The following is an edited transcript of the forty-first in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on October 14, 2005, in the U.S. Capitol, with Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., moderating.
CHAS. W. FREEMAN JR., president, Middle East Policy Council
The situation in Iraq, which we’re discussing today, has become serious enough so that something almost unprecedented happened a couple of weeks ago, namely the Saudi foreign minister issued a public statement. Saudi press releases are oxymorons, as rare as unicorns in the woods, to be found only by virgins in the light of the full moon. But Saud
al-Faisal expressed his concern on two scores, one of which is of much wider concern than simply to Saudi Arabia: that the instability and the multiple civil wars in Iraq may in fact be coming to resemble the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe, a struggle within Islam with the possibility of igniting a wider struggle throughout the fifth of the human race that adheres to the Muslim faith. Or, to put it a different way, this may turn out to be, if it is not managed correctly, a twenty-first century version of the Spanish Civil War, in which Spaniards, for their own reasons, began to kill each other, then drew in the support of others and began a proxy war and rehearsal for a wider conflict — in that case, to define civilization within Christendom; in this case, possibly within the realm of Islam.
But the Saudis clearly also, despite their own fine relationship with Tehran, are concerned about a second issue: the possibility of Iranian domination of a weak and divided Shia-dominated Iraq. In a recent visit to the region, in fact, I found a prime concern in the Gulf countries to be the possibility that the United States, by intervening as we did in Iraq, may inadvertently be creating a Shia crescent in the northern tier of the Arab world. This could offer Iran unique opportunities that it has not had for many years, to exercise a dominant role, that may be destabilizing to others. What does the liberation of the Shia in Iraq — after all, they are the majority —mean for Iraq? What does it mean for countries like Bahrain, which have Sunni rulers but a Shia majority population, or for regions of other countries like Saudi Arabia’s Al Hasa, which is predominantly Shia, or for Kuwait, which has its own substantial Shia minority? What does it mean for the United States, for the region, for Israel, for our friends the Turks and others?
JUAN COLE, professor of history, University of Michigan
I want to march rather smartly through Shia politics in contemporary Iraq. These politics have now become quite well known, although they were extremely obscure before the overthrow of Saddam. Behind the scenes on the ground in Iraq a remarkable thing happened in the Baath period; the Iraqi Shiite population became much more urban.
There was a lot of immigration from the countryside. Becoming more urban does not mean being better off, because they ended up often confined in huge slums in these cities that they settled in. Some of them were refugees from the marsh areas that Saddam had drained. So Amara, for instance, in the south, has become a kind of Marsh-Arab outpost. A lot of rural Shiites went to east Baghdad to what began as Madinat Thawra, or Revolution Township, and is now Sadr City.
As they went to the cities and became urbanized — and to some extent the Baath party apparatus was successful before the UN sanctions in the ’90s in increasing literacy — the Iraqi Shiites became more like the Iranian ones. In the earlier twentieth century, they had been more rural, more tribal, more traditional in their religion and not so oriented towards clerical/scholastic kinds of faith. The holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, which housed the seminaries and the seats of authority, were always centers of religious authority and practice. People made pilgrimages to them; the clergy there had respect. But I don’t think their writ ran very far in the first half of the twentieth century among most rural Iraqi Shiites, who, after all, being illiterate and rural, would have had very little idea of what the clergy in Najaf were saying. It was a different world for them.
But by the 1990s, a generation of young Shiites in these festering urban slums had become oriented very much towards the clerics as their leaders. And, of course, Saddam Hussein had destroyed a great many mediating institutions in Iraqi civil society, so that the clergy in a sense were the last men standing. Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who emerged as the leading clerical authority after the death of Abul-Qassim Khoei in 1992, gradually consolidated his position as a leader in the quietist Najaf tradition, not becoming involved in politics in the Saddam period. He had a rival in Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who may initially have been promoted by Saddam as a local Arab cleric, as an alternative to the Iranian tradition in Shiism.
But gradually it turned out that Saddam had things backwards. Sistani, the Iranian, was anti-Khomeinist and relatively quietist, and Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was coded as Arab — although the Sadrs have branches on both sides, Iran and Iraq — became increasingly militant. He put forward what he called the “third way” between Khomeinism and the Najaf tradition, but it looked to me a lot like Khomeinism. Although it’s the third way, I think it tilts towards Khomeini in the sense that his vision of the good society was [to have] very strict puritan Islamic law imposed on everyone. He gave a fatwa that Christian women have to veil, and he would upbraid his followers for wearing Western clothes. Some of his followers showed up at a mosque event in the ’90s; with their children wearing OshKosh B’Gosh clothing, and he said, why are you giving money to the imperialists? Don’t you know they’re trying to destroy us? So Sadeq al-Sadr set up this network of Hezbollah-style clinics, mosques and social services, and was extremely critical of the regime. And of course, in 1999, he and his two older sons were killed for defying Saddam.
So when the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam, what it really did was to push the lid off of a situation that was already boiling underneath. You had clerical politics in the form of Sistani and Sadeq al-Sadr. You also had the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an expatriate organization formed in 1982 in Tehran under the auspices of Khomeini, which grouped a number of Iraqi Shiite militant organizations that had fled Saddam’s crackdown on them from 1980 forward. They had formed the Badr Corps, a paramilitary organization, which I think we would tend to code as terrorist in other circumstances, but because they were coming over and hitting the Baath party, they’re not usually referred to in that way.
But they established strong roots in Baquba, in Basra and places that they went through to attack Saddam. And you had the Dawa party, the oldest of the Shiite religious organizations, which began in the late ’50s and was perhaps the first Muslim party to envisage an Islamic state. The Dawa party vision is not clerical rule; it allows for lay leadership. But it does see Islamic law as important in being the law of the land, and the parliament — or the Consultative Council, the Shura Council — really would be reduced to passing regulations that went beyond the holy law in some respects but could never contradict it.
When Saddam fell, these various Shiite currents came into play. They had the opportunity, for the first time in a long time, to organize freely, and they appear to have amongst them geniuses at grass-roots campaigning that make Karl Rove look like a piker. By the time of the January 30 elections, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which had been in exile in Tehran for two decades, was able to win the elections in nine of Iraq’s 18 provinces, including Baghdad Province. This advent of the Supreme Council to power in Baghdad Province and in eight other southern Shiite provinces was like a dream that had been dreamt of back in the early ’80s by Khomeini and others: that Saddam would be gone and the Supreme Council would be in charge.
The Dawa party, although it didn’t do as well on the provincial level, did have a substantial representation in parliament, and of course the prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, was chosen from its ranks. Behind the scenes, Dawa is organized in cells. These parties tend to be Stalinist in structure, even if they’re Shiite religious parties, and it has hospitals, it has services, it has a paramilitary, and it’s very quiet. If you go to the Dawa party website, you will find that you can’t discover very much about the party there. It’s a covert party still in many ways. The Sadrists have made the most noise because they organized openly in the slums. They are a ghetto movement. When you talk about the Mahdi army, their paramilitary, these are just ghetto Shiite youth with guns. I once compared Muqtada al-Sadr to a rapper. There is a gangster element here.
As we go forward, it seems clear that there are severe tensions between the Sadr organization and SCIRI. These tensions are in part class tensions. The Sadr movement is the lumpen proletariat, the ghetto-dwellers. SCIRI increasingly is the party of choice for the Shiite bourgeoisie, for the shopkeepers and the entrepreneurs. The fighting that we’ve had between the two in Najaf is very much about control of the pilgrim trade and control of very large amounts of money that come through that trade, and the shopkeepers I think are voting for SCIRI.
The mystery is why the Dawa party hasn’t done better. It looks like the Supreme Council and the Dawa party are going to run separately in the December elections, which will be on a district-based system. I expect the Sadr movement will have a large representation in parliament on that basis. SCIRI will also continue to be a big influence in Iraqi politics, and I think there is some possibility that SCIRI will use its control of the nine provinces to play machine politics. The likelihood is that Shiite religious politics are going to be a dominant force in Iraq for some years to come.
AMB. FREEMAN: Admirable, and a very good introduction to the complexities of Shiite politics in Iraq, which I think, as you say, are bound to be a dominant factor regardless of what else may happen. Over the course of my diplomatic career I had many opportunities to deal with societies where part of the society operated in a very democratic way while other parts of it were excluded. So I think that your statement stands regardless of the outcome. I’m thinking of South Africa, or Israel for that matter, where there have been vigorous democracies for some people while others were not allowed to play quite such a vigorous role.
KEN KATZMAN, specialist in Middle East Affairs, Congressional Research Service
U.S. relations with Shia Islam, in my view, have come full circle. It was the radicalism of Shia Islamic fundamentalism in Iran that first put Islamic fundamentalists on the radar screen to begin with. Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, there was very little thinking about radical Islam or political Islam. The key strategic threat to the United States at the time was the Soviet Union and communist dictatorships linked to the Soviet Union. In the Middle East, pro-Soviet groups, left-wing groups such as the PLO, were viewed as major terrorist threats.
