanon into small and vulnerable states. The entire concept of democratic multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states as found in Iraq and Lebanon is foreign to Tehran, which views its own Azeri and Kurdish populations as major threats.

Noted Middle East authority Juan Cole captured the reasons for the rise of Muqtada al-Sadr and a revived Arab cohesion with this prescient observation about Iraq, written in 2004. “The Iraqi rebellion in April,” he observed, “signals the re-emergence of Iraqi nationalism, and perhaps even of Arab nationalism, as am important factor in the post-Ba’ath period.” See “Iraq: All together against the Occupation,” Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2004.

Such a revival of Iraqi nationalism on a new basis is anathema to Tehran, which is cooperating with Iraq’s Kurdish parties to suppress Muqtada al-Sadr, expel Iraqi Sunnis from Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk, and partition Iraq into three separate states, one for the Kurds, one for the Shia, and one for the Sunnis. Just last month, Iraq’s SCIRI party, 100 percent under Iranian influence, announced plans to set up a separate Shia state in southern Iraq, modeled after the existing Kurdish state.

Iran’s Annexation Plan for Iraq is Failing.

Iran has stumbled badly with its plan to annex Iraq. First, Iran’s power grab in southern Iraq is meeting fierce resistance on the part of local Shia. The Washington Post covered this issue in detail last week. In brief, forces loyal to Sheik al-Hasani in Karbala, which is a Holy City for the Shia, are fighting back against the SCIRI and its Iranian sponsors. Meanwhile in Basra, southern Iraq’s most important city, forces hostile to Iran control local government.

Second, the Iranian-US “Operation Baghdad,” nominally intended to improve security in Iraq’s capital but in reality aimed at suppressing anti –Iran elements such as Muqtada al-Sadr and some of the Sunni groups, has backfired. Rather than eliminate al-Sadr’s influence, it has boosted his influence. Iraq’s current government deserves credit for supporting al-Sadr during this critical period.

Third, Sheik Nasrallah’s victory in Lebanon could bring bad news for Iran. For one thing, Iran will be obliged to pour money into Lebanon, which will weaken Iran’s economy and render it more vulnerable to Western sanctions. Second, Iran’s money will be used to build the prestige of Sheik Nasrallah, who competes with Iran’s president Ahmadinejad to lead the Shia communities in the Middle East. As noted earlier, Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad have quite different objectives in Iraq and Lebanon.

Fourth, Syria is unhappy with Iran’s attempted takeover of Iraq and Lebanon (as well as Hamas and the Palestinian Authority). Should Iran succeed with this imperial project, Syria would likely bear the brunt of Israeli counterattacks while gaining nothing in return. Syria could kiss goodbye to the Golan Heights forever. Lebanon, once a wealthy colony for Syria, would be turned into a basket case that would further drain the already weak Syrian economy. Moreover, Iran’s success in Iraq and Lebanon would marginalize Syria and turn it into a dependency of Iran, much as Hamas is today. In addition, the establishment of Shia theocracies in Iraq and Lebanon would threaten the legitimacy of President Assad’s Ba’athist regime, and would lead Syria down the path of confrontation with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. President Assad is too intelligent to fall into Iran’s trap for Syria. Finally, Syria has much more to gain by coming to terms with Israel. As goes Syria, goes Hezbollah.


Iran will push hard to steer events in the Middle East with minimal consultations with its partners Assad, Nasrallah and al-Sadr. Most likely, Iran will escalate against Israel, which maximizes Iran’s leverage over its partners as well as the Sunni states. Iran’s partners must realize, however, that if Iran wins, they lose by becoming marginalized and victims of Israeli counterattacks. Yet if Iran loses, they also lose, and will be dragged down unto a whirlpool of perpetual conflict. Assad, Nasrallah, and al-Sadr will find a third way, one that leads to their own victory.

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