Shiites and U.S. Policy: Between Allies and Adversaries

This lecture was delivered by Martin Kramer on October 16, 2004, at the 2004 Weinberg Founders Conference, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

In invading Iraq, the United States destroyed longstanding Sunni hegemony over that country. By its attempts to establish a democratic order, the United States seems destined to empower the Shiites, who form a majority of the population. This empowerment has yet to unfold, but when it does, it will have repercussions.

Shiites in Middle East

This moment reminds me of the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when we asked the same question. What will be the impact of the revolution on Shiites elsewhere? At that time, many analysts anticipated that the entire region was on the brink of a Shiite revolt. The Iranian revolution would undermine the established order and bring Shiites out from the shadows. In Iraq, where the Shiites form a majority, and in Lebanon, where they form the largest sectarian community, Shiites would be impossible to suppress. Their grievances against the Sunni-inflicted Arab nationalist order would be as irresistible as the Iranian revolution itself. We were on the brink of a Shiite era.

It did not happen. And the reason it did not happen can be summarized in two words: Saddam Hussein. It was Saddam Hussein who rallied the Sunni-led regimes around him in his war with Iran. It was Saddam Hussein who ruthlessly crushed the fledgling Shiite movement in Iraq. Saddam Hussein cast himself as the Arab bulwark against the Iranian hordes, but many in the Arab world also saw him as the Sunni champion against Shiite ascendancy.

Thanks in large measure to Saddam Hussein, the Iranian Revolution never really spread. He blocked its export to Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, the Shiite group Hizballah gained a foothold, but only because Syria licensed it to attack Israel. There was no Shiite-led Islamic revolution in Lebanon, and whenever Hizballah got out of line, Syria put it in its place.

The legacy of the Iranian revolution and Hizballah’s terrorism gave Shiism a reputation as an almost inherently anti-American form of Islam. The United States had seen Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini use Shiite themes to make an anti-American revolution and to establish a theocratic dictatorship. It saw Hizballah play on Shiite themes to rally its followers in Lebanon to support bombings, hijackings, and hostage-taking. Hizballah was seen then much as al-Qaeda is seen today, and Shiism was regard then much as Wahhabism is regarded today.

This legacy informed the U.S. decision not to support the Shiite revolt in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. The fear was that it would open Iraq up to Iranian penetration. In 1991, Iraqi Shiites paid the price for Khomeini’s anti-Americanism and Hizballah’s terrorism.

Over the next decade, Americans pondered whether their assumptions about Shiism had been right. Iraqi Shiites set about persuading American policy makers that the Shiites in a liberated Iraq would be free of Iranian influence. The Shiites in Iraq, they said, would never be pawns in Iranian hands, and Iraqi Shiism would not spawn a new version of Hizballah. Iraqi Shiites had their own, largely secular, priorities. They had their own religious leadership. And they might form a partnership with the United States if America would liberate them. The United States allowed itself to be persuaded this was so.

In the end, the obstacle of Saddam Hussein was removed not by Iranian human-wave attacks and Ayatollah Khomeini, but by U.S. guided munitions and President Bush. Saddam delayed the Shiite moment. U.S. intervention has brought it back.

The consequences of this are difficult to foresee. There is no question that the removal of Saddam has set the stage for a revival of Iraq’s historic role in Shia Islam. By now, most Americans are aware that Iraq contains the holiest Shia shrines, the Shrine of the Imam Ali in Najaf, the Shrine of the Imam Husayn in Karbala, and other important shrines in other cities. But these are not merely places of pilgrimage and burial, and Najaf is not just the Jerusalem or the Lourdes of the Shiites. It is also an Oxford and a Cambridge. It was the great center of scholarship and study, a seat of apprenticeship for Shiite clerics. Aspiring young Shiites once flocked to Iraq from the four corners of the world, especially from Iran and Lebanon. The Grand Ayatollah Ali Husayn al-Sistani himself is a classic example. He was born in Iran. He came to Najaf as a young man to study and he stayed. But he still speaks Arabic with a distinct Persian accent, which may be one reason we never hear him speak in public.

Saddam’s regime shut out most of the foreign Shiites. He expelled many who had been resident in Iraq for decades. The centers of scholarship and learning atrophied, and places like Qom and Mashhad in Iran replaced them. But the liberation of Iraq has made it possible to imagine the restoration of Iraq’s Shia institutions to their former glory. That would shift the center of Shiism back to Iraq and away from Iran, which is one of the reasons Iran has such a keen interest in establishing influence over Iraq’s Shiite religious institutions.

Iraq is also immensely important to Lebanese Shiites. In earlier generations, virtually all of the senior Shiite clerics in Lebanon were schooled in Iraq. The most senior Shiite cleric in Lebanon today is Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. His father went to Iraq to study and then settled in Najaf. Fadlallah was born in Najaf; he lived and studied there until the age of thirty, when he came to Lebanon.

The younger generation of clerics beneath Fadlallah has had to study in Iran, but there is no doubt that a new generation would prefer to study in Iraq, which has very great prestige in the eyes of Lebanese Shiites.

Are the Shiites adversaries or allies? The answer is that they are something of both. The adversarial relationship is rooted in the history of U.S. relations with Iran and Hizballah. For more than twenty years, the United States had a reputation as the adversary of Shiite empowerment. It clashed spectacularly with Khomeini’s Iran and Hizballah. It allied itself with strongly anti-Shiite regimes in the Sunni Arab world, primarily Saudi Arabia and Saddam’s Iraq. And even when it broke with Saddam after the Kuwait invasion, the United States refused to lift a finger to help Iraq’s Shiites. That legacy is far from erased. The United States remains in an adversarial relationship with Iran and Hizballah, whose leaders still lead enthusiasts in chants of “death to America.”