During the 1980s, it was the Shia Islamist groups that were the main terrorism threat to the United States. Hezbollah was obviously the most closely watched, having formed in 1982, becoming capable enough the following year to blow up the U.S. embassy in Beirut and the Marine barracks, obviously. Hezbollah held the U.S. hostages in Lebanon, demonstrating the limits of U.S. power and U.S. military might.
The Lebanon hostage holders and the hijackers of TWA 847 in 1985 demanded, in return for the captives’ release, the freedom of 17 prisoners from the Dawa party, which Professor Cole has just talked about, a Shia Islamist party with many linkages, even to this day, to Hezbollah, which is active on the other side of the Middle East. Dawa of course was an opposition movement in Iraq, as we’ve heard, but it also conducted attacks in Kuwait in 1983, bombing the French and U.S. embassies in December of that year and [mounting] a nearly successful assassination attempt against the emir of Kuwait in May 1985. My first week in government was May 1985, and I was assigned to deal with the attack on the emir of Kuwait that week. It was quite a shock.
The Reagan and Bush administrations viewed the threat from Iran and Iranian inspired Shia extremism as so acute that they were willing to put aside their distaste for Saddam Hussein’s regime and back him in the Iran-Iraq-War. The hope was that Saddam would win the war and force a retrenchment of Tehran and Shia Islamic fundamentalism.
Militarily speaking, Saddam did win, and Tehran was humbled militarily, although the post-Iran-Iraq-War political structure of the Gulf had tilted too far in Saddam’s favor, and he apparently perceived the U.S. would tolerate Iraqi hegemony. Even after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Sunni Islamic radical groups such as the Islamic Group and al-Jihad, which were responsible for Sadat’s assassination, barely registered on the U.S. policy radar screen at all. In fact, so inattentive was the United States to the potential threat from radical Sunni Islamic groups that Washington gave material support to the Afghan Mujahideen, the most active of whom were Sunni radical Islamist parties, including one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who remains at large somewhere today.
As the 1990s unfolded, Sunni extremism rose in the U.S. calculation, and Shia extremism appeared to recede. Hezbollah became less active in international terrorism. Iran’s revolutionary fervor appeared to cool. The late 1990s revealed a growing threat from the Sunni Islamic groups that were gathering into a grand al-Qaeda coalition. At the same time, the United States began to reach out to Shia Islamist movements that were perceived as useful in the effort to destabilize Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War. The best example is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, which was essentially, as we just heard, assembled in Tehran in 1982.
It was in the interest of this larger objective of destabilizing Saddam that led the first Bush administration and then the Clinton administration to downplay the terrorist past of Dawa and SCIRI and to recruit these parties into a broader anti-Saddam umbrella.
Despite U.S. efforts to reach out to SCIRI, particularly in the 1990s, SCIRI was skeptical of entering too close a relationship with the United States, and in fact it publicly refused to accept U.S. money that was provided to help the opposition — not covert funding; this was overt economic support funds, ESF funds.
The September 11, 2001, attacks obviously accelerated the trend. After September 11, it was obviously the Sunni Islamic extremists who were the primary U.S. adversary. The threat from Iranian-assisted Shia-Islamic extremist movements was viewed as “so yesterday,” nothing to worry about. This lowered threat perception about Shia extremism fit well with the Bush administration’s decision to militarily overthrow Saddam Hussein after the war against the Taliban wound down.
Iran had been helpful in the war against the Taliban; the tacit U.S.-Iran alignment on that front had actually produced the first U.S.-Iran direct talks since the Iran-Contra affair, if you can count that. The administration certainly knew that taking out Saddam Hussein’s regime would strengthen Iran and the Shia Islamist movements in Iraq that were supported by Iran, but this danger seemed minimal to the administration.
This brings us to post-Saddam Iraq. The United States has clearly defined the Sunni insurgents, both Iraqi and imported, as the enemy. The very same Shia Islamist parties that led the United States to tilt towards Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War are now the closest U.S. allies in Iraq. The United States has become essentially the protector of the Shia Islamist parties. The long-term stalwart U.S. ally Kuwait now lives next to an Iraqi government whose prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, is of the same party that tried to assassinate the emir in 1985. Perhaps more critical to the long-term U.S. position, in my view, is that the United States has begun, or is now viewed as, picking winners between the Sunni and Shia. In the view of Iraqi Sunnis, Washington has chosen the Shia over them. This perception is not lost on peoples and governments in the region — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria no doubt — which explains why all three, and others, have been reluctant to cooperate with U.S. efforts to bolster the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.
Iraqi Sunnis also believe that the Shia of Iraq betrayed them and the Iraqi nation by calling in a foreign power to overturn the existing sectarian order in Iraq. This sense of betrayal is the key source of what I consider to be the nascent Sunni-driven civil war that is engulfing Iraq right under the noses and beyond the control of the 154,000 U.S. forces in Iraq. It is not easily reversed, not by assembly elections, not by a referendum on a constitution, and not by U.S.-led combat.
The difficulty of centering U.S. policy in Iraq on the Shia community, particularly Shia Islamist parties, has already been proven. With their Kurdish allies, the Shia Islamist parties engineered a winner-take-all draft constitution that has embittered the Sunnis ever further, whether or not it is adopted. The Shia Islamist militia parties have virtually displaced the national police force in areas where they are strong, particularly Basra.
U.S. policy makers apparently felt that, if Saddam were overthrown, there would be a flowering of intellectually driven, liberal pro-Western parties that would create a vibrant democracy. These hopes were dashed almost immediately, and all the troubles in Iraq, in my view, have flowed from that faulty expectation. What has resulted instead is the creeping takeover of Iraq by pro-Iranian Shia Islamist parties for now and — with the possible exception of Muqtada al-Sadr — these parties are cooperating with the United States because doing so is in their interest. However, their patience with U.S. mentoring is running thin, and the Shia Islamist parties are likely to try to structure post-Saddam Iraq to their own ideology, not to the specifications of U.S. policy makers.
There is no more instructive example of how near-total U.S. reliance on the Shia Islamist parties can backfire as the case of Muqtada al-Sadr. One day he supports the legitimate political process; the next day his Mahdi army attacks and kills British soldiers in Basra. He agrees to a truce one day, then reaches out to Sunni insurgents the next day. This said, he is a clever politician and not to be underestimated. He has kept virtually every conceivable option open for himself: inclusion in the political process, violent rebellion against the political process, or even peaceful rebellion against the political process.
However, he is a vivid reminder of how U.S. relations with the Shia Islamists groups can turn on a dime. He has launched two major rebellions against U.S. forces, and I believe he would not hesitate to rebel again if he thought that doing so were in his interest.
His next rebellion, if there is one, might draw in more disillusioned Shias, possibly joined by Sunnis; and it might become harder and harder for the United States or other Shia politicians, such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani, to contain him. Was Muqtada al-Sadr the type of leader the United States might have wanted for Iraq when it decided to oust Saddam Hussein? I doubt it.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think these two presentations and the discussion of the background of the Shia parties in Iraq and their past history of international activity are a sobering reminder that there have been plenty of precedents for U.S. policy — for example, our assistance to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, which was for a very good cause, ultimately producing results that many regret. I hope that’s not the case in Iraq, but I fear it may be.
I just take one issue with you, Ken, and that is that you’ve referred to Afghanistan as winding down. As far as I know, it’s still going on — 18,000 American troops combating an indigenous group of misguided Islamists, who as far as I know did nothing directly to the United States. One wonders how much punishment of the Taliban is enough, and when and how we will be able to say “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan.
This brings us of course to Iran, which, as Ken pointed out, is quite pleased by the result of American action in Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban. That removed Iran’s enemies on one front. We then removed Iran’s enemies on its other front. I guess that just leaves us as the enemy. I don’t know what Iran is going to do about that, but perhaps, Karim, you can enlighten us.
KARIM SADJADPOUR, analyst, International Crisis Group
It’s really a privilege to be among such a distinguished panel. I’ve read so much from the writings of all my fellow panelists. In fact, Juan Cole was actually my undergraduate professor at the University of Michigan. I got a B in his class. I’m not sure if he remembered me (laughter).
PROF. COLE: It’s not easy to get a B from me.
MR. SADJADPOUR: I’ve spent the bulk of the last two-and-a-half years living in Iran and Lebanon, so I want to talk today about the view from Tehran, not only vis-à-vis Iraq but also the rest of the region. And if there is time afterwards, I would like to talk a little about Shiite popular sentiment in the region. I don’t believe Iran is interested in creating an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq, the velayat-e faqi system. The International Crisis Group did a long report about Iran’s role in Iraq that can be found at www.igc.org. I think Iranian officials are cognizant of the fact that Iraq is a very heterogeneous society, both ethnically and religiously, and the same type of system that works in Iran is not likely to be sustainable in Iraq.
