It seems conventional wisdom in the West that the vast majority of Middle Easterners are Sunni, that they are more democratically oriented and less radical than the Shia, that they support religious freedom more than the Shia, and that they control the bulk of the region’s vast oil and natural gas reserves. Thus it is in a country’s national interest to back Sunni Muslims. But not so fast—these are largely myths and the numbers tell a different story.
The population of the Muslim countries east of Egypt through the Persian Gulf—Lebanon (40% Shia), Syria (15%), Jordan (2%), Yemen (45%), Saudi Arabia (10%), Iraq (63%), Kuwait (30%), Iran (93%), Oman (2%), UAE (15%), Qatar (5%) and Bahrain (70%)—totals about 190 million. Although there are different sects within Shia Islam, the indisputable number of Shia in Iran and Iraq total about 86 million, or over 45% of the region’s total population; conservative estimates for the Shia in the remaining countries bring the total number of Shia to 106 million or 56% of the region’s population. In short, the Shia are the majority in the area that might be considered the "heart" of the Middle East, including all the countries of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, and the area that holds the region’s vast oil and natural gas reserves.
Although in Islam rulers must be just and serve with the blessing of their community, none of the rulers in the Muslim countries of the Middle East could be classified as just, nor have they been selected in a free system. It is only Iraq, Iran and Lebanon that could be even remotely considered to be attempting to meet these criteria. Sunni imams teach their flock that even if their ruler is unjust, they should put the stability of the community ahead of justice and obey. Shia, on the other hand, are taught that an unjust ruler must be removed. Those who do not stand up to oppose an unjust ruler are as guilty as the ruler.
Non-Muslims around the world, especially Americans, have been brainwashed into believing that the Shia are the radical sect of Islam, spawning the likes of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that hate the West and its values. Nothing could be further from the truth. Saudi Arabia finances fundamentalist schools (madrassa) in a number of Muslim countries, most prominently in Pakistan. It is in these schools that young Muslims are taught to be anti-Western, anti-Shia, to reject the rights of women and modernization and to follow a path that excludes culture, science, social sciences and economic progress. It is was precisely this environment in Saudi Arabia that spawned Al Qaeda, the attack on 9/11 and the majority of the suicide bombers who have gone to Iraq to frustrate the country’s progress toward normalcy and democracy.
It is this same environment in Saudi Arabia that prohibits the practice of any religion other than their strict, austere and fundamentalist version of Islam. Churches, synagogues and private religious celebrations are not tolerated. But in Shia Iran, churches and synagogues are allowed, and although under today’s mullahs the Baha’is are sadly persecuted, the country’s constitution reserves two seats in parliament for Armenian Christians, and one each for Assyrians Catholics, Jews and Zoroastrians. In Shia Iraq religious freedom is upheld; even during the rule of Saddam Hussein Iraq had a Christian foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
In sum, the Shia are more tolerant and have values that are more compatible with how the US and the rest of the West see themselves.
Why have the Shia been so maligned? The taking of US hostages by Iranian student revolutionaries and the Mujahedin (or MEK) in 1979 left an indelible mark on the American psyche. Moreover, the anti-American rhetoric that spewed out of Tehran in the early days of the revolution and more recently from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has kept the anti-Shia flame strong. Shia’s traditional reverence for martyrdom has also put Shiism in the spotlight. The Al-Sauds have added fuel to the fire. They blame Iran for attacks on Americans; they tell visiting dignitaries to Riyadh that the Shia cannot be trusted; without a shred of evidence they blame Tehran for fomenting the uprisings in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile, with their high-priced public relations campaigns and lobbyists, the Al-Sauds continue to escape close scrutiny.
