June 14, 2007


Iran To Privatise State Telecoms Firm - TV (Reuters

Iran will privatise the government-owned telecommunications company by the end of the year, the country's state television reported on Thursday, although past sales of state assets have drawn limited interest.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's highest authority, urged the government and officials in February to speed up moves to cut the state's economic role in the latest bid to revive a struggling privatisation programme.

Persian Ghosts (CHRIS TOENSING, July 2, 2007, The Nation)

There is no doubt, as well, that Sunni-Shiite tensions across the region are higher than at any time since the Islamic Revolution in Iran--and perhaps before. One obvious reason is the Iraq War, with its empowerment of self-consciously Shiite religious parties in Baghdad, many of whose leaders whiled away their long exile in Iran before tailing US tanks back to the Tigris, thus pushing the hot buttons of Sunni Arab governments and the street at the same time. Another is the corresponding rise of Iran, much of whose hard-line leadership harbors the original revolutionary aspiration to lead the Islamic world, not least in its quest for the nuclear fuel cycle. But does something else lie beneath it all?

Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, has an affirmative reply. The success of his bestselling and increasingly influential book The Shia Revival has earned him multiple invitations to testify before Congress, a place on the program of a June 2006 Council on Foreign Relations symposium on the "Emerging Shia Crescent," easy access to op-ed pages and even a profile in the Wall Street Journal. According to the Journal, evangelical leader Richard Land, a rally captain of Bush's electoral base, stopped Nasr after a Washington briefing to tell him, "That was the most coherent, in-depth and incisive discussion of the religious situation in the Middle East that I've heard in any setting." Added penitent neoconservative Francis Fukuyama: "The problem with the current Middle East debate is it's completely stuck. Nobody knows what to do. Vali Nasr offers a plausible alternative that may gain traction."

That alternative consists of a diagnosis of the region's ills and a prognosis for US grand strategy. The malady is what Nasr calls the "age-old scourge" of the Sunni-Shiite conflict within Islam--or, more precisely, the thousand-year oppression of Shiites by Sunnis, manifested at both the official and popular levels. Throughout history, most Muslim rulers, including the overseers of the powerful Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman and Mughal empires, have been Sunni. One formidable Shiite dynasty of the past, the Fatimid, was eventually vanquished by Sunnis, while another, the Safavid, spent most of its existence battling the Sunni states on its frontiers. (A third, the Zaydi imamate in Yemen, was isolated from the Muslim heartland.) The Shiite clergy in Sunni-dominated lands holed up in the mountains of southern Lebanon and in the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, desert towns that were fairly remote until they were linked to the Euphrates by canals in the nineteenth century. There the clerics mostly refrained from becoming involved in affairs of state, awaiting the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad's descendant, the Mahdi, who they believed would unify Muslims under righteous religious and political authority once more. Nevertheless, since the sack of Abbasid Baghdad by invading Mongols in 1258, allegedly facilitated by a Shiite vizier named Ibn Alqami, the scribes of Sunni courts have tainted Shiites with the odor of perfidy. Medieval Sunni writers also spun the apocryphal tale that a Jew named Abdallah ibn Saba first advanced the notion of the Shiite imamate with his insistence that Ali, assassinated in 661, would one day return triumphant. Nasr relates a few examples of how this state hostility filtered into the minds of the Sunni masses. In Lebanon, Shiites are said to have tails; in Saudi Arabia, Shiites are held to discourage potential dinner guests by expectorating in the soup pot.

Today, Sunnis outnumber Shiites roughly nine to one, and most majority-Muslim states, while nominally secular, are Sunni-identified. A great virtue of Nasr's book is to illuminate how Sunnis' majority status has subtly distorted the way Westerners talk and think about historical and political trends in the Middle East and South Asia. Many Western travelers to the Ottoman Empire absorbed the prejudices of Cairo and Istanbul, where Shiites were seen, at best, as a curiosity, practitioners of strange, impassioned rituals that contrasted markedly with the austere Islam of the urban Sunni elites. It was not until 1959 that the rector of the al-Azhar mosque/university, the most prestigious center of Sunni religious learning, issued a fatwa recognizing mainstream Shiite jurisprudence as a fifth school of Islamic law alongside the four Sunni traditions. In the United States, from the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis until quite recently, one could see the residue of old stereotypes attached to Shiites in the use of the word "Shiite" as a synonym for "fanatical" and even in such unfortunate popular slang as "holy Shiite." What persists, as Nasr shows, is the tendency to conflate Islam and Sunnism. The "Islamization" that has swept countries in the Arab world and South Asia since the 1970s is really the spread of Salafi strains of Sunnism, by which Muslims are enjoined to emulate the practices of Muhammad's original followers--a category that, in many Salafi minds, excludes the Shiites by definition. Where there are sizable Shiite minorities, as in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, "Islamization" has had a sharp sectarian edge.