I would like to go back to the immediate aftermath of the war, when President Bush said official combat is over — I believe that was spring 2003 — and fast-forward to the elections of last January. People generally agree that Iran’s policy was, as we described it, managed chaos. On one hand, they didn’t want to see the Americans succeed in Iraq. They’re very concerned that success would embolden the Americans to transfer this policy of regime change to Iran next. They wanted to teach the Americans an expensive lesson. At the same time, they were concerned about a total breakdown in Iraq in the form of a civil war. A civil war raged in Afghanistan for over two decades and created about 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran. So they were concerned about the situation and the prospect of a territorial breakdown in Iraq, particularly the prospect of an independent Kurdistan. As we all know, Iran has their own Kurdish community, and they were concerned about a possible domino effect.
There was a balancing act for many months, but in the run-up to the January 30, 2005, elections there was a recognition in Iran that “we have to kind of turn the corner.” From the viewpoint of the Iranian regime there were two main priorities. They wanted their Shiite friends to have power, as Mr. Katzman said. There was an Iranian official who summed this up to me aptly, saying just as they say democracies don’t fight democracies, we believe Shiites don’t fight Shiites. This very much influenced the Iranian worldview. They fought eight years of a bloody war with Iraq, and they’re very concerned about the prospect of Sunni Baathists or an ideological regime coming to power.
What was amazing during that time, following the Iranian media, is that even Iranian newspapers like Kayhan, which are the most fascist of newspapers and would issue death threats to people who called for democracy in Iran, were calling for free and fair elections in Iraq. All of a sudden they became Jeffersonian democrats because they really believed that, given a one-person-one-vote election, the demographics of Iraq would be in Iran’s interest.
The second Iranian priority after achieving a Shiite-led Iraq is to get the Americans out. They very much want to see the Iraqis take over their own country, and I think they understood that to achieve this they needed a certain degree of stability. And I think we could agree that Iran actually has been operating with a certain amount of restraint in light of all the attacks from Sunni insurgents on Iraqi Shiites, and that Iraqi Shiites have also displayed a considerable amount of restraint.
Now I’d like to fast-forward to the current debate on the constitution. As Ken Katzman said very aptly, there is concern right now that Iran stands to benefit the most from the current drafting of this constitution. In fact, pan-Arab dailies have been writing that this document has been co-written by the Americans and the Iranians. But if we look at this federalist system that’s being proposed in Iraq, it’s a double-edged sword for Iran. It’s assumed by the Arabs, and especially the Saudis, that a Shiite regime in southern Iraq is in Iran’s interest, but at the same time the potential for an independent Kurdistan in the north has very strong implications for Iran. Iranian Kurdistan has been experiencing a lot of unrest. Kurds compose around 10 percent of Iran’s population, and there is concern that, if the Iraqi Kurds do try to break out, this could cause a potential domino effect on Iranian Kurds.
The view from Tehran, I would argue, is that if we can have the Shiites come to power and control the entire country via the ballot box, why would we want them just to control the south? Nevertheless, I think that Iran’s leadership believes at the same time that a federalist system would probably be less costly for them than it would be for the Turks or Saudi Arabia.
To take Iran’s broader view of the region, there is one consistent message that came out in my conversations with Iranian officials, and that is the desire for regional hegemony, to be the regional power in the Middle East. Iranians see this as a very natural role for them based on their strategic location, the country’s natural resources, its human capital, its culture, its history. I would argue that as opposed to their thinking in the early days of the revolution, they don’t hope to achieve this regional hegemony by trying to instigate Islamic revolutions throughout the region to create a Shiite crescent.
I would argue that they want to have their Shiite friends in as many positions of leadership as possible, not just in Iraq, but throughout the region. This doesn’t mean taking over. Shiites compose only about 10 percent of the Saudi regime, so, obviously, they don’t believe that there is the potential for Saudi Arabia to become a Shiite-led country. But, from their viewpoint, having Shiite leadership in the region will cause these countries to be more acquiescent to Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony. It’s very interesting to note how Iran has evolved from the early days of the revolution from pursuing ideological interests to pursuing national interests. I will just mention one example, and that is the issue of the term “Persian” Gulf. At the beginning of the revolution, they actually proposed renaming it the Islamic Gulf to reach out to their Arab friends. Now, if you don’t say the word Persian in front of Gulf, it causes a diplomatic crisis!
I will end by talking about President Ahmadinejad’s election and what possible impact this is going to have on Iran’s regional outlook. I would argue that it is very unlikely that Iran will ever go back to the ideological, isolationist policy of the early days of the revolution. At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s administration is not going to reach out, like Khatami’s administration, to Saudi Arabia and the Europeans.
The concern I and many other people have is that these groups that supported, Ahmadinejad, namely the revolutionary guards, the Pasdaran, feel somewhat as if they have a mandate to do as they like after this victory. Ahmadinejad himself is a product of the revolutionary guards, and there is a concern that they are going to be undertaking freelance activities, not only in Iraq, but elsewhere in the region. I think we have seen recent examples of this with the accusations from the British that there has been Iranian support for the killing of British soldiers. Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia are also starting to deteriorate, and Iran is not reaching out to the Saudis or trying to alleviate the concerns of other Sunni countries in the region.
AMB. FREEMAN: I am particularly glad that you mentioned the Kurds, who were betrayed four times in the last century and who seem to be headed for yet another betrayal as the twenty-first century begins. I don’t understand what the merits can be of an American policy that encourages a degree of Kurdish autonomy or independence that is unacceptable to Turkey, Iran or other citizens of Iraq, because this would seem to lead inevitably to the sort of tragedy that is at the heart of modern Kurdish history. I am glad you mentioned the Iranian concern about this. One might find even greater concern, I think, in Turkey, particularly given the history of PKK terrorism. This issue is very difficult to deal with. The Kurds are underdogs, they are brave, they are mountain people, they exemplify many virtues that we admire, and yet history has not perhaps prepared them for the role that they believe they should have.
RAY TAKEYH, senior fellow, Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
To be the last speaker on a panel of four, I could just say I agree, it’s [too] soon to tell. Questions? But I will try to fill in some of the gaps, to the extent that they were left.
There is a sort of alarmist discussion taking place here and elsewhere that the rise of a new reactionary government in Iran constitutes, as Karim was saying, the resurgence of revolution as a basis of Iranian regional policy. I would like to suggest that the new Iranian government’s approach to its region is marked by a greater degree of continuity than change.
To be sure, there is a very different cast of characters that have come to power. For them the most salient experience was not necessarily the revolution itself, but the prolonged war with Iraq, their isolation from the United States, their suspicion of an international community that tolerated the use of chemical weapons against Iran with impunity, and their devotion to the revolution’s original mandate. These experiences define their ideology. They tend to be rather dogmatic in their belief that the Islamic Republic has something to offer, and rather simplistic in their assertion that all problems can be resolved if you go back to the roots of the revolution, whatever that means.
In terms of international relations, some are talking about an “Eastern” orientation, which, I think as it becomes exposed and analyzed, will prove to be more of a slogan than a policy. What does Eastern orientation mean in the era of globalization? Nevertheless, it is the conception of foreign policy that the Iranians are coming into. They will suggest that globalization does not constitute capitulation to the United States, or for that matter to the Europeans, but cultivating a relationship with other emerging global actors. Those emerging industrial powers are situated mostly in the Eastern bloc — India, China, Russia— so you don’t necessarily require relations with the United States.
The Khatami period had its own international orientation. It suggested that Iran should develop a relationship with all critical regional and international actors: the EU, Russia, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it would be the United States, not Iran, that would be isolated in the international arena — a coalition-of-the-willing approach.The new regime does not necessarily reject that framework of international relations.
It just privileges certain actors over others, in this particular case, the Eastern actors. After a quarter-century of hostility, wars and sanctions, Iran’s emerging leadership class is looking East, where it is hoped that its human-rights record and proliferation tendencies would not necessarily be disturbing to its prospective commercial partners. Again, there is some degree of continuity, not necessarily change.
I would suggest that Khatami fundamentally, irrevocably and irretrievably changed Iranian foreign policy. There will be no return to the roots of the revolution in terms of instigating revolutionary upheavals elsewhere and resorting to terrorism as a primary, if not exclusive, instrument of policy. So in that particular sense, the Iranian’s regime, whoever succeeds Khatami, including these younger reactionaries, cannot easily reverse a foreign policy that enjoys widespread support across the political spectrum. To be sure, Iran’s new rulers have dispensed with a dialogue-of-civilizations rhetoric.
They are unlikely to want to have a relationship with the United States. For the older generation of Iranians, those who were present at the creation of the revolution, the United States was the predominant actor. For Khatami and for the hardliners, it was the source of all of their problems. For the reformers and pragmatists, it was the solution to all of their dilemmas.
The new Iranian leadership is refreshingly indifferent to the United States. For them, the United States is just another actor, a pernicious, sinister one, to be sure, but just another country on the global landscape. They don’t have that unhealthy obsession with the United States and things American. I suspect that also affects their negotiations on the nuclear issue.
Is there a Shiite crescent, the question that needs to be answered? I think there may be one in the Persian Gulf region. I am not smart enough to deal with the entire landscape of the Middle East, but certainly you begin to see certain changes taking place in the Persian Gulf, where that sub region of the Middle East is beginning to be polarized, not so much between revolutionary Islam and status-quo powers, but along sectarian lines.