There are two new developments. First, the United States now confronts another virulent form of extreme Islamism of the al-Qaeda variety. This variety of Islamism, which is Sunni and tinged with the doctrines of Saudi Wahhabism, is riddled with anti-Shiite prejudice. In the cosmology of these extreme Sunnis, the Shiites belong right down there with Americans and Jews as devilish subverters of true Islam. Where there are no Americans or Jews, as in Pakistan, Shiite targets will do just fine. The United States, by declaring war on these Sunni extremists—the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Abu Musab Zarqawi, and the Wahhabi hate network—is battling the visceral enemies of Shiism. This lays the foundations for a potential alliance of convenience.

The second factor is that the United States not only removed Saddam, but is now fighting the Sunni extremists who want their dominance of Iraq back. The Sunni extremists in Iraq have already targeted Shiite holy places and clerics. Because the Shiites do not have the means to strike back, they are counting on the United States to neutralize the threat. And the United States, by preaching democracy for Iraq, is essentially preparing the groundwork for the ascendance of a Shiite majority. Iraq’s Shiites need the United States to carry them to power, and the United States needs the Shiites to legitimize the U.S. mission in Iraq. So here, too, there are grounds for an alliance of convenience whose champion on the Shiite side is Ayatollah Sistani.

Among the Shiites, two models for achieving ascendancy, for realizing the Shiite moment, are in competition. The first is the Iranian-inspired Hizballah model. Its basic premise is that the United States is the enemy of Islam in general and of Shiism in particular. The United States inevitably will betray the Shiites because its real interests lie with the corrupt Sunni monarchies and with Israel. For the Shiites to realize their moment in the Middle East and for other Muslims to accept their leadership, Shiites must lead the resistance to American and Israeli hegemony.

Hizballah offers itself as an example of how a Shiite movement can transcend its sectarian origins to capture the imagination of the Muslim masses. While Arab regimes and Yasser Arafat were trading away Arab rights to get back territory, Hizballah waged a determined resistance to drive Israel out of Lebanon and ultimately achieved what no Arab army or the PLO ever achieved. It drove Israel from Arab land. It put an end to an Israeli occupation without making any concession and without offering peace in return.

And since the Israeli withdrawal, Hizballah has taken its struggle into the heart of Israel through its material and moral support for the Palestinian intifada. Hizballah has smuggled arms, subsidized the so-called “martyrdom operations,” and spread its propaganda on al-Manar television. Hizballah presents itself to the Arab Muslim masses, to the Arab street, as the last standard bearer of genuine independence from Western domination and Israeli hegemony.

This is the resistance model. The message of Hizballah and its Iranian allies to Iraq’s Shiites is that resistance will take them from the margins to the center. It will put the Shiites at the vanguard of a struggle that is destined to prevail, the struggle of the Muslim masses to replace American military, economic, and cultural hegemony with the authentic and true values of Islam. We see strong echoes of this resistance discourse in the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Opposing the resistance model is what we might call the democracy model. According to this model, the Shiites are now in a demographic position, both in Iraq and in Lebanon, to become the dominant factor in politics. If there were true one-man, one-vote systems in Lebanon and Iraq, the Shiites would inevitably occupy the center of the political arena. Since Iraq and Lebanon are central states in the Arab world, this would finally put the Shiites on a par with the Sunnis and break the Sunni monopolies enshrined in the dogmas of Arab nationalism.

Because the United States has ceased to be a status-quo power in the Middle East, because it is driving a democracy agenda, both in Iraq and, lately, in Lebanon, it is objectively the ally of the Shiites. The Shiite road to power runs through democracy, not resistance, and a de facto alliance with U.S. power to clear the road makes sense. This approach has important adherents, including Ayatollah Sistani, but it is not nearly as well articulated as the resistance rhetoric that often drowns it out.

Can the United States influence this competition of approaches? On the very simplest level, it already has. Just as the United States does not wish to be perceived as the enemy of Islam, it does not wish to be cast as the enemy of Shiism. The Shia shrines in Iraq are symbols of the creed; the U.S. facilitation of pilgrimages and avoiding damage to the shrines during battles has been vitally important in countering the idea that America is an enemy of the Shiites.

But just as the United States cannot have a policy toward Islam per se, it cannot have a policy toward Shiism per se. U.S. policy has been driven, and it will continue to be driven, by the usual factors. In Iraq in particular, policy will be driven by Iraq-specific factors.

But we should be aware that U.S. actions have shifted the sectarian balance. In promoting democracy, the United States does not just undermine the authoritarian order, it inevitably undermines Sunni primacy. It is often said that the Shiites constitute only one-tenth of all Muslims. There are about 130 million Shiites. But about 120 million of them live in the region between Lebanon and Pakistan where they almost equal Sunnis in number. The shift of political power in their direction will raise sectarian tensions. It will anger dispossessed Sunnis, who may gravitate towards extremism, and it will require the United States to find its own delicate balance so that it is not drawn into any sectarian conflict.

Until the Iraq war, the United States was largely preoccupied with a highwire balancing act between Israel and the Arabs. Now, the United States will have to juggle Shiites and Sunnis at the same time. All wars have unintended consequences. A major challenge is to identify them as they emerge. This is potentially a huge one. It will require consummate skill and a lot of luck to turn it into a minor one.