Both Nasr and Yitzhak Nakash, a professor of Middle East history who has published a similar but more tightly focused study of Shiite politics, Reaching for Power, lay out historical reasons Iraq has become an arena for open Sunni-Shiite conflict. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, Iraq was a literal and figurative battlefield between the Sunni Ottomans and their bitter rivals the Safavids, whose empire was based in Iran. Since the Safavid Empire and its successor Qajar dynasty were Shiite states, the Ottomans worried constantly that Shiites in the water-rich Iraqi breadbasket would be a fifth column in Iranian service. As Nakash details in his earlier book, The Shi'is of Iraq (1994), the Sublime Porte's concerns became particularly acute in the mid-1800s, when they began to receive (accurate) reports of large-scale conversion of Iraq's Sunni nomads to Shiism as they settled in the river valleys. In a series of ineffectual countermeasures, the Ottomans dispatched Sunni clerical missionaries, ordered Sunni clerics to denounce Shiites as rawafid (those who reject true Islam), banned public observance of Shiite rituals and even prohibited the distribution of Korans printed in Iran. As historian Karen Kern documents in the latest Arab Studies Journal, in 1874 the sultan also outlawed marriages between Ottoman women and Iranian men, fearing that the (presumably Sunni) women would convert to Shiism and that their Shiite offspring would grow up to be Benedict Arnolds in the Sixth Army, tasked with securing the far eastern frontier.

If the sultan's trepidation sounds familiar, that is because Saddam Hussein, like his Baathist and Arab nationalist predecessors in the Iraqi presidency, also suspected the Shiite conscripts in his army of disloyalty. In the 1970s, during Iraqi disputes with the Shah, thousands of Shiites were expelled from Iraq because of their "Persian" ancestry. As Nakash recounts, the closely tied accusations of Persianness and sectarianism dogged Iraqi Shiites under successive postmonarchy regimes, despite the fervent embrace by Shiite clerics and lay intellectuals of Arab nationalism or a specifically Iraqi nationalism rooted in the cross-sectarian resistance to British colonialism during the 1920 revolt. Shiites flocked to Communism and Baathism as well, in order to be considered full members of the polity. So sensitive were Shiites to the charge of sectarianism that the writer Hani al-Fukayki bequeathed his late father's personal library to a state ministry instead of a Shiite institution that needed the books more.

Yet the innuendo from the regimes and their mouthpieces did not abate. Postmonarchy Iraq, indeed, offers the clearest examples of state sectarianism masquerading as secular, even progressive, Arab nationalism. The turn to an explicitly Shiite politics by followers of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in Najaf--as with disciples of (the distantly related) Musa al-Sadr in Lebanon--is an indictment of Arabism's failure to accept Shiites on equal terms. Nakash makes this point well; so do Nasr and Fouad Ajami, who go further in hailing the assertion of Shiite identity as a welcome development.

The question, however, is whether a "Shiite revival"--and the backlash it has aroused among Sunni rulers--is the best way to understand the reconfiguration of power and the violent conflagrations in the Islamic world today, as Nasr and (albeit less polemically) Nakash both argue. Recent events in Iraq would seem to lend support to this view. The prevailing thumbnail history of the Iraqi civil war goes something like this: Shiite Arabs are the majority in Iraq, very possibly 60 percent of the population, though there is no recent census upon which to rely. Having chafed for centuries under the oppressive yoke of Sunni Arabs, of whom Saddam Hussein was only the most brutal, Shiite Arabs have now empowered Shiite religious parties to rule Iraq in uneasy tandem with Kurds, who were also battered by Sunni Arab-dominated regimes. The Sunni Arabs resent the loss of their power, and hence they are attacking the new Iraqi government and the US soldiers who back it. After restraining themselves for years, Shiite militias--some allied with the Iraqi government and some inside it--are striking back.

