QUICK TAKES – How Will The Iranian Nuclear Framework Affect The Religious As Well As The Political Power Balance in the Middle East?

Current Events, Quick Takes

In this week’s edition of QUICK TAKES on current and newsworthy issues involving religion and theology by POLITICAL THEOLOGY TODAY, we query two of our contributors on what it really means now that the Obama administration has concluded a “framework” for an eventual accord regarding nuclear weapons with the Iranian regime.  The announcement has caused much consternation for the Israelis and leading Sunni powers in the region, who fear it may mean the confirmation of Shiite hegemony in an increasingly volatile and violent region.   How will the US’s new stated intention to forge such a deal as well as to enhance what it perceives as new “partnering” opportunities for regional security with the previously ostracized government in Tehran affect the balance of religious power in the Middle East, and what are its implications not just for historical American allies such as Israel but for the Muslim world as a whole?

QUICK TAKES is a feature managed by PTT Current Affairs Editor Carl Raschke.  If you would like to be part of the “rapid response teams” that responds in this section to news of the week, please send the editor an email along with a brief description of the general topics on which you would like to comment.

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The Middle East Is Moving Back Toward Precolonial Geopolitics in the Wake of American-Iranian Rapproachment

In his undying treatise on leadership and strategy Sun Tzu advises in The Art of War that the best military victory is to avoid battle altogether.

In effect, one has already lost the war if they are forced to battle. That the Middle East, now more than ever, is consumed in unending battles, one can say with certainty that all have long lost their wars, not to mention their moral integrity.

Indeed, a painful survey of the way in which Iran has outmaneuvered the United States since the Iraq invasion of 2003 should be a wakeup call for American leaders to develop a radical new strategy in the region, one which may simply entail surrendering over a century of Euro-American imperial hubris from Istanbul to Isfahan and from Cairo to Kabul. The same could be said for Iranian leaders who, within a decade, have managed to thoroughly alienate its own allies in the Muslim world due to its zero-sum political and military tactics in Syria and Iraq.

With failed and dysfunctional states scattered throughout the Middle East and North Africa, not to mention the countless bodies (living or otherwise) imprisoned within them, the landmark framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program may be just the opportunity for regional actors to look up from rock bottom.

As Hossein Mousavian, a prominent former Iranian diplomat who played a key role in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, has pointed out in a series of interviews, the most significant dimension of the framework agreement is the promise of stability and security that might be achieved through a rapprochement between the two most powerful actors in the MENA region, the United States and Iran.

Downgrading the Iranian-U.S. cold/hot war to a relationship of aggressive rivalry, hopefully leading to an eventual end of the current carnage, will also equally deescalate the sectarian religious politics that have consumed the region. Détente, that is, has historically been the way in which precolonial powers such as the Ottomans and Safavids managed their competitive interests and sectarian rivalries. What we can already see, even through the current fog of war, is a return to a precolonial balance of power in which Arab, Turkish, and Iranian powers establish dominance in their respective zones of historical influence.

It is no coincidence that the Saudi led coalition began airstrikes against the Houthi militias in Yemen in the final hours of the Iranian nuclear negotiations. Saudi Arabia was sending a strong signal to Tehran (and Washington) that it intended to be master of its own domain, just as it did when it occupied Bahrain following a series of Arab spring democratic protests in that Shiite majority but Sunni dominated country. In both cases, neither Tehran nor its supposed clients, have pushed back beyond the brink.

When the so-called Islamic State took over Mosul this summer, as a result in part of Maliki’s heavy sectarian hand, Iran opted for long-term stability and threw its man out of the room.

To be sure, Iran is still controlling the military situation on-the-ground in Iraq and Syria, but is doing so in an odd joint strategy with the United States. This cooperation rests on the precarious agreement that alienated Sunni political classes will be given their due after the defeat of the Islamic State. A shared vision for a sectarian geopolitical détente seems to be agreed upon by the Turkish leadership in Ankara which is determined to work with a Shiite led government in Baghdad to overcome ISIS on its shared border as well as maintain a working relationship with Tehran.

The most significant indication that regional geosectarian rivalries will begin shifting towards a precolonial balance of power can be seen in Pakistan’s decision not to join Saudi Arabia’s anti-Houthi campaign. Pakistan’s decision was significantly influenced by a tandem diplomatic barrage from Ankara and Tehran who both sought to keep Pakistan neutral.

