One Sunni Imagination: The US-Shia Alliance

On a long drive in Jordan, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent – let’s call him Amr – shared his grand theory of Middle East politics. His perspective would make Vali Nasr proud because for Amr, the basic divide in the Middle East is the Sunni-Shia divide (though with an American-Zionist twist).

On a personal level, Amr, a pious Sunni, expressed only disgust for Shiites, deriding them as false Muslims. Yet Christians and Jews were okay.

In the region, he lamented the rise of Shiism and, in particular, the rise of Iran, the heart of the Shiite world. Iran, already in control of Iraq, is seeking control of other Arab states as well, such as Bahrain and Yemen.

The pivotal Sunni-Shia moment was the hanging of Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006. Saddam was not hanged on just any day but rather at the start of Iraqi Sunnis celebrating Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice), a major Islamic holiday. In Amr’s eyes, this was done as an intentional slight to Sunnis and to demonstrate a marked shift of power in Iraq, from Saddam’s (Sunni) rule to the post-2003 (Shia) regime.

Saddam’s last words were especially important: “Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians.” Not only were his executioners merely agents of neighboring Shia Iran, but by pairing “Americans” and “Persians” he also asserted that Iran was acting in concert with the United States.

Yes, while it might sound odd to American ears, Amr argued in the course of the discussion that Iran was working with the United States. After all, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq handed the country to Iran.

An Iran-US-Hezbollah-Israel alliance against the Sunni world.

When Sunni Iraq had a nuclear program, Israel bombed it in 1981. The United States invaded in 2003 to end Iraq’s alleged nuclear pursuits. Yet with Shia Iran, Israel and the United States have taken no military action despite years of complaining about Iranian nuclear research.

The United States was perfectly willing to intervene militarily in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi, a Sunni. But despite intense pressure, Washington has held back on the question of intervening in Syria where the regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia offshoot. Israel, too, seems to favor the maintenance of the Asad regime.

In Egypt, the United States abandoned a Sunni, President Hosni Mubarak, and has accepted the rule of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. While one might think the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni organization, Amr sees it as under the control of Iran. That explains Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Egypt and the general warming of ties between Egypt and Iran after decades of tension. When Morsi and Shafiq were in the presidential run-off (2012), Washington and especially then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made sure that Shafiq lost.

In Lebanon, why has Israel not killed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader? The Israeli Mossad can hit leaders all over the world but cannot find a leader right next door? The answer must be that Israel and Hezbollah are cooperating.

Amr’s story, interesting in its own right, reminds us that political theories need not be un-done by inconvenient facts. Perhaps because of our human tendency to fit information to our pre-existing worldview, contrary information gets ignored, manipulated, re-defined in a way that does not challenge our core approach. So the fact that Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006; that Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear site in 2007; or that the vitriol between Iran and Israel/US is regular and heated matters little for Amr’s grand theory.

Somehow I think that even if Israel or the United States bombed Iranian nuclear facilities tomorrow, Amr would find a way of accounting for that seeming anomaly without altering his basic theory.

The story also helps make clear the difficulty for the United States in the region. In general today, the United States is excoriated both for what is seen as too much involvement (e.g. Iraq 2003+) or too little (e.g. Syria today). Washington has been so involved for so long that any action or non-action is interpreted in a nefarious manner. With stories like this one, I don’t imagine the challenge of U.S. foreign policy will change anytime soon.

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