Political alignments of that region are beginning to change in a dramatic way. Today we are beginning to see the contours of what a future Iraqi state may look like. It is likely to be a federated state; it is likely to have a weakened central government and strong if not autonomous provinces that are governed by contending ethnic or sectarian groups. For a long time, it was said that the tension between Iran and Iraq is inevitable.
They both have aspirations to emerge as the preeminent power in the Gulf; they have some territorial disputes historically. But I would suggest that if it is those objections and aspirations that have divided Iran and Iraq, then how do we account for a prolonged period of peace and stability from the time Iraq became formally independent in 1932 all the way to 1958, when you had the first republican and subsequent Baathist revolution? During that time, the two countries managed to contain their differences, resolve their disputes in a reasonable fashion, and even cooperate on issues of common concern.
Therefore, I would suggest it is not regional aspirations or territorial disputes that have historically divided two countries, but the nature of their political systems. It was the incompatibility of the political systems that actually divided them. When both of them were governed by conservative monarchies, they had a reasonable relationship. However, the Baathist Iraqi government found the Pahlavi dynasty as objectionable as Iran’s theocratic elite found Saddam reprehensible. The nature of their domestic systems generated much of the tension; it essentially made disputes and disagreements between the two countries irresolvable.
That is no longer the case, as has been mentioned. So what does Gulf security look like from here on? In the 1970s, there was a discussion of twin pillars: the United States would rely on its allies, the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the 1980s, the United States would favor Iraq against Iran; and in the 1990s, a policy of dual containment with a strong American presence in the region would contain both Iran and Iraq. I would suggest that we’re beginning to see the emergence of a dual-pillar policy again, but the pillars are Shiite. You begin to see Iran and Iraq in a greater degree of cooperation as their strategic interests coincide.
The party that seems to be marginalized, pressured and certainly anxious would be Saudi Arabia. Saudi’s Sunni militancy is not looked upon with favor by its northern Shiite neighbors. And, unlike the smaller Gulf states, I don’t believe the Saudis have the option of once again subsuming themselves under the American security umbrella; simply because that security umbrella is domestically provocative and unacceptable within the internal politics of Saudi Arabia.
The smaller Gulf states — Bahrain, Kuwait and so on — will continue to balance their relations with the Shiite states and with the external empire of the United States, whose presence in the Gulf would inevitably recede to perhaps an offshore presence as was the case in the past. The geopolitical condition of Saudi Arabia is likely to suffer. And quite possibly, one of the important achievements of the Khatami period, namely reconciliation between the two states, might not necessarily be reversed but would certainly be chilled.
For those who suggested that the United States could intervene in Iraq and it would temper Sunni militancy; isolate, if not overthrow, Iran; and somehow transform the region, if not the entire Middle East, into a pro-American domestic bastion — to suggest that the opposite is emerging is to understate the case.
AMB. FREEMAN: You didn’t explain how our actions are preventing the formation of a new caliphate, which I assume we will come to in the discussion. I would just remark that, from the point of view of the Gulf Arabs generally, the preference has been for a balance of power between Iran and Iraq buttressed as need be by outside power. With Iraq either in a state of anarchy or civil war, or under the best of circumstances with a weak central government and strong regions, it is clear that Iraq can no longer play that role.
Therefore, the Gulf states confront a dilemma. Either they continue their reliance on the United States with all of the political irritation that that entails, or they find other partners. Other partners might present themselves in the form of Pakistan, for example, which needs money from the Gulf and the strategic depth that the Gulf could provide. So I think we are looking at a very unstable regional security situation. And as you said, Ray, when one looks at what was promised as we entered this adventure, to say that we failed to achieve it is a gross understatement.
Q & A
Q: Would you all speak a little more in depth about Saudi Arabia and specifically their Shia population, what kind of relations they may have with Iran, and how that may change? I am specifically thinking back to the situation in 1979-80, when it was determined that Iran might have had a hand in the uprising during that period, and whether Saudi Arabia has concerns regarding that and how valid those may be.
PROF. COLE: The Saudi-Shiite community is largely in the eastern province, al Hasa, and the majority of them are Usuli Shiites who follow Grand Ayatollah Sistani. I have been in contact with researchers who have been there recently, and Sistani is clearly the dominant influence. For the Saudi regime, I think this is a double-edged sword in the sense that probably they would prefer, if somebody has to be influential there, that it be Sistani rather than Qom in Iran. On the other hand, Sistani has been calling for parliamentary democracy and the exercise of the will of the people, and to get the Shiites in al Hasa stirred up about that is perhaps not preferable from Riyadh’s point of view. Sistani’s ideology of the popular will would imply that the Shiites have a much bigger claim on Saudi oil resources than they actually get. The oil is mainly under areas that traditionally are Shiite, but they haven’t benefited from it as much as the rest of the country.
There is also a sectarian element to the Saudi Shiite community which is the Shaykhi founded in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Ahsai. The Shaykhis have a significant presence not only in al Hasa, but also in Kuwait and Basra. There are about 200,000 Shaykhis in Basra. Their leader is Ali al Hasawai. The Basra community has very strong links to the al Hasa community. The Shaykhis of Basra are politically relatively quietist, but they act as a corporate group and have sometimes been militant. They organized last year to expel Marsh Arab tribes from Basra who were being rowdy and shooting up things and smuggling, and so forth. They formed a Shaykhi militia and chased the Marsh Arabs out of Basra.
So I think from a Saudi point of view, Iran is always a danger; the Shiites of Saudi Arabia are viewed as potentially a fifth column for Iran. But what is more worrisome from a Saudi point of view, I think, is the very strong links of the al Hasa Shia to Iraq. In the nineteenth century, there were times when the reporting line of the Kayamakob of al Hasa went through the Ottoman governor of Basra. This configuration helps to explain the extreme Saudi alarm about the rise of Shiite Iraq.
DR. KATZMAN: It’s been almost nine years, but the Khobar Towers bombing obviously raised renewed fears that there was some Shia activism in Saudi Arabia. That was a surprise because there had been a 1993 reconciliation between the government and the Shia community allowing many of those in exile to return to the eastern province and resume publishing and their jobs. Since Khobar, though, there have obviously been many arrests, it has been fairly quiet, and there have been some more reconciliation moves between the government and the Shia community.
MR. SADJADPOUR: I don’t want to keep promoting the International Crisis Group’s work, but one of my colleagues wrote a wonderful report just recently about the Shiites in Saudi Arabia, all based on primary research from the kingdom. Talking about the popular perception, when I think about the Shiites of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, particularly the Shiites of Saudi Arabia, there is a Persian proverb that comes to mind: “They’re seated in between two chairs,” meaning that on one hand they are not totally accepted in their own country, they are often considered heretics by their Wahhabi compatriots or looked upon with suspicion as Iran sympathizers. But when they come to Iran, anyone who is familiar with the Iranian culture knows that there is a Persian chauvinism vis-à-vis the Arabs, especially the Khalij Arabs; they are somewhat looked down upon. And they see firsthand that this Shiite solidarity definitely does not transcend the Persian-Arab cultural divide. This is a problem in Saudi Arabia, and this International Crisis Group report recommended that they be more included, politically and culturally.
Q: It seems to me that there is a last chapter of this study-group report that has to be written here, and that is policy recommendations for the United States. What should we do now?
PROF. COLE: Muqtada al-Sadr formed his militia in the summer of 2003, and ultimately it came into conflict with the Marines in the spring of 2004. Muqtada was in a difficult position. He went to Grand Ayatollah Sistani and said, “If you give the order, I will dissolve this militia.” Sistani is a canny old man, and he knew he was being drawn into something he didn’t want. He said, “Well, you didn’t ask me before you formed the militia….” I have the same feeling about this question.
There is a contradiction at the heart of Bush administration policy with regard to Iraq. It wanted to recreate Iraq as a pro-American government with private enterprise and democracy and a glowing view of Washington, but it also, I think, genuinely wanted to unleash democratic forces in the society as a means to that goal. The problem is that the political forces on the ground in Iraq are not necessarily terribly democratic and, to the extent that they are, they are not necessarily in line with Washington goals.
So the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq won nine of 18 provinces. That clearly wasn’t what the Bush administration would have predicted or what it was going for in 2003. I’m amused sometimes when journalists ask me what I think SCIRI wants. I suggest that they think about the name of the organization. While it is true that perhaps their ideology has been moderated by the events of the past two years and by their success in parliamentary politics, I don’t think the United States has much choice but to continue to support the democratic process in Iraq. That inevitably leads it into an alliance with the main parties that are in play there, whatever they may be.
I think there will be a temptation for the United States to tinker with the December 15 elections — to throw money around and to try to get the Allawi group back into power.
That is clearly the horse on which Washington bet initially. It is the horse that fell behind and came in last the previous time. I think this is a very dangerous mistake. If there is even any hint the United States is behind the scenes putting a sort of secular anti-Iranian, anti-Sistani government in power in Baghdad, it’s going to destabilize the whole country. So I am afraid that the best thing for the United States to do is to continue to support some sort of democratic process in Iraq and let the chips fall where they may.
