By Pier Francesco Zarcone*
The occurrence of events and related “media bombardment” very often distract attention from the most profound – or wider – meaning of what has happened and is happening … and the necessary help in understanding does not always come from professional commentators. This is particularly true of the Middle East, theatre of a centuries-old conflict between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam.
Generally speaking, a defeat of significant proportions of the first of these two Islams, with the consequent opening up of significant areas for the Shiites, is overlooked. The Sunni countries have lost all three wars against Israel, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (more or less secular, but Sunni) has in turn lost as many – the war with Iran and the two against the United States. In addition to that regime, domination of the Sunni minority over the rest of the Iraqi people has disappeared.
On the battlefield, ISIS has been reduced to a flicker and the dream-nightmare of the “caliphate” has dissolved. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is paying a high price for its aggression, essentially at the hands of local Shiites; not to mention Arab and/or pan-Arab nationalism which has long since gone bankrupt (never mind the problem of who bears the greatest responsibility).
By contrast, Shiite Islam (of which Iran is still the fulcrum) has rung up a number of local and strategic successes, a result largely due to the U.S. “satan”, which has so far failed to get anything right – through ignorance, carelessness and inability concerning tactics and strategies worthy of the name.
Worthy of note is the manoeuvring ability of the post-Khomeini Iranian leadership, which has abandoned Khomeini’s original and clumsy (moreover harmless in concrete terms) revolutionary aura, opted for cold political pragmatism, acting under the cover of local intermediaries, patient long-term operations and, of course, ready to take advantage of the colossal mistakes of others.
In Lebanon, the U.S. flattening of Israeli policy has created the preconditions for the expansion of Hezbollah, promptly armed and organised by Tehran, with the result that the only Israeli military defeat so far occurred in Lebanon in May 2000 at the hands of Lebanese Shiites, with Israeli troops forced to retreat from that country.
Today, Hezbollah has a full-fledged military force, not as a conventional army but as a guerrilla force that is no less enviable than that of the Viet Cong, besides having the most up-to-date technologies which the Israeli armed forces have borne the brunt of.
In Iraq the picture has been even worse: having never understood that it was not at all a nation, and that the post-First World War British-designed artificial construction only stood on its feet thanks to its army, the United States then had the bright idea of dissolving the Iraqi Armed Forces immediately after the second Gulf War, automatically creating a base vacuum immediately used by Iran – above all politically.
And now for the first time since the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo (from the 9th to the 12th century), we have two Shiite-led Arab states: Syria (which it was already) and Iraq.
This brings us to Syria. Doubts now outweigh certainty about the spontaneity of the so-called “Arab Spring” as a coagulation of undeniable local disquiet; and in any case the fact is that U.S. manoeuvres in the attack on the government of Damascus – with initial support for the most dangerous and cruel forms of Islamist extremism (Sunni) – were thwarted by Russian intervention alongside Iran and Hezbollah.
The conclusion is that today there is a “Shia corridor” from Damascus and Beirut to Tehran, passing through Baghdad. The blatant attempt by Washington to interrupt it using the Kurds of Syria is destined to fail because of both the foreseeable opposition of Turkey and the poor military solidity of the Kurds, despite claims by Western media linked to the “single thought” notion, as well as the demonstrated ability of Iran (Khomeini’s spirit has long died) to manoeuvre for its own ends also with Sunni Kurds, from the PKK to Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Moreover, Iran’s remarkable military consolidation, albeit only in terms of conventional armaments, means that this country is an important regional power in the Persian Gulf, such that – in the hypothetical case of a U.S. withdrawal of United States from the area – it would soon fall under Iranian hegemony.
In this regard we should understand one another. For Tehran, the experience of the previous war with Iraq was absolutely precious in terms of equipping itself in order not to fall back militarily into the same situation and of finding war alternatives. It is out of the question that if the United States were to attack Iran (as [President Donald] Trump sometimes threatens to do), it would be defeated in the first round, but by virtue of the experience of the “asymmetrical” war gained in Lebanon and in Iraq occupied by the United States, it would already certainly be capable of causing substantial damage to the aggressor at this stage, including economic damage if it managed to block the Strait of Hormuz, where a massive amount of oil transits every day.
In the second round then, the real problems would start for the United States: controlling the immense territory of Iran would be virtually impossible, even for of its war power, and unless it decided to embark on indiscriminate destruction of towns (and of the civilian populations that inhabit them), the guerrilla and terrorist techniques well known by the Iranians would mean that the daily arrival in the United States of transport planes loaded with the coffins of dead soldiers would upset the not very spartan psychology of the average American. Not to mention the economic costs.
