Special Reports



The Shi-ite Resurgence in the Middle East

The earlier Newnations Shi-ite report of four years ago outlined the mechanisms that led to the politicization of Shi-ite movements in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran in the 1970’s and 1980’s and parallels with the rise of an organized Shi-ite resistance to the American occupation of Iraq by the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in 2004. Since that time, the Shi-ites of Lebanon and Iraq have won important military and political struggles, which have raised their influence in the region to an unprecedented extent. The political gains in the Arab Shi-ite strongholds are buttressed by Iran, whose influence as one of the world’s leading oil producers is becoming more threatening as its Shi-ite leadership continues to pursue a nuclear agenda, which it believes to be a right. 

Sunni regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been unable to control the Shi-ite resurgence in spite of their efforts to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon or their (Saudi) support of Sunni groups against Shi-ite extremists in Iraq. In fear of further regional destabilization, Saudi Arabia has even established closer relations with Iran. The US led war on Iraq has in many ways served as the spark for the revitalization of the Shi-ites in the Middle East. The political gains of such Shi-ite figureheads as Ayatollah al-Sistani in Iraq, who achieved enormous popularity with the ‘one man, one vote’ slogan during the 2005 elections where Iraq’s Shi-ite parties earned a majority of seats, served as an example for Hezbollah’s own political ambitions in Lebanon. These grew stronger in the period following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri (February 2005). 

Inspired by al-Sistani’s campaign in Iraq, Hezbollah’s (and Amal) conviction that Shi-ites should have greater political representation in Lebanon led them to join the coalition government of prime minister Hanna Siniora expecting to play a significant role in a coalition government arrangement. However, Hezbollah’s importance and authority culminated after Israel launched a war against it (involving all of Lebanon, however) in the summer of 2006. Hezbollah showed remarkable resilience fighting a far better armed Israel and, thanks to its Iranian allies, swiftly compensated those who lost their property and homes, to help rebuild their lives, handing out cash. Israel launched the war with the intention of crushing Hezbollah, but the movement emerged stronger than ever, having been the only Arab force to successfully resist an Israeli attack.

Such is the socio-political context shaping in the Middle east, a context which features a far greater role of the Shi-ite populations than the Middle East that emerged after the Versailles Conference in 1919. It is not surprising that this new Middle East will be marked by a renewed confrontation between the Shi-ite and Sunni cultures. Iraq has served as the main Arab battlefield for this contest, but Iran holds the key for the regional implications. 

From a purely religious perspective (concentrating on the larger Twelver Shi-ites for this paper) Shi-ites represent less than 15% of all Muslims. While most live in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, there are important communities in Saudi Arabia (most live in the oil rich Eastern Province).. In the latter country, marked by an especially orthodox or Salafist interpretation of Sunni Islam, Shi-ites are considered heretics. Indeed, orthodox Sunnis have typically resented and persecuted their Shi-ite counterparts. The social and political gains that Shi-ites have made in places like Lebanon are recent, and they are the fruit of an intense social, political and armed struggle that began in the late 1960’s, culminating in 2006. In the Arab world, Shi-ites have typically lived under Sunni leaders, more often than not occupying the lowest strata of society. Shi-ite leadership has developed under these conditions of struggle or sense of persecution. Shi-ite leaders have thrived on accusing their Sunni ‘masters’ of corruption, of abusing Islam and of injustice. In the 1980’s, in particular, these accusations were especially directed at the Sunni orthodox states of the Persian Gulf, where the princes and kings were said to be enjoying the benefits of the oil wealth undisturbed by the poverty in the rest of the Arab world. Within the confines of their own states, Lebanon or Iraq, Shi-ites have had to struggle against the barriers to social mobility, enforced by the Sunni dominant class. The end of the Baathist era in Iraq has triggered a seemingly unstoppable social conflict, which has only fallen technically short of being called a civil war, because of the ‘rules of engagement’, involving random bombing attacks against civilians, rather than ‘military’ battles. Sunnis and Shi-ites in Iraq have systematically segregated each other, such that Shi-ite minorities have deliberately migrated away from Sunni dominated areas like Baghdad’s al-Doura district and vice versa, as witnessed in Basra, where the Sunnis have been the social group on the run. 

The United States, which opened this Pandora’s Box in the first place in March 2003, is not in a position to leave an Iraq at peace. The involvement of two important regional players is needed; however, if the United States can rely on Saudi Arabia to exert some pressure on Iraqi Sunnis (there are tribal ties between some Saudis and Iraqi Sunnis as noted by author Vali Nasr in “The Shia Revival”), the US is doing everything possible to anger Iran. Certainly, Sunni militants from Saudi Arabia have done their part to foment sectarian hatred in Iraq. Some 80% of Sunni militants entering Iraq from Syria, originated from Saudi Arabia. Not surprisingly, apart from small and apparent successes of the Iraqi army in 2008, the most determined resistance to US occupation has come from the Shi-ite militias. While maintaining a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s president Ahmadinejad has become the last true challenger to the United States and Israel, more so than Arab states. Even Syria, Iran’s ally has been under pressure to weaken its ties to the Persians in exchange for peace with Israel. This would also imply that Syria would likely cease supporting Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas (Sunni), who would then have their strongest backing from Shi-ites. 