AMB. FREEMAN: When confronted with policy dilemmas of this kind, there are two sound bits of advice to which one can refer. One is the slogan of the National Bureaucratic Party candidate for president some years ago: When in charge, ponder; when in trouble, delegate; and when in doubt, mumble. And in this there is a further bit of advice, offered in connection with Bosnia. What rules should you follow when tempted to intervene in a civil war — because we are in the middle of a civil war in Iraq now? The first bit of advice is, don’t. Second, if you do, pick the side that can win. And, third, make sure they win fast and win decisively. This argues for letting the Shia majority craft the future in Iraq, and that is very unfortunate for everybody else. But then, as many of you who have attended these sessions know, the theme song of these events as Iraq has unfolded has been that we invaded not Iraq but the Iraq of our dreams, a country that didn’t exist and that we didn’t understand. It is therefore not surprising that we knocked the kaleidoscope into a new pattern that we find surprising. The ignorant are always surprised.
DR. KATZMAN: The Iraq issue is going to be a case that is studied by students of foreign policy for generations, the key question being, do you use the military to restructure internal politics in a country or a state? In my view, the United States is now perceived as the protector of the Shiite–Kurdish alliance. The United States has tried two things. One is to crush the Sunnis and show them they cannot win and must either capitulate and join the political process or be defeated. That has not worked. The second track that we have tried is to convince the Sunnis that the train is leaving the station: get on board the political process now because if you don’t participate, you will be left behind. This, I believe, has not succeeded either.
The Sunnis have kept fighting. I see no evidence that the insurgency is any weaker. No U.S. military leader says the insurgency is any weaker than it was a year ago. The Sunnis have not been crushed. They are not about to be crushed. The U.S. embassy and the U.S. military have tried to change tack, to their credit. They have tried to negotiate with key Sunnis: the Muslim Clerics Association, Harith al-Dhari, Abd al-Salam al-Kubaisi. These are key figures. They have refused to negotiate with the United States to date because they insist on a timetable for withdrawal. These are key leaders to approach and negotiate with, because they do have the respect of the insurgents.
But the idea of crushing the Sunnis or convincing them that they are going to be dealt out has not worked, and I think the U.S. embassy, to its credit, is trying new approaches with the Sunnis to promote political reconciliation. But the problem I see is that there is so much mistrust; at this point, it is going to be very hard to bring the Sunnis into this structure. I wonder whether it’s too late for that strategy.
MR. SADJADPOUR: I would focus my recommendations on U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran. I would argue that it is going to be very difficult to stabilize and democratize Iraq while simultaneously antagonizing Iran, a country which arguably enjoys the greatest amount of influence on Iraq. I would emphasize that dialogue in no way equals appeasement; but by not talking to Iran, we’re letting both the Iraq issue and the nuclear issue fester, and we are not doing anything about improving the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran.
DR. TAKEYH: I just asked to speak to simply say, I don’t know. I have been thinking about what the Gulf security architecture will look like. And the best-case scenario, if you want to be optimistic, is that the internal constituencies in Iraq will somehow find some sort of an accommodation. You can see in the constitutional process that the Shia and the Kurdish communities are beginning to have some degree of understanding on a compact, which is to leave the other guys out. Maybe that somehow stabilizes the fractious Iraqi society. The emergence of a federated Iraq with a strong Shia component will, I think, diminish the divisiveness between Iran and Iraq. I am not sure if that is in the interest of Iran, Iraq or the United States. Self-regulation is not necessarily a bad thing, given the fact that the American presence has proven inflammatory and the source of division. So I think we may be coming into an era where potentially the Gulf can stabilize itself without the necessity of external empires, whether it’s the British Empire or the American one having a dominant voice in its deliberations. There will be some people who will be anxious and even isolated — I particularly think of the house of Saud — but that just might be the way things evolve. I’m not sure if there is anything the United States can do to prevent these indigenous trends from evolving, and I’m not sure it should try.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think it is fair to say, going back to Juan’s original, somewhat facetious, response to this very serious question, that we weren’t consulted when we went in, and therefore it’s rather strange to be consulted on how we should get out.
PROF. COLE: I think we are still not being consulted.
AMB. FREEMAN: Of course, but I just want to point out a very interesting thing, and that is, in the current issue of Middle East Policy, there is an article called “A Responsible Exit Strategy.” The author, Gareth Porter, was asked to do a survey of exit strategies and then provide his own ideas. Well, the fact is, nobody had written an exit strategy when he wrote this. His was the first; now there are several others [see Gary Hart interview, p.145]. What they all have in common is some effort to involve Iraq’s neighbors, who have the largest stake in Iraqi stability, whether Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, or other major players in the Arab world, and to implicate them in a conference and a set of agreements that would bolster Iraqi security and stability. This would mean using a positive form of internationalization to prevent the further internationalization of the struggles going on inside Iraq. But when you consider how disparate the interests of these players are, this is a very tall order.
Q: The Americans did not insist on disarming the 60,000 Kurdish peshmerga. They have been built up since the Gulf War, and Israel has a very strong interest in an independent Kurdistan. The second question is this: the American plan to build 14 bases is not going to work out in the Shiite or Sunni regions. And there is a strong possibility America would want some of those bases in the Kurdish area. So if the Kurds go for independence, would the Americans bomb? And how relevant is American advice? Are we going to have a Shia-Sunni Thirty Years’ War? Are the borders that were set up after the first war going to change?
AMB. FREEMAN: On the Kurdish issue, I would just point out that you can’t get to Iraqi Kurdistan except through Turkey or Arab Iraq. And if Kurdistan declares independence, the Turks will have their own reaction, and I wouldn’t give you a nickel for the lives of the 60,000 peshmerga under that circumstance. I would note also that the peshmerga are now in some cases dressed in Iraqi National Army uniforms. They are being used in places like Tal Afar to sweep through Turkmen and Arab regions. In my view, that does not help the prospects for future peace and stability in Iraq.
DR. TAKEYH: The one place where the United States could probably get basing rights is in Kurdistan. I think privately the Kurds are actually promising that to their American interlocutors. This is just going to be another source of instability, because I don’t believe that you can reverse the sort of autonomy and even independence that Kurdistan enjoys. Perhaps it won’t get to formal independence, but you already begin to see ramifications of Kurdish autonomy. You have Kurdish disturbances in Iran. You have similar effects in Syria. Maybe over time this will settle into some sort of a pattern of functional independence without necessarily the assertion of it in a formal diplomatic manner, but that is the best you can hope for.
MR. SADJADPOUR: I would agree with Ray’s comments. Every Iraqi Kurd you come across — in opinion polls upwards of 90 percent — says they prefer independence. I spoke to an Iraqi Kurdish official a few weeks ago in a conference in Europe and asked him, “How do you reconcile this?” His analysis was quite sober. He said, “ All Kurds would like to have an independent state, but look at that state. We’d have no access to water whatsoever, and we’d be surrounded by four very hostile neighbors: Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.” Even if they do have oil resources, how are they going to be able to exploit them?
PROF. COLE: This constitution that we’re having the referendum on tomorrow makes it unnecessary for the Kurds to declare independence, because it gives them everything that they could possibly have wanted. The constitution is a little vague on these matters; it does say that some things will be settled by parliamentary statute later on. But it appears to say that the provinces of Iraq may confederate. This is called federalism in the American press, but actually it’s much more than that: it’s confederalism. It’s as though Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico could form a confederacy and tell the federal government in Washington, you’re not going to be getting nearly as much money from taxes on our oil industry as you used to because we’re going to keep that money here in our confederacy. And, if you have any business with Austin or Santa Fe, you’re going to have to go through our confederal parliament and prime minister from now on.
The last time we had a confederacy here in North America, it caused a lot of trouble. And the Iraqi constitution actually provides for the formation of these confederacies, which then will have a claim on some proportion of natural resources, which is to say petroleum revenues. Probably around a fourth of the Kirkuk fields will stay in Kurdistan. Around a fourth of the Rumaila revenues will stay in whatever Shiite confederacy is formed in the south. And then there’s a provision that 100 percent of all future finds will stay in the regional confederacies. The geologists think southern Iraq is floating on petroleum. Well, if the future petroleum industry in southern Iraq is going to be owned by this or that confederation of provinces – and Baghdad isn’t even going to get much of a share of it – then the degree of autonomy that it gives the regions is enormous. Of course, the Kurds benefit from this in their region as well. What’s left for Baghdad to do would be a little bit of foreign policy. The prime minister could visit Riyadh and Tehran from time to time. Aside from that I’m not sure what’s left for the federal government to do.
DR. KATZMAN: I would agree with everything that’s been said. On the Sunni-Shia issue, I see very little prospect for reconciliation right now. The United States has greatly misread Sunni hatred and resentment at what has happened. The Sunnis have not accepted anything that has happened to them since March 19, 2003, and most of the governments around Iraq are as committed as the Sunnis in Iraq to overturning what has happened to them. And the United States has therefore, I think, misread the intentions of the neighbors, which I think is to reverse what has happened. There is a sense of betrayal among the Sunnis. Their view is, “you Shia and Kurds didn’t have the guts to rise up against Saddam. You called in the United States to do your work for you.” This sense of betrayal, I think, has been greatly underestimated here.