As for oil and natural gas reserves—where are they? Today’s figures give Iran and Iraq about 75% of the GCC’s natural gas reserves and 55% of its oil reserves. But it should be emphasized that this is today; Iraq has been cut off from the international oil community for a long time and only 15% of its potential area has been explored. Iran has been sanctioned since the time of its war with Iraq and has had limited access to foreign investment and much needed technology. In fact, a number of energy insiders expect Iran’s and especially Iraq’s oil and gas reserves to be adjusted significantly upward, with some anticipating that Iraq’s oil reserves could eventually equal if not exceed Saudi Arabia’s. My expectation would be for the combined gas reserves of Iran and Iraq to equal those of the GCC and for their oil reserves to climb up to 75-85% of the GCC’s. In short, our energy interests are linked to Iran and Iraq as much as they are to Saudi Arabia and the GCC. We neglect our interests in Iran and Iraq to our own peril....
Today, the growing division between Shia and Sunnis in the Persian Gulf has been in large part fomented by the Al-Sauds. In the past, the Shia could travel everywhere in the Persian Gulf, except in Saudi Arabia, without feeling that they were "different." The Al-Sauds have changed all that by sowing the seeds of discord within Islam throughout the Persian Gulf. They have drawn a line in the sand in Bahrain that could ignite a regional war. In Iraq and in Iran, Sunni and Shia have intermarried, but with increasing discrimination being practiced in Saudi Arabia and spreading to the rest of the GCC, new divisions have appeared where there were none before.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait have issued warnings bordering on threats to Iran not to interfere in the protests in Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent soldiers and police to Bahrain to suppress the oppressed Shia, who make up 70% of the population there. Kuwait has dispatched its navy to Bahrain. Some countries may be scared by warnings, but what the Al-Sauds are doing is counterproductive. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and intelligence services have little respect for the GCC’s military and covert capabilities despite the GCC’s top-of-the-line hardware. With threats from the Saudis, Iran’s natural instinct is to show the Saudis a thing or two to put them in their place. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia shows little understanding, if any, of the Iranian and Iraqi mindset, nor does it understand the decision makers in the Persian Gulf, even sometimes countries that are members of the GCC. This will not serve the region in resolving regional differences.
Still, and no matter what GCC leaders say, Iran has not interfered in the internal affairs of Bahrain to anything approaching the extent claimed by Saudi Arabia. Recently, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said as much. The Saudis are using this line of rhetoric in an effort to further isolate Iran and hide their discrimination of Shia. While Tehran has not interfered in the past, things may be about to change. Iran has been given every incentive to interfere in the internal affairs of the GCC and especially in those of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. On what basis can the Al-Sauds intervene in Bahrain to crush peaceful demonstrators when Iran is not allowed to come to the defense of fellow Shia and support their basic human rights, both in Bahrain and across the region in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia?
Perhaps the Al-Sauds have become delusional. Maybe they have begun to believe the story they tell the US about Iranian treachery and the dangerous Shia. If they could wake up to reality, the Al-Sauds might still save themselves and their GCC brethren by reforming and adapting, not by digging their heals in deeper, fomenting hatred and dragging the rest of the GCC down with them. Creating divisions throughout the entire Persian Gulf, especially in Bahrain and Kuwait, will not help them squash their own Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis may have succeeded in misleading the US about the Shia, but the US will soon discover that its future lies as much, if not more, with the Shia in the region.
While the rest of the GCC may have limited influence on their big brother in Riyadh, it is up to the US to persuade the Al-Sauds to change now and embrace reform before it is too late. US national interests are not what the Al-Sauds, the GCC rulers or the Sunni minority perceive as their familial or national interests. While developments in the GCC are important for US national interests, developments in Iran, Iraq and in the majority Shia community in the region are equally important today and could be much more important in the future. The Shia are the majority in this crucial region east of Egypt and they are much more likely to be compatible allies. If the Shia in Sunni majority countries are persecuted and the US does not support their rights as it has for those protesting in Egypt and Libya, then the Shia majority could threaten US national interests throughout the region. The US must stop ignoring the persecution of Shia in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.
It is simply dishonest to support human rights, freedom and the right of people to determine their future in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and to ignore them in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. US duplicity has begun to enrage Shia throughout the Middle East. Chants in Bahrain already confirm it: protesters shouting death to the Al-Khalifas and Al-Sauds are also asking whether their rights are less important than those of people marching in the streets in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. If the US does not adopt an evenhanded approach to upholding basic human rights in the region, the disenfranchised Shia will start including Washington on their list of oppressors. It is high time for the US to recognize how closely aligned its national interests are with those of the Shia communities in the area that is at the "heart" of the Middle East....
