Tags: Iraq | Shia | Iran | US

AEI Looks at Mideast Shiites and Iran

By    |   Friday, 27 June 2014 08:07 AM

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) convened three panels of experts on June 19 to consider three issues affecting U.S. policy regarding Iraq and Iran: 1) the diversity of Shiite communities and politics, 2) quietists versus Wilayat al-Faqih (guardianship of the jurists) model of leadership today and 3) if the United States should have a Shiite policy.

This article complements the event that featured Sen. John McCain and Gen. Jack Keane on the subject of how to deal with the latest crisis in Iraq.

AEI's Michael Rubin, who moderated the first panel, asked each expert to describe the relationships of the communities they study with Iran. Abbas Kadhim, a senior foreign fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that within Iraq, the Shiites, represented by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are interested primarily in domestic matters and prefer employing politics only as a last resort. His view is that support for Iran comes mainly from elements of the political class that represent parties that receive financial and other support from Iran.

Jasim Husain, a former member of the Bahrain's parliament said that many Shiites in Bahrain also look to Ayatollah al-Sistani for leadership. He contended that mistakes like allowing Saudi Arabia to station troops in Bahrain opened the way for Iran to exercise more influence. When Bahrain has local problems, solutions involve input from the Iranians, Saudis, Americans, and British.

Also speaking of the Gulf Shia, Toby Mathiesen, a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, described a mix of loyalties, with many more following Ayatollah al-Sistani than do Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei, and there is also a Shirazi movement, which has tense relations with Iran. He also described a deal brokered in 1993 by Saudi King Fahd with a number of Shia opposition groups directed against Iran, but the participants became disillusioned with the deal, and a new protest movement emerged in 2011.

Rubin observed that the two events that most influence Americans' view of the Shia are the Iranian revolution and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Likening Hezbollah to the Mafia, and regardless of whether Hezbollah is controlled by Iran, he asked Philip Smyth, a researcher focused on Shia Islamist groups at the University of Maryland, how the Shia of Lebanon resist being controlled by it. He responded that Hezbollah is so deeply ingrained in Lebanon that there's no effective resistance.

Turning to Azerbaijan, which is a country not only populated by Shia but run by them, Rubin asked Brenda Shaffer, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, to nominate which Shia country Iran fears most. (It would appear that Iran would not fear any other country in the region.) She pointed out that Azerbaijan has no state religion and that a third of Iranians are Azeris. Also, when the Soviet Union broke up, Azerbaijan was invaded by Christian Armenia, creating a million refugees, and Iran sided with Armenia, because Iran fears a stable and prosperous Azerbaijan. Other nominees were the Ayatollah al-Sistani faction in Iraq and surprisingly, India. Asked to nominate a second Shia community that the Iranians would fear, Shaffer suggested Los Angeles.

Panelists were also asked to nominate countries Sunnis would fear, outside of Saudi Arabia, and the answers were Iraq and Lebanon (including Hezbollah).

On the second panel, Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained that Iran's former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini introduced the innovation of a leader in the role of a philosopher-king who combined religious and temporal powers. He said that all of the other ayatollahs opposed this.

Therefore, Ayatollah Khamenei, lacking the religious authority of Ayatollah Khomeini, has relied on institutional and financial power to support the regime and has imposed this doctrine on Shia communities worldwide.

Ahmed Ali, an Iraq senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, stated that the "quietist" view remains dominant among Iraqi Shia, represented by Ayatollah al-Sistani. A theme of the panel was the competition between the cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qum in Azerbaijan for theological supremacy.

As for the third panel, the very diversity among Shia that the first two panels established worked against the idea that there could be a coherent policy that would address this community.

(Archived video can be found here.)

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The American Enterprise Institute convened three panels of experts to consider three issues affecting U.S. policy regarding Iraq and Iran.
Iraq, Shia, Iran, US
Friday, 27 June 2014 08:07 AM
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