Q: We have heard nothing at all about the Shiite feeling that they’ve been treated terribly unjustly by whatever government there was. Do the Shiites in Lebanon feel at all excluded and mistreated by the Sunnis?
PROF. COLE: There is a great deal of resentment still, as you know, among the Shiites of Iraq that the United States stood by and allowed Saddam to put down the 1991 uprising when 16 of 18 provinces went out of the hands of the Baath and the United States could have interdicted the helicopter gunships that Saddam used to put that rebellion down and did not. This feeling of resentment has been voiced by Grand Ayatollah Bashir Najafi, who’s in line to succeed Sistani. He clearly still smarts and has anti-American feelings about that episode. He has given sermons about it in Najaf. That whole episode is then exacerbated from the point of view of Shiite opinion by the recent comments of the Saudi foreign minister, who, addressing the United States, said in effect, “Why are you now turning Iraq over to the Iranians? We, the Saudis and the Americans, fought a war after the Gulf war to prevent the Iranians from taking over Iraq.” He seemed to be saying that the United States and Saudi Arabia actively collaborated with Saddam in killing 60,000 Shiites in Iraq because they considered them agents of Iranian influence. I think he must have been exaggerating, but I know [this] for a fact because I was called from Baghdad by Radio Sawa for a discussion about this in Arabic. The Iraqi Shia were hopping mad about this. The interior minister responded to Saud al-Faisal by saying that Iraqis had invented writing and civilization and didn’t need any lectures on democracy from some Bedouin on camelback.
The Shiites in southern Lebanon are the poorest part of the population in Lebanon with the possible exception of the Palestinian refugees. They have a real sense of being deprived. They’re Harakat al-Mahrumin, the “movement of the deprived.” This is especially played to by Hezbollah because of its social services and the way in which it has gotten clinics and other services to the poor in southern Lebanon. However, I wouldn’t say that the resentments among the Shia in southern Lebanon are formulated with regard to Sunni Arabs. They’ve had resentments about the Palestinians poaching on their resources; they’ve had resentments occasionally against the Maronite elite. And Lebanon is a kaleidoscope. Sometimes these groups will be allied with one another, then they’ll switch off. But the main rhetoric has been to focus on Israel. I think Hezbollah has benefited from the Iraq situation. Hezbollah in some ways was formed under the tutelage of the Iraqi Dawa party. It has old and longstanding relationships with the Iraqi Shiite religious groups. If the Iraqi Shia get rich because they capture the Rumaila oil-field moneys, some of that patronage is going to go straight to the Shiites of southern Lebanon. So I think Hezbollah and Amal, the Shiite groups in Lebanon, are in a much strengthened position. You can see this in the recent elections there, a result of the Iraq misadventure.
AMB. FREEMAN: I would like to make a brief intervention with regard to what Prince Saud said and how it may have been misread. I was the American ambassador in Riyadh during the time that these events took place. I can assure you that Saud and his brother Turki, who was the head of the foreign-intelligence service, were both pressing very hard, as was the king, for American intervention on behalf of the Iraqi Shia against Saddam, contrary to what the American press was reporting on a conjectural basis. So, whatever Saud said, I think that reading is incorrect. It may be that he was referring to support for Iraq as a balancer against Iran in the earlier context. There certainly was a measure of collusion with Baghdad about that, but not in the matter of the suppression of the Shia, who in the Saudi view at that time had shown themselves to be Arabs and Iraqis first and Shia third through eight years of heroic struggle in the war with Iran.
DR. KATZMAN: Clearly, there were very legitimate Shia grievances in Iraq. That’s no question. But the United States went to war to create democracy, not to just replace Shia grievances with Sunni grievances. That’s the key question. What is the proper use of U.S. military power? It seems to me what we’ve done is to replace an oppressive Sunni regime with perhaps an oppressive Shia-led regime. That was not the outcome that was desired from the use of major U.S. military action. This is why I think this is going to be a case study for many generations to come.
MR. SADJADPOUR: About the Shiites in Lebanon, the idea of victimization does fit into the Shiite identity to an extent. But I would argue that the Shiites of Lebanon have made tremendous strides over the last two decades. In south Lebanon, I’ve heard even a lot of Shiite activists say that actually the north has been neglected to an extent. [Tyre], I would argue, is doing much better economically than Tripoli to the north. If you asked all of Lebanon’s 17 different sects which sect right now is the most powerful, the vast majority of them would say the Shiites.
DR. TAKEYH: If Ken is correct that the Sunni population with its aspirations cannot be accommodated in an Iraqi state, whatever that Iraqi state looks like, it will have ramifications way beyond Iraq. You’ll begin to see the radicalization of Sunni politics as a destabilizing factor for states such as Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. That’s when you will begin to see the Middle East polarized along religious lines, where it’s no longer a division between conservative or national states. Now religion is a source of division. Not that there will be massive suicide bombers crossing the Saudi border into the Iraqi state, but Egyptian political parties and activists will say to the Egyptian government, “there are Sunnis being disenfranchised and slaughtered. What are you doing about it?” Even nonrepresentative governments have to be sensitive to public opinion in some ways. So the question becomes, how do the Sunni-majority governments distant from Iraq respond to that popular question?
AMB. FREEMAN: Actually, it’s beyond the Arab world. It affects Indonesia. It affects Pakistan, India.
DR. TAKEYH: How do they respond to that popular pressure? How do they respond to ameliorating Sunni grievances? That’s going to be a very difficult thing for the region.
AMB. FREEMAN: There is ample injustice and humiliation for all in the Middle East. And of course, this is the source of terrorism. It is not economic deprivation or education in religious schools. It is a sense of injustice and humiliation that drives people to terrorism. Therefore, if we have succeeded in infecting both Sunnis and Shias with this sense, we’ve done something fairly consequential.
Q: What troubles me about this discussion so far is that everyone is assuming this Sunni versus Shia polarization as an inevitable, permanent fact of life. I’ve talked to many Iraqis over many years, and most of them say that Iraq was a beacon of secularism, education and even sophistication, and not a country of followers of crusty, bearded ayatollahs. I recognize that our intervention may have angered and polarized people who then cluster and follow this or that religious party, whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood or the Iraqi Islamic party. I have to believe that there’s a significant constituency among the Iraqi Shia as well as other groups for a non-religious party.
That leads to the second part of my question: what did we know and when did we know it? As a journalist, I talked to a lot of people about WMD and al-Qaeda and everything else before the war. No one said to me, “you ought to be worried about Shiite theocracy, by the way.” Did we miss that entirely? Leaving aside the neocons and their fantasies, did our intelligence system entirely miss the fact that these Shiites were about to take over? Bush had Hakim in the oval office before the war, as I remember. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but he has certainly talked about it, called him a Shia fellow and so forth. That’s literally what he said. Did we miss this before the war? Was this yet another intelligence failure?
DR. KATZMAN: No, this was not missed. You can look up papers that I wrote when I was there on SCIRI and things like this. This was known. Richard Kerr just did a review of U.S. intelligence, and it was demonstrated that, indeed, the CIA was warning about this very thing, but it was not sufficiently taken into account by policy makers, who were more focused on WMD and links to al-Qaeda.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think it’s fair to say the policy makers were focused on making the case for war. Whatever facts could be used to that end, they touted. Whatever facts were unhelpful in that regard, they ignored. They looked at the intelligence as the basis for speechwriting, not as a source of information or planning.
PROF. COLE: About the secular middle class in Iraq and the image of Iraq as a country in which sectarian divisions weren’t so important, that’s both true and not true. If you go back in twentieth-century Iraqi history, there haven’t been Sunni-Shia riots or a lot of sectarian bloodshed in the past. It happened from time to time in the medieval period; it hasn’t been a keynote for modern Iraq. There was a strong sense of Iraqi nationalism and even to some extent of general Arab nationalism. There was rhetoric of Iraqi unity across these lines and a good deal of intermarriage, of in-migration. There were a million Sunnis in the Shiite south. There are a million Kurds in the Baghdad area and so forth.
But I would argue that, in the late Saddam period, political unity broke down. The people in Fallujah came under the influence of Jordanian Salafism, and Saddam allowed that because he was so weak and felt he needed their support. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa party, the Sadrists captured the political loyalty of most of the southern Shiites. All of this was going on in the ’90s under the radar.
The elections of January 30 are eloquent as to where peoples’ heads are in Iraq. The Allawi list was supposed to be the secular middle-class list. Even people who knew Iraq, like Anthony Shadid, expected it to do very well in Basra. In fact, it got 14 percent of the seats in parliament. I think that’s about how many people support secular nationalism at this point. People’s heads are at a religious place in Iraq now. There’s a religious revival going on.
