As Iran Exported Its Shiite Revolution, Sunni Arabs Resisted Iran's Shiites tried to spread their ideology after the 1979 revolution, but have met resistance in Arab states led by Sunnis. This has contributed to conflicts throughout the Middle East.
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As Iran Exported Its Shiite Revolution, Sunni Arabs Resisted

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As Iran Exported Its Shiite Revolution, Sunni Arabs Resisted

As Iran Exported Its Shiite Revolution, Sunni Arabs Resisted

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

The minority branch of Islam known as Shi'ism first became widely known in the U.S. when revolution swept Iran and established the modern world's first Islamic State. The revolutionaries believed they could export their Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East and beyond.

But they encountered resistance from the Arab states led by Sunnis - Islam's majority branch. This resistance would be both subtle and violent. And it would spawn unforeseen conflicts.

Here's NPR's Mike Shuster with the third part of our series the "The Partisans of Ali."

MIKE SHUSTER: 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 an Islamic republic. Khomeini had more grandiose goals so says Juan Cole, professor of Middle East History at the University of Michigan.

Professor JUAN COLE (Middle East History, University of Michigan): Khomeini did not envisage himself as making a revolution in one country. His ideology of clerical rule, the rejection of the Western colonial heritage, he felt was a universal message.

Dr. VALI NASR (Author, "The Shia Revival"): Khomeini put forward the claim to being the leader of the entire Muslim world.

SHUSTER: Vali Nasr is author of "The Shia Revival."

Dr. NASR: Some Sunnis began to resist that notion, because regardless of the fact that Khomeini saw himself as a Islamic leader, they saw Khomeini as a Shia leader.

SHUSTER: That was the view of Sunni leaders across the Middle East, but it was not necessarily shared by the poor and disenfranchised, dazzled by the popular movement that toppled the Iranian monarch. So, to convince the wider Arab public, some Sunni leaders, especially in Saudi Arabia, sought to sharpen the differences between Sunni and Shia, says Vali Nasr.

Dr. NASR: And you needed to emphasize more hard-line radical Sunni views that tend to be more intolerant of Shias. And a great deal of investment was made. And we had the rise of, for the first time, Sunni fundamentalist groups that were different from the old ones.

SHUSTER: That was particularly true with the Arab fighters who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden. They then turned on their sponsors like the Saudis, but were fiercely anti-Shia, as well.

Dr. NASR: Their objective was not just overthrow of secular governments and establishments of Islamic states, but rather, their objective very particularly, was anti-Shi'ism.

SHUSTER: The most violent reaction to Iran's Shiite revolution came from Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

(Soundbite of archived news)

Unidentified Man: What you hear in the background is the air raid sirens of Baghdad, which has become a very common sound to those of us who've been living here for the two weeks of the war.

SHUSTER: Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 to seize its oil fields and destroy Khomeini's revolution. Iran responded with missile attacks on Baghdad reported here by AP Radio.

(Soundbite of archived AP Radio news)

Unidentified Man: I'm standing on my balcony now, at the Mansur Melia Hotel in downtown Baghdad. And I can see the cars hustling across the Tigris river bridges to get off the side of the road, and take refuge.

SHUSTER: But Saddam did not cast the conflict in sectarian terms, says Ray Takeyh, author of "Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic."

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Author, "Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic"): Saddam largely represented himself as the bastion of Arab nationalism resisting Persian hordes.

SHUSTER: 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. The war ground up hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides. It was fought initially in Iran's oil-rich region reported here by the BBC.

(Soundbite of archived BBC News)

Unidentified Man: As we approached the Iranian city of Abadan, one of the largest oil refineries in the world, the sky is heavy with oil clouds. The city remains in Iranian hands, but the shelling by the Iraqis is constant.

SHUSTER: And it was fought on the other side of the border, southern Iraq, where Iraq's Shiite population was concentrated. Wayne White is a former senior state department intelligence officer.

Mr. WAYNE WHITE (Former Senior Intelligence Officer, U.S. State Department): Iraqi Shia fought desperately in the trenches, against their co-religionists in Iran. 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.

(Soundbite of archived news)

Unidentified Man: The battle of Abadan is far from over.

(Soundbite of gunfire and explosion)

The Iranian troops, who are being encircled, appear determined to resist. The war appears in balance with the Iraqis yet to force the Iranians to negotiate.

SHUSTER: But the loyalty of the Shiites of Iraq won them scant approval from Saddam, says Augustus Norton, professor of Middle East history at Boston University.

Mr. AUGUSTUS NORTON (Professor, Middle East History, Boston University): Saddam Hussein was very suspicious of the Shias and their loyalties. Army units were rotated much more frequently than was militarily wise, because he suspected the loyalty of these units that were predominantly Shia Muslim.

SHUSTER: Then war broke out in 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, reported here by the BBC, would have unexpected and profound repercussions for the Sunni-Shia divide and for the security of the United States.

Unidentified Man (Reporter): Along the whole coastline, they've been mounting remorseless air, sea and ground attacks on the PLO position. For their parts, the Palestinians say they've been putting up stiff resistance.

(Soundbite of explosions)

Unidentified Man: These anti-aircraft guns are being fired off from the Palestinian positions in Palestinian camps on the southern outskirts of Beirut.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

SHUSTER: To get to Beirut, Israeli troops had to march through and occupy southern Lebanon, whose population was overwhelmingly Shiite. It was this invasion that soon would expand the reach of Iran, says Augustus Norton.

Prof. NORTON: The most important reverberation of the Iranian revolution was in Lebanon. This revolution provided a context for another organization to emerge, and this was Hezbollah - the party of God.

SHUSTER: 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 peacekeeping 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.

Former President RONALD REAGAN: 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.

SHUSTER: President Reagan soon reversed himself and pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon, leaving the divided nation to another six years of war. The Iran-Iraq War ground on as well with Iraq's widespread use of chemical weapons. It finally ended in 1988. Vali Nasr says the war's aftermath brought no rewards for Iraq's Shiites, further deepening the Sunni-Shia divide.

Dr. NASR: They were still treated as an outsider. This attitude still was the same one that Saddam Hussein had at the moment of his hanging when he referred to all the Shias as Persians.

SHUSTER: Peace lasted for just two years, and then Saddam Hussein embarked on another ill-fated military adventure: the seizure of Kuwait. After a U.S. military force, half-a-million strong, ousted Iraq's army from Kuwait, the Shiites had had enough of Saddam Hussein and rose up against him. Saddam put down the rebellion brutally.

Prof. NORTON: No one came to their assistance.

SHUSTER: Augustus Norton.

Prof. NORTON: 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.

Dr. NASR: The Shias began to understand that it doesn't matter how much blood they shed, how much they defend the country, they still are treated as second-class citizens.

SHUSTER: In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein 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 Shia of Iraq. They became more religious and more sectarian in their outlook. Then came the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which would unleash forces of Muslim sectarianism unseen in the Middle East in modern times.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, the U.S. invasion of Iraq deepens the division in the Muslim world. And for more on this series, go to

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