The Myth of a Shia-Sunni/Persian-Arab Confrontation

Is there a Shia crescent threatening the stability of western Asia and northern Africa? Is there a historically coded Arab-Persian enmity driving the international politics of the region? Does it date back centuries, and is it now viewed as a battle for regional supremacy? If we are to believe the media comments on the latest round of documents published by WikiLeaks, then yes. “Israel sees PR windfall in WikiLeaks tips on Iran,” a Reuters headline reads. “Cut the head of the snake: How Arab leaders urged U.S. to attack Iran,” says the Daily Mail. “Israel says WikiLeaks shows ‘consistency’ on Iran,” the Agence France Press (AFP) proclaims. “Arab states scorn evil Iran,” leads the Guardian. There is a common theme to these headlines: apparently there is an “Arab” or “Sunni” consensus supporting a war against Iran.

It is a simple exercise to unravel the myth that there exists any Shia-Sunni divide or some eternal “Persian-Arab” confrontation feeding into a future war with Iran: Presumably “Sunni Arab” Syria has very cordial relations with “Shia Persian” Iran. In turn, “Shia Persian” Iran is indicted for supporting “Sunni Arab” Hamas. Seemingly “Arab Shia” Hezbollah is a staunch ally of non-Arab but “Shia” Iran. “Sunni” non-Arab Turkey is at the forefront of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear file. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, by all standards available a rather secular ruler with no “Sunni” credentials, indicts Iran for supporting the “Sunni” Muslim Brotherhood, established over seven decades before the revolution in Iran in 1979 by both “Arab” nationalists and “Sunni” Islamists. Sayyid Qutb, one of the leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and a central reference point for many contemporary “Islamist” movements, has been widely read by Iranians, and his books have been translated by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader of the presumably “Shia Persian” entity in Iran.

The problem for the states advocating war with Iran is not some Shia revival, but their own legitimacy dilemma. This is compounded by the fact that Hassan Nasrallah outweighs the popularity of most contemporary Arab leaders in the region, especially those who are seen to be too dependent on the United States or too subservient to Israel. This has nothing to do with Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah, of course, or Nasrallah’s democratic credentials, but with the fact that Nasrallah is seen as someone who stands up against Israel. The same reason lies behind the relative popularity of Iranian leaders and Hamas. Their populist politics strike a chord with the preferences of many people in the region. This comes out very well in a recent book by Elaheh Rostami-Povey titled Iran’s Influence (Zed, 2010). The book is based on extensive field research and a range of interviews in western Asia and northern Africa. It makes it clear that the popularity of political leaders in the region is tied to their opposition to Israeli policies in Palestine and the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short: challenging U.S. foreign policies and Israel is the surest way to gain political popularity.

A poll conducted in June 2010 by Zogby International and the University of Maryland encompassing Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates corroborates that point further. The poll reveals strong support for Iran’s nuclear program, especially among Egyptians. It also suggests that 88 percent of the respondents perceived Israel and 77 percent perceived the United States as the biggest security threat to their countries. Conversely, only 10 percent deemed Iran a threat. This has a lot to do with the perception that Iran is pursuing an independent foreign policy and a principled stance on Palestine, and that it is challenging Israeli hegemony more generally.

Analysis of world politics can not start or end with the proclamations of governments, not least because large-scale “wars” are not the monopoly of states anymore. By far more people have died in Iraq after major combat between the national armies were over than during the actual war. Most of them have been killed by non-state actors, a whole range of private contractors, al-Qaeda affiliates, and sectarian militias. And more people died on 9/11 than in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spiraled out of the regional context; bombs went off in capitals all over the world. States can’t confine wars any longer, and there will always be a “blowback.” This new reality in world politics begets a central logic: preventing any new military confrontation must become a matter of principle, not mere strategy. We have entered a period when wars between two countries are easily multiplied into regional, even global confrontations with casualties everywhere. So today “our” security is intertwined even closer with that of the Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, Israelis, Koreans, and Iranians. Their plight has become ours, and it is about time that this is reflected in international diplomacy. To that end, it is unhelpful and distorting to reduce the complexity of the contemporary “Islamic” worlds to categories such as Shia, Sunni, Persian, or Arab. Lest we forget, it was Saddam Hussein and the shah of Iran who also believed in an endemic confrontation between “Arabs” and “Persians.” The state ideology propagated by the former relied on a visceral hatred of the “Persian” menace to the “Arab world.” The shah of Iran, on the other side, crowned himself “Light of the Aryans” and celebrated Iran’s non-Muslim (i.e., pre-Islamic) heritage with megalomaniacal grandeur. Surely, their ideologies are a part of the old “Middle East” that none of us who care for the region would want to return to.

Author: Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is an SOAS academic, critical theorist, and author of Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (Columbia University Press, 2008, 2010) and A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them Beyond Orientalism (Columbia/Hurst, 2010).