U.S. Policy and the Iraqi Shi'ites

The Shiites are our natural political allies. I do not say they are our only natural political allies. One American mistake has been talking about a Sunni strategy, a Shiite strategy, and a Kurdish strategy instead of talking about an Iraqi strategy, and that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of the ethnic separatism and sectarianism that we want to avoid.

The United States has done just about all it could to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I grimaced when I saw an online BBC headline about Prime Minister Tony Blair visiting the White House to discuss a Sunni strategy with President Bush.

I am not the only one who reads the BBC or CNN. That story was splashed all over the internet, al-Jazeera, and everywhere else. In this political season, Michael Moore and others are throwing around accusations of the Saudi royal family’s pernicious influence on the Bush administration.

But they miss the point. It has been King Abdullah II of Jordan who has earned an embrace from the president that is a little too close and unquestioning. While some are tempted to see altruism on King Abdullah’s part, he has a very specific interest in Iraq. If Jordan’s interest was popular, Iraqis would not consistently refuse to fill up cars with Jordanian license plates at petrol stations. The anger on the streets of Iraq toward both Jordanians and Kuwaitis is quite surprising to many foreigners there.

When Western Orientalist scholars first encountered Islam, it was a natural result of geography that they encountered it from west to east. They encountered first the Caliphate and later the Ottoman Empire before they came to the Shiite world. Therefore, the first thing they learned about Islam was the Sunni narrative. The Sunni narrative is that the Shiites are all wrong, they have the wrong hadith, they follow the wrong traditions, and so forth. If people approached the Shiites first, they would have seen a different perspective and the Sunnis would have become those who branched off. The difference between the Sunnis and the Shiites stems basically from a succession dispute in the seventh century. The point is that sometimes we assume too much that the Sunnis are the mainstream. That can color some of our biases. For example, Georgetown University offers a master’s degree in Arab studies that all too often becomes a master’s in Arab Sunni studies, which gives a skewed perspective of the way things are in the Islamic world.

Iran has a number of motivations with regard to Iraq. It would be simplistic to assume that because Iran is a theocracy, it wants Iraq to be a theocracy, too--that because Iran has Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Tehran wants an ayatollah in Iraq. The truth is quite the opposite, because any ayatollah in Iraq would pose a direct challenge to the legitimacy of Iran. What Iran wants is a compliant puppet. I have seen a mental model all too often within the U.S. government community that asks, "Who is Iran’s proxy?" We have our own proxy. Today, our proxy is Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. So Iran, this thinking concludes, must also have a single proxy.

This is a false assumption. Iran has many proxies. Just because Iran supports Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), it does not follow that Tehran does not also support Muqtada al-Sadr. Instead of playing good cop, bad cop, Iran often pursues a strategy of bad cop, worse cop. After the Sadrist uprisings, which made Muqtada al-Sadr look like a bad guy, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim from SCIRI looks a lot more moderate. Unfortunately, his sermons have not changed. SCIRI’s philosophies have not changed. But events almost force us to choose the lesser of two evils, no matter how far out in right field it is.

Why is Iran so nervous? Iran is so nervous because there has always been a philosophical battle within Iranian Shiism. Basically, it starts with the belief that the mantle of leadership descended through the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad--in the case of the Shiites, through Ali. So instead of just picking some guy to be their community leader, Shiites have to follow the bloodline of the prophet. But after twelve generations, the leader disappeared. At the end of days--this is basically a messianic message--he will come back. But until he comes back, in traditional Shiism, any government is inherently corrupt. Any cleric who tries to take charge is by nature corrupt, because a perfect society is impossible until the hidden Imam comes back.

This is what traditional Shiism believes. This is what we read that Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani believes. In Iran, people like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were far different. They argued a concept of the guardianship of the jurists by which clerics could rule. But that belief is still a minority. We hear all about these mullahs, ayatollahs, and grand ayatollahs. Shiism is very hierarchical. It is like a pyramid, but not like the Catholic Church that has a pyramid on which everyone agrees. Within Shiism, everyone has to follow a living source of emulation. So people follow different ayatollahs, and ayatollahs are ranked. An ayatollah who puts in twenty years and writes the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation might become a grand ayatollah.

There are approximately eight grand ayatollahs in Iran. Five of them are against the concept of religious rule. The majority of clerics in Iraq are also against the concept of religious rule. Though people often talk about reformers and hardliners in the Iranian context, the real Achilles heel of the Tehran regime is the question of religious legitimacy.