Q: About the Shia percentage in Iraq, everybody takes it as granted that it’s 60 percent. In ’83, when I came to this country, the human-rights report which the State Department publishes here every year — between ’83 until almost ’90 — said Saddam Hussein should give the minority Shiites their rights. Suddenly, when they invaded Kuwait, they became 50 percent exactly.
PROF. COLE: There’s been no census by sect in Iraq, so everything is guesswork. People like Hanna Batatu, the great scholar of Iraq, were convinced of a firm Shiite majority, which he believed was formed in the nineteenth century as the southern Arab tribes converted to Shiism. I think the January 30 elections were dispositive in this regard, because the Shiite parties won close to 70 percent of the seats. The Kurdish parties won 25 percent. On a proportional system, the only way to make sense of those statistics is that the Sunnis are about 20 percent and that would have pushed back the proportions on both sides. But you can’t have 70 percent of the seats in parliament filled on a proportional basis with the kind of turnout that we had if the Shiites are a minority. You could also go through the 1987 or the 1997 census.
MR. SADJADPOUR: By all accounts, the Shiite birthrates have been much higher than others. This has been a phenomenon throughout the regions, and it’s probably affiliated with socioeconomic status. Saudi Arabia is interesting in this regard. A study I read a few years ago estimated Saudi Shia at about 500,000. A study I read just a few days ago estimated them at about 2 million. In Syria, we’re talking about an Alawite regime. There are very few Shiites to speak of in Syria, so this idea of a crescent I don’t think carries much weight.
Q: I would like to address my comments to Mr. Katzman. You mentioned supporting Saddam in spite of the Shiites. I think this is where the polarization began. How do you feel that this monologue about dialogue can continue? Do you think this situation can be reversed?
DR. KATZMAN: We talked about an exit strategy. I think part of the healing process begins with the outcome in Iraq, you know, which is yet to be determined. I have certain views on how it’s going to come out. I think I’ve been very clear about that today, but it could be that I’m completely wrong. It could be that many Sunnis just want to go on with their lives and will make some accommodation to their new situation, and accept it and participate in future elections, and the insurgency might drop off two months from now. I doubt it, but it’s possible. My own view is the defeat of the Taliban was an important step. I do differ somewhat with Ambassador Freeman. I think Afghanistan is well on the road to democracy and healing and success. I think it has had largely uninterrupted success since the Taliban were defeated. I also think that, had the United States perhaps turned its attention after that to the Arab-Israeli dispute, that might have been a fruitful use of time. The Iraq issue has clearly created a wound that is still bleeding, and it’s going to be very difficult.
Q: What are the implications of a destabilization of neighboring Syria on what you’re talking about? And, how do you believe that Israel sees Iraq’s future, and how coordinated is it with the U.S. view? What interests might it have? And third, does our growing reliance on the Shia parties in Iraq affect any decisions, such as whether or not the Bush administration may feel it necessary to conduct an attack against nuclear targets in Iran?
DR. TAKEYH: Going back to the previous question regarding whether one anticipated this resurgence of Shia identity, many thought that, given what has happened to the Shiite community with Saddam’s onslaught, it would take a long time for them to rebuild the clerical networks, reemerge, and so on. The fact that there was this sort of a subterranean Shiite political organization, and it just came up to the surface to restore order, actually surprised many people. Second, if this conversation were taking place at the American Enterprise Institute, or places like that, they would say that the emergence of the Shiite community is good because that would be a pro-American community that can be deployed against Iran by playing clerical politics and so forth. It wasn’t unforeseen. It was viewed as many things in Iran, but to the advantage of the United States. In terms of where Israel sees its interests, its presence in Kurdistan is very strong.
Maybe that’s a region for a proxy war between Iran and Israel. On the issue of a nuclear strike on Iran and whether reliance on Shiite communities as such will constitute some sort of a restraint, I don’t necessarily anticipate a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but that certainly would be a provocative view in the region among the Shiite community and even elsewhere beyond the Middle East — within the EU and so on. I don’t think that’s an immediate thing that one has to worry about, particularly given the intelligence assessments that have come out regarding the Iranian nuclear facilities. In 2002, we thought they were more sophisticated and advanced, and then the subsequent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection process has yielded the fact that perhaps they’re not as far advanced as we initially thought. There’s certainly some room for caution and perhaps even diplomacy on this issue.
MR. SADJADPOUR: The Iranians have made it somewhat clear that, if there were to be a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, they would most likely respond in Iraq. I don’t believe that they would respond via Hezbollah in Israel, depending on who actually carried out the strikes, whether it’s Israel or the United States. But, from the worldview of the Iranian regime, they definitely feel like the wind is at their back right now with oil prices as they are and Iraq as chaotic as it is. They feel emboldened on this nuclear front. The vote of India at the IAEA was somewhat of a wake-up call — very important. But I still do feel that right now the current administration in Iran feels that the United States needs them, more than they need the United States, to help stabilize the situation in Iraq.
PROF. COLE: If the United States destabilized the Syrian regime, in my view, the most likely successor would be a Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni fundamentalist regime. I think it’s very likely that it would hook up with the Sunni Salafis in Iraq, with Zarqawi and his group, and with the general population of Ramadi and elsewhere, so you would have a Sunni crescent. I think it would be extremely destabilizing to the region. I think a Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Syria would also make a play for the allegiance of the Jordanians. The people in Maan are already in revolt against the Hashemite regime. That kind of scenario would then feed into the possibility of a Spanish Civil War sort of situation in Iraq, where Iraq becomes an arena for the Iranian revolutionary guards, the Saudi volunteers, Jordanian and Syrian Sunni volunteers to fight one another. I think there’s a severe danger that the oil-pipeline sabotage that has emerged as a major tool in the Iraq war would then spread to Iran and Saudi Arabia. You could see 20 percent of world petroleum production knocked offline. I think that would certainly produce a world depression. A very great deal is at stake here, and I think the idea in certain quarters in Washington that it’s good to destabilize places like Syria is very, very dangerous to us all.
AMB. FREEMAN: On the question of U.S. strikes on targets in Iran or elsewhere, I simply want to register what I think is an obvious point: namely, that what 9/11 showed is that if we bomb people, they bomb back. The invulnerability of our homeland, which we could take with some assurance during the Cold War — given the restraining power of the Soviet Union on its clients, its desire to avoid a disastrous nuclear exchange — that invulnerability is no more. This doesn’t mean that in some circumstances we should not use force, but it means that we must take into account the possibility that there will be reprisals against us on our own territory.
DR. KATZMAN: To take a little bit of a different tack on that issue, Iran and North Korea are often viewed as similar crisis-type situations. North Korea has conventional military options; Iran does not. Iran is very weak in terms of conventional capability. Iran, in my view, is genuinely afraid of U.S. conventional power and has very little to answer it. I’m in the camp that believes the Cuban missile crisis was resolved because of Russian conventional inferiority in the Caribbean, not nuclear inferiority. And, in my view, it is reasonable to ask if there is a place for military options in the case of the Iranian nuclear program. I’m not recommending it. I’m not suggesting it. I’m just posing a question: Is that an arena where military power or the threat of military power could make a realistic difference in the situation? I think that has to be considered.
AMB. FREEMAN: I agree with you, but I think as you consider military options, you have to consider what might fly back in your own direction.
Q: President Bush recently gave a speech in which he spoke about Islamism as an enemy for the next decades, comparing it to the Cold War, fascism and communism. As far as I can tell, the more serious intelligentsia in the United States has not answered this idea, and I’d like to know from this panel, starting with Ambassador Freeman, what do you think he means by that, and how is it seen by Syria and Iran in particular? How did his warning against Syria and Iran affect what the Arab League is trying to do in encouraging regional stability?
AMB. FREEMAN: I’m not sure I understand very much of what the president says under any circumstances, but I note this is the sixth or seventh different rationale for the Iraq war that he has come out with. We had weapons of mass destruction; that didn’t work out quite the way he had expected. We then had regime change. Well, we did regime removal, but we didn’t replace the regime, so there was no regime change. Then we had democratization, which turned out to be desecularization under the force of occupation.
Then we had terrorism, and it turns out that what we’ve built is a terrorist-generating incubator rather than the fly paper to catch terrorists that was envisaged. Then we had some business about creating a model for the region, and now we have preventing a new caliphate. I talk to a lot of Muslims around the world, and I don’t find many of them quaking in their slippers over the prospect that there will be a new caliphate any time soon. Going back to the analogy that was implicit in Saud al Faisal’s expression of concern — namely that we may be headed into some sort of Thirty-Years’ War between Sunnis and Shias — I note that the Muslim world sat out the original Thirty-Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics. They didn’t get involved in that. If the Christians wanted to tear Christendom apart, probably a lot of Muslims said, “fine, let them do it.” I wonder why it wouldn’t be equally wise to take a somewhat detached view of civil strife within the Dar al-Islam if you’re not Muslim.
DR. TAKEYH: When the president talks about the neighboring countries intensifying the problems in Iraq, there’s a subtext to that: the media misrepresentation of progress. When Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia and started blaming Walter Cronkite, you knew he was in trouble in Vietnam. When you start blaming outside powers and the lack of media honesty on this issue, you know the situation on the ground is not going particularly well.
