[Marxism] Rising Academic Sees Sectarian Spli Inflaming Mideast (WSJ)

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Fri Aug 4 08:04:06 MDT 2006

(This new star is telling them they should engage Iran because they
have not been able to defeat Shi'ite Islam's influence any other way.
There are those who have been trying, with little avail, to suggest
the same course to Washington over Cuba for decades. Lately they're
getting a bit more of a hearing in light of Fidel's provisionally
passing on some of his authority, while he is fully alive mentally
and physically, though evidently incapacitated to some degree. In
the seventies, U.S. politicians came to realize that they couldn't
destroy China by blockading it, and they also came to see that it
was such a big market that they were losing out by their policies
of self-exclusion, aka, blockade. Then they tried also to blockade
Vietnam after Vietnam prevented Washington from taking Vietnam back.
Reports like this are likely to set some on the political left all
a-twitter. I'm reminded of those who attacked Wayne Smith for his
advice to Washington to engage Cuba rather than blockading it and
we get similar advice today against engagement with Iran, from the
same people who stand to benefit from blockading and targetting 
Iran and Syria. Very interesting and important comment, given the
WSJ's editorial call yesterday for the repeal of the Helms-Burton
law. We are now beginning to get some more positive comments in a
series of newspaper editorials in the United States as well. Not
all are motivated by a respect for Cuban, not to speak of Iranian
sovereignty, but at least there's some change in tone and tune.)

August 4, 2006
Ancient Rift
Rising Academic
Sees Sectarian Split
Inflaming Mideast
Vali Nasr Says 'Shiite Revival'
Is Met by Sunni Backlash;
Resurgent Iran Leads Way
Can Mullahs be Moderated?
August 4, 2006; Page A1

WASHINGTON -- As Vali Nasr dashed for the airport last week after
briefing a small group of academics and policy makers here, a hand
pulled the political scientist aside.

"That was the most coherent, in-depth and incisive discussion of the
religious situation in the Middle East that I've heard in any
setting," said Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader and
influential conservative.

Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, heaped similar praise on Mr. Nasr in May for
giving what Mr. Biden called the most "concise and coherent"
testimony on Iran he had ever heard.

>From the violence in the Mideast, new realities are emerging -- and a
new generation of experts to interpret them. Shiite Muslims are
asserting themselves as never before. Followers of this branch of
Islam, generally backbenchers in the region's power game, are central
players in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq -- often acting out against
traditional powers such as Israel, the U.S., and Sunni Arab states.

Mr. Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey,
Calif., calls this a historic "Shiite revival" and has gone further
than most in identifying it as a central force in Mideast politics.
He also frames a possible U.S. response: Engage Iran, especially over
the issue of reducing violence in Iraq, and try to manage Tehran's
rise as a regional power rather than isolating it.

The issues are more than academic for the 46-year-old professor. He
was raised in Tehran and hails from a prominent intellectual and
literary family in Iran that traces its lineage to the prophet
Muhammad. His father was once president of Iran's top science
university and chief of staff for the shah's wife.

In 1979, after the Iranian revolution, the Nasrs "started from zero"
in the U.S., says Mr. Nasr. He received a doctorate in political
science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing his
thesis on the political dimensions of radical Islam, while his
father, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, became a renowned professor of Islamic
studies at George Washington University.

The younger Mr. Nasr has laid out his views in a series of speeches
and articles, as well as a new book. He is gaining a wide hearing in
Washington. "The problem with the current Middle East debate is it's
completely stuck. Nobody knows what to do," says political economist
Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University, who attended Mr. Nasr's
private briefing last week. "Vali Nasr offers a plausible alternative
that may gain traction."

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 immeasurably strengthened.

Reopening a Fault Line

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 Muhammad's death in 632, when his
companions -- the forebears of the Sunnis -- chose Muhammad's close
friend and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to succeed him and become Islam's
first caliph. Shiites believe Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, was more

Ali managed to become Islam's fourth caliph, only to face multiple
rebellions. He was ultimately murdered while at prayer at a shrine in
what is now Iraq. His son, Hussein, refused to accept his father's
Sunni usurpers and was slain 19 years later.

