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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

January 4, 2008

the Shi'a crescent awakens.

Fears of Shi'a political power tends to animate most foreign policy strategies in the middle east. That is true of American policy, Arab policy, and Israeli policy. We often hear the phrase "the Shi'a Crescent" invoked ominously as a threat to the established order (or perhaps the established chaos). However, what can't be denied is that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has not only emboldened Shi'a politically in Iraq, but also spurred Iran to assert itself. A pair of political developments provides an example of the increasing political maturity - and confidence - of the major Shi'a powers.

First, Iraq, where Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (the dominant Shi'a political party), made overtures of reconciliation towards Sunnis:

The leader of Iraq’s most influential Shiite political party offered surprisingly conciliatory remarks on Thursday about the former insurgents and other Sunnis who have banded together into militias now working with American forces, stating that the groups had helped improve security and should be continued.
Mr. Hakim’s remarks on Thursday referred to Sunni groups, known as “awakening councils,” which emerged in 2006 in Sunni-dominated western Iraq, and last year spread to mixed Sunni-Shiite areas around Baghdad. Numbering close to 80,000, the American-backed groups are credited with driving out Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other extremist militants from many areas and helping to reduce sharply the American death toll. Many militia members used to attack American troops, before deciding to join forces with them.

While the rise of these groups has been the most promising development for the American military, the partnership has drawn deep skepticism from the Shiite-dominated central government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. The Shiites fear the Americans have created an armed parallel force that one day could turn against the official Iraqi security forces, which are dominated by Shiites and Kurds. Last month, the government declared that it will eventually disband the groups, though it has said it would integrate some members into the official security forces.

While Mr. Hakim did not say whether the groups should be continued indefinitely, his speech appeared to be a softening of more cautious comments he made just last month, when he warned that the Sunni groups should operate only in the most dangerous areas and should not be seen as a replacement for government forces.

This shouldn't be as surprising as it is, because the Sunni tribes, the American forces, and the Shi'a political infrasttructure all share the same long term goal: a stable Iraq. Obviously the Sunnis and Shi'a want to be dominant politically speaking, but that requires something to actually exist before it can be squabbled over. Thus, the insurgents are a threat to everyone. Of course the Al Qaeda insurgents are only a minor part of the problem, the larger one being Shi'a militias themselves, but that's another story (alluded to in the reference to the Prime Minister's skepticism above). At the very least, these comments by al-Hakim indicate a willingness to acknowledge the common goal of a stable Iraq between Shia and Sunni alike.

The other side of the coin is Iran, who is Bogeyman #1 for the Bush Administration at present. While the warsphere bloggers see Iran as a monolithic, anti-semitic nuclear-aspiring "crazy mullah" threat, the "VSP" liberal foreign policy community has long held that Iran is actually a very rational, and deterrable, national entity. The anti-Israel rhetoric of President Ahmadijenad is alarming but easily understood as intended for a domestic audience. In fact, Ahmadijenad's star is somewhat on the wane, in no small part because of his aggressive anti-Western rhetoric, and the real power in Iran is more interested in rapprochement (eventually):

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said relations with the US could be restored in the future.

In a speech to students, he said the time was not right to restore ties, but if it were ever in Iran's interests he would endorse such a move.

The US and Iran cut their diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the subsequent takeover of the US embassy by militants in Tehran.

Relations have been further strained by the row over Iran's nuclear programme.

"We have never said these relations should be suspended indefinitely," said Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Ayatollah's words are unlikely to appear conciliatory in Washington and London says the BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy.

Rather, they were probably directed at a domestic audience ahead of parliamentary elections in March.

The Ayatollah was also underlining the fact that he, and he alone, has the final word on foreign policy.

Note that these comments come at the end of the Bush Administration's tenure, which is yet more evidence for the accumulating mountain that Iran is ready and willing to be a partner rather than an adversary, and is open to diplomatic overtures - something that the present Administration has ruled flatly out (and is making much the same mistake with Syria, but that is again a different story).

What is the larger picture here? In one sense, the foreign policy of the past 7 years has indeed "shaken things up" enough that perhaps there is an opportunity for improvement in the future away from status quo. The (likely) incoming Democratic administration in 2009 is going to be predisposed towards diplomacy with Iran irrespective of which man (or woman) fills the Presidency. And a positive relationship with Iran can do much to help stabilize Iraq, allowing the political process to take further root there (a prerequisite to political reconciliation). We already see evidence of Iran's positive influence in Najaf, and the Gulf states are beginning to see Iran as a regional partner.

By 2010, things may very well look different indeed in the middle east. But no sooner than 2009.

Of course, there is still the Israel/Palestine/Syria problem as well - but Iran and the US working together might actually be a benefit in that sphere as well. For example: the US and Israel sign a nonaggression pact with Iran and supply Iran with enriched fuel for (electric power) nuclear reactors, in return for full and open monitoring of Iran's nuclear program and severing of support for Hizbollah. On the Iraq front, Iran could work to help stabilize the south and free American resources to be repositioned in Afghanistan. The benefits to all parties in this are obvious, but are predicated on the assumption that all parties involved are rational. The statements above by al-Hakim and the Ayatollah are the first steps only, but significant ones all the same.

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About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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