As Iran Exported Its Shiite Revolution, Sunni Arabs Resisted
As Iran Exported Its Shiite Revolution, Sunni Arabs Resisted
Editor's Note: Back in 2007, NPR reported on the Shiite-Sunni split that was contributing to conflicts in many parts of the Muslim world. In light of the current fighting in Iraq, which is along sectarian lines, NPR is republishing the series. The text includes some updates, while the audio is from the original broadcasts seven years ago. Here is Part 3, on the conflicts that have erupted as Shiite Iran attempted to export its revolution to Sunni Arab lands.
1979 was a pivotal year in the Muslim world.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Sunni Muslim fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Ayatollah Khomeini led a Shiite revolution that swept the Shah of Iran from power and put in place the modern world's first Islamic republic.
But Khomeini had more grandiose goals.
"Khomeini did not envisage himself as making a revolution in one country," says Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. "His ideology of clerical rule, rejection of the Western colonial heritage, he felt was a universal message."
Khomeini put forward the claim that he was the leader of the entire Muslim world, not simply of Shiite Iran.
That message was not well received among the Sunni Muslim rulers of the Middle East.
"Some Sunnis began to resist that notion," says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, "because regardless of the fact that Khomeini saw himself as an Islamic leader, they saw Khomeini as a Shia leader."
That view was not necessarily shared by the poor and disenfranchised, dazzled by the popular movement that toppled the Iranian monarch.
Emphasizing Sunni-Shiite Differences
So, to win over the wider Arab public, some Sunni leaders, especially in Saudi Arabia, sought to sharpen the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. They emphasized "more hard-line radical Sunni views that tend to be more intolerant of Shias," Nasr says. "A great deal of investment was made."
The result was the emergence of new and far more dangerous Sunni fundamentalist groups.
Sunni fundamentalism in the Middle East had a long history. But these new groups would prove to be far more aggressive and violent than their predecessors.
This was particularly true of the Arab fighters who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden. They received a great deal of support from Saudi Arabia, but after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, they turned on their sponsors in Riyadh. They were also fiercely anti-Shiite.
"Their objective was not just the overthrow of secular governments and the establishment of Islamic states," Nasr says, "but rather, their objective very particularly was anti-Shiism."
Saddam's Violent Reaction
The most violent reaction to Iran's Shiite revolution came from Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 to seize its oil fields and destroy Khomeini's revolution. But Saddam did not cast the conflict in sectarian terms.
"Saddam largely represented himself as the bastion of Arab nationalism resisting Persian hordes," says Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.
Despite Iraq's aggression and Saddam's brutal regime, Iraq had no trouble attracting the support of all of the Sunni Muslim leaders in the region.
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The war killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides. It was fought initially in Iran's oil-rich region, then on the other side of the border in southern Iraq, where Iraq's Shiite population was concentrated.
"Iraqi Shia fought desperately in the trenches, against their co-religionists in Iran," says Wayne White, a former senior intelligence officer in the State Department. "And it wasn't because Saddam Hussein was holding a gun to their head. In many cases it was because they didn't like what they saw across the border."
But the loyalty of the Shiite in Iraq won them scant approval from Saddam.
"Saddam Hussein was very suspicious of the Shiis and their loyalties," says Augustus Norton, professor of Middle East history at Boston University. "Army units were rotated much more frequently than was militarily wise, because he suspected the loyalty of these units that were predominantly Shia Muslim."
Reverberations in Lebanon
Then war broke out in yet another corner of the Middle East.
In 1982, Israel launched an all-out invasion of Lebanon, ostensibly to stop guerrilla attacks from the Palestine Liberation Organization. But the conflict would have unexpected and profound repercussions for the Sunni-Shiite divide and for the security of the United States.
To get to Beirut, Israeli troops had to march through and occupy southern Lebanon, where the population was overwhelmingly Shiite. It was this invasion that soon would expand the reach of Iran.
"The most important reverberation of the Iranian revolution was in Lebanon," says Augustus Norton, author of Hezbollah: A Short History. "This revolution provided a context for another organization to emerge, and this was Hezbollah, 'the party of God.'"
Not only did Hezbollah and other Shiite militias target the Israelis, but after President Ronald Reagan sent U.S. troops to Lebanon as part of a peace-keeping force, Lebanese militias attacked the Americans as well. In 1983, suicide car and truck bombs exploded at the U.S. embassy in Beirut and at the U.S. Marine barracks, with more than 300 dead, all told.
After the bombings, President Reagan angrily declared that the United States would not be intimidated: "These deeds make so evident the bestial nature of those who would assume power if they could have their way and drive us out of that area."
But he soon reversed himself and pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon, leaving the divided nation to an additional six years of war.
The Iran-Iraq war ground on as well and saw Iraq's widespread use of chemical weapons. It finally ended in 1988.
Its aftermath brought no rewards for Iraq's Shiites, further deepening the Sunni-Shiite divide.
"They were still treated as outsiders," says Vali Nasr. "This attitude was the same one that Saddam Hussein had at the moment of his hanging [in December 2006], when he referred to all the Shias as Persians."
Peace in the Persian Gulf lasted for just two years. And then Saddam embarked on another ill-fated military adventure: the seizure of Kuwait.
After a U.S. military force of a half-million troops ousted Iraq's army from Kuwait, the Shiites had had enough of Saddam and rose up against him. Saddam put down the rebellion brutally.
"No one came to their assistance," Norton says. "Not neighboring Saudi Arabia, not the United States, which had called for the rebellion. No one came to their assistance, except the Islamic Republic of Iran."
From that point on, the Shiites of Iraq began to understand that it didn't matter how much blood they shed, how much they defended the country, they still were treated as second-class citizens.
In the 1990s, Saddam systematically set about destroying the senior Shiite clerical hierarchy. At least 10 ayatollahs and their sons and other relatives were murdered by Iraqi agents.
Iraqi and Arab nationalism proved less and less attractive to the Shiites of Iraq. They became more religious and more sectarian in their outlook.
Then came the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which unleashed forces of Muslim sectarianism unseen in the Middle East in modern times.