Bahrain and its mentors in Riyadh have every reason to be thrilled that Pakistan has unequivocally endorsed the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to crush the Shi'ite uprising. Such clear-cut support is hard to come by nowadays. Quite obviously, Pakistan has estimated that no matter what it takes, Riyadh will never allow Shi'ite empowerment to be realized in Bahrain lest it repeats in the oil-rich eastern provinces in Saudi Arabia itself and from Islamabad's point of view, it pays to be with the 'winning side'. There could be many positive spin-offs - greater job opportunities for Pakistani expatriate workers in the PG states, economic assistance from the petrodollar GCC states, oil supplies on concessionary terms, budgetary support for Pakistan's ailing economy and if things go well, a key role in the PG region's security architecture.
But Pakistan is taking a big gamble. Pakistan has a sizeable Shi'ite minority and it is prudent not to take sides in the sectarian strife in another Muslim country when Sunni-Shi'ite tensions are endemic to Pakistan itself. Second, Pakistan is bound to annoy Iran and other Shi'ite countries in the region, apart from the Shi'ite majority community in Bahrain itself. Third, Pakistan may be overlooking the possibility of the Shi'ite uprising in Bahrain increasingly getting radicalized as time passes and it may get sucked into a protracted internal strife. US Vice-President Joe Biden's phone call to the Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa on Sunday gives an indication that Washington remains unsure that the Saudi-led crackdown is the best means of preventing a dangerous situation from developing as the excessive force may well drive the protest underground or may trigger even a region-wide Sunni-Shi'ite conflagration. Indeed, the calm in Manama is deceptive. A White House statement said, "The vice president recognized the important steps taken by the crown prince to reach out to the opposition and that law and order are necessary in order for a productive dialogue to proceed." But one can never tell the US intentions in the Bahrain situation insofar as its first priority will always be to safeguard the basing facilities of the US' Fifth Fleet.
Pakistan could be estimating that by aligning itself with the "pro-West" Arab oligarchies in the persian Gulf, it serves the US strategic interests as well. In sum, is Pakistan chewing more than it can chew? The prominent Middle East expert Juan Cole has warned that "Among the Middle East protest movements, that in tiny Bahrain is one of the more momentous".
By Seyfeddin Kara
Muffled guffaws would have been an appropriate response from Iraqis to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's claim this week that openness and sincerity have been hallmarks of Turkey's policy towards its neighbor.
Erdogan, along with the usual coterie of business people seeking deals in the growing economy, met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other senior politicians in a two-day visit. Erdogan had paid two previous visits to his growing neighbor, but the unusual content of his trip from March 28 marked it as a foreign policy event of particular note.
Before flying to Baghdad on Monday afternoon, Erdogan told reporters: "Turkey will continue to support Iraq. We put a lot of effort into improving bilateral relations in many areas with Iraq.
What he went on to say was worthy of derision in Iraq: ''Turkey has been pursuing an open and sincere foreign policy towards Iraq over the past eight years. We tried to provide support to ease the pains of our Iraqi brothers."
While Turkey and Iraq have a growing economic bilateral relationship, Turkey has its own agenda dominated by the Kurdish issue. Ankara's main focus is the prevention of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, the elimination of attacks on its territory by the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) across the border in northern Iraq, and the protection of a Turkmen minority residing primarily in Mosul and Kirkuk. To forward its political agenda, Turkey has been supporting Turkmens and some Sunni Arab factions located in its orbit.
Turkey saw its "opportunity" to support its agenda during last year's elections in Iraq. As a part of a status of forces agreement, the United States will be withdrawing its last troops from Iraq by the end 2011, which would make way for Turkey to increase its influence. But first the right pieces had to be put together to refashion the political landscape of Iraq.