Q: What are you doing, what is your organization doing, and what should be done in order to broaden the information base and project the complexity of the issue that we are discussing now? The issue is a major concern in the United States, but it is being discussed and thought of in very different terms from those which you gentlemen have presented so eloquently today.
DR. TAKEYH: I work for a nonpartisan membership organization [the Council on Foreign Relations], and if you’re a member, you probably get invited to many of our events. But we do have a newly revitalized, redesigned website that is supposed to be a sort of foreign-affairs library on line, a Google of foreign affairs, where you can find everything you want.
MR. SADJADPOUR: I work with the International Crisis Group. It’s dedicated to preventing and resolving violent conflict. It was born in the ’90s during the Bosnia-Kosovo crisis. It’s a cross between journalism and analytical or academic work. It’s all primary research. The substance of my job is similar to that of a reporter: talking to people on the ground rather than sitting in Washington or New York writing about what is going on in Iraq. I would say I am by far the least intelligent and accomplished of my colleagues in the region. We have people in Egypt, the Gulf, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria. There are some very intelligent people creating excellent reports, and they’re all free of charge. If you go to the website, you can see them.
AMB. FREEMAN: The Middle East Policy Council attempts to improve the quality of the policy discussion by convening events like this, by helping Americans to understand the Arab and the Islamic perspective on issues, and by giving people like Ken Katzman — who is otherwise hidden in the corners of Congressional Research Service — an opportunity to enlighten the masses who are present here today.
DR. KATZMAN: I work for the Congress. If they tell me to sit at that chair over there, that’s what I do. If they tell me to go over there, that’s what I do. Our reports are for the Congress. If somebody calls me from outside, I’m allowed to send our products; there’s no restriction, but we don’t have a mailing list, and our website is restricted to the Congress. There’s been a debate over that, and we don’t know how it will play out. But if somebody knows me, I am allowed to send my reports to them on a personal basis.
PROF. COLE: I’m just a Midwestern college teacher at the University of Michigan, but aside from that, I am trying to form a 501(c)(3) philanthropic organization with a goal that has something to do with our conversation today. I’m an Arabist and also know Persian and Urdu, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the Muslim world. I have long been concerned that the publishing system in the Arab world in particular, but throughout the region, does not produce knowledge about the United States. You could go to Borders and buy a little paperback of Thomas Jefferson’s most famous speeches and essays, and you would think you might be able to get such a book in Arabic in Cairo, but you wouldn’t. Books are often published in the Arab world in runs of 500 to 1,000 copies. There is no American-studies program at any Arabic-speaking university in the region. There are five places where American studies are taught. There’s one person at Cairo University, there are three people at al-Quds University, there’s one at Amman. Unlike Japan, say, where every good university has an American-studies program, these things don’t exist in the Middle East, and publishing about American history and political thought is almost non-existent.
So I’m trying to form what is called the Global Americana Institute, which will have as its goal to subsidize the publication and translation of an American library in the Middle East of inexpensive paperbacks, in which people really could read what Jefferson had to say. By the way, there’s no collection of Martin Luther King’s works, Susan B. Anthony’s. I’ve looked in big databases, and they’re not there. So this is my hope: that the publication may be a wedge to some endowed posts at Arabic-speaking universities in American studies, and hopefully eventually we can spread around this knowledge.
Q: Prof. Cole, you suggested that the draft constitution suggests that the provinces can confederate and that perhaps one-quarter of the oil revenues could be retained. What does that say about the prospects for equitable distribution of oil revenues, and what, if anything, can be done about it?
PROF. COLE: The implication of the provisions for provincial confederation and retention of petroleum revenues in the localities is that the Sunni Arabs of Iraq are screwed. They were probably receiving 80 percent of those revenues in the old days, and the likelihood is that their total share from the federal government would be reduced to on the order of 5 to 10 percent. They have no petroleum revenues, at the moment, at least, in their areas. The geologists think there is a low-grade field off Fallujah, so if they ever settle down, they might be able to get a little bit. But the really rich future strikes are in the south probably, and that’s even more worrisome because the provision is that 100 percent of future strikes would be owned by these regional confederations. This means that Baghdad would get very little of it and therefore wouldn’t be in a position to share it out to Anbar and to Salah ad-Din and to Nineveh where the Sunni Arabs live.
A Gulf oil state is a rentier state. Our politics are based on taxation. Everything in American politics is about how much the government is going to tax each of us and then how many services it’s going to give back to whom from those taxes. In rentier states, the petroleum money pays for so much that the government doesn’t have to tax people. Then the question is, what kind of bargain can the state strike with people? Usually, the Gulf bargain has been that people get free health care, free education to the Ph.D., 3 percent mortgages on huge mansions, and so on. But, in return, they should be quiet.
It seems to me that this constitution breaks that rule. It says to the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, you’re not going to get your fair share, and we’re not going to bargain with you. The Sunni Arabs are going to reply, as you would in that system, we’re not going to be quiet.
The bombs that are going off in Iraq are the signs of a lack of quietness. This constitution, if it is passed tomorrow, is a guarantee of a decade or more of at least low-intensity guerrilla war.
Q: What do each of you think about staying the course versus changing course in Iraq, in terms of U.S. policy and what we’re doing militarily.
AMB. FREEMAN: The question really is, what is the course that we’re staying? We are involved in what the military called fourth-generation warfare, which can be of a conventional or guerilla nature but is distinguished by its focus on the mind of the adversary, the political decisions of the adversary, and its conclusion that the center of gravity on the adversary’s side is the mind of its leadership. Apparently, we’ve never won such a war. Vietnam was a classic instance of this. Somalia was another. Obviously, how much you’re prepared to stay the course has a great deal to do with how much your national interest is engaged in the conflict.
The president seems to have come up with a really original and brilliant answer to the idea of fourth-generation warfare. The objective of our enemies is to prove to our leader that his objectives cannot be attained at reasonable cost. George Bush’s answer to that has been to have no clear objectives at all. Therefore, it can never be proven that he’s wrong. Whatever happens, he comes up with another objective. We’ve had seven so far. What does staying the course mean? Continuing to follow the lemmings over the cliff?
There’s a trite phrase the administration uses: we don’t have an exit strategy, we have a success strategy. But they never define what success is, so it’s very hard to know what that means. It’s clear, however, that if we depart in a precipitous manner, it will have consequences, just as entering in a precipitous manner had consequences.
DR. TAKEYH: What is interesting to me in these constitutional debates is the increasingly superfluous nature of the American presence. These groups — the Shiites, the Kurds, the political parties — are kind of making their own deals, cutting their own arrangements, and the United States is a participant in these debates but increasingly not a particularly pertinent one. The American ambassador injects his voice in those deliberations. The American military presence has a policing power, which is increasingly less relevant.
Down the line, as the American presence becomes more contentious, both here and there, you begin to see the president and others talk about not what Cap Weinberger talked about in 1983 in Lebanon: redeployment. Weinberger didn’t say we’re leaving southern Lebanon; he said we’re redeploying out of southern Lebanon.
So you will begin to see the gradual draw down of the American presence. The military already has a plan for the phased withdrawal of American forces. Maybe they didn’t bother to tell the president that, but I think you’ll see the American presence diminish, and the influence of America similarly diminish along the same lines.
AMB. FREEMAN: If you listen carefully to what our military are saying, they are saying this cannot be won militarily. They are saying it is a political issue requiring political solutions. They don’t have the political solutions, so I’m not sure what staying the course means in that context.
Q: What would you expect Saudi Arabia to do if the constitutional process really broke down, the civil war became worse, and the country began fragmenting? And are you concerned that too much Arab support for the Sunnis and too much Iranian support for the Shias could produce a war that spills over into Iran and Saudi Arabia? Iran has anti-ship missiles that could hit U.S. naval vessels and commercial oil tankers and a wide range of covert capabilities to sabotage Arab oil fields and even infrastructure.
DR. KATZMAN: They do have capabilities, but I have never in my travels to the Gulf met a U.S. naval officer in a senior position who has lost one minute of sleep thinking about it. The U.S. Navy can handle anything that the Iranians can throw at them. The Iranians have not demonstrated that they can use conventional combat capability effectively. A lot of their infrastructure would be taken out within 24 hours. I think they are extremely weak conventionally and they know it — compared to the U.S. Navy. What they could do is deploy mines. There are countermeasures to that. There are obviously the silkworm missiles, which offer a harassment capability or an unconventional conventional capability. I think they could be taken out or dealt with quickly. The spillover does worry me. If the United States leaves, the Shia and Kurds and Sunnis don’t reconcile, and the Shias attempt to maintain control over the Sunni areas, you could see more matériel move across the border from Saudi Arabia, from Jordan, from Syria. Conversely, if the Sunnis not only reconquer their own areas but also try to reconstitute a Sunni-dominated regime and invade the Shia areas, and the Shias begin losing, I think you could see Iranian regular or paramilitary forces go in.