As U.S. Puts Pressure On Iran, Gulf's Religious Rift Spreads

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Wall Street Journal
February 26, 2007
Pg. 1

Sunni States See Rise In Anti-Shiite Actions; Scare Tactics in Bahrain
By Andrew Higgins
MUHARRAQ, Bahrain -- One night last fall, incendiary leaflets denouncing Iran suddenly appeared on the walls of houses and mosques in this tiny Persian Gulf kingdom.
"Iranians are trying to occupy your homes, the homes of your fathers and grandfathers," warned the anonymous tracts. "Do you want to be ruled by these people? No, a thousand times no!"
Bahrain, a crucial American ally and home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, was quickly caught up in a wave of anti-Iranian paranoia. Politicians, clerics and the media jumped on the theme, turning Iran into a big issue in bitter local elections at the end of the year.
The trigger for all the noisy alarm? A ruckus over the purchase of a ramshackle house by a handful of local Bahrainis who share the Shiite Muslim faith of Iran.
At a time of rising tension between Washington and Tehran, the scare-mongering in Bahrain shows how America's geopolitical standoff with Iran is paralleled by much older animosities between the Muslim world's two great traditions, Sunni and Shiite. The Arab world is majority Sunni while Persian Iran is mostly Shiite. In a dangerous dynamic, legitimate concerns about Tehran's intentions are being overlain with phobias and political calculation as Arab governments, rabble-rousing politicians and clerics fan sectarian fears.
Washington views Iran as a rogue nation that arms militias in Iraq, wants to build a nuclear bomb and seeks Israel's destruction. From Arab kingdoms on the Persian Gulf to Lebanon on the Mediterranean, however, Iran is also viewed through another prism, as a non-Arab, and, for some, heretical power intent on expanding the clout of itself and fellow Shiites at the expense of the region's Sunni establishment.
Containing Tehran has become a major American foreign-policy goal. But for these countries, Iran is a hot-button domestic issue as well. Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni royal family but roughly 70% of the populace is Shiite. The nation was shaken by a series of clashes this month between Shiite protesters and security forces dominated by Sunnis.
Saudi Arabia frets about the Shiite minority who inhabit its oil-producing eastern region next to Bahrain. Kuwait, too, has a sizable Shiite minority. Lebanon's Sunni-dominated government is under threat from Hezbollah, a Shiite militia.
Even countries with hardly any Shiites, such as Egypt and Jordan, have domestic concerns. By denouncing Iran (and by association Shiites), leaders hope to outflank their most virulent critics -- militant Sunni Islamists, who often fume against Shiites as heretics. They also seek to blemish the reputation of Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite Hezbollah leader whose radical views spook Sunni leaders but delight some of their citizenry.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, it believed that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, would seed tolerant democracy there and elsewhere. The war instead uncorked pent-up sectarian tensions in Iraq, pitting the country's once-dominant Sunni minority against its long-oppressed Shiite majority. The Iraqi chaos also has emboldened neighboring Iran to flex its muscles in Iraq and beyond, further stirring passions rooted in centuries of theological, political and ethnic rivalry.
Until recently, Washington focused on Sunni threats, from Sunni insurgents in Iraq to the remnants of al Qaeda, a Sunni outfit. In his January state of the union address, however, President Bush also warned of the menace posed by Shiite extremists who "take direction from the regime in Iran." It has become clear, he said, that "we face an escalating danger" from militant Shiites "determined to dominate the Middle East." This reassessment of America's enemies underpins what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has hailed as a "realignment in the Middle East" -- a drawing together of Sunni-led Arab countries against Iran.
Some experts on the region warn that America's standoff with Iran is exacerbating Sunni-Shiite rivalry and pushing the U.S. into some unruly company. Indeed, America now unintentionally finds itself on the same page as Sunni firebrands who loathe America but sometimes hate Shiites even more. Much of the most venomous anti-Iranian rhetoric comes from militants whose views echo Osama bin Laden's.
Anti-Shiite fervor, says Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., is "part of the DNA" of America's biggest foes, Sunni extremists. In recent testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, he urged a cooling of tempers with Iran. "It will boomerang back against us," he says.
