Events

The Rise of the Shiites and its Implications for the Middle East

January 18, 2007 // 11:00am12:00pm
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Yitzhak Nakash, 2006-2007 Carnegie Corporation Scholar and former Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow. Nakash discussed the growing political influence of Shiites in the Middle East, and the regional implications of this development for Sunni governments and the United States. Nakash's analyses focused on the Shiite communities of Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Nakash opened his discussion with the observation that the Middle East in the past few decades has seen a surge in religious expression among Shiites and Sunnis; religious revivalism among Muslims, he noted, has taken both peaceful and violent forms. The 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution emboldened Shiites and "reinforced a trend of activism within Shiism that continues to this day." However, Shiites have been moving away since the Gulf War of 1991 from violence and toward accommodation with the West; they have also sought power sharing arrangements with other members of their societies. Nakash also pointed to the rise of Shiite clerics as community leaders capable of exerting moderation over followers. Sunni clerics, by contrast, have lost their authority and have been unable to restrain radical Islamists.

Shiite Muslims constitute 80 percent of the native population of the oil rich Persian Gulf region, about 80-90 million people. There are significant Arab Shiite populations in Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon, with smaller communities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Oman. While Sunnis have enjoyed political power as the ruling class in most Middle Eastern countries for decades, the fall of the Baath regime in Iraq in 2003 marked a turning point in the dynamics of sectarian relations to the advantage of Shiites; this development—as evidenced by the rise of the Shiites in Iraq, Iran's growing regional power, and the outcome of the war between Hizballah and Israel—has alarmed Sunni governments that fear the balance of power in the Middle East is shifting in favor of the Shiites.

Yet Nakash, at this point, thinks it is premature to talk about the emergence of a Shiite bloc led by Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, noting that Shiite political movements within each country are defined by different religious interpretation, circumstances, as well as sociopolitical and nationalist motivations. Thus the United States must avoid treating the rise of the Shiites primarily as a threat to US interests in the Middle East, and instead seek to address the unique circumstances of each emerging Shiite group. Nakash puts forth foreign policy prescriptions for dealing with the rise of Shiites in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.

The main challenge for the United States with respect to Iran, according to Nakash, is how to deal with the growing regional influence and political ambitions of the Iranian regime. He proposes that the US attempt to improve US-Iranian relations and mobilize Iran in the effort to stabilize Iraq. Improved relations would depend on ceasing Iranian aid to terrorist groups in the Levant, and in turn could help promote stability and peace in the Middle East.

In Iraq, the fall of the Baath regime sparked a rise in Shiite political influence in the country, reinforcing the sectarian divide. If Shiites, Sunnis (and Kurds) are able to work together along the model of government pushed by Ali Sistani, Iraq is likely to develop a government based on proportional representation, and one which is also accountable to its citizens. While Shiite Islamists are not likely to accept Western models of democracy, Sistani's model can provide the framework for a viable and descent government in Iraq.

Nakash explained that the radicalization of the Shiites in Lebanon was caused by the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian revolution, which led to the rise of Hizbullah as the leading Shiite movement. Hizbullah has evolved from a revolutionary group to a political party. The war between Hizbullah and Israel in the summer of 2006 emboldened Hizbullah and undermined the myth of Israeli invincibility. The war increased Hizbullah's influence, causing concern among other Lebanese political groups. To prevent another civil war, Nakash proposes changes in the Ta'if agreement so that proportional representation in parliament and the government corresponds to the demography of the country and the position of Shiites as the largest single sect.

In the cases of Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, Nakash concluded that the United States could possibly try to contain Shiite power while using it as a bulwark against Sunni militancy. He proposed that the United States continue to promote political reform and maintain its interests in the Persian Gulf, without upsetting the power of traditional Sunni allies.

Middle East Program
Drafted by Elizabeth Detwiler

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