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Gatestone Institute: The U.S. Role in the Sunni-Shi'ite Conflict

You might think that what the United States should be doing in the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict -- in which it has no theological stake -- is working to eliminate all forces in the Muslim world, whether Sunni or Shi'ite, who want to bring down the U.S. You might also think that what the U.S. should not be doing is looking the other way when countries it calls allies -- and wealthy individuals from those countries -- support, with both money and arms, forces who kill U.S. soldiers and citizens.

At present, this is not what is happening.

Today we appear to be supporting the Sunnis against the Shi'ites just about everywhere, and have sided with the Saudi and Bahraini governments as they repress their Shi'ites. When the Americans were in Iraq, the administration went to great lengths to develop a "Sunni strategy," while seeming purposefully to overlook the small problem that the majority of Iraqis happen to be Shi'ites. The U.S. openly frets about Syria's murderous government, which is allied with Iran, while again disregarding the irritant that most of the Syrian opposition is composed of Sunni fundamentalist factions – frequently more at war with each other than they are with Bashar al-Assad -- and who are outspokenly and viciously anti-Western. Why should we in the U.S. support these Sunnis -- backed by our supposed Turkish, Saudi, or Qatari allies, against the Shi'ites and their allies -- when both they and the Iranian-supported Shi'ites are equally anti-American and anti-Western?

At the moment, nevertheless, our most bellicose self-declared adversary in the Muslim world is the fundamentalist Shi'ite regime of Iran. (Of course, this does not mean that all Shi'ites are adversaries.) There are, however, many Sunni states -- say, Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- which, although we call them allies, continue lavishly to bankroll forces who hate America and the principles for which it stands just as much as the Iranian Shi'ite mullahs do -- just far more stealthily. These states are plainly not allies.

When the Islamic terrorist regime in Iran eventually falls, as it probably will, we shall then have to tackle the problem of our so-called Sunni "allies," who are also doing everything in their power to support the Sunni forces trying to bring down America. These Sunni "allies" dedicate far more of their resources to destroying Western culture than the current Iranian government can. In the long run, they are therefore at least as dangerous to America and the West as is the Iranian regime.

Ironically, America and many Western governments seem to have an enmity towards the Shi'ites, possibly, in part, stemming from Islam being taught in Western universities from a Sunni point of view. We are taught that Shi'ism is heterodoxy -- not the "true" Islam -- and consequently not really "legitimate." It should not be particularly surprising, therefore, that so many government experts in the Middle East and Islam – both in the U.S. and abroad – refer to Shi'ism as the "terrorist branch of Islam" -- which is the equivalent of alleging that all Catholics in Northern Ireland were members of the Sinn Fein, the Irish terrorist group that tried to expel the British from Northern Ireland.

As an example: when, just before a meeting with the UK Foreign Minister in the 1990s, a Middle Eastern Sunni leader brought with him a Western-educated, Western-oriented Shi'ite advisor, a British aide told the Minister to keep in mind that the advisor was a Shi'ite. Although this might have been a disinterested observation, according to witnesses in the room it was not. Worse, the British aide had apparently not even been embarrassed to voice his remark in front of his Shi'ite visitor.

Such occurrences, though minor, play into the Shi'ites' worst fears, of which Western policy-makers seem unaware. Shi'ite history is filled with examples of how Sunnis slaughtered Shi'ites since the beginning of Islam 1,400 years ago. Shi'ites are, therefore, constantly looking for protectors to hold the Sunnis at bay. Consequently, the Shi'ites could be potential U.S. allies. We would not have to be anti-Sunni; we could just stabilize the situation in the Gulf by keeping the Strait of Hormuz open to help all countries in the Gulf export oil and gas.

Even earlier, when the Shah was in power, Western prejudice against Shi'ites was widespread. The U.S. and its Western allies usually accepted at face value, unquestioningly, the (Sunni) Saudi and Bahraini government views, blaming the Shi'ites among them for "terrorist actions" in the Gulf. No one ever even investigated whether or not these allegations of Shi'ite terrorism were true.

