March 22, 2005


In Mideast, Shiites May Be Unlikely U.S. Allies (Robin Wright, March 16, 2005, Washington Post)

A quarter-century after its first traumatic confrontation with the Shiite world, when the U.S. Embassy was seized in Iran, the United States is moving on several fronts to support, recognize or hold out the prospect of engagement with Islam's increasingly powerful minority.

The White House is now counting on a Shiite-dominated government to stabilize Iraq. In a tactical shift, the United States is indirectly reaching out to Iran, backing Europe's offer of economic incentives to get Tehran to surrender any nuclear weapons program.

And in Lebanon, President Bush suggested yesterday, Washington might accept Hezbollah as a political party -- if it renounces terrorism, as the Palestine Liberation Organization did in 1988. "I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not [a terrorist organization] by laying down arms and not threatening peace," he said in a joint appearance with Jordan's King Abdullah.

The shift is a striking contrast from the U.S. encounter with Shiite activism in 1979, when students stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The showdown, which contributed to President Jimmy Carter's defeat and spawned the first yellow ribbon, inspired the famous political cartoon of an American booting a map of Iran. "Kick the Shiite out of Iran," read the caption, replicated on such items as posters and coffee mugs.

Shiite extremism in the 1980s embodied the main terrorist threat to the United States, as Shiite groups in Lebanon blew up two U.S. embassies and a Marine compound, and later seized dozens of Western hostages. In Kuwait, Iraq's Shiite Dawa movement simultaneously bombed the U.S. and French embassies as well as Western businesses.

The tentative U.S. moves to engage Shiite leaders are often not by choice or design, but rather a reflection of realities on the ground, including the fact that Shiites make up the largest sect in three countries in which the United States has enormous stakes, U.S. officials and regional experts say. Together, the steps represent a turning point after decades in which Washington's relations with and policies toward the Middle East were shaped largely by interaction with Sunni leaders, who controlled the region's oil resources and politics.

"The United States is coming to grips with Shiite power," a senior State Department official said. "We've come a long way since the 1980s in recognizing their growing role in the region. It's not a new principle but a practicality."

Ironically, the Bush administration's promotion of democracy is a primary factor, forcing Washington to interact with emerging players and parties, officials and experts say.

It might arguably be better if folks had realized that the design existed to be taken advantage of and this was an inevitable choice, but they've done rather well stumbling into a de facto alliance with Shi'a.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 22, 2005 9:04 PM

Sistani to Oslo?

Posted by: ghostcat at March 22, 2005 9:08 PM

Now, who was that theocon blogger telling us this over a year ago?
The name is right there, but---, wait, there was a difference, the word "unlikely" didn't show up in the sage's posts.

Posted by: Mike Daley at March 22, 2005 9:34 PM

I credit this site with helping me understand the degree to which the Shiites were compatible with democracy. However, the idea has been out there among the 'neocons' as well as 'theocons'. Judging from this article it's a surprise only to the State Dept and the media. I doubt it's as much of a surprise to others in the administration. Keep in mind we screwed these people over in 1991. In a way, we're just now getting back on their good side.

Posted by: JAB at March 22, 2005 9:41 PM



Posted by: oj at March 22, 2005 11:40 PM

The State Department Arabist crowd has had a pro-Ba'athist and pro-Sunni bias for decades. Virtually all information obtained through State was larded with that bias. Corollary to it were the anti-Zionism, the anti-Turk and anti-Iranian sentiments, as well as hostility to the Maronite Christians. It is the noxious weed that resulted when the Arabic-speaking children of missionaries in Lebanon, who were the State Department Middle East apparat, started to get paid off by Saudi oil money. And it has resulted in utterly useless and occasionally truly harmful policy prescriptions for entirely too long.

Posted by: bart at March 23, 2005 6:36 AM

If anyone has really read Taheri's history of the
US/Iranian relationship; one would see how the
Tudeh, the Iranian communists, were the chief
supporters of Mossadegh's demagogic mellow
Baathist/Nationalism; that they were heavily
represented among the Army; hence the post '53 purge. They were at the very least; agnostic if
not openly atheist; One forgets that Khomeini's
main protest was over the Shah's land reform; which was a clumsy nod toward this secular vote;
he and the Najafi clergy; would have had equal
if not greater conflict with Mossadegh

Posted by: narciso at March 23, 2005 9:25 PM