Since my trip to Cairo I've been really mulling over the causes and implications of the rising anti-Shia trend in the region. So I'm delighted to present this guest post on the regional politics of the Shia question by occasional contributor Greg Gause, a political scientist and Gulf specialist at the University of Vermont. I will refrain from mentioning where I agree and disagree at this point.
Anti-Shia or Anti-Iran? Balance of power politics, not a new sectarianism
Greg Gause, University of Vermont
Many observers too easily slide over the distinction between "Shia influence" and "Iranian influence". I think that the distinction is important both in terms of how Washington is developing its strategy and how events are playing out in the region.
I do not think that Washington sees its strategy as containment of "Shia influence" in the region. I do not think that decision-makers think in these sectarian terms. The Bush Administration wants to contain and roll-back Iranian influence. That includes Iranian-supported Hamas in Palestine, not a Shia organization. That includes the influence of the Syrian regime, which might be sociologically Alawi but is not Islamist or Shia in any political sense. If the Administration thought in sectarian terms, it would be moving away from the Maliki government in Iraq, trying to put together some kind of Sunni Arab-Kurdish coalition.
While Amb. Khalilzad spent much of his time in Baghdad trying to reach out to Sunnis, I do not see that as evidence of an American effort to distance itself from the United Iraqi Alliance or from Maliki specifically. If the Administration were consciously running a policy aimed at rolling back Shia influence, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim would not have been a visitor to the White House last month. If anything, the Administration seem to want to provide "moderate" Shia in Iraq (Da'wa, SCIRI) with an alternative to exclusive reliance on Iranian patronage, to actually contest with Teheran for influence in the Iraqi Shia community. Undoubtedly, some amount of Iranian influence in the region is accomplished through its ties to Shia political groups in the Arab world (Hizballah, Iraqi Shia parties). But that does not seem to be at the center of the Administration's thinking.
Rather, this is a return to the kind of regional balance of power politics that America has played in the region for decades. In the past these efforts were aimed against the Soviet Union and its clients/allies (Nasser's Egypt, or the twin pillars in the Gulf against pro-Soviet Iraq in the 1970's). In the 1980's they were aimed against Iran - support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. In the early 1990's they were aimed against Saddam's Iraq - Syria, Egypt, the Gulf states and Israel in that uneasy wartime alignment.
The new effort at an anti-Iranian front is a return to old American tactics. The fact that the democracy rhetoric has been shelved and the minimal pressure on America's allies for political reform set aside (evident most clearly in relations with Egypt) is the best indication of the return to classic balance of power logic in American regional policy.
The Regional Partners: Anti-Iran or anti-Shia?
I would venture to say that the regional leaders of the 6 + 2 states (GCC, Jordan, Egypt) are also seeing the Iranian "threat" more in balance of power terms than in sectarian terms, although here I am extrapolating a bit further from the evidence. Neither the Egyptian nor the Jordanian governments have to worry about domestic Shia populations. Saudi Arabia does, but it has been on a (minor, but interesting in the Saudi context) charm offensive toward its Shia population in the last few years: publicly including Shia leaders in the National Dialogue, municipal elections. I think that these leaders are worried about Iran for classic balance of power reasons, perhaps with a little bit of worry about domestic Shia discontent in the Gulf states (and more than a little in Bahrain). This emphasis on an Iran-centered threat rather than a sectarian Shia threat has been manifested in establishment Saudi editorial writers' takes on recent events. They have gone to great lengths to say that it is Iran, not the Shia, that are the problem.
However, the leaders of all of these states are willing to play to the baser instincts of their own constituencies in allowing anti-Shia rhetoric to develop, and even encouraging it in a number of cases. From our own experience in the US, we know that mobilizing public support for a foreign policy based on cold, realist, balance of power considerations is a tough sell. Just ask Henry Kissinger about détente. It would be an even harder sell for these Arab leaders, whose populations basically like the idea of Iran getting the bomb and cheered Hizballah in its confrontation with Israel this summer. You cannot sell the policy on the basis of balancing Iran, so you sell it on a sectarian basis. Thus, we hear these outlandish stories about Shia proselytization efforts in Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, wherever. Maybe there is some truth to them, but very little real results that I have seen. It is scare tactics to sell a policy that is based on classic balance of power considerations.
What is somewhat surprising to me is how readily this line has been bought. I am not surprised that Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia have bought it. It fits exactly into their ideological frameworks. I am much more surprised about more mainstream Sunni figures like Yusif al-Qaradawi playing this card. We are even seeing some liberal and Islamist public intellectuals playing the anti-Shia card. This is interesting, disturbing and deserves more analysis than I can give it.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the country I know best in this anti-Shia/ anti-Iranian front, we see at least some effort to maintain lines of communication to "the Shia." Hizballah sent some emissaries to King Abdallah a few weeks ago and Larijani was received by the King last week. The Saudis worry about Iranian power, no doubt. On my recent trip to Saudi Arabia I got an earful about Iran from all sorts of quarters. I was told by someone in a position to know that King Abdallah is "over the top" about growing Iranian influence in the region. This can help to explain Prince Bandar's secretive trips to Washington in recent months. But the Saudis do not have an interest in an open confrontation with Iran. They lived through that in the 1980's and did not much like it. I think that Riyadh, at least, is looking to check Iranian power without direct confrontation.
Can This Alliance Be Maintained?
