Unintended Consequences | The Nation


Unintended Consequences

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

One of the unintended consequences of the war has been to deepen or sharpen the Shiite-Sunni divide. The establishment of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad seems to have revived fears among the Sunni elite of an Iranian-led Shiite crescent in the Middle East that would upset the political balance in their own societies. Is there a danger of larger regional conflict along sectarian lines?

About the Author

The Nation
The Nation is America's oldest weekly news magazine, and one of the most widely read magazines in the world for...

Also by the Author

Gary Younge pokes some major holes in America’s faith in “eternal progress,” then lays out next steps for racial justice with M Adams, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, and Mandela Barnes.


: There's no question that in Iraq today there is a Shiite-Sunni divide and that this divide is consequential for regional politics broadly, including in the Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that have significant Shiite communities. It has to be said at the outset, however, that while the insurgency is primarily Sunni Arab, it has had some Sunni Kurdish and some Shiite elements. Even when Saddam Hussein ruled, many of his subordinates were Shiite. In fact, the majority on the fifty-five "most wanted" deck of cards were Shiite, not Sunni.

Moreover, the sectarian issue is only part of the story. The other part is a genuine strategic concern in the Arab Gulf states about Iranian power. Many in the Gulf have traditionally seen Iraq as the only state in the region capable in the long term of balancing Iranian dominance. But Iraq is not in the short term capable of balancing anyone, even if its government were Sunni. And their fear is that their strategic worries in this regard may be exacerbated by the sectarian issue: that a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq may be inclined to become Iran's friend or, even worse, client. While many of these fears are exaggerated (for one thing, Iraqi Shiites are Iraqi and Arab as much as Shiite), there is much strategic uncertainty as well as confusion in the Gulf region about the best policies to pursue in this environment.


: The war has, as King Abdullah II of Jordan pointed out rather too breathlessly, greatly strengthened the Shiites, including Iran and Hezbollah, but also smaller Gulf communities such as those in Saudi Arabia's oil region and in Bahrain. When the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and the Dawa Party, of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, won the January 30 elections, and when the religious parties swept to power in the nine southern provinces and Baghdad, Tehran gained key political allies. There is now a de facto Baghdad-Tehran axis. The current governments are now making plans for joint oil pipelines, loans, investment and cooperation in the pilgrimage trade. Many Iraqi Shiites support the Lebanese Hezbollah, which in the medium term will almost certainly benefit from the support of wealthy Iraqi Shiites. Bahraini and Saudi Shiites have become more assertive, given their new allies in Baghdad.

That said, the Shiite revival in the eastern Arab world is unlikely to result in regional wars in and of itself. But if Iraq fell into civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, the Saudis and Jordanians would certainly take the side of the Sunnis, while Iran would support the Shiites.


: I do not believe there is a Shiite crescent in geopolitical terms for Iran to lead, because Iraq's Shiites are Iraqis first and Shiites second and do not look to Iran for leadership, although some of the current leaders have close ties to Iran. Rather, the danger lies in the sectarianism that the Iraq War has increased. In Iraq the gulf between Arabs and Turkmen on one side and the Kurds on the other is unbridgeable. Antipathy between Sunnis and Shiites is extremely virulent, and some cleansing of Sunnis from Shiite areas and Shiites from Sunni areas is inevitable. Syria is descending into sectarian conflict between Kurds and Arabs but also soon between the minority Alawis, who rule, and the majority Sunnis, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Lebanon the divide between Sunnis, Christians, Shiites and Druse is the widest it has been since the 1989 Taif peace accords, and radical Sunni Islam has been gaining in strength as well.


: The US authorities have done a lot, inside Iraq, to exacerbate the differences between Shiites and Sunnis, as between ethnic Arabs and ethnic Kurds. 'Twas ever thus with colonial ventures: Divide and rule. But Arab and Islamic societies still have many resources with which to manage these divisions and to prevent them from spiraling uncontrollably into civil war. To my certain knowledge, this is the case inside Iraq, as well as at the regional level. But, of course, an embattled US colonial power will continue to try to exacerbate the sectarian divisions.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.