Iran is creating the role for itself as the reference point in an international Shi-ite resurgence. Unlike in the 1980’s, when the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini attempted to fill the same role, Iraq is no longer an enemy of Iran. Iranian pilgrims are encouraged and welcomed to visit the Shi-ite shrines to the Imams, such as Najaf or Karbala, making it possible for an extension and development of transnational networks, strengthening the sensation of their emerging as a regional and powerful community. Conversely, while the notion of a Shi-ite nation gains currency, the Nasserite and Baathist ideals that shaped the Arab world in from the 1950’s to the recent past, effectively ended with the invasion of Iraq. Arab states are looking out for their own interests as individual states; they pursue peace deals with former enemies because this brings real and practical benefits such as respectability and foreign investment. The Shi-ites, however, are chasing a different kind of prestige; they are the new idealists in the region in search of redemption for decades of humiliation. This can help explain the enthusiasm for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power, military or civilian, and Hezbollah’s pivotal role in Lebanese politics, achieved through military and social struggle and culminating in the Doha accord, which has now led to the formation of a new Hezbollah-friendly Lebanese government in June. Hezbollah’s own popularity took hold in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the Bekaa Valley and the villages and towns of the south. Much of the Shi-ite population is characterized by low income and education levels. In these areas, the government is weak; people have little access to institutions, creating an opportunity for Hezbollah to fill the void. Hezbollah’s financial backing from Iran has fueled its popularity and militancy at the expense of trust in the Lebanese government. Shi-ite families – especially after the 2006 war with Israel – trust Hezbollah to provide and care for them, helping to secure education, medical and other services to what is the largest single grouping of the Lebanese population. The national unity government was also achieved because of the realization by the majority parties that in order to weaken Hezbollah, it has to take the same approach and win over Nasrallah’s support base. 

Meanwhile, having set the Shi-ite ‘bird’ free from Saddam, the Bush administration has evidently become very concerned at trying to rein it in, considering the fact that it has concerned allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are not at all keen to see the Shi-ite regime in Iraq become stronger. The United States has refused to sign a security agreement with the Iraqi government of al-Maliki, which some Shi-ite leaders have interpreted as an American ploy to remain free to collaborate with a Sunni state, to remove the Shi-ite government if necessary – that is if Maliki’s ties to Ahmadinejad became inconvenient, should Israel or the US decide to launch an attack against Iran. The Iraqi government’s concerns arise from Washington’s demand to gain unlimited access to Iraqi military bases and the apparent lack of US commitment to defend Iraq against third party aggression. Shi-ite leaders fear plots from Sunni Arab regimes, which would back Sunni armed groups within the country. On the political level, they also fear the apparent ‘meddling’ of former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi-ite and former Baathist, who would enjoy more favour from Washington because of his decidedly cooler ties to Iran. Apart from countering Iran’s influence through proxy Sunni militants, Sunni Arab states are also approaching the problem with political ploys in view of the October 2008 provincial elections. They believe that the Americans will also try to promote more Sunni representatives to weaken ties to Iran at the core. A strong provincial showing would herald a stronger performance in the 2009 national elections. 

Moreover, there is also a growing chance of Shi-ite infighting in Iraq, as the Shi-ites backing al-Maliki’s Dawa party are being increasingly challenged by the more populist Shi-ite faction led by Moqtada al-Sadr. The US armed forces have clashed with al-Sadr from Baghdad to Najaf and Karbala. In March they challenged his militias in Baghdad’s Shi-ite bidonville of Sadr City. Al-Sadr’s militias have also fought against the British in the south and his Mahdi army is said to be more lethal and better equipped than the US trained Iraqi army. The journalist Patrick Cockburn, who has reported extensively from Iraq, said that Washington has armed and trained forces in Sadr City to defeat the Mahdi Army. "American pressure meant the Sadrists had to look to Iran for help, and in a military confrontation the (Mahdi) Army saw Iran as an essential source of weapons and military expertise," said Cockburn. Though, it is believed that Iran is itself concerned about Moqtada al-Sadr’s militancy, considering him unreliable. Cockburn believes that the Mahdi Army, though modeled on Hezbollah, does not enjoy the same favor as the latter. The United States now needs more practical allies in Iraq and is in a position to play off inter and intra-sectarian struggles. Last spring, the Iraqi and British governments launched the Basra Development Commission, which eventually will open the oil fields of Basra (where 80% of Iraq’s oil is located), to private investment. Presumably the investors will be large multinationals rather than Iraqi firms. The investors need stability, and the task of the occupiers now is to provide it. The period of idealism and ideology is over, and the occupation needs reliable subjects. 

As for the heralded ‘domino-like spread of democracy’ in the Middle East, and the potential for its export, as so many neo-conservatives promised would happen through the invasion of Iraq, there is little prospect for this. The secular Sunni dictatorships’ principal repression has always been directed at controlling the religious and confessional manifestations in their own societies. In doing so, they managed to ensure a relative benign social structure for the dominant ethnic or religious group, which enjoyed, if not political freedom, an unprecedented amount of personal freedom. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of women, who in Saddam’s Iraq had more rights than in many parts of the Arab Middle East. Indeed, Syria, which has inherited the mantle of most secular Arab state, is the most frequent refuge for Iraqi women who flee from the growing influence of religion in society, whether enforced by Sunnis or Shi-ites. The invasion of Iraq has stirred the religious sectarianism that the Arab nationalists tried to suppress. The confessional differences have mixed themselves in an explosive cocktail of social, political and economic competition such that it remains difficult to be optimistic about a democratic future in the region. The religious character of the contest, nevertheless, has the potential to bring the regional powers fighting each other by proxy, fomenting networks of co-religionists to pursue their agendas. 

AUTHOR: Alessandro Bruno, an analyst of Middle East and North African politics.

The Shia Special Report (2004)