One of the women's magazines in the U.S. used to run a feature called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" in which experts dissected a failing relationship and came down yes or no on the question. Each of the parties in the anti-Iranian alliance are being asked to make certain contributions if the strategy is going to work. I wonder if they are up to the task, on a number of fronts:
1. "The US will have to push harder on the Arab-Israeli front if the alliance is to be maintained." Yes. The Arab parties cannot be even tacit partners with Israel without some sense of movement here. But I doubt that such movements can be achieved. We have a weakened Israeli government and a Palestinian side absolutely split in half. Can those parties move forward? Is the U.S. willing to put a large amount of pressure on Israel? I think the answer to both questions is no.
2. "The U.S. strategy in Iraq will be to keep attention focused on Iran." I think that is only part of it. The Administration seems to have adopted a very American mind-set on the current Iraqi situation. There are "moderates" in both the Sunni Arab and Shia Arab camps. I am not sure who those Sunnis are (al-Hashemi and anybody he can bring along, I guess); among the Shia they are SCIRI and Dawa. We are going to support the "moderate center" and isolate the "extremists" on both sides: Muqtada and the Sunni insurgents. This looks great in a Power Point, undoubtedly. I wonder if we can pull it off. I kind of doubt it.
3. The Gulf states are supposed to "bring down the price of oil" to make life difficult for Iran. Well, if they bring it down too much, they will make life difficult for themselves as well. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have gotten very used to the nice level of oil revenues over the last few years. How much of that they are willing to sacrifice in the name of an American-driven strategy against Iran remains to be seen. Remember, one of the things that helped to break the Saudi-Iranian ice back in the 1990's was cooperation to bring oil prices up after the Asian financial crisis. We will have to see how the Saudis act in OPEC in light of the recent decline in prices.
The bottom line is that it will be difficult to maintain this disparate alliance over the long haul. As long as Iran is pushing in Lebanon, it will not be hard to get all the parties to coordinate there, but how long will Hizballah maintain its current position of driving the Lebanese crisis? As long as the Iraqi situation is unsettled, there will be incentives to block Iranian influence there, and that is a longer-term prospect. But I wonder if the local parties, except for Israel, are on board for a long-term confrontational strategy with Iran.
Is There a "Shi'a Threat"?
I certainly think that Iran is making a play for greater regional influence, perhaps even regional dominance. However, I am not convinced by the arguments that this is best understood as being driven mostly by an awakening of Shia sectarian identity in the region.
Undoubtedly the fall of Saddam's regime has allowed Iraqi Shia to have political voice for the first time in decades. That is a huge change in Iraqi politics. I do not deny that. But I wonder how much ripple effect this change will have in the region as a whole. First, an analysis that emphasizes the transnational sectarian character of this political phenomenon does not give enough attention to the state. It does not recognize that Iranian foreign policy is a major element in the regional fears about a "Shia crescent."
Iranian foreign policy could change. Teheran tried to export the revolution in the 1980's. It failed, and then pursued a foreign policy based more on decent state-to-state relations with its Arab neighbors (for the most part). Now, with the specific circumstances of the last few years and Ahmadinejad coming to power, there seems to be a bit more leaning-forward in Iranian policy, not back to full-fledged revolutionary export but more emphasis on challenging the status-quo. But that could change, as Ahmadinejad is already having problems back home.
Such an analysis also leaves out the Arab states, which are not so weak as many think. The two places where Shia social movements have had the most political success are Lebanon, where the state has always been weak, and Iraq, where the U.S. destroyed the state. But other Arab states have quite a few resources, both coercive and cooptive, with which to deal with Shia minorities (or, in Bahrain, the majority). The "rise of the Shia" must be interpreted through the lens both of Iranian state foreign policy and Arab state structures.
Second, if there is a rising Shia social-political movement in the Arab world, I think it has peaked:
a) Iraqi Shia groups have taken the power that their numbers give them in the new Iraq, but they have not been able to consolidate that power. There are differences among them that will be submerged as long as they are in a civil war, but will undoubtedly surface from time to time, and will become more prominent as they eventually consolidate power (which I think they will, eventually). As Iraqi Shia do consolidate their power, they will need their ties to Iran less and less, and frictions in what are now fairly stable patron-client relations will arise.
b) Hizballah has ridden a wave in Lebanon, but I think it has reached the high-point of its power. It cannot "take over" the Lebanese state, given demographic and regional realities. I do not think it can long sustain its ongoing crisis with the Lebanese state. And, once Gen. Aoun gets what he wants, Hizballah loses its only cross-sectarian ally. I think Hizballah has peaked.
c) Iran undoubtedly has regional ambitions, but it does not have the power to be a regional hegemon. If the United States cannot pull that off, Iran - with all its domestic economic problems and political divisions - cannot pull it off, either. Iran will overplay its hand, much as the United States has, if it makes a hegemonic play.
d) Finally, where does the "Shia wave" go from here? There is only one more state in the Arab world with a Shia majority - Bahrain. But there is a fairly effective state in Bahrain that will prevent a Shia takeover there, and if it cannot, there is that long bridge connecting the island to Saudi Arabia. The Shia minority in Kuwait seems to be fairly well integrated into Kuwaiti politics. The Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, as I mentioned above, does not seem to have much revolutionary potential right now.
My bottom line: I can understand why the United States and regional players want to check Iranian power. But I do not see any reason why there should be any exaggeration in the United States about a potential "Shi'a threat" to U.S. interests.
F. Gregory Gause III is Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont.