You've heard me and Greg Gause on the emerging Sunni-Shia conflict. Here are a few other perspectives worth seeing. I respect all these people; I agree with some and disagree with some of their arguments here but won't say which just yet.
On Saudi Arabia, former NSC official and current New America Foundation resident Flynt Leverett:
I think it has several dimensions. One is just a classical balance of power. The Saudis have always attached a lot of importance to Iraq acting as a “balancer” to Iran in the Gulf. It was really the only Arab state that had the strategic potential to play that role. The Saudis have always thought that was an appropriate role for Iraq, and with the US invasion to overthrow Saddam you have completely taken Iraq out of that traditional role. It provides a tremendous strategic opening to Iran.
Then, as I said, you have overturned the traditional balance of power inside Iraq where you had Sunni elites in charge for many decades, and now because you have unseated those Sunni elites and instituted a more participatory kind of politics in Iraq the Shia are on the rise. They are 60% of Iraq’s population and the Islamist Shia forces have emerged by far as the most powerful political players in that community. Iran has considerable influence over ties to all of the major players in Shia politics right now, which gives them considerable advantage and influence on the ground, inside Iraq and that also provides them with a strategic opening.
If you look at the way that Hezbollah has emerged as such an important political force, not just a paramilitary force but a political force, in Lebanon since the Syrians, when Hariri was assassinated and the Syrians withdrew their troops, this has also helped to put Iran in a very influential position in Lebanon. It is problematic to the Saudis because, certainly since the Taif agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War in 1989, the Saudis have seen themselves as the principal external player, the people who brokered the agreement, the people who were supporting reconstruction, all of this. Now Saudi Arabia is pitted in a competition for influence in Lebanon in ways that are problematic for the Kingdom. So you know Iran’s rise is a multi-faceted thing.
I throw in another dimension, which is important -- this has become more of a factor since Ahmadinejad was elected President in Iran. Ahmadinejad has proven very effective in playing to the Arab street, not just Shia Arabs but Sunni Arabs. You know he has been able to make the Iranian foreign policy agenda resistant to Israel, resistant to US influence in the region. He has been able to pitch that as a kind of pan-Muslim, pan-Islamic agenda in ways that it has real appeal to publics in the Arab world, including it would seem from this summer, including in the kingdom. This is something that is also very problematic for the Saudi regime, that US policy is not just empowering Iran, but it is also enabling Iran to conduct, if you will, public diplomacy against the United States, which further complicates the strategic challenge facing Saudi leaders right now.
On Jordan, Center for Strategic Studies (U. Jordan) researcher Mohammed al-Masri:
The timing of the execution of Saddam Hussein on the first morning of Eid al-Adha, the video clips officially released by the Iraqi government and those from the cell phones documenting the execution triggered a wave of anger and provoked anti-Shi'ite and anti-Iranian sentiment among the Jordanian public. Jordanians interpreted the event as an act of Iranian/Shi'ite revenge against Sunnis in Iraq and throughout the Arab world.
However, in spite of the obvious anger, there were no reported incidents of reprisals against the 200,000 or so Iraqi Shi'ite refugees in Jordan--thanks both to measures taken by the security services and precautions taken by some Iraqis to avoid certain areas of Amman for a few days following the execution. Columnists and op-ed writers in newspapers of different political and cultural leanings, including the Islamic Action Front, expressed anger and dismay and concluded that the execution itself demonstrated the sectarian, militant nature of the Iraqi government and revealed its servitude to American, Iranian and Israeli interests in the region.
Not surprisingly, the execution led to an upsurge in feelings against Iraqi Shi'ites in particular, Shi'ites at-large and Iran as a Shi'ite and Persian state determined to undermine both Sunni and Arab beliefs and aspirations. Twenty-two Jordanian MPs called for a severing of diplomatic ties with Iran.
The Shi'ite question does not assume the same level of importance in Jordan as in some Arab countries where there are significant Shi'ite communities. The overwhelming majority of Jordanian Muslims are Sunni; Jordanian Shi'ites number fewer than 4,000 according to the most generous estimate. The Jordanian public's lack of awareness of this small minority that has been part of Jordanian society for around 100 years signifies its assimilation. It has never been a focus of public debate.
The Shi'ite question becomes relevant to the Jordanian public and Jordanian elites only as a consequence of the American occupation of Iraq. It is political developments in Iraq and the region and the impact of Iraqi refugees in Jordan that have heavily influenced the formation of attitudes toward Shi'ites in recent times.
King Abdullah's well known warning of the emergence of a Shi'ite crescent two years ago deepened Jordanian society's concerns about a possible Iranian threat, creating a corresponding unease over Shi'ite politics in Iraq. The Jordanian establishment warned frequently of the conversion of some Jordanians to Shi'ism. While the number of such converts is extremely limited and does not exceed hundreds by even the most generous estimate, the Jordanian state has followed a zero-tolerance policy toward the public practice of Shi'ism. Since the main concern of the Iraqi Shi'ites in Jordan right now is to keep their residency rights valid and intact, they practice their religious rituals in private.