Growing concerns on the part of the United States and Saudi Arabia about the rising influence of Iran in Iraq gave further impetus to the Turkish plan . The US had wanted to strengthen its influence by inaugurating a close ally into the Iraqi government. With the blessing of the US and Saudi Arabia, there seemed to be no obstacle for the Turks to realize their goal.
Turkey embarked on a complex and risky political game during the elections. Under the leadership of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davudoglu, who accompanied Erdogan during his visit this week, Turkish bureaucrats worked behind the scenes on a coalition in which secular nationalist Sunnis and Turkmens were placed at the center.
Inclusion of a secular Shi'ite leader, Iyad Alawi, who held the premiership for 10 months to April 2005, strengthened the plan and gave birth to the al-Iraqiyya coalition. The Turkish, US and Saudi alliance planned that Alawi would lead the coalition and gain a majority to form the next government. With involvement from Turkey, the coalition ran for the election and the campaign went ahead despite protests from the leaders of religious Shi'ite groups who conveyed their messages of discontent to Erdogan and Davudoglu personally. 
When the election results were revealed the Turks were taken by surprise. Although al-Iraqiyya came first, it had insufficient seats to form a government. It was close-run and the Turks failed to turn their gains into a political victory. Even after the election, Ankara continued to refuse to listen to the religious Shi'ite groups and Kurds, and instead insisted on forming a government with the leadership of al-Iraqiyya.
According to Cengiz Candar, a prominent Turkish expert on Middle East affairs, Ankara wanted a Sunni president, possibly Tariq al-Hashimi, to replace Kurdish President Jalal Talabani. The Turks have always been suspicious of the Kurds, and believed that Talabani had been plotting for an independent Kurdish state.
An earlier rift between Talabani and Massoud Barzani, the leader of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that administers the predominantly Kurdish north of Iraq, gave false hope to Turkey's policymakers. But the two Kurdish leaders had already resolved their issues and Barzani continued to support Talabani when he needed it the most.
Al-Iraqiyya was doomed not to form the government right from the start. It included ex-Ba'ath members and nationalist Turks and Arabs. The combination the Turks put together was unattractive to both Shi'ites and Kurds; hence the formation of an Iraqi government was delayed for 249 days.
Finally, the Iranians, who have had good relations with all groups and strong influence in certain sections of religious Shi'ite groups, seized the opportunity: the Iranians got the Kurds and Shi'ites to sit around a table and helped them find common ground. A government - headed by Nuri al-Maliki in his second term as prime minister - was formed, but few concessions were given to the al-Iraqiyya coalition.
A second chance
Turkey's intractable attitude angered the Kurds and the Shi'ites. In an interview given to Milliyet, a Turkish-language newspaper, Talabani did not hesitate to express his dismay: "I don't know who is behind this policy but Turkey's policy on Iraq [during the elections] was wrong and it failed. Yes their favorite [candidate] couldn't become prime minister. And their favorites couldn't become president and foreign minister ... They did not support me first but then [when I became president] they congratulated me."
Talabani, known for his skills as a politician, promised cooperation with his disappointed neighbor, while also downplaying Iran's influence in Iraq. Talabani knew how necessary it was for the new government, especially its Kurdish element, to work with Turkey closely for the future and how mutual economic interests and the realities of post-US Iraq were pushing Turks and Kurds together.
Turks also learned their lesson. It was obvious that Erdogan's trip aimed to break the ice with the Shi'ites and Kurds, and to lay a foundation for a new approach to Turkey's foreign policy on Iraq. Turkey seems to have realized that if influence in Iraq is desired, then it needs to overcome obsessions with the "Kurdish threat" and "Shi'ite conspiracy" and work with both groups to nurture mutual interests. This is perhaps why Erdogan became the first Turkish premier to visit Najaf, a power center of Shi'ites, and Irbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.
In line with the policy in its relations with other neighbors, Turkey wants to increase its "soft power" in Iraq. Ankara has been working hard to get maximum benefit from Iraq's economic prosperity and natural resources. Soon after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, an aggressive economic campaign was launched by private Turkish enterprises, especially in closer and more stable northern Iraq. Since then, almost 80% of goods in northern Iraq have been imported from Turkey; the region's trade with Turkey has reached $7.5 billion a year.
