I wrote the following piece for my blog on 4th June 2007, well before the rise of ISIS and the Arab Spring. Some of the details are therefore dated and I have made some adjustment in bold where it was necessary. However, as another conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran looms, I feel that the basic thrust of the argument still stands.
The current Iranian president [Ahmadinejad] gives all the impression of being a madman. Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons threatens to inject a dangerous degree of instability in the Middle East (with potentially inestimable disaster as a result). Ahmadinejad may be gone, but the arrests and trials on the flimsiest of grounds of foreign citizens, such as the British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is a serious black mark against the Iranian government. However, taking a somewhat longer view, the question should possibly be asked whether “the West” – a loose term covering the United States, but also Western Europe – should take sides with anyone in the Middle East; and, if so, what side?
One of the key assumptions in western analysis of the Middle East is that there is an Ur-issue (the word is coined by Amir Taheri in an article in Commentary in February 2007) and that this Ur-issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, while this is indeed long-running, there are other fault-lines running through the Middle East, some of them equally deep and seemingly intractable. Among these are Arabs vs. non-Arabs, notably Turks, Kurds and above all Persians, but also as in Sudan against blacks; Muslim vs. non-Muslim (Jews in Israel, Christians in Lebanon, but also eg, against Christians in Palestine and now in Iraq); Shi’a vs. Sunni; religious vs. secular; and so on. Frequently, these overlap – eg, Persian & Shi’a vs. Arab & Sunni. But, equally, sometimes they do not. All Shi’a Arabs in Iraq are not happy to be lumped with or dominated by Shi’a Persians. All Shi’a are not religious – see eg, the difference between Amal and Hizbollah in Lebanon. And even within the seemingly same groups, amity is not guaranteed: the secular, Sunni, Arab and Socialist Syrian Baath party has long been a mortal (and lethal) enemy of the secular, Sunni, Arab and Socialist Iraqi Baath party.
In addition, there are substantial territorial disputes, sometime spilling over into war, such as between Pakistan and India, Pakistan and China and Pakistan and Iran; between Iran and Iraq and between Iran and the UAE; between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman, between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (fighting in 2000); between Bahrain and Qatar (most recent war fought in 2001; renewed, so far not violent, conflict between Qatar and most of its neighbours in 2017; between Iraq and Turkey and between Syria and Turkey; Syria’s claims to Lebanon, the entirety of Palestine and Jordan; and – a major and long-running one – the feud between the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan (and previously Iraq) and its dispossessors, the al–Saud in Saudi Arabia.
There are plenty more, not least in North Africa. But the important point is that a resolution of one of them, even the Israeli-Palestinian one, would not, by itself, lead to a resolution of any of the others. In some cases, it could even destabilise matters, since it would leave one or more protagonists free to concentrate on its other troubles. This is not, by the way, an argument for not attempting to solve any of the outstanding issues. It is only a warning against excessive optimism and a belief in the Ur-issue – a common Western fallacy.
However, there is arguably also a case that if “the West” were to take sides in the Middle East the side we should take is in fact that of the Persians and of the Shi’a.
The case for siding with the Persians – ie, with Iran – is fairly straightforward. Iran is a large, populous country which has the capacity of acting as a stabiliser in the Middle East. Iran has emerged from recent events with a substantially enhanced position, rid of one enemy (Saddam Hussein) in the west and another (the Taleban) in the east. Iran’s leading role in the fight against ISIS on the ground in Iraq, and through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah in Syria, has further boosted the country’s geo-strategic position; while its support for the Houthis in Yemen is dragging Saudi Arabia back into the Yemenite quagmire. Moreover, Iran as Persian and Shi’a surrounded by Sunnis and by Arabs and Turks (in Central Asia) is more likely to be actively interested in allying itself with forces beyond its immediate circle of perceived hostile neighbours. At the moment, this is a very unlikely turn of events. However, it should be noted that this is very much what used to be the case under the late Shah and traditionally in earlier Persian modern history.
The case for the West siding with the Shi’a is somewhat different. This rests more on ideological grounds than on geopolitical. Although there is a widespread perception that Shi’a equals theocracy and violence/terrorism, this is in fact not entirely true. On the latter point, Muslim terrorism is more practiced by the Sunnis – against the Coalition forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan, by Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israelis, by al–Qaeda against West and by various less-easy-to-classify groups (Britain’s home-grown Muslim terrorists are Sunni, as are the various groups plaguing the Philippines etc). And, of course, ISIS is Sunni. There is Shi’a violence in Iraq – but it should be noted that the Shi’a rather quickly acquiesced in the occupation and accepted to work within the system. It was the Sunni who initiated inter-communal violence and are now reaping what they have sown (and continue to sow). There is also Hizbollah in Lebanon – but this is a somewhat special case in that it is a vehicle for Syrian and Iranian influence in that country.
Moreover, if one Western goal is to spread democracy in the Middle East, arguably, the Shi’a are closer to this ideal. Although there are greater or lesser elements of democracy in many Arab states (incidentally giving the lie to the canard that democracy somehow is not suited to the Arabs), ultimately, they are all authoritarian, ranging from very much so (eg, Saudi Arabia) to less so (eg, Jordan). This partly goes back to one of the deep fundamental differences between Eastern and Western culture. In Western culture, tyrannicide has frequently been praised ever since the brothers Harmodios and Aristogeiton killed the last king of Athens in 514 BCE. Although monarchs might claim to rule “by the Grace of God”, there has always been a strong counter-claim, sometimes (eg, Britain 1649 or France 1793) robustly expressed, that their rule must be just and under the laws.
The dominant Sunni attitude – which ultimately goes back to the Quran, where Sura 4:59 states “O you who believe, you shall obey GOD, and you shall obey the messenger, and those in charge among you. If you dispute in any matter, you shall refer it to GOD and the messenger, if you do believe in GOD and the Last Day. This is better for you, and provides you with the best solution.” – is that even a bad or evil ruler is preferable to the strife (fitna, redolent of the perceived chaos in pre-Prophet Arabia) that overthrowing him would entail. Even opposition to the bad ruler should only be expressed in private.
By contrast, the Shi’a – possibly because they believe in the return of an Imam to rule the faithful and that until this happens, no other ruler is fully legitimate – traditionally do not accept a bad ruler. Arguably, Iran is after Turkey and possibly Lebanon the most democratic country in the Muslim Middle East. Sadly, Turkey is no longer exactly the paragon of Muslim democracy that it was ten years ago. And in countries where the Shi’a are a minority (or even majority, as in Bahrain) they have tended to be in the van of movements advocating parliamentary rule, constitutionalism and in general the just governance that a Westerner would associate with democracy.
It is true that Iran currently seems a bad example, not so much because of Mr Ahmadinejad, as because of the influence of the clergy. But the concept of velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of Islamic jurists) as practiced in Iran with its Supreme Leader, is actually non-mainstream Shi’a political thought.