Thursday, June 24, 2004

Shias - dreaming the empire 

Three interesting pieces about what the Shias are up to (thanks to Real Clear Politics). In the "New York Time", Youssef M. Ibrahim reminds us to look at the Shias as a de facto virtual transnational empire:

"It is vital that Washington understand that it cannot consider the Shiites of Iraq to be an independent, national body. Shiism, forged during more than 1,500 years of persecution at the hands of the Islamic world's Sunnis, is a phenomenon that transcends borders and domestic politics.

"Iran, with its 65 million Shiites, its powerful army and its ancient civilization, is the de facto master of the Persian Gulf. Tehran is clearly pleased that Iraq's 15 million Shiites will more or less control their country eventually. In Lebanon, with one million Shiites, the well-armed Hezbollah militia has proved itself a most effective military-social-political group, which even forced both American and Israeli armed forces from the country. There are 400,000 Shiites in Bahrain and several million more in pockets from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. Just as important, there are communities of sophisticated and shrewd Shiite merchants spread all over the Persian Gulf region, commanding billions of dollars in wealth and a fierce sense of solidarity with their brethren."
While in the "Daily Telegraph" John Keegan writes that "Iran has always dreamt of dominating the Middle East", as both he and Ralph Peters in the "New York Post" discuss the recent hostage taking incident in the Shatt el Arab. Says Peters:

"Those eight hostages are pawns in a great strategic game for stakes far beyond the minor scale of the incident itself. Iran's hardliners are gambling. If the West — with London in the lead this time — fails to call their bluff, our weakness will virtually guarantee future conflict in the Persian Gulf."
At the same time as Iran flexes its nuclear muscle.

It's difficult to discern with any degree of certainty what the mullahs in Tehran are thinking; not just because our intelligence from inside Iran is scarce, but also because we don't have a very good track record at interpreting the fundamentalists' thoughts and actions. In the shorter term at least, the Greater Shia Empire is likely to encompass Iran's co-religionists (or co-sectarians to be more precise). This in itself would involve breaking up several Arab states, chiefly Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and would most likely lead to a major regional conflict. To use the jargon of professional diplomacy, "it wouldn't be pretty at all." For all we know, however, the mullahs might be more ambitious, seeking to extend their domination to some predominantly Sunni areas - if you're going to have a major regional war you might as well aim big. The Sunni Arabs are more numerous, but they are also weak and disunited. The mullahs are well armed, determined and maybe just desperate enough for the last throw of the dice before Iran's demographics overtake them. If you thought that the Coalition invasion of Iraq was bad, just wait until Muslims start fighting other Muslims. Might make you look back with some nostalgia at the days of those crazy neo-cons and their zany nation-building schemes in Mesopotamia.


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