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For Freedom, Sunni Publics Look to Hizballah and Iran


The following are excepted with permission by Rostam Pourzal from  Graham E. Fuller's "The Hizballah-Iran Connection: Model for Sunni Resistance," published in The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2006-07.  TWQ is produced by the prestigious Center for Strategic And International Studies. The author is a former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA.


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In Washington's search for a silver bullet with which to dispatch anti-U.S. movements within the Islamic world, much has been made of a split between the Shi'ite and Sunni worlds. Sunni regimes echo this concern. Since the shift in the balance of power in Iraq, some near-hysterical pronouncements about a Shi'ite threat have come from Arab states that scarcely possess any meaningful Shi'ite minorities among their population.


Actually Sunni leaders do not fear adherents of Shi'ism per se, but rather the growing power of popular radical or revolutionary forces craving change, which is now emanating from within the Shi'ite world. The real regional fault line is thus not along a Sunni-Shi'a axis. Instead, we witness entrenched authoritarian rulers supported by the United States who are opposed by domestic populations of Muslim lands. Sunni public opinion is galvanized at the prospect of changing the hated status quo through Hizballah's and Iran's unyielding posture toward Washington.


Despite the bombastic statements of pro-US Arab leaders, it is difficult to make the case that Shi'ite forces in modern history have acted in pursuit of narrow sectarian interests, at least on the international level. On the contrary, Shi'ite political movements generally possess a pan-Muslim or pan-Arab political vision that avoids invocation of Shi'ism. Autocratic Arab rulers actually fear the empowering forces of organizations such as Hizballah and Hamas, which seek to enable communities or the masses to take control of their own destiny.


The struggle of the Arab autocrats against fundamentalism thus more accurately translates into a struggle against spontaneous, civic-based activism and resistance that the state cannot control. It is not a Sunni backlash against the Shi'a. This is not to say that Islamist actions are especially democratic, but they are closer

to democracy than most other currently existing political forces. Sunni elites' references to "Islamic fundamentalism," "Iranian ambitions," or "Shi'ite ambitions" are only code words that they know will resonate in Washington.


Iran generally presumes to speak for pan-Muslim causes, rarely invoking its own Shi'ite character. Not even a nuclear-armed Shi'ite state worries most Arab regimes as much as the populist drawing power of the Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas combination. Following Israel's failure to crush the Hizballah in 2006, two of the most popular figures in solidly Sunni Cairo were Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah.


Iran champions genuinely popular issues that resonate across the Muslim world. It reflects a revolutionary spirit of resistance with deep appeal to populations who feel impotent and who crave bold leadership that will assert their dignity against the United States and Israel. Iran's ability to win broad regional sympathy would quickly fade if the leading Arab states were to be taken over by popularly elected leaders more opposed to unpopular U.S. policies. Iran would in that case lose its monopoly on the fiery stance that gives it so much popular support, at present only enjoyed by other Islamists, Sunni and Shi'a alike. The forces of resistance to the U.S. run deep. It is only a question of who will ride them.


Hizballah is cast from the same mold. Its character is mainstream Shi'te, but its rhetoric focuses on Arab unity, the illegitimacy of the Israeli state, and the need for change in Arab leadership. Hizballah champions the (predominantly Sunni) Palestinian cause and cooperates closely with Hamas, a preeminently Sunni Islamist organization. Lebanese Sunnis as well as Shi'a fully approve of this aspect of Hizballah's policies.


Arab publics in general have been exhilarated by Hizballah's bravery, sacrifice, and military skill. It makes no difference that members of Hizballah are Shi'ites; they are perceived to be on the right side of vital Arab national interests. Last summer, even in Iraq most Sunni Islamists called for support of Hizballah against Israel.


Hizballah is thus a manifestation of deeply entrenched geopolitics of resistance and revolution in the Muslim world. Its growing influence and popularity have long-term historical and ideological roots, and its ambitions and actions are neither exclusively Shi'te nor anti-Sunni in character. It represents a powerful regional current that is larger than itself and thus cannot be easily suppressed or disarmed.


A campaign designed to exacerbate Sunni-Shi'a hostility as currently promoted by Washington and its nervous acolytes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan will be hard pressed to succeed when Iran and Hizballah are seen by Sunni publics as pursuing popular Arab national issues. Only an Iranian war of aggression against an Arab state or states might whip up enough Sunni regional emotion to deflate the influence of this Shi'ite entente. Such an action does not seem likely, given Iran's basic lack of territorial aggression for more than two centuries.


Washington has few longer-range options other than dealing with the reality of Iranian influence and Hizballah's established role in Lebanon, withdrawing its hated military presence from the region, and bringing about a just settlement of the Palestinian situation. With every passing month that the issue of U.S. and Israeli occupation is allowed to fester, the Iranian and Hiazballah strategy pays rich dividends to both throughout the Sunni world.

... Payvand News - 1/16/07 ... --

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