In “What Went Wrong?” Bernard Lewis describes the rise of Iran, beginning in 1501 with the rule of the founding Shah, Ismail Safavi. He converted the country to the Shiite sect, as opposed to the Ottoman Sunnis, his great enemy. Over the course of the next few hundred years, Shiite Iranians fought Sunni Turks for control of the Middle East. The Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988 was just the latest chapter of a conflict that remains unresolved after 500 years. (Iraq is mainly Shiite, but its leader, Saddam Hussein, was Sunni.)
These people seem to hate each other with an intensity it’s hard for us to appreciate. Back in the day, maybe it was like this between Catholics and Protestants, but that was long ago. For a people consumed with their religion, it’s the most important thing on earth, worth dying for. For every westerner recently killed by Islamic fanatics, there are a thousand Sunnis and Shiites who have been slaughtered by their Muslim rivals. You get the feeling this won’t end soon.
For humanitarian reasons we don’t like seeing Sunnis and Shiites killing each other, but we should nonetheless realize that this conflict is the most important in the Middle East, and we should take advantage of it. We want the balance of forces led by Shia Iran to balance with those led by Sunni Saudi Arabia, currently allied with Israel, our one friend in the region. We must accept Iran’s existence in its current form. Regime change would be nice, but the Ayatollahs would only be replaced by hard core Iranian nationalists, devout Shiites. And we aren’t in the regime change business any more, so we deal with Iran as it is.
Israel will always want to be more secure than it is. It’s perfectly understandable, but they must accept the fact that there is risk in every balance of power arrangement. And isn’t that the best outcome in the Middle East, an equal Sunni-Shia balance of power?Along with the Russians, we could play the role of balancer, trying to prevent either side from gaining a decisive advantage over the other.
Right now we’re tilted, hard, on the Sunni side of this equation, since they seem to be the ones under attack. But it’s complicated, because ISIS is Sunni, and they are our number one target. Once they’re eliminated, we might be able to have a more even handed policy.
My friend Dan Fleming brought four of his friends to my place for a Super Bowl party, and, as is traditional, left the morning of the game. We got over to Calaveras County, the heart of the budding marijuana industry of California. There are hundreds, if not thousands of growers, and they are under attack. The Board of Supervisors called a special election for May 2nd, and if the referendum passes all these growers will be out of business.
I’ll be looking into this.