Incidentally it is Iranian and Turkish interests that have a long legacy in the Indian subcontinent, not the Sunni-Salafi patrons of the Gulf countries. More and more, the region’s politics, whether in terms of religious identity, economic power, or military might, are falling back upon patterns of governance and statecraft that precede Euro-American presence in the area.

Turkey’s foreign policy architect turned Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has long advocated a “civilizational” approach to geopolitics, or one based much more upon a dialogue as advocated by the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, than one on a clash, as Samuel Huntington’s thesis so infamously advocated.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies will have the most difficult time adjusting to a Middle East without American warships at their disposal, but its most urgent challenge will be to unsaddle the Salafi lion it has ridden and unleashed on the world before it, once again, turns its sight on Mecca and Medina. The Iranian nuclear framework does much more than regulate a scientific program.  it also establishes the promise of a balanced and region where aggressively competing interests are mitigated by a geosectarian détente.

Abbas Barzegar is Assistant Professor of Islam at Georgia State University as well as a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His scholarly research concerns the history of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict. With Richard Martin he is co-editor of the volume Islamism: Contested Perspective of Political Islam (Stanford Univ. Press, 2009).

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Shiite Crescent or Sunni Anxiety?  Religious Power-shifting after the US-Iran Framework

The past few weeks have brought increasing talk of Shiite-Sunni tensions in the Middle East, in light of the Obama Administration’s “framework” agreement with Iran on its current and future nuclear program and the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes against the Zaydi Shiite Houthi-led rebel government in Yemen.

Some observers have revived the mid-2000s specter of a “Shiite crescent”, while the University of Denver’s own Christopher Hill, Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, argues that Saudi Arabia sees in the nuclear deal the revival of the old US-Iran partnership – this time, at Saudi expense.

Theology is not destiny.  The Saudi-Iranian rivalry may be exacerbated by sectarian differences, but if Turkey had spent the past decade amping up its financial support to hostile regimes and guerrilla movements, it is hard to imagine that the Saudi government would look any more favorably on Turkey just because its government takes a pro-Sunni stance. Nor is it likely that Iranian support for the Houthis represents much more than political opportunism.

The Zaydis have historically been closer, theologically, to Sunnis than to the Twelver Shiis found in Iran and Lebanon, as well as Bahrain.  But Houthis likely find military support as appealing as the Iranian government might find being described as the mastermind behind a whole slew of regional upheavals.

What we may be seeing here of longest political import, at least from an American perspective, is the creation of new meaning from religious difference.  Since the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis in Iran, and the US Embassy and marine barracks bombings in Beirut in the early 1980s, Americans have tended to see Sunnis as the “moderate” Muslims and Shiites as extremists.

With the September 11 attacks and the recent rise of Daesh / ISIS, the perceptual pendulum seems to have swung the other way.  Post-September 11 anxieties about Sunni extremism did little to hurt the US-Saudi alliance or make Salafism less attractive to conservative Muslims. But ISIS has put a radical spin on extremism – making Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda appear much more moderate.

Will a US-Iran détente help enshrine Shiite Islam in American minds as the new “moderate” face of Islam?

Fear that this might turn out to be the case may keep Israeli and Saudi officials from sleeping well at night. But from the perspective of religious power, this fear isn’t worth the loss of a night’s sleep. Iranian support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and its support or direction (outside analyses vary on the extent of Iranian control) of Lebanon’s Hizbullah will limit American bureaucrats’ and lawmakers’ ability to sell Iran as an American ally. At the same time, its hard to imagine Twelver Shiism winning new converts because of a deal with the United States, the survival of the Asad regime, or even the institutionalization of Houthi power. While there were reports of Sunni converts to Shiism in Egypt and elsewhere following Hizbullah’s performance in the 2006 war with Israel, these were anecdotal. Iran has put its money into military and economic support for its clients; Saudi Arabia and private Saudi subjects have for decades put their money into spreading the muwahhidun (Wahhabi) approach to Islam. The result has been to make Wahhabi Sunnism more popular and more mainstream than at any earlier point in Islamic history, and this is an investment that will keep paying dividends regardless of Iran’s rising political fortunes.

Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites.

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