Sunnis will not be persuaded that Iran is their real enemy


Despite the horrific failure of its adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, the US is now said to be preparing to attack Iran. Meanwhile, all disputes in the Middle East have suddenly turned into sectarian conflicts and Iran is portrayed as the main culprit. Nothing now seems comprehensible to the western media and political establishments unless seen through the prism of Iranian ambitions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and even more distant conflicts such as Somalia and Darfur. Opponents of Iran and of whomever Iran is thought to support in the region no longer want us to see US interventions as the main issue – let alone the primary cause of the mayhem enveloping the entire Middle East.


The claim that sectarianism is driving conflict across the Muslim world could not have gained currency had it not been for the manner in which Saddam Hussein was executed. Only a few weeks earlier a poll in Egypt, whose Muslim population is almost exclusively Sunni, ranked Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas’s Khalid Mish’al as the three most popular figures (two of the three are Shia). The staged lynching of the former Iraqi leader, whom the Americans and their allies have long portrayed as a Sunni dictator, drastically changed perceptions. Millions of Sunnis around the world saw the hanging as a contemptuous Shia act, as an insult by an ungrateful minority whose existence today is testimony to the majority’s tolerance.


Since then some Fatah zealots in Palestine have labelled the Sunni Hamas as "Shia" because the movement was promised financial aid by Iran. Some Sunni elements in the ruling coalition in Lebanon have justified their opposition to Hizbullah – despite its role in the country’s victory against Israel – as necessary to stop the expansion of Shi’ism in Lebanon. Rumours about the conversion of Sunnis to Shi’ism in Syria spread like wildfire, though without proof. Some Sunnis have also condemned Iran for allegedly carrying out Shia missionary activities in north Africa and Sudan.


Of all the hot spots in the region, Iraq is the only place where sectarian tension has tipped over into bloody conflict. But that only happened in the aftermath of the invasion. The US and Britain, having failed to come up with any evidence to justify their aggression, claimed that their aim was to rescue the Shia majority from Saddam’s Sunni regime. In fact, there is no census evidence showing the Shia as a majority nor was there any credibility to the claim that Saddam’s regime was Sunni. It was secular and nationalist, and the ruling Ba’ath party was believed to have more Shias in its ranks than Sunnis. Thirty-two of the 52 names on the US most-wanted list were Shias, and Saddam punished whoever rose against his regime, irrespective of religion or ethnicity.


Despite the US-Shia alliance that brought his rule to an end, sectarianism did not become serious until the US-led occupation replaced Saddam’s regime with one based on quotas, a process destined to divide Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines. Then came the destruction of one of the most venerated Shia shrines in the overwhelmingly Sunni city of Samarra in February last year. The bombing provided the pretext for the Mahdi army and Iranian-backed interior and defence ministries militias of the Iraqi regime to go on the rampage, driving Sunnis from their homes in Baghdad and slaughtering them. Since then no less than a hundred Iraqis have lost their lives each day in unprecedented sectarian strife.


Now the Americans and their Arab allies in the region seem convinced that their Iranian adversary is the real winner from the occupation of Iraq. The threat to US interests has been compounded by the refusal of the Iranians to abandon their nuclear programme. The US-Shia alliance in Iraq has backfired on America. Now, as the fourth anniversary of the invasion approaches, a US-Sunni alliance seems to be in the making to pave the way for an attack against Iran. It is widely believed in the region that the meeting in Jordan on 20 February between Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and the intelligence chiefs of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates was aimed at preparing the ground. The idea appears to be for the Sunni world, which until recently would have been opposed to any attack on Iran, to see the merits of a US strike.

The role of Washington’s friends in the region would be to portray Iran as the real threat to both Arabs and Sunnis. The best climate for achieving such an objective is sectarianism not only inside Iraq but across the region.


But the new US-Sunni alliance is likely to backfire, as the US-Shia alliance did. If one of the latter’s repercussions was a Sunni backlash, wait and see what an Iranian-backed Shia explosion of anger will do to our world. And the anger will not be confined to Shias. The US-Sunni alliance is in fact a coalition with the corrupt regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan – which falsely claim to represent Sunni Islam and are loathed by their populations – along with their backers in the west. If Iran is attacked, it is highly unlikely that the Sunnis will be indifferent; just as they stood by Hizbullah last summer, they will stand by Iran. The attempt to create a US-Sunni alliance has already failed to convince most Sunnis that Iran – rather than the US – is the real enemy.




· Dr Azzam Tamimi is the director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought and the author of Hamas: Unwritten Chapters

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