Monday, June 8, 2009

Iraq: Sunni-Shi'ite Meeting Ground

One of the worst wars of the bloody 20th century took place between Iran and Iraq during the 1980's, culmination of years of tense competition for regional influence. Today, Iraq is being transformed from Arab-Iranian front line to Arab-Iranian doorway.

The implications of the rise of a Shi'ite Arab power with rapidly deepening religious, social, political, and economic ties to Iran have not been very thoughtfully explored in English. With the U.S. occupation having cemented in place a Shi'ite ruling coalition consisting essentially of various pro-Iranian factions, most studies seem to focus on the short-term question of whether Iraq can maintain independence from Iran.

An alternative approach would be to ask the implications of the rise of a society of sufficient power to retain independence and function easily in cooperation with both Iran and the major Sunni Arab states. Assuming the continuing threat of renewed sectarian civil war is averted and that Washington follows through on its public policy of withdrawing--thereby eliminating the provocative U.S. military presence, Iraq appears to be creating a huge social space in which the whole Mideast can operate. This creates something new: a neutral region for interaction among Salafis worshipping at Mecca and Shi'a worshipping at Karbala, Iranian nationalists determined to see Iran emerge and Sunni Arab supporters of dictatorships determined to resist change, and all sorts of private individuals with who-knows-what ideological leanings. Examples of the new ferment include Moqtada al-Sadr'sintriguing diplomatic trip to Turkey.

Intellectual exchange in a new free marketplace of ideas may well turn out to be less wonderful than it sounds to American ears, of course. As a recent Pakistani editorial noted:

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has also had another insidious side effect — the rise of the Taliban and other Salafi fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Let us not forget that the major fracture during the Afghan civil war was the accentuation of Sunni identity among the Pashtuns and Shia identity among the Hazaras.
Familiarity does not necessarily make us love each other.

The scale of Iranian-Iraqi social interactions seems far too great to remain under any government's control, suggesting that it will serve to break down preconceptions, challenge taboos, and provoke Mideast intellectual ferment. The impact this may have on regional political stability is anyone's guess, but having a region where all can meet seems healthier than the heavily militarized no-man's-land that the Iraqi-Iranian border used to be. The implications are far more profound that just whether or not Iranian influence will increase.

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