What the Shia Is Going On?

Anyone who seriously thinks Israel holds the key to peace in the Middle East either doesn’t know history or believes in prophecy. Imagine for a moment a tomorrow with no Israeli state and new apartments for all Palestinians who have lived for nearly three generations in semi self-imposed exile elsewhere. Does Iraq become a stable democracy? Does Assad relinquish complete control in Syria and make way for a transitional government based on mutual consent? Does Iran proclaim its love for the West, declare that it is content to rely on its oil fields for its energy needs and abandon the pursuit of highly enriched uranium? Does Saudi Arabia stop funding various terrorist groups and governments now that Jerusalem is completely out of the reach of the Jews? Do Yemenis lay down their arms and dance in the streets in an Islamic celebration of victory? I think not.

Muhammad’s Islam was never merely a personal religion, a question of conscience. It was also a mandate that Islam be the political authority over the Arab peoples first and ultimately the world. It is this fervor that spread Islam under the edge of the sword so effectively in its debut century. [1] Muhammad ruled as the prophet of his religion, the general of his armies, and the head of his state. In him was vested total authority over all aspects of life. This authority underwent successful transitions of power three times after his death in 632 AD. But the third caliph proved unpopular.

‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third rightly guided caliph (from the Arabic khalifah, successor), was assassinated 656 AD by Egyptians unhappy with his governance – in particular his lavish expenditures and rampant nepotism – and perhaps incensed at his compilation of an “official” Quran at the expense of alternate readings.[2] This set up a crisis of succession that sparked the First Fitnah, or Muslim civil war. Contending for the post of caliph were Muawiyya, the governor of Syria, and Ali ibn Abu Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Muawiyya was the ultimate victor in the conflict in 661 AD. The Muslims who acknowledged his leadership became what we know today as Sunnis, who make up roughly 85% of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Those who followed Ali were known as the shi’atu Ali, the party or partisans of Ali. We know them today as Shias.

Westerners have long been insensitive to the realities of this division in Islam. From Crusaders to Colonials to the current power brokers in the District of Columbia, all have been blinded in part by a conception of the nation state, wherein a territorial base and a relatively homogenous ethnicity define identity and political affiliation. For centuries, this was not so for Muslims in the Middle East and surrounding areas. Their prime identity was in Islam and its subsequent divisions into its Sunni and Shia factions. For most of that history, the Sunnis have held the upper hand and the Shias have lived in subjugation. The primary exception of this rule has been Persia, home of the Safavid dynasty from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries and roughly what we refer to as Iran today.

Persian history is ancient, but modern Iran – like the rest of the region – was shaped in the forges of the two great World Wars. Through various machinations, Britain and the United States placed the Pahlavi family in power over Persia from 1925 until 1979. After a coup carried out with the help of the CIA placed him securely back on the throne, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled his country even more harshly and pulled them ever so strongly toward Westernization. This exacerbated and inflamed the Islamic passions of the Shia majority, who deposed him in the Islamic Revolution under the guidance of the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. One doesn’t need American Embassy hostages to know that Iran is no fan of the United States.

For the first time in centuries, Shias had their own country where they were clearly in charge. And they were committed to changing the fortunes of their coreligionists in the region. This set the stage for the carnage that persists in the Middle East today. Iran was a major oil producing country. That it now was in the hands of Shias allied with Soviet Union was frightening to both Saudi Arabia and the United States. What to do? What else but fund the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein in an eight-year war that killed nearly a million combatants, Iran suffering the greater losses.

Iraq is a majority Shia country. But Saddam and his regime were Sunnis. He kept the Shias in line, as well as anyone else who opposed him, by any means necessary.  After the First Gulf War and the return of sovereignty to Kuwait, a mostly Shia country, Shias in Iraq rose up to defy Saddam sure that the United States would support their efforts. We did not. They were suppressed, brutally. When we ultimately removed Saddam from power and helped institute a “democratic” government, the vote flowed toward majority rule. Shias came to power. One doesn’t need a burning Bagdad to know that Iraqi Shias are no fans of the United States.

Saudi Arabia shares a border with Iraq and Iran is just a narrow gulf away. It is the second highest producer of crude oil on the planet, topped only by Russia. Yes, that’s right, Russia. The United States chugs behind in third place, but burns more than it can pump. Russia’s position at the top of the heap in production can be attributed to the vision and commitment of one man, Vladimir Putin. But before he came on the stage, Saudi Arabia was king and nearly brought the US to its knees during the Arab oil embargo of 1973. But oil isn’t its only claim to fame. It is also the most influential power base of Sunni Islam; in particular Wahhabi Suniism. To Arabia and the Saudi family belong Medina and Mecca, undoubtedly the holiest sites in all of Islam – an Islam that Shias see themselves as the rightful leaders of.

Despite the Arab-Israeli conflict in the early seventies and Saudi Arabia’s desire to see Israel lose, the Saudis were acutely aware of their own vulnerabilities to their more populous and Shia neighbors, Iran and Iraq. Causing further discomfort was the knowledge that their oil fields were in the region where their Shia minority was the majority. Their need for security outweighed their religious reservations and made them open to Nixon’s petrodollar deal sent in the hands of Henry Kissinger.  In 1974, Kissinger brokered the deal that would keep the Saud family in power and the American dollar the dominant world currency to the present day.

The US commitment was fourfold: we would provide military protection for Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, we would sell the Saudis any weapons they needed (and ultimately, any they wanted), we would guarantee them protection from any other Middle Eastern country, and we would make sure the House of Saud remained in power. In return, the Saudis would sell oil in US dollars only and they would invest their surplus profits in US Treasuries. Regardless of any other sentiments in the region, this alliance more than any other has determined our foreign policy in the Middle East until now.[3]

If you were a prince in the house of Saud looking at how the US has fared in the region in the past fifteen years, you would have to be scratching your head and watching your back. After punishing Iran and holding her at bay for years with our attack dog Saddam, we removed him from power and allowed the Shias to rise to power. And then we mostly vacated the premises and left a vacuum that Iran is gleefully filling. Meanwhile, Syrian rebels – who are a politically fractured group but primarily Sunni – receive encouragement from the US in their attempted oust of Assad, whose Alawite Shia family has been ruling the country with an iron fist for decades, but no intervention serious enough to definitely remove him from power. ISIS is brutal and thuggish, you might think to yourself, but at least they are committed Sunnis killing Shias with as much vigor as they cut off Christian heads. Staring at the long barrel of Iran, where would you put your money?

Yemen may be proof that Saudi Arabia is done with paying to watch us bleed. The successful Shia uprising on their southern flank has them amassing their own troops on the border and flying sorties with their own aircraft. The US is supplying support in the form of refueling planes and signal intelligence; but thus far, no precious American blood. How far will Saudi Arabia go to secure their Sunni hegemony in Dar al Islam against the ascendancy of the Shia Ayatollahs of Iran? Should they decide that rubles may spend just as well as dollars, particularly if Russia should back off of their patronage of Iran, the move would mark the end of the United States reign as a superpower.

[1] A simple note, dear reader, to inform you that there won’t be many more in this post. The subject is vast and I’ve opted for a wide-angle overview. The facts are there for the confirming should one desire to delve deeper.
[2] The original writings of the Quran, sometimes scribbled on palm bark or hastily painted on rocks as Muhammad declared another prophecy, is a story in its own right and worthy of investigation by the curious.
[3] Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, (Hoboken: Wiley, Stowe: Casey Research, LLC 2015), 53.

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