Iran: Hostility, Sanctions, and ReligionJune 25, 2019
The whirl of news related to Iran today is dizzying. So, what do you need to know?
Iran is a bad actor (the #1 financier of terrorism in the world) who the rest of the world wants to prevent from acquiring nuclear weapons. Attempts to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions include the multinational JCPOA brokered by the Obama administration from which the U.S. withdrew in May 2018.
Two weeks ago Iran announced it would be surpassing uranium enrichment limits set in the agreement. Nations responded with increased economic sanctions. Iran responded by shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone. The U.S. responded with a cyber attack – after issuing and then withdrawing a strike force that would have hit radar and missile batteries linked to the Iranian anti-aircraft missile that brought down the drone. Iran responded by threatening any future U.S. sories in the region.
The FAA and other international agencies governing air travel have strict no fly zones over and around Iran. The U.S. now has personnel and a major Naval presence in the region. President Trump offered to meet with the Iranians with no preconditions to which the Iranian responded by chanting “Death to America.”
On Sunday, June 23, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue. New economic sanctions take effect today as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Saudi king and others in the region to build out a global coalition against Iran.
There is no question Iran is feeling the pressure of economic sanctions. The economy there is contracting – this year at a rate of 6%, the currency is losing value, consumer prices are spiking and there are reported shortages of some foods and medicines. There are also a number of new Iranian personnel who may be feeling the need to prove their revolutionary spirit. Earlier this year, the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard brought on a new chief and last year replaced the commander of the Iranian Navy. While Americans may be used to frequent changes in terms of similar positions here, in Iran, the expectation is that men serving in senior military and government posts remain in those positions for very long periods of time.
Two things to consider: geography and the relationship of religion to politics in the region.
Iran and Saudi Arabia loom large. They are also the dominant forces in the region and they have been in opposition to one another for more than 1400 years. What kind of opposition? Religious. But they’re both Muslim, you contend. Yes, but of very different brands.
Iran is Shia and Saudi Arabia is Sunni. An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed the Syrian civil war and a proxy war in Yemen, and spurred the violence that continues to fracture Iraq and every other hot spot in the Middle East. Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen – all funded by Iran. And the transnational jihadi networks who take their inspiration and ideas from the Iranians spreads far beyond the region.
Religion isn’t everything and the 14 century old schism in Islam does not account for all the political, economic and other factors, but it is essential to understanding the worldview of those who lead the two countries competing for leadership of Islam: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.
For Muslims in the West, the differences in the two sects may be less important. In many places Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries. They share faith in the Quran, perform similar prayers, worship at the same mosques and even intermarry. But they have very different interpretations of Islamic law and the rightful lineage of the Prophet Mohammed’s legacy.
Most of Islam’s adherents are Sunni (85% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims follow Sunni Islam). But the marginalization of the Shia by the Sunni majority perpetuates the Shia identity which is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson in the 7th century.
We have to go back to Mecca in 610 A.D. to the time when Mohammed brought about a new religion known as Islam, submission to God. Monotheistic, it incorporated some Jewish and some Christian traditions but expanded into a set of laws Mohammed articulated as a set of laws to govern life, including political authority. In the next 22 years prior to his death, Mohammed consolidated power in Arabia. A debate over leadership succession eventually split the massive empire his followers built after his death. Some insisted legitimate rule must be established through Mohammed’s physical bloodline while others argued leaders should be identified through a process of qualification.
The opposing camps in the succession debate eventually evolved into Islam’s two main sects. Shias believe Mohammed’s descendants are part of a divine order. Sunnis, meaning followers of the sunna, or “way” in Arabic, do not see Mohammed’s bloodline as essential to the following of the Way of Mohammed.
Sunnis dominated the first nine centuries of Islamic rule (excluding the Shia Fatimid dynasty) until the Safavid dynasty was established in Persia in 1501. The Safavids made Shia Islam the state religion, and over the following two centuries they fought with the Ottomans, the seat of the Sunni caliphate. By the 17th century, the current lines of Middle East nations were drawn around largely Shia and Sunni populations. Shias comprise a majority in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, and a plurality in Lebanon, while Sunnis make up the majority of more than forty countries from Morocco to Indonesia.
Sunnis and Shias agree on the basic tenets of Islam: declaring faith in a monotheistic God and Mohammed as his messenger, conducting daily prayers, giving money to the poor, fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Sunni-Shia tensions contribute to multiple flash points in Muslim countries that are viewed as growing threats to international peace and security. As recent headlines refer to increasing sanctions and the development of a global coalition designed to stand against a nuclear-empowered, terror-sponsoring Iran, it is important to understand this ancient, religious rivalry and how it adds fuel to the current fire.