Shiites commemorate Hussein's murder in the holiday called Ashura, a
10-day period of mourning and self-flagellation. Their reverence for
Hussein's stand against tyranny is the touchstone of Shiite political
passions -- often invoked during the Iranian revolution, the ensuing
war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and even recently by the leader of
the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in its war against Israel.
Traditional Sunnis view Shiites as heretics, led astray by Persian
Zoroastrianism and other pagan beliefs.

Today, the conflict is most visible in Iraq, where foreign and local
Sunni insurgents refuse to accede to the country's Shiite majority.
But Mr. Nasr sees the backlash in Iraq as auguring a wave of similar
sectarian battles in a broad swath of Asia from Lebanon to Pakistan
where the populations of the two sects are roughly even.

"In the coming years, Shiites and Sunnis will compete over power,
first in Iraq but ultimately across the entire region," Mr. Nasr
writes in his new book, "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam
Will Shape the Future," published by W.W. Norton & Co. "The overall
Sunni-Shiite conflict will play a large role in defining the Middle
East as a whole and shaping its relations with the outside world."

For the U.S., the Sunni-Shiite divide is fraught with challenges --
and opportunities. By creating in Iraq the first Shiite-led state in
the Arab world since the rise of Islam (Iran is mostly ethnic
Persian), the U.S. ignited aspirations among some 150 million Shiites
in the region, Mr. Nasr says. Many live under Sunni rule, such as in
Saudi Arabia, where they have long been persecuted. Yet U.S. foreign
policy still operates under the "old paradigm" of Sunni dominance, he

Take the current crisis in Lebanon. The U.S. has long relied on its
traditional Sunni Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- to
keep the Arab-Israeli conflict in check. But now the Sunni axis is
failing, says Mr. Nasr, because these nations are incapable of
containing a resurgent Iran and its radical clients on the front
lines against Israel -- Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas.

To adapt, the U.S. must "recalibrate" its diplomacy and re-establish
contacts with Iran, he says. That would require disavowing any
interest in "regime change" in Tehran -- an unrealistic aim anyway,
Mr. Nasr argues -- but would offer the best hope of moderating Iran's
growing influence.

"The Iranian genie isn't going back in the bottle," he says. "If we
deny these changes have happened -- that Cairo, Amman and Riyadh have
lost control of the region -- and we continue to exclude Iran, we'd
better be prepared to spend a lot of money on troops in the region
for a long time," Mr. Nasr says.

The Bush administration is listening to Mr. Nasr, but his influence
on U.S. policy is unclear. Two White House foreign-policy aides
attended his talk here last week. And last year, Mr. Nasr briefed
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Since last year the influence of
neoconservatives who championed the invasion of Iraq has ebbed at the
White House, and Mr. Bush recently held a roundtable discussion at
Camp David with other analysts critical of his Iraq policy.

One White House official points out that Mr. Nasr's prescription
assumes the U.S., by recognizing and engaging Iran as a regional
power, could moderate its behavior. But that outcome, the official
adds, doesn't inevitably flow from Mr. Nasr's core argument about the
Shiite revival. Many Republican foreign-policy specialists, including
some who opposed the Iraq war, believe Iran is a threat and may have
to be confronted militarily if diplomatic efforts fail.

In the Lebanon crisis, the U.S. has so far ruled out talking to Syria
or Iran, Hezbollah's main suppliers of money and missiles. "Frankly,
there is nothing to negotiate," White House spokesman Tony Snow has

Mr. Nasr sees it differently. Hezbollah's brazen attack on Israel
July 12, and its heady self-confidence from parrying Israel's
onslaught since then, illustrate why the U.S. needs a new policy
toward Iran and the region's Shiites, he says. Immediately after the
fighting stops in Lebanon, he says, the U.S. should convene a
conference with all of the interested parties -- including Syria and
Iran -- to redraw Lebanon's political map. In 1989, Saudi Arabia
convened a similar conference in the Saudi city of Taif that helped
end Lebanon's civil war by redistributing political power among the
country's four main religious groups.

