March 22, 2005
THE ONLY WAY HOME IS BY WAY OF THIRD:
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