The Old Arab Pecking Order, Turned Upside Down in Iraq

By Yossi Alpher

Published February 04, 2005, issue of February 04, 2005.
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The Iraqi elections almost certainly created a government dominated by the country’s Shi’ite majority. For the first time in Iraq’s history, and the first time in several hundred years in the Arab world, an Arab state will be ruled by representatives of Shi’ite Islam, the same minority branch of Islam that rules Iran and is historically in confrontation with majority Sunni Islam.

While fundamental democratic principles dictate that in Iraq, as elsewhere, the majority should rule, the consequences of this development for the future of Iraq and the Middle East are problematic. If Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government, with American help, proves unable to either co-opt or subjugate the Sunnis in the center of the country and to get along with the Kurds in the north, the country will disintegrate into a whirlpool of chaos, with only the American occupiers capable of keeping its panicky neighbors at arm’s length. Yet even in this extreme scenario, the Shi’ites are likely to continue to run their own affairs in the southern half of the country.

The prospect of Shi’ite rule in all or even half of Iraq as a consequence of these elections has in recent months generated warnings from two Sunni heads of state, King Abdullah of Jordan and interim President Ghazi al-Yawar in Iraq itself, regarding the negative consequences for the Middle East of the emergence of a “Shi’ite crescent.” In using this expression they describe an imaginary arc spanning the northern part of the Arab Middle East from the Gulf to the Mediterranean and linking Shi’ite Iran in the east, via Shi’ite Iraq and Alawite-dominated Syria, with Lebanon in the west. The Alawites of Syria are an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Although they constitute only 10% of Syria’s population (by comparison, 70% are Sunnis), they have dominated its ruling regime for several decades. Lebanon’s Shi’ites, represented most aggressively by Hezbollah, constitute the largest of several sects in that country and dominate its south, bordering on Israel.

This emerging Shi’ite crescent is by no means a harmonious political creature. To begin with, Iranians are not Arabs, and their influence over Arab Shi’ites is not limitless. Many of Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders will seek to follow a line, however friendly, that is relatively independent of Iran. Moreover, Shi’ite rule in Iraq will re-empower the Shi’ite holy places there, Najaf and Karbala, at the expense of Iran’s Qom, their lesser cousin. This means rivalry. Iran’s Islamic revolutionary rulers remember that the last time they tried to foment Shi’ite unrest in Iraq, in 1980. Saddam Hussein responded with a war that lasted eight years and killed and maimed millions.

Then too, the Alawite regime in Syria is associated with the Ba’ath party, the Iraqi branch of which was led by Saddam Hussein. Syrian Ba’athists have been aiding the Sunni insurgency against the Americans and the Shi’ites in Iraq. So while Damascus boasts of a “strategic relationship” with Iran, this does not mean it will be friendly with Iraqi Shi’ites. Finally, Hezbollah does not rule Lebanon — Sunnis and Christians have more influence on the course of affairs there.

Thus, there appears to be little near-term danger of a Shi’ite “axis” casting its shadow over the Middle East. Rather, it is the image of Shi’ite empowerment that will concern the region’s Sunnis. There are significant Shi’ite minorities in the oil region in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait. In Bahrain the majority is Shi’ite, but the ruling family is Sunni. And in Lebanon the Shi’ites are the largest and fastest growing sect, and are under-represented in the halls of government. The advent of Shi’ite rule in Iraq and the example of democracy at work are likely to motivate Shi’ites elsewhere in the Arab Middle East to demand their fair share of power. Because the countries they live in are not stable democracies capable of absorbing such changes, this could cause considerable instability.

Are these prospects necessarily negative? Some Israeli observers are not averse to seeing oppressive and backward countries like Saudi Arabia shaken up by a newly active Shi’ite minority. Presumably that this is what American neoconservative planners had in mind when they pushed for representative democracy in Iraq — if, indeed, they thought at all about the regional consequences.

One of the problems in this regard is that there are Shi’ites and then there are Shi’ites: there are secular and moderate Shi’ite Arab leaders, and there are clerics who believe in theocracy and radical Islamic principles and may seek council from Iran’s ruling ayatollahs. We do not yet know which Shi’ite leaders will eventually rule in Iraq, much less represent downtrodden minorities elsewhere in the Gulf. In a worst case (and seemingly unlikely) scenario, a Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq will shortly abandon the caution and moderation that characterized its patient cooperation with Washington and produced democratic elections that empowered it: it will ask the United States to remove its 130,000 troops and announce that it is relying on Iran for its security.

Meanwhile a few cautious observations appear in order. First, so far Iraq’s Shi’ite mainstream and its leaders, people like Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have done and said little to justify the fears of Sunni Islam. Secondly, it is too early to judge their real political intentions and capabilities. Third, since Saddam’s downfall Iran has already gained influence in Iraq, and is likely to gain more in the coming months and years. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, has also drawn encouragement from these developments. All of this in turn strengthens Iran in its confrontation with the United States. Last but not least, the old Arab pecking order between Sunnis and Shi’ites is about to change — though exactly how, and with what consequences, is not clear.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of and

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