It is well known that the United States continues to privilege relations with the Sunni countries and that establishing better relations with the Shiite countries is considered a kind of betrayal. In this regard, Western foreign policy “experts” – including officially appreciated “Orientalists” – generally consider Shiite Islam a kind of mediaeval relict. This leads to an overvaluation of Sunni Islam’s capacity for constructive purposes in the Middle East … understanding that it is Sunni Islam that is really mediaeval.
In the Sunni area, the effects of the lack of a unifying Islamic hierarchy and of the rooted presence of a strong speculative sclerosis – in a very broad, namely cultural and political, sense – should be evident. The first deficit is due to the inability to bring order to Middle Eastern political chaos, and the second element can be attributed to the further lack of preconditions for producing a minimally effective political programme. One could also talk about “credibility”, but the rate of gullibility of part of the Arab masses leads to leaving this aspect aside.
The maximum political programme that the Sunni world has managed to produce consists – within the framework of “returning to the purity of origins” – of proposing the Koran as an Islamic constitution. That this book was a very important source of law in the seventh century of our historical era is beyond doubt: it is just that today it is totally unsuited to the task. It has been noted that it would be like the fundamentalist Christians of today proposing adoption of the legal part of the Old Testament as a constitutional charter and civil and criminal code for solving modern political problems.
To this is added the hermeneutic sclerosis of the Koran and the Sunnah which has afflicted the Sunni world for centuries. This sclerosis is due to two concomitant factors: the prevalence of literal interpretation of the sacred text and the so-called “closure of the door of ijtihad“, or exercise of independent judgment by a jurist; that is, blocking of the evolution of jurisprudence, as important as the law on which it operates.
None of these negative elements exists in Shiite Islam, which in fact has a greater ability to adapt; this is ignored by the Western media, although it is recognised by the real experts on the subject.
It could be added that, generally speaking, exponents of political Shiite Islam have years of rigorous study behind them, including of philosophy (an ugly word for the Sunni), while in similar circles in the Sunni world the same Koranic knowledge more often than not leaves much to be desired – hence the proliferation of “do-it-yourself imams”, but a source of inspiration for the gullible and the ignorant. For example, in the Shiite context an Osama Bin Laden would have been a “Mr Nobody” not an Islamic guide.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not the fundamental text of an “Islamic state” as confusedly conceived by the Sunni, but envisions republican European-type institutions, albeit with Muslim corrections (for example, the Supreme Leader that substantiates the system of velāyat-e faqih, or ‘Governance of the Jurist’).
And moreover in Lebanon, Hezbollah – in its full development and power – has accepted the pluralistic state in which Lebanese of various religious faiths live together under the same substantially secular jurisdiction. Pragmatism first and foremost for a world that – albeit now Shiite – is still the heir to a Persian civilisation stretching back centuries.
History teaches us how much the balance of power counts and how attractive jumping on the bandwagon is; however, as things stand, the picture is still confused and everything is theoretically possible.
Nor can it be said that Shiism has expanded to the detriment of Sunnism, when the sacred cities of the Arabian Peninsula remain in the hands of Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the political (even before military) expansion of that “mother house” of Shiism called Iran should be noted, from which follows the strengthening of the Shiites in the Fertile Crescent.
This matter of fact contradicts the interests of the great powers, also because the old Sunni allies allowed the noted manoeuvres, while having to deal with an interlocutor such as Iran means that everything becomes less easy, if only for the fact that this country pursues its own large-scale imperial design, and if the current situation were to consolidate, Iranian interest would then move to focusing on the Arabian Peninsula. It is no coincidence that the king of Saudi Arabia recently flew to Moscow, not Washington.
But in political mechanisms there is always the possibility that some details will block them. Iranian hegemonic dreams require that Shiite organisations (all, willingly or not, now bound to Iran) are also able to attract consensus in Sunni circles; this has succeeded in Lebanon and partly in Syria.
However, the most difficult area is Iraq, the most xenophobic Arab country and the one most motivated by sectarian conflicts. Today’s Iraqi government is dominated by Shiites, and its troops, reinforced by Shiite popular militias after the conquest of Mosul, are eliminating the presence of ISIS in the remaining territories.
However, if Shiite militias (well or badly controlled by Iranians) do not abandon themselves to indiscriminate vendettas against the Sunni population, things will go in the right direction. Otherwise, there would be an unpleasant setback for Tehran.
* Pier Francesco Zarcone, with a degree in canonical law, is a historian of the labour movement and a scholar of Islam, among others. He is a member of Utopia Red (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: La Quinta (The Fifth). This article was originally published in Italian under the title Gli Inavvertiti Cambi di Equilibrio nel Vicino Oriente in Utopia Rossa. Translated by Phil Harris. Views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily of IDN-INPS.