Shiites have historically been, to use the words of Fouad Ajami, the stepchildren of the Arab world. They constitute only about 12-15% of the Muslim world; the dominant 85% are Sunni. Shiites have suffered from discrimination for more than 1400 years since the advent of Islam. At times, this discrimination has included murder and mayhem — almost exclusively by the Sunnis who have ruled over them, in places such as Iraq, Bahrain, and probably Kuwait, where Shiites most likely form the majority though no one really knows for sure. Shiites also form the overwhelming majority in the Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia — the area directly across the causeway which links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia — where most of that country’s oil is located. In all cases, but most specifically Saudi Arabia, whose rulers are Wahhabi and passionately anti-Shiite, the Shiites are treated at best as second-class citizens, and, in places like Saudi Arabia, much worse.
Before the liberation of Iraq, Iran was the only place these Shiites could look to for some protection or sympathy. Both the previous and present governments of Iran looked at themselves as the protectors of the Shiites on the Arab side of the Gulf. The present government of Iran has gone much further and done its best to undermine Bahrain and the oil-rich Shiite areas of Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Arabia. That is one of the major reasons the Saudis and Bahrainis have done their utmost to convince the U.S. to support regime change in Iran.
Iraq, though today ruled by a largely Shiite government, is, because of its inclusive nature, much more concerned about internal developments than in the fate of their Arab Shiite neighbors to the south. Though Iraqi Shiites wish their Arab Shiite brethren and relatives well, Iran is still the major force for trouble in these countries. There are strong tribal connections between all these Shiites which transcend today’s borders.
This is a potential disaster for the world. More than one quarter of the world’s oil transits the Strait of Hormuz at the southwestern end of the Gulf. And more than half of the oil exported from the Arab Gulf countries is located where these discriminated-against Arab Shiites live.
If things continue as they are, then there is every possibility that our interests could suffer a major blow.
Iran’s current government would like their fellow Shiites in the Arab Gulf to overthrow their Sunni rulers and replace them with local Arab Shiites, whom the Iranian government thinks it could easily dominate. To make matter even worse, this Iranian government — probably the savviest government in the Middle East — has been planning for years for the overthrow of many of the Arab regimes, most notably Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt. (Tehran’s tyrants named a street in their capital after the man who assassinated Anwar Sadat.) Tehran has worked for years with Mohamed ElBaradei, the UN inspector who whitewashed Iran’s nuclear program and whom many believe was (or is!) on the payroll of the Iranian regime. Interestingly, Iranian national TV tried not to cover the events unfolding in Egypt until ElBaradei — who has not lived in Egypt for over thirty years — began to speak out against Mubarak and on behalf of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Middle Eastern experts, especially in the U.S. government, have argued for years that Sunni fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden and the Muslim Brotherhood hate Shiites and could never work together. But nothing could be further from the truth. Sunni Brotherhood leaders and members of bin Laden’s family have made appearances in Tehran over the years, many times in full public view. These Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists share a common goal of eliminating the West from the Muslim world. Thereafter, they could work out their deadly differences. If things continue as they are, these upheavals could well amount to a huge win for this passionately anti-Western Iranian regime.
Imagine a situation where the Shiites of Bahrain manage to overthrow their Sunni authoritarian rulers, and their freedom inspires the Shiites of Saudi Arabia to push for the same. Imagine how Iran’s current rulers would view this situation. The Iranians would undoubtedly pressure their fellow Shiites to push the Americans out, and consequently hold the entire world hostage to their dictates. Moreover, while we wish the Egyptian people well, imagine a situation where the Iranian-allied Muslim Brotherhood eventually takes over the Egyptian revolution, just as Khomeini took over the Iranian revolution from the hands of the secularists. America and the world would end up with the short end of an Iranian victory.
But things do not have to end up that way. There is irrefutable evidence that the Iranian people want regime change. They have used every opportunity to make their views known, often putting themselves at great danger. Just as the young Arabs have shown us in the past few weeks, these Iranians too have had enough of the tyrannical rulers, who, if left to their own devices, could easily inflict upon their people the same fate as Mr. Gaddafi is inflicting on his own people.
The totalitarians run Iran to the chagrin of large segments of the Iranian people and also a very large portion of Iran’s religious establishment. Very few Iranian religious figures still support the regime. Many senior and junior Shiite clerics believe that their government is destroying Islam and want nothing more than for the clerics to return to their traditional places in the seminaries and mosques.
If we play our cards correctly, a change in Iran’s regime might end up being a win-win situation for the Iranian people, the Arab Shiites, and the outside world as well. If we helped the Iranian people free themselves from their thirty-three year nightmare, Iran’s new rulers — whoever they might be — would still be Shiite. These new rulers, whoever they might be, have had enough of their “estrangement” from the rest of the world and would almost assuredly like nothing better than to rejoin the community of nations.
Iranians are a proud people with an ancient history and culture who want to be respected by the outside world. This would also be a win for the Arab Shiites. Iran is about 85-90% Shiite. From personal experience, the Arab Shiites would like to have a good relationship with any government of Iran — irrespective of their rather negative view of Persians — because it is the largest Shiite power in the area. In such a case, it would matter much less to us who rules the Saudi oil field because the Shiites would have two free Shiite big brothers to look to — Iran and Iraq.
Now is the time to do whatever we can to help the Iranian people oust their tyrannical regime and replace it with one which wants a positive relationship with the outside world. The Arab Shiites in Bahrain and Kuwait — and possibly even Saudi Arabia — would be able to be part of a free Western-oriented alliance, with the freedom to pursuit their desires just as the Iraqis are doing today. Indeed, everyone benefits except Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and their thuggish Revolutionary Guard rulers. May they and Gaddafi end up in the same trashbin of history. Let their peoples be free!