Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Scholar proposes regional approach to the rise of Shiite power in the Middle East

At a Woodrow Wilson Center program today, Yitzhak Nakash, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Brandeis University, proposed a regional approach to the rise of the Shiites in the Middle East. Though the oil-rich Persian region is comprised of an 80% native Shiite population, Nakash said that the fear of the Sunni governments in the region - and perhaps around the world - is overblown, since each Shiite group is organized differently.

Emboldened by the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979, the Shiites started down a path of activism. For some terrorist groups that path has involved radicalism supported by extremist groups such as Al Qaeda. However, the recent trend of Shiites on the whole is towards accommodation. The next few months, Nakash noted, will be critical in determining whether that trend will continue with accommodation or return to radicalism on the whole.

In terms of success in Iraq, Nakash believes the best government structure is a Shiite-led “unified Iraq with a decent and representative government.” Though not specifying which, he also stated that the ideal structure should reflect aspects of Lebanon’s government. Nakash advocated aspects of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s model of government, noting that it offers a decent alternative that could help pull Iraq from ties with Iran and build bridges to the West.

The reinforced sectarian struggle between Shiites and Sunnis is primarily political. In both sects’ eyes the definition of national identity is at stake. Iraqis and their neighbors alike, however, dread the consequences of partition, according to Nakash.

As for the role of the U.S. in Iraq, the U.S. invasion enforced the already strongly religious dimension of the political situation, leading clerics to assume the role of community leaders. At this point in the conflict, however, the U.S. “can’t just cut and run,” insisted Nakash, leaving the conflict to escalate to a civil war between the two sects. Doing so would unleash a new level of violence that would lead to the reshaping of the Middle East, possibly allowing states such as Iran, Turkey and Syria to step in militarily over the creation of new states.

Instead, Nakash urged, “we reached a point where we have to think beyond the Iraq box.” Part of this regional thinking involves the U.S. politically engaging Tehran. Nakash’s proposal included the U.S. settling for no regime change in Iran, so long as Iran would maintain a promised termination of their nuclear program and terrorist backing.

Regional thinking in the Middle East seems to be the trend of the week, as Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, in her testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, January 17th, advocated a need for dialogue with Iran as a means of bringing stability to Iraq as well.


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