In fact, the threat to the Jordanian state is not conversion to Shi'ism as such, but what may be termed political Shi'ism: support for Shi'ite political organizations and acceptance of their political paradigms. For example, the sweeping support for Hizballah during the war in Lebanon last summer was a clear manifestation of political Shi'ism. As much as events in Iraq and interaction with Iraqi communities within Jordan lead to Jordanian antipathy toward Iraqi Shi'ites and Iran, the Israeli factor and potential conflict between Israel and Hizballah still encourage support for Hizballah-style Shi'ite organizations. Therefore it might be misleading to assume that new anti-Iranian feelings in Jordan are sustainable, when the Israel factor in regional developments could dramatically undermine them.
On the overall Shia Rising thesis, Vali Nasr's testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
Since 2003 Shia-Sunni conflict has emerged as a major divide in Middle East politics, and radically changed the regional context for U.S. policy. Sectarian violence is no longer just limited to Iraq, but has expanded in scope to influence regional development from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon, adding new complexity to the conflicts in the region and presenting a serious foreign policy challenge to the United States.
All this suggests that Iraq has introduced sectarianism to conflicts and rivalries the Middle East. The Shia-Sunni rivalry in religious as well as secular arenas will likely be an important factor in the near future. This trend was clearly evident during the war in Lebanon last summer when Hezbollah’s growing influence elicited a sectarian reaction from Arab capitals as well as a number of extremist jihadi web sites. The condemnation of Hezbollah as a Shia organization indicated that although the conflict itself was not new, the response to it was not decided by the Arab-Israeli issue alone but sectarian posturing.
Sectarianism will play an important role in deciding regional alliances in the Middle East and how various states and sub-state actors will act. Sectarianism will compete with as well as interact with other concerns such as the Arab-Israeli issue, political and economic reform, and support for U.S. policies, most notably the global war on terror. This will complicate the management of U.S. interests.
Sectarian conflict is a radicalizing force. Shia and Sunni militias will inevitably gravitate toward more radical ideas to justify their actions. In Iraq, the greatest violence against Shias was perpetuated by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda forces. In the Arab world and Pakistan violent anti-Shiism is the domain of radical pro-al-Qaeda clerics, websites and armed groups. Sectarianism—especially among Sunnis—is a driver for radical jihadi ideology. Among the Shias in Iraq sectarian violence has had a similar effect. It has shifted power within that community to the radical forces of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The specter of U.S. confrontation with Shia militias and Iran will likely accelerate this trend.
What is evident in the aftermath of the Lebanon war is that the sectarian rivalries that first surfaced in Iraq now compete with the Arab-Israeli conflict to determine regional alliances and political attitudes of ordinary people. Hezbollah and Iran would prefer to focus the region on the Arab-Israeli issue and to gain support as champions of the Palestinian cause. However, they have faced resistance in pursuing this agenda from regimes and radical Sunni groups who see Iran and the sectarian issue as more important. In this environment the intensification of sectarian conflict in Iraq and its growing regional dimension has led Hezbollah and Iran to intensify their campaign against Israel in the hope of diverting attention from the divisive role that Iraq is playing in the region.
In 2005 Iran elected a hard-line president, who invigorated Iran’s determination to pursue its nuclear program just as he escalated tensions with the United States and Israel. This confident and provocative attitude is reflective of change in the strategic environment in the region, and Iran’s belief that it enjoys a stronger position than it did in 2003. Iran benefited from regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fall of the Taliban and the Saddam regime provided Iran with greater space to assert its influence in the region, and the destruction of the Iraqi army removed a significant bulwark against Iranian ambition and influence in the Persian Gulf. The occupation of Iraq has depleted American power and prestige, making it harder to contain Iran, which has seized the opportunity to spread its wings. Rising Iranian clout has fed and been fed by the Shia revival that swept across the Middle East in the wake of the Iraq war. Iran today has hegemonic ambitions in the Persian Gulf and sees itself as a great-power, and it views nuclear capability as the means to attain that goal. What Iran seeks is for the United States to accept Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf as Iran’s “near abroad”—a zone of influence in which Iran’s interests would determine ebbs and flows of politics –and to recognize Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon.The specter of Iranian hegemony has been a source of concern for Iran’s neighbors. Saudi Arabia in particular has viewed Iran’s gains in Iraq and its growing influence in Lebanon and over the Palestinian issue with alarm. Intensification of the rivalry between the two threatens regional stability, and more importantly can fuel pro-al-Qaeda jihadi activism.
The United States must take steps to discourage regional actors from using sectarianism as a foreign policy tool. Investment in sectarian voices and especially radical Sunni organizations of the al-Qaeda type most closely tied to sectarian ideology and violence will not only intensify the conflict but promote extremism to the detriment of the broader U.S. interests in the region. As great a challenge as Shia ascendancy and Iranian aggressiveness is to the United States and its allies strengthening the ideological and organizational bases of Sunni extremism will only further threaten U.S. interests.
More from the Arab public debate later, hopefully, and some of my own developing thoughts.