Later, when Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, oppressed his Shi'ites -- who, as in Bahrain, form the majority in Iraq -- the West looked the other way. And when, after the Kuwait war, President George H. W. Bush encouraged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, and Iraq's Shi'ites revolted against Saddam -- who then brutally crushed them in the south -- the U.S. did not even criticize him.

Before the Iraq war, some American bureaucrats were expressing then deep reservations about U.S. intervention. They claimed it would empower the Shi'ites, upset our Sunni Arab allies, and then add that Iraq was keeping Iran "in check." Iraq, however, never kept Iran "in check." What ended the Iran-Iraq war was Khomeini's conviction in Iran -- after the Vincennes-Iran aerial bombardment -- that America had decided to intervene on the side of Iraq. A week later -- telling his people that stopping the war was poison but that, for the survival of Iran, it was necessary to swallow it -- Khomeini called for a ceasefire.

Imagine if the Iranians were convinced that the U.S. was serious now...


As Iran is the largest and most powerful Shi'ite country in the Muslim world -- and, until the recent liberation of Iraq, the only country ruled by Shi'ites -- it is only natural that Shi'ites everywhere look to Iran for protection and support against the ancient oppression they suffered at the hands of the Sunnis. Moreover, many of the world's Shi'ites who live outside Iran, as about three quarters of them do, speak of the dilemma they face. While they look to Iran for support against Sunni oppression, they say they wish Iran would stop claiming to speak for them. [1] Further, in countless conversations with them, many also say they wish Iran would stop trying to interfere in their affairs.

What the non-Iranian Shi'ites really think about the Iranians – by which they mean Iranian Shi'ites - can be deduced from the Arab Shi'ite proverb: "When you break open the bone of a Persian [Iranian], sh*t comes out" -- meaning that because the Iranians tried to "Persianify" Shi'ites -- and destroy their non-Iranian culture -- Iranians cannot be trusted.


As for what is happening among Iran's Shi'ites, many -- as seen in their failed uprising of 2009 -- do not support their present terrorist government. It appears that a large number of Iranians would like nothing better than to have the Iranian regime replaced by one that could get along with the outside world. What Iranians say they most want is an end to their misery under this regime and an end of their country being thought of as a pariah state. While of course we cannot know the future, conversations with people inside Iran, especially after the riots against the government, give us reason to hope. Unlike the Egyptians, who voted in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranians have already experienced the rule of Islamic fundamentalism. If a new Iranian government could be pro-Western, regime change could be a win-win for both Shi'ites and the West.


Sadly, Western officials often claim that Iraqi Shi'ite political and religious leaders - both political and religious are spies for the Iranian government. Some probably are; but what many Western officials appear not to understand is that because the Shi'ites justifiably fear the Sunnis, the Shi'ites are likely to support any Iranian government -- especially a new one. Many of the fathers and grandfathers of these so-called "spies" had excellent relationships with the closest American ally in the region, the Shah; when these "spies" are asked if they would support a change of regime in Iran, they usually say they would like nothing better. Further, they often add that the Shah, although not without faults, had emphasized his country's Iranian rather than its Islamic Shi'ite identity, while the Mullahs, instead, have been trying to minimize -- if not smother -- Iran's Iranian identity in favor of their Shi'ite one.

If Iran had a new regime that emphasized its cultural identity as opposed to its religious one, we could then turn our attention to pressuring our Sunni "allies" not only to cease their stealth jihad against the U.S., but also their abysmal treatment of their own Shi'ite population. There are a number of ways prepared and available, although not yet ready, understandably, to be publicly disclosed.

