Sunday, September 03, 2006

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.


At 9/03/2006 07:58:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Nationalist Party said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9/03/2006 08:00:00 PM, Blogger why-discuss said...

Scott Sullivan article is inept.. How can think that either Ahmadinejad or Nasrallah could be leaders of the Shia!!!! How can he say that Iran's money to help lebanon may bankrupt them, at the current price of oil!
Mr Vali Nasr has a much better understanding and I concur with his view. I will not be surprised to see a Iran-US-Syria discreet flirt happening as the US may decide to harness the Shia emerging power as they know that the re emergence of pan arab nationalism is seriously hampered by the absence of a valid leader. ( Bashar al Assad, a potential leader, has been ostracized and may not be able to stand to that task) They may accept the evidence that the arab world is now under deep Shia influence. US and European may accept that as long as Israel and US interests are not threatened. This may be the deal they will propose to Khamenei, Sistani and Iraqi shia leaders. The question would be to have this pill swallowed by the sunni arab states: Saudi arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
The next few months will show if this prediction is proven.

At 9/03/2006 09:47:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

I just hope Syria will get the Golan Hights and have peace so it can improve the lives of it,s people.

At 9/03/2006 10:11:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

Nasr put the Shaia in Syria at 1% it seems he did not cout the Alawat as shaia.

At 9/03/2006 10:44:00 PM, Blogger Philip I said...

New post

How to make peace & why America loves Israel

At 9/04/2006 02:20:00 AM, Blogger raf* said...

dear josh,

scott sullivan's article is among the worst i've read in a while. EVERYthing he writes about iraq is simply WRONG.

there is no "iranian-kurdish" cooperation on "ethnic cleansing" of sunni arabs from basra & the north. sciri is NOT "100% under iranian control", the current gov't has been fighting sadrist militias, etc.pp.

now, i think that juan (cole) can be quite shrill at times, but he'd be the first to shake his head @ this article. and since i assume that you actually read juan's blog i am surprised that you call sullivan's article "smart".

josh, i'm afraid your wishful thinking about "tahya ya suriyye" has gotten the better of you - AGAIN.



At 9/04/2006 07:41:00 AM, Blogger t_desco said...

Israel Doesn't View Syria As Negotiation Partner

JERUSALEM (AP)--Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that if forced to go to war with Syria, it would strike more harshly than it did in its recent war in Lebanon, Israeli radio stations reported on Monday.

Olmert, speaking before parliament's influential foreign affairs and defense committee, also reiterated his opposition to launching negotiations with Syria, meeting participants said.

"Syria knows that we limited ourselves in our operations in Lebanon, and it knows that in an operation against Syria, against Damascus, Israel won't limit itself," Israel Radio cited Olmert as saying.

A meeting participant told The AP that Olmert told lawmakers Israel sent a message to Syria during the war, ruling out negotiations. That position still holds now, he said.
"This is not the time to talk to the Syrians," he quoted Olmert as saying, added that no new message has been sent to Damascus.
"He said he would not negotiate with Syria at this time because Syria is the enemy," committee member Ran Cohen added.
Olmert has articulated this position before, saying Damascus must first end its support for Lebanese and Palestinian extremists.

At 9/04/2006 08:57:00 AM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

Thanks Raf, I confess that I don’t know anything about Sullivan and this is the first time I have run across him. Your observations about Iran-Kurdish cooperation, etc. seem right. All the same, I believe a good argument can be made that Arab nationalism remains a lively force in the region, despite it being out of fashion.

I think Nasr’s work is excellent. Sullivan’s idea that Arab Shiites will resist following Iran unquestioningly and try to counter-balance its leadership of Shiites more generally seems sound to me, however, even if his knowledge of Iraq is suspect. Lebanese Shiites demonstrated that they will follow their own Arab leadership on many spiritual matters. See: "Iran, the Vatican of Shi‘ism?" by Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr
Roschanack deftly argues that Hizbullah is not a creature of Iran, as some have argued. She explains how it has defied Iran on a number of issues, by asserting its Lebanese and Arab identity in the face of Iranian efforts to dominate its cultural and spiritual agenda.

It is true that Iranian clerics do not consider Alawites to be Shiites, despite Alawite attempts to gain Islamic acceptance by claiming they do not differ from Twelvers in law and basic precepts. This means that Syria will not become “a leader” in maters Shiite, all the same it will spur Syria to encourage Arab Shiites to develop their own path – not necessarily in opposition to Iran – but to preserve its own room to maneuver. Alawites have taken money from Iran to help develop some mosques and cultural institutions in their region, but they have resisted Iranian attempts to change the way they pray or bring them into conformity with the directives of Iranian Imams.

I suspect, this friction, which has been relatively unimportant in the past, will become more heated as Iran asserts itself as a new power in the region.

At 9/04/2006 10:31:00 AM, Blogger True Facts said...

Once again, Syriacomment is proving to be the laughing stock of blog town. Josh is simply screwed up in his mind. Too much Syria bullshit got to his brain. You can't blame him by the way. The guy is trying to make a living. Oaklahoma U has a policy of paying its staff the minimum wage.

At 9/05/2006 01:32:00 PM, Blogger Richard said...

Shouldn't we anticipate the counter-movement to come from somewhere other than Iran's coreligious? Moreover, there is no reason to believe that Nasrallah and Iran would ever be hostile to one another.


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