Let me give you one example that the Western press did not pick up on but that was talked about a great deal in both Iraq and Iran: Traditionally, the supreme leader of Iran, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, likes to pretend that he is the leader of the Shiite community. The holy month of Ramadan traditionally starts with the sighting of the new moon. Since the Iranian revolution, there has been a pattern that when someone asks the ayatollah when Ramadan starts, he names a different day than most other Muslims.

After the liberation of Iraq, some Iranian journalists went to Grand Ayatollah al- Sistani and asked him when Ramadan would start and end. Al-Sistani gave the traditional answer, which was different from what the supreme leader of Iran had said. That had reverberations throughout Iranian society. Iraqi Shiite leaders pose a direct challenge to Tehran. What Iran wants is not an ayatollah in Iraq. What Iran wants is someone like Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who leads the Daawa religious movement but is himself a layperson--he was a dentist in London. Iran wants Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who caused some trouble, to fade away. Whether he will fade away naturally or with a car bomb is another issue.

When people talked to the Badr Corps, SCIRI’s militia, about the murder of Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s brother and predecessor as head of the party, they specifically did not say that Iran killed him. But the militia did say that if he was a little less forthright, and if he had listened to the Iranians a little bit more, he probably would still be alive today. Iran had the power to stop the assassination and chose not to.

Where does this lead for U.S. policy? The United States has made a great number of mistakes. Though the Shiites could be our natural allies, we have hurt ourselves. First of all, there is the betrayal. Dr. Martin Kramer [previous speaker] mentioned this. One of the consistent U.S. mistakes was underestimating the impact of the betrayal of the Shiites in 1991. On February 15, 1991, President George H. W. Bush spoke to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and said, "There’s another way for the bloodshed to stop. And that is for the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands--to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." A few weeks later, they did just that in fourteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces and we failed to come.

Today, when you drive around Iraq, you see that while that country is famous for its date palms that rise fifty feet in the air, in Najaf they are only about ten feet high. Why? Because in the aftermath of the 1991 uprisings, Saddam bulldozed the date palms on which the people depended for their livelihoods. That is a symbol that Iraqis see every day. As we unearth the mass graves, that is another symbol for Iraqis of American betrayal.

We can talk all we want. We can tell the Shiites that this time we are here to stay. But on the al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, and al-Alam television stations, they see the U.S. withdrawal from Beirut in 1983. They see the U.S. withdrawal from Mogadishu in 1993. They see documentaries about the Vietnam War, and the answer is clear to them. That has led to a lot of fence sitting.

Let me share an anecdote with you from my experience in Iraq. After the war began, some people expected the Shiites to rise up quickly like they did in the 1991 Gulf War. Some people--I will not say from what agency--came and said, "We need a broad coalition and the Saudis have offered peacekeeping troops for Najaf and Karbala."

I wrote back saying this is a really bad idea, because the Saudis are the archenemies of the Shiites. Later, when another query came down asking, "How can we spark a Shiite uprising?" I sent back a note saying, "See the memo proposing Saudi troops in Najaf and Karbala." (Laughter.)

I was told not to be so flippant, but the point was that there is a natural naïveté about the Shiites and a misunderstanding about the impact of the betrayal of 1991 on their perspective. This is the Middle East. Perception is sometimes more important than reality.

How does this affect U.S. strategy? Shiites saw in 1991 that the United States cannot be trusted. They have long seen that they cannot trust the rhetoric of the United States when it talks about democracy. Yet if Shiites cannot trust the United States, they also do not like the Iranians. Philosophically, they are the enemies of Iraqi Shiism. And when Iraqi Shiites go on pilgrimage to Iranian holy sites, Iranianstreat them like dirt. Iraqis see that it is just another dictatorship in Iran. But even so, Iraqi Shiites may conclude that at least the Iranians will protect them against the Baathists. That is the pickle the United States has gotten itself into.

The issue is not whether we should rely solely on the Shiites or solely on the Sunnis. We can have more than one ally. But through our missteps, we have convinced the Shiites that we are out to screw them again like they believe they have been screwed at every point in Iraqi history since the 1920s. Therefore, Iran is much more able to use its public diplomacy to offer a warm embrace, and we are forcing Iraqi Shiites into Iranian arms. It is not too late to reverse this course, but we are up against obstacles of our own making.

Can the Shiites be natural allies to the United States? Yes. We have already seen that to some extent in Lebanon with the arguments for Shiite empowerment through democratization. In Iran, polls show that about 10 percent of Iranians identify themselves as hardline believers in the rule of the ayatollah. About 80 percent are very pro-Western. They are our natural allies. We just need to make sure we follow the first rule of medicine: do no harm. Unfortunately, we could stand to apply that rule to our policy.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Michael
Rubin


  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


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