On Erdogan's previous visit to Iraq in October, 2009, 48 memoranda of understanding were signed for a more comprehensive economic integration. A senior Turkish official traveling with the business delegation earlier this week announced that Turkey hoped bilateral trade would rise from $7.5 billion last year to $10 billion in 2011 and reach a $25 billion target.
Turkey also has been seeking to become the main route for the export of Iraqi oil and gas, especially for the proposed Nabucco pipeline that goes through northern Iraq to Turkey and on to Europe.
Iraqis are also pleased with the growing economic relations as Turkish construction companies are rebuilding the war-torn country and Turkey is acting as a gateway for the vast energy sources of Iraq for European markets.
Turkey is a major investor in Iraq, especially in the gas sector and it hosts key pipelines for Iraqi oil exports through its port on the Mediterranean, and provides Iraq with electricity. More than 260 Turkish contractors currently operate in Iraq on projects valued at nearly $11 billion. Turkey also means stability; in the current climate of uncertainty and mayhem, securing support of a popular country may give a sense of steadiness to a frail Iraq.
However, the biggest obstacle to closer relations remains the issue of the PKK. Erdogan made this very clear in a speech to Iraqi legislators aired on state television. Understanding the sensitivity of the issue, Maliki signaled a harsher crackdown on the PKK in Iraq by making allusions between the PKK and al-Qaeda. This seemed to raise hopes among members of the Turkish delegation, given their concerns that the PKK's spring campaigns will probably soon begin with the melting of snows on the mountains of southeast Turkey.
Erdogan's meeting with the most senior Shi'ite religious leader of Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was a very important part of the mix on the visit. Erdogan became the first Sunni premier to meet the 80-year-old influential cleric and to pray at Imam Ali Mosque. Although Turkey and Iran have been developing good relations, Turkey had been worried about the increasing influence of Iran in Iraq, and blamed Shi'ites for paving the way for Tehran. Consequently, regardless of their different views on Iran, Turkey has remained aloof to the Shi'ites.
Recent developments, however, are forcing Turkey to think outside of the box. George Friedman, founder of US think-tank Stratfor, made it clear in an interview that Turkey must change its stance:
The US army is leaving Iraq this year, hence the future of Iraq and Iran's ambition to become a dominant power in Iraq directly affect Turkey's national interests. Turkey claims "We don't have any problem with Iran"; yes, they may say this but they cannot ignore the problems regarding the future of Iraq. Turkey will have to come to an understanding [with Iran] as much as possible for the future of Iraq. This might [lead to] Turkey and the US [being] at odds.Turkey may have already begun to reach for better understanding: As a sign of Turkey's changing policy, Erdogan has been making conspicuous gestures to Shi'ites. A few months ago, he joined the Ashura ceremonies, the most important Shi'ite occasion to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, held in Istanbul.
Erdogan was the first Turkish leader to attend the ceremonies and to give a speech that was warmly received by Shi'ites all around the world. It has been reported that Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the kingmaker of Iraqi politics, sent a personal message to congratulate Erdogan on his participation.
This month, during the first days of the de facto Saudi invasion of Bahrain to suppress Shi'ite demonstrators, Erdogan warned the Saudis about causing another Kerbala for Shi'ites. Although he soon backtracked under pressure from Riyadh, Erdogan's message was again well received by Shi'ites.
Erdogan's visit to Sistani came as the latest and perhaps the most important development for Turkey's rapprochement with Shi'ites. In the meeting, issues regarding Iraq weren't the only topics under discussion. They talked about regional developments, especially the Saudi invasion of Bahrain. As Khaled al-Jashaami, a member of Najaf's provincial council put it before the meeting took place, "We expect Iraqi issues to be discussed, as well as what is happening in neighboring countries, especially in Bahrain."
The timing of these events suggests that they are calculated moves by the Turks who finally have realized that they should not underestimate the growing significance of Shi'ite influence not only in Iraq but in the whole region.