War Stories

The Sunni-Shiite Folly

The Bush administration’s cockeyed strategy to promote sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

The Iranians are expanding their presence in Iraq, the Saudis are cutting a separate deal with them to contain the strife in Lebanon, and who can blame either party?

Yes, as the AP reported Tuesday, this surge of Saudi-Iranian cooperation “could complicate Washington’s efforts to isolate Tehran.” But it is Bush’s abandonment of diplomacy that has left the vacuum that the Saudis and Iranians are now trying to fill. And given the alternative of mayhem and anarchy, their new rapprochement might not be a bad thing.

Iran’s expansive ambitions these days are fueled mainly by two sources: high oil prices, which swell its treasury and strengthen its leverage over industrial nations; and the evaporation of its closest, most threatening rivals—Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The irony, of course, is that the United States facilitated both developments—indirectly in the former case (the United States doesn’t import oil from Iran, but its extravagant consumption boosts prices on the global market, which enriches the mullahs’ regime) and very directly in the latter (the United States overthrew Tehran’s chief enemies).

This is not to say that President Bush should have refrained from toppling Saddam or the Taliban in order to keep Tehran holed up. But he should have foreseen the consequences and adjusted his diplomacy accordingly.

In fairness, Bush did just that, initially. In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan, middle-level U.S. and Iranian officials held face-to-face talks on cooperative measures for the war. Tehran cut the talks off after Bush’s State of the Union Address in January 2002, in which he tied together Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

As the invasion of Iraq got under way, the Bush administration’s neocons dreamed of fomenting “regime change” in Iran (and maybe Syria) after Baghdad fell. Yet when the American military found itself bogged down in Iraq, Tehran’s expansionists were given freer reign still.

Thus was sparked the latest U.S. strategy of herding the Sunni Arab states (especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan) into an alliance against the growing Shiite threat (Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah).

There are three serious problems with this idea.

First, as Michael Young points out in a Slate column today, the Sunni states’ leaders don’t much like it. They face challenges from Shiite militants in their own cities. Joining a war of civilizations against Shiite strongholds, especially a war led by the much-loathed Americans, would jeopardize their own hold on power. (It doesn’t matter, in this sense, whether the war is a hot or cold one.)

Second, the sectarian confrontation leaves Iraq—the focal point of this mess—in an awkward position. The American-supported Iraqi government is run by Shiites; the population is overwhelmingly Shiite. How is it possible to take the Shiites’ side in Iraq and the Sunnis’ side in the region? One tack might be to declare the clash as one of moderates vs. extremists, with Shiites and Sunnis arrayed in both camps. But this is easier said than done, and not so easily said. What are the lines of division? And who draws them?

Third, in the unlikely event that the Bush administration succeeds in splitting the region along this sectarian divide, it will only harden tensions, inflame passions, and, by the way, do nothing to solve our immediate problems in Iraq.

This is why the Saudis and the Iranians are exploring common interests and seeking to mediate agreements—because the Americans, who used to do this sort of thing, have abdicated the role.

During the Israeli-Lebanon war last summer, there was a brief moment, in the first days of the fighting, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan publicly criticized Hezbollah for initiating the conflict and sided with Israel on the grounds of self-defense. This was an amazing episode, a potential strategic turning point, when the United States could have stepped in and mediated a broad agreement between the Arabs and the Israelis, first on Lebanon, then perhaps on a vast range of issues. But the Bush administration brushed the chance away, not wanting to emulate the “shuttle diplomacy” of previous presidencies (especially Bill Clinton’s), preferring instead to give Israel a chance to wipe out Hezbollah by force. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice justified the decision, saying that the clash “clarified” the nature of the region’s wider conflicts and that we were witnessing “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

Weeks later, after the fighting finally stopped, the Bush administration missed yet another opportunity. The pro-Western government of premier Fouad Siniora, always a delicate coalition, teetered on the edge; much of Lebanon lay in rubble; Iran and Syria were pouring in funds for reconstruction, much of it administered by Hezbollah, which had emerged from the war as a more potent political force than before. Bush said he would shore up Siniora’s government, but then did practically nothing. In the vacuum of power, Hezbollah organized street protests and strikes to bring down the government; fighting broke out; a renewed civil war became a real possibility.

And so the Saudis and the Iranians stepped in. They have conflicting interests (the Saudis back Siniora, the Iranians Hezbollah), but they also have a common interest (preventing civil war). They don’t subscribe to the Bush administration’s concept of “moral clarity”—which involves, among other things, refusing to talk to ideological foes—so they’re talking.

Is this in America’s interest? It depends where the talks end up. If it’s true that Iran is supplying rockets, IEDs, and advisers to help insurgents maim and kill American soldiers in Iraq, then, no, it might not be a good idea to let other nations confirm Iran’s power in the region.

But rather than trying to foment a wider sectarian war, the United States might be better off jumping into the negotiations. Contrary to what Bush, Rice, and Cheney say, diplomacy doesn’t have to mean appeasement. Some of the “smart sanctions” against Iran, which the administration has worked out with the European Union, really have been smart. The boycott by Western banks has made a particularly big dent in Iranian finances, and has probably been a factor in President Ahmadinejad’s growing disfavor among Tehran’s ruling elite. It’s folly to think that the sanctions can bring down the Iranian regime or force the shutdown of its uranium-enrichment program. But the sanctions could serve as leverage in negotiations—as something we can bargain away in exchange for Iranian cooperation on Iraq, Lebanon, nuclear power, or whatever other issues the United States might want some say in.

Right now, America’s leverage in the region is limited and diminishing. Dick Cheney and Condi Rice may think they can expand this leverage by heightening the sectarian divide and letting those “birth pangs” roar. But that strategy is more likely to engulf us all in much more bloodshed.