Sectarian and Ethnic Tensions in the Middle East Do not Serve the Region’s or the West’s Interests

Shireen Hunter

In the last few months, there has been much talk in the West and in the Arab media about the creation of a Sunni bloc, in order to counter perceived Iranian and Shi’a influence and threat in the Middle East. Such a bloc, as argued by some commentators who feel threatened by Iran and its Shi’a sympathizers in the Arab world, may even be willing to agree to an accommodation with Israel and thus help to resolve the Palestinian conflict.

At first glance, this idea may appear to have some merit, and statements made by some Arab leaders regarding the rise of a so-called Shi’a Crescent may even make it look as if the creation of such a bloc is possible. Closer scrutiny, however, shows that this idea has in it the seeds of more conflict rather than the potential of bringing peace to the Middle East. Moreover, its realization would be far more difficult than may appear at first.

To begin with, the concept of a Shi’a Crescent supposedly linking Iran and Shi’a-majority Iraq with Lebanon is more myth than reality. First, while the Shi’as in Iraq constitute a majority, they by no means demographically dominate the country; the Sunni Kurds and Arabs constitute at least forty per cent of the population. In Lebanon, the Shi’as, although substantial in numbers, are still a minority, constituting between 35 to 40 per cent of the population. Second, geographically, neither Iran nor Iraq has common borders with Lebanon, a fact that invalidates the idea of a contiguous Shi’a belt. In the Persian Gulf, with the exception of Bahrain, the Shi’as are in minority. Third, this concept assumes a total coincidence of interests among Shi’as belonging to different ethnic groups and states, which simply does not exist.

Indeed, the recent history of the Shi’as has shown that ethnic and other loyalties are stronger than religious affinity. This was best demonstrated during the eight year Iran- Iraq war. The Iraqi Shi’as defended their country against Iran, and the Shi’a minorities in the Gulf did not rise up in support of Iran. Even today, the Iraqi Shi’as do not see their interests to be the same as those of the Iranian state .The same is true of Lebanon’s Shi’as, including Hizbullah. To note, recently Sheikh Nasrullah said that Hizbullah will only fight in defense of Lebanon, thus trying to dispel the idea that his organization will engage in military acts in case of a military confrontation between the West and Iran.

The same is true of other Arab and non-Arab Shi’as. In fact, the Shi’as see their own interests within the countries of their birth and citizenship to be undermined by the policies of the Iranian state and its inflammatory rhetoric.

In sum, the Shi’as focus on religious affinity and sometimes look to Iran for support in that domain, when the numerically or politically dominant group discriminates against them or, worse, questions their very Muslminess. This means that any exaggerated talk of the rising Shi’a power –another myth not supported by facts—and the threat posed by the Shi’a minorities to the existing Middle East order would enhance the Shi’as’ sense of marginalization and alienation . Such a feeling might radicalize at least some Shi’as and push them more toward Iran. Such an outcome cannot be in the interest either of regional countries whose stability may suffer because of these developments or of the West, which has a stake in these countries’ stability .Moreover, sectarian tensions could adversely affect events in countries such as Afghanistan, where the government and its Western allies are facing a serious challenge from a resurgent Taliban. In short. this would defeat the whole purpose of an anti Iran/Shi’a front.

Perhaps even more important, indications are that, although sympathizing with the Iraqi Sunnis concern about their political future in post-war Iraq, the majority of the Arab populations are not convinced of the seriousness of the Shi’a threat and are more concerned about the negative fallout of another war in the region. Nor are they convinced that, by joining an anti-Iran/Shi’a alliance, the Arabs would be able to get an acceptable resolution of the Palestinian conflict.

In fact, in light of these considerations, in the last few weeks talk of the Shi’a threat and the formation of an anti-Iran/Shi’a bloc has quieted down, while efforts to diffuse sectarian tensions have increased. An example of such efforts is the discussion which took place between Ayatullah Hashemi Rafsanjani and Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradqwi on Al Jazeera television. They agreed that mutual attacks should stop and efforts should be made to narrow areas of disagreement. Meanwhile, some Arab officials, notably Amr Musa, Secretary General of the Arab League, have said that tensions with Iran would not be in the Arab countries’ interest.

But perhaps the most important development was the visit of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad, to Saudi Arabia. This trip showed Iran’s realization of the importance and influence of Saudi Arabia in the region, as well as its own limits. At the same time, the fact that King Abdullah met Ahmadi Nejad at the airport shows that Riyadh is becoming conscious that a modus vivendi with Tehran would best serve its interests and may even advance its goals in places such as Lebanon and even Iraq.

These fledgling efforts at forestalling the continuation, intensification, and perhaps geographical expansion of sectarian tensions should be encouraged by all. At the very least, any unrealistic expectations of the gains in a Sunni / Shi’a and Arab/ Iranian conflict should be abandoned. As was shown during the Iran–Iraq war, Arab–Iranian conflict does not translate into Arab-Israeli peace.

Clearly, Iran’s nuclear and other ambitions in the region should be checked, but using the sectarian and ethnic card is not the best way to achieve this goal, and it could end up damaging the interests of all concerned, including the West.

Shireen Hunter is a Visiting Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.