Shiites make up 15% or less of the world's Muslim community, but in many Sunni eyes they hold outsize influence because of Shiite-ruled Iran, which now rivals and sometimes even eclipses Israel as an object of loathing. On the gallows in Baghdad at the end of December, Saddam Hussein used his last words to denounce Americans and "Persians," or Iranians. He didn't name Israel.
A lexicon of Arab polemic previously dominated by "Zionists" and "Crusaders" -- i.e., Israel and America -- now has a new villain: the Safawis, or Iranians. The term refers to the Safavid dynasty that established Shiism as Iran's state religion in the 16th century.
The most splenetic diatribes against Iran and Shiites often come from militant Sunnis who previously focused their fire on the U.S. In a January document entitled "Covenant of the Supreme Council of Jihad Groups," for example, a Kuwaiti extremist cleric ranked Iran ahead of the U.S. and Israel in a hierarchy of foes. He railed against the "Safawi enemy that seeks the destruction of Islamic civilization."
Saudi Arabia, a prime source of toxic jihad theology in the past, now also churns out bile against Iran and Shiites. At the end of December, Abdel-Rahman al-Barrak, a senior cleric, labeled Shiites "more dangerous than Jews and Christians." King Abdullah, in a recent interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, predicted defeat for what he suggested was an Iranian-backed campaign to convert the Sunni world to Shiism and "to diminish [the Sunnis'] historical power."
Fear of Iran, of course, is anchored in real-world issues. Tehran's nuclear-research push has caused widespread jitters and prompted Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to suggest they might start nuclear programs, too. Iran's involvement in Iraq since the toppling of Mr. Hussein's Sunni tyranny has stirred real fear that Iraq will be led by a Shiite regime loyal to Tehran.
The hostility between Sunnis and Shiites began with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and a dispute that followed over whether his father-in-law (the Sunni choice) or his son-in-law (the Shiite candidate) was the worthy successor. The schism later fed into another rift now at the heart of the region's rivalries -- between ethnically Persian Iran, which became Shiite, and the ethnically Arab heartland, which became mostly Sunni.
Bahrain, home to some 2,500 U.S. military personnel, plays a key role in U.S. efforts to contain Iran. The Fifth Fleet's command center here controls an armada of U.S. warships -- beefed up this month by a second aircraft-carrier battle group -- that is America's main military lever against Tehran. A banking center and weekend playground for revelers from neighboring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain boasts a vibrant economy and is much more open than most Arab countries.
But as a predominantly Shiite land of roughly 700,000 ruled by Sunnis, Bahrain also sits astride the Muslim fault line shaking the region.
At the beginning of the decade, Bahrain began opening up its political system. As Shiites began to demand real power, however, the opening stalled. Washington, preoccupied by Iraq and then Iran, muted calls for greater democracy here and elsewhere in the region.
"We notice a change in America's view," says Mohammed Bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, the deputy prime minister and a member of the Sunni ruling family. "Iraq was supposed to be a good example. It failed." Democracy's weakness, he adds, is that it gives "too much influence to outsiders" -- which in this part of the world means Iran.
This month, violence flared after police arrested three Shiite activists who had long denounced Sunni political dominance. The trio were released after being charged with illegal agitation and other crimes. In one Shiite area last week, youths hurled fire bombs and riot police fired tear gas. More arrests followed. Newspapers close to the government alleged a conspiracy to sow chaos and reported that Shiites had set up a military training camp. Shiites denounced the reports as fabrication.
Mohammed Khaled Ebrahim, a hard-line Sunni member of Bahrain's parliament, urges visitors to read a document called "The Secret Plan of the Ayatollahs in Light of New Circumstances." It purports to detail an Iranian plot to dominate the Middle East and force Sunnis to convert. In tone and taste for conspiracy it mimics The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a century-old Russian forgery and classic of anti-Semitic propaganda.
"It explains everything," says Mr. Ebrahim, waving an Arabic translation of the supposedly covert, Farsi-language plan. He found it on the Internet.
Though he is a shrill critic of America, he says he supports any effort to restrain Iran. He doesn't want the U.S. Navy to leave Bahrain because this "would clear the area for Iran." This, he says, is "what Shiites want." America is "like a cancer" but Iran is still more dangerous and "much more devious."