As predicted by Nasr, the rise of the Shiites in Iraq is also sending shock waves through the palaces of neighboring capitals and eliciting strong anti-Shiite sentiments from Salafi clerics. In Jordan, where nearly half of the Iraqis fleeing the Baghdad inferno have taken refuge, the regime has warned that the Iraqi Shiites will constitute the core of a "Shiite crescent"--make that a "Shiite full moon"--that could eclipse the Sunni US satellites in Amman, Cairo and Riyadh. Salafi religious scholars from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly excused armed attacks on "Shiite heretics," including terror bombings claimed by the likes of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with reference to "the sons of al-Alqami"--implying that in 2003 Shiites left the gates of Baghdad open to foreign invaders just as the medieval slur said they did in 1258. A week after a meeting between Iraqi Sunni leaders and clerics from nearby countries, one of the Saudi Arabian participants, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, spat out a fatwa describing Shiism as "the evil among the sects of the Muslim community--a sect founded by a Jew" and castigating its adherents as infidels. Not surprisingly, thus far there has been no royal condemnation of this ruling fusing anti-Shiite and anti-Semitic themes. The House of Saud, its "Islamic legitimacy" dependent on the imprimatur of the Wahhabi clerical establishment, routinely ignores comparably bilious statements aimed at the kingdom's 2 million Shiites.

But it is always ill-advised to draw a straight line, even by implication, between communal animosities past and present. There is, first of all, a fundamental problem of evidence. The recorded fretting of the Abbasids, Ottomans and Saddam Hussein about Shiites proves that these rulers were wary of threats to their power, but it does not prove that social relations between the sects have always teetered on the edge of violence. There is at least as much reason to believe otherwise. Karen Kern's findings, for instance, provide circumstantial evidence that cross-sectarian marriage was common enough in the nineteenth century that the Ottomans thought it worth banning. The first clause of the 1874 law read, "Marriages between Ottoman and Iranian citizens, as in olden times, are strongly prohibited."

Here the Ottomans sought to justify their divisive policy with an appeal to the past. But as Kern writes, prior to 1874 there is no record of an edict forbidding Sunni-Shiite intermarriage. To the contrary, lawyers later prevailed upon Istanbul to rescind the ban because their research in Islamic jurisprudence had found so many explicit writs of approval for such unions. Sunnis and Shiites, especially in Baghdad and other cities, are heavily intermarried today, though the phenomenon is fading as war rages. It is also noteworthy that Col. Abdul Karim Qasim, the first Iraqi prime minister after the fall of the monarchy in 1958, remains a deeply popular figure in Iraq despite decades of Baathist despoliation of his memory and legacy. Born to a Sunni Arab father and a Shiite Kurdish mother, Qasim preached Iraqi nationalism mixed with a kind of cultural Arabism and allied himself with the Iraqi Communist Party, whose near annihilation by the Baathists is a vital (but untold by Nasr) part of the story of how many Iraqi Shiites turned to Islamism and Shiite identity. After the destruction of the left, as in Egypt and elsewhere, the one place where dissidents could organize safely was the mosque, where the authorities still hesitated to enter. Sadr City, the sprawling neighborhood in northeast Baghdad where fighters in Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army make their homes, and which the deposed regime knew as Saddam City, was the locus of the colonel's social base. Many residents still insist on calling the area by its Qasim-era name, Madinat al-Thawra--a pointed simultaneous rejection of both Saddam and Sadr. Finally, the great majority of Arab Iraqis today--including 65 percent of Shiites and 100 percent of Sunnis--want Iraq to remain governed by a single state and emphatically do not support the militias that are perpetrating sectarian cleansing. This preference was poignantly illustrated in late April, when Iraqis of all backgrounds expressed vehement objections as the US Army erected walls around violence-plagued neighborhoods of the capital and then called them "gated communities."