A non-expansionist cultural Iran – as opposed to a transnational Shi'ite one -- would at the very least remove the excuse our Sunni "allies," especially the Saudis and Bahrainis, give the U.S. as the reason they repress their Shi'ites: they would no longer be able to scare the U.S. by invoking a looming Iranian aggression and anti-Americanism. They doubtless fear that if Iran were to become less of a threat to the world at large as well as to them, they would risk losing the support of their allies in the West. So as long as the present anti-Western Iranian regime is in power, the Sunnis feel assured that we will be at their side to help them defeat a powerful Shi'ite Iran. We, of course, seem to have no idea – or not to mind -- that we are being used as pawns in their unending conflict.

Regime change in Iran, in favor of almost any other government, would also liberate Iraqi, Bahraini, and other Shi'ites from the religious and cultural domination of the Iranian mullahs, and enable them to start looking to the West as the natural partner and "protector" they historically have sought.


Although there are currently violent clashes throughout the Middle East -- with Sunnis and Shi'ites killing each other in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- the U.S. would be wise not support one side against the other. Any preference would only embroil the U.S. in their unending internal conflicts and be detrimental to U.S. interests. Given the innate suspicion Middle Easterners have of the U.S. and the West, whichever side the U.S. is helping, the other side will most certainly accuse the U.S. of "actually" helping the other side. That fight is no-win.

Instead, we should be pursuing United States' policy goals: protecting the Gulf oil routes and eliminating the terrorists our "allies," of any stripe, support. As a global power, the U.S. is engaged in that region by default, backed into acting as reluctant policemen to prevent autocratic groups and undemocratic nations from filling the possible vacuums there.


From its history and from what we can deduce, Iranians by and large go with the strong horse. If the rulers do not demonstrate the will or the ability to do what is necessary to keep themselves in power, their populace will gravitate towards strength. If the situation in Iran is to change, not only must Iran's nuclear weapons program be eliminated, but therefore so must its government's ability to retain its rule.

No one, naturally, can guarantee what will happen with Iran's nuclear program, but a government that looked inward to its country's internal reconstruction and technological modernization, neglected for 34 years, would no longer necessarily be a threat to its neighbors. It might possibly also be more amenable to the international community's demands in order to get the desperately needed American and Western support to rebuild its infrastructure.

The mullahs most assuredly know that as long as they strive to attain weapons of mass destruction, the outside world will not be willing to help them rebuild their country. In Iran, there are apparently passionate debates on whether the pursuit of nuclear weapons might bring down on them the wrath of the West. Even though many Iranians would like the prestige of being in the "nuclear club," they recognize that the price for attaining it could be the destruction of their country.


After the Iranian problem is solved, it is urgent to begin seriously addressing the forces in the Sunni world who privately, and sometimes even publicly, encourage anti-U.S. and anti-Western values while at the same time aggressively funding forces antagonistic to the West and building fifth-column communities there. Wahhabis -- most notably Saudis and Qataris -- who claim to be among our closest allies in the region, are the major funders of much of the anti-Western activity in Europe, Turkey, and the U.S., especially of groups that have the same terrorist goals as al-Qa'ida. We should demand that our supposed "allies" stop these actions against us at once.

Now, however, given the regime ruling Iran, these "allies" have little problem re-directing our attention away from the terrible treatment they mete out to the Shi'ites, as well as to us.

America should back only pro-American forces who do not privately finance or publicly promote hatred towards the U.S. It is in America's interest to rid the Muslim world of the Islamist fundamentalist forces whose goals and actions are inimical to American and Western interests; not to cozy up to them.

The more we show that we are prepared to expend every effort to do so, as we did in the successful 2006 surge in Iraq, the more Muslims of all types are likely to support the U.S.

Another way, of course, to end U.S. involvement in the never-ending internal battles of that region, would be to develop alternative sources of energy, especially as they become more economically feasible to extract; to find new methods of mining the enormous quantities of energy in other parts of the world, and to develop other types of energy apart from oil and gas. Then the Middle East and its religious and political quarrels could happily retire into quiet insignificance.


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