Lebanon's Sunnis emerged from Taif much stronger, particularly under
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni construction magnate who helped
rebuild Beirut after the civil war. Mr. Nasr sees the Shiites, who he
estimates make up 40% to 50% of Lebanon's population, as relatively
disenfranchised. Shiites hold just 35 of 128 seats in Lebanon's
Parliament, largely because the country hasn't held a census since
1932. Lebanon's system assigns the nonexecutive post of parliamentary
speaker to a Shiite but bars Shiites from becoming president or prime

Mr. Nasr says the crisis in Lebanon underscores the importance of
engaging Iran as the U.S. did after the fall of the Taliban in
Afghanistan in 2001. At a conference in Bonn, Germany, the U.S. and
Iran negotiated extensively, giving rise to the relatively stable
government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In Lebanon, America's
Sunni Arab allies are likely to oppose apportioning rival Shiites
greater political power. Mr. Nasr argues that is the only way to give
Lebanon's Shiites -- and Iran -- a stake in stability.

"You can beat Hezbollah to a pulp, but you can't change the fact that
around 45% of Lebanese are Shiites," Mr. Nasr says.

Mr. Nasr also sees room for engagement with Tehran over Iraq. Prior
to the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Bush administration
argued change in Iraq would help spawn democracy in the region. At a
seminar in Toronto around the start of the war, historian Bernard
Lewis, who was instrumental in advising Vice President Dick Cheney
and other top U.S. officials on the Iraq invasion, said: "The Iranian
regime won't last very long after an overthrow of the regime in Iraq,
and many other regimes in the region will feel threatened."

This prediction was based on a pivotal misunderstanding about Iraq's
Shiites, Mr. Nasr says: that their Iraqi and Arab identity would
supersede their Shiite affinity with Iran. As it turned out, as soon
as Shiites took power in Iraq, they eagerly threw open the gates to
Iranian influence and support. Now, Iran operates a vast network of
allies and clients in Iraq, Mr. Nasr says, ranging from intelligence
agents and militias to top politicians in Iraq's Shiite parties.

"Ethnic antagonism [between Arabs and Persians] cannot possibly be
all-important when Iraq's supreme religious leader is Iranian and
Iran's chief justice is Iraqi," writes Mr. Nasr in the current
edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. The references are to Grand
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iranian-born Iraqi religious leader, and
the Iraqi-born head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi.

Mr. Lewis, in a phone interview, says he still believes the
"tyrannies" neighboring Iraq feel threatened by the prospect of a
stable democracy in Baghdad. He says Iran's activities in its
neighbor are a sign of its fears.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, quipped about Iran's
influence in a recent speech in Washington. When he met his Iranian
counterpart in Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad said, "I used to joke with
him that 'you guys ought to be much more helpful to us, because look,
you couldn't deal with the Taliban problem, you couldn't deal with
the Saddam problem, and we've dealt with both. That's a big deal.
We'll send you a bill one day for that.' "

Two Main Threats

Mr. Nasr sees two main threats arising from today's Shiite revival.
The first is Iranian nationalism, fueled by perceptions in Iran that
a Sunni Arab-U.S. nexus wants to stifle its rise as a regional power.
That explains the widespread support among Iranians for their
country's nuclear program, he says. It also explains why some Iranian
leaders have been sounding less like Islamic revolutionaries and more
like the late shah, a Persian nationalist who extended Iran's
influence into Shiite and Farsi-speaking areas beyond its borders.

The second major threat, he says, is the Sunni reaction to the Shiite
revival. As Iraq's insurgents have shown, hatred of Shiites is
ingrained in Sunni militancy, Mr. Nasr says. He worries about a
replay of the 1980s and 1990s, when Saudi money poured into Sunni
extremist groups throughout the region to counter the Shiite fervor
coming out of Iran after the revolution. The same groups became the
backbone of al Qaeda, Mr. Nasr says.

In a speech last year in New York, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince
Saud al-Faisal, said it "seems out of this world" that U.S. forces
would protect allies of Iran who are building a power base in Iraq.
"Now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason,"
the prince said.

But Mr. Nasr says U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq may converge
because both want lasting stability there. Comparing Iran to
19th-century Prussia and Japan of the 1930s, he says it is important
to manage the rise of regional powers. "You can't regulate them by
isolating them," he says.

More information about the Marxism mailing list