Last week an article was published in Tablet Magazine that made an interesting case: that the United States should align itself with fundamentalist Muslims against “the most dangerous U.S. adversaries, the Shiites.” This is not the Muslim Brotherhood the author refers to, but the Salafi, puritanical stream of religious-political thought that’s inspired the likes of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and has soared in political clout with the Arab Spring.
His thesis is thin and brings no points to demonstrate Shiites are actually THE enemy. He assumes Iran and Hezbollah, but that doesn’t cover the gamut of the Shiite World. In fact, it would be in American interest to do exactly the opposite and align with Shiites to openly compete with Iran as the main provider for a group that’s been marginalized, abused and broken by their Sunni governments.
Lee Smith spells out a thin and disjointed case for take the Sunni side in a black-and-white, Sunni-Shiite rumble. He references the conservative cause célebrè of the 1980s, to back the Afghan mujahadin against the evil empire Soviet Union. It’s short-sighted to align with Salafis just because they’re winning elections in Egypt or might get power in Syria. It would undermine whatever credibility the US has actively supporting the Arab Spring. He labors a point of policy already much too prevalent in American policy – maintaining good relations with Sunni countries in order to confront Iran. The US is too close to those countries, selling billions in weaponry to the Saudis and stationing a lucrative naval base at tiny Bahrain, even as they repress their citizens. Bahrain has a Sunni royal family with a majority Shiite population. Saudi Arabia has its own Shiite minority. And despite the protests for equality last year by that Shiite demographic, Bahrain tortured demonstrators and the Saudis occupied the island to stamp out protest enthusiasm before it reached its own border.
Smith assumes Shiites’ orientation is dominated by the foreign policy of Iran. The US has done more good for Shiites the last 10 years than any other country, toppling Saddam Hussein. Shiites now dominate Iraqi politics and they take pains to balance their foreign relations among American, Sunni and Iranian interests. The State Department could do more good for Shiites in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia than Iran ever could. American threats to not sell F-15s to the Saudis or to move the naval base in Bahrain somewhere else like Qatar can resonate.
Lastly, Iranians aren’t dogmatically anti-American. The country is full of secular and religious opponents to Iran’s government ideology, foreign strategy and nuclear policy. If anything, Iran with a different face might not only drop its ambition for nuclear weapons and military power, but consequently become a more natural ally than Saudi Arabia in the near future.