These facts suggest that the Sunni-Shiite split, while deadly and deepening, has not overwhelmed the ideal of a nonsectarian Iraqi nationalism and, crucially, that one should not assume the parties and militias claiming to represent Sunnis and Shiites are necessarily executing the communal will. They also suggest that the murderous intensity of Iraq's sectarian conflict is a product of contemporary history--most important, of the power vacuum created by the US occupation, which made Iraqis desperate to seek protection from co-religionists with guns. Much as many Americans might like to imagine that Iraq's strife is timeless, whether they are seeking absolution for backing Bush's war or a politically painless way to back withdrawal, it cannot be understood without considering the choices the United States made during its direct misrule of Iraq. Those choices have been reviewed many times in these pages, but historians may finger one as the tipping point: US colonial overlord L. Paul Bremer's 2003 decision to allocate seats on the Iraqi Governing Council according to sectarian and ethnic affiliation. Even Hamid Musa, head of the remnants of the Iraqi Communist Party, was given a seat because he is a Shiite. Top jobs in Iyad Allawi's interim government were doled out in the same way, turning ministries into communal party fiefdoms and entrenching a Lebanese confessional system in the "new Iraq."

Nasr cannot be held responsible for the fact that some readers have gravitated to his thesis to soothe bad consciences about the invasion and occupation. Yet The Shia Revival--and here is where the prognosis comes in--engages in no small amount of special pleading. In retort to US officials who, since the hostage crisis and the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, have seen Shiites as the bad Muslims and Sunnis as not so bad, he clearly wants his readers simply to invert the mental equation.

This agenda comes through in passages like this: "The Shias' historical experience is akin to those of Jews and Christians in that it is a millennium-long tale of martyrdom, persecution and suffering. Sunnis, by contrast, are imbued with a sense that immediate worldly success should be theirs." Several times in the text, Nasr compares Shiites to Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Hindus--people the cosmopolitan West is familiar with--in tacit distinction to the alien Sunnis. And the diffusion of Salafi ideas wrongly described as Islamization? By Nasr's lights, that is "Sunnification." There is also transparent legerdemain in his insinuation that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani intervened to insure that every third candidate on the "Shiite list" in the January 2005 Iraqi elections was a woman. In fact, women were accorded such prominence on every electoral slate because of a quota requirement in the Transitional Administrative Law crafted in 2004--and Iraqi women's rights activists deserve all the credit.

The goal of Nasr's book is to persuade Washington to downgrade its alliances with Sunni Arab regimes and forge friendlier ties with the rising Shiites of the Middle East. Indeed, he believes Washington will have to pursue this course, "if for no better reason than that the Shia live on top of some of the richest oil fields in the region," in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and, of course, Iran. As a result, he defies classification in the usual schemas of contemporary Middle East policy debates. Like Ajami and some Bush Administration hawks, he wants the United States to stop pressuring Iraqi Shiite religious parties to seek reconciliation with Sunni Arabs. In its extreme form, this policy orientation is expressed as the "80 percent solution," of which some in Vice President Dick Cheney's office are reportedly enamored, whereby the United States would accompany the condominium of the Shiite religious parties and the Kurds in a Sherman-style march through the so-called Sunni Triangle. Yet Nasr is a staunch realist regarding Hezbollah and Iran, and--writing with Iran scholar Ray Takeyh--he took to the New York Times op-ed page recently to advocate precisely the "policy of engagement" with Tehran that is anathema to neoconservatives and Cheneyite cold warriors. Like Takeyh, and indeed most Iran specialists in the West, Nasr is no fan of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the clerical regime, which he accuses of making "overweening claims about religious authority over political decisions." (Nasr's distinctive twist on this conventional view of Khomeini, in keeping with the theme of the book, is to decry "his agenda of subtly steering Shiism closer to Sunnism.") Sistani, with his image of traditionalist aversion to the direct exercise of temporal power, is Nasr's model ayatollah.

On the other hand, Nasr unequivocally locates the origins of the Shiite revival in the Islamic Revolution, and he is proud of the modernizing accomplishments of the Islamic Republic. How can a moderate Muslim minority that the United States should befriend have emerged from this quintessentially radical event? Nasr is unclear on this point, but his implied argument is that the radical tone of Khomeinism--voiced today by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--retains purchase among Shiites only because of long mutual enmity between Iran and the West. If the West, and especially the United States, would forgive Tehran its transgressions in the fervor of revolution and deal in good faith with the pragmatists in the clerical hierarchy, the likes of Ahmadinejad would eventually lose their cachet.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 14, 2007 9:38 PM

One hopes this "privatization" doesn't mean "sell at cut price plus kickbacks to cronies who'll continue to follow our orders."

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 14, 2007 10:25 PM

Here's an opportunity for Rupert Murdoch.

Or Michael Moore.

Posted by: ratbert at June 15, 2007 1:59 AM