June 20, 2014 | The Weekly Standard

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Enemy

When Ottoman armies marched into Europe in the mid-14th century, Europeans started looking hopefully eastward for enemies of the Turks. Spanish and French kings sent ambassadors to Tamerlane when the last great Muslim Mongol conqueror started marching west. Europeans and Byzantines rejoiced when the Central Asian obliterated the hitherto invincible legions of the Ottoman sultan, Beyazid the Lightning Bolt, at the Battle of Ankara in 1402.

When the Persian Safavid shah Abbas I started gaining strength in the late 16th century, Europeans took note, seeing a potential powerful ally against their dreaded Muslim foe. 

Change dates and Muslims: Some Westerners are again hoping that Iranians can be helpful against Sunni holy warriors in the Middle East. This thought has crossed the minds of senior administration officials and even a dogged skeptic of Iranian intentions like the Republican senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham. He wants Tehran to help save Baghdad from the onrushing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a ferocious offshoot of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s savage Al Qaeda in Iraq. 

“We need to coordinate with the Iranians,” the senator urged, “and the Turks need to get in the game and get the Sunni Arabs back into the game, [and] form a new government without [Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-] Maliki.” Through talks, Graham believes, the United States can persuade the clerical regime not to seek dominion over the Shiite regions of Iraq. 

None of this makes sense. Sunni radical Islamists are more primitive than their Iranian counterparts: In the Islamic Republic there has been a vivid debate, and a seesawing of government policy, about whether the public stoning of adulteresses, now banned, is a civilized practice; lapidation is de rigueur among staunch Sunni fundamentalists. The onetime major-domo of the politicized clergy and President Hassan Rouhani’s most consequential patron, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has a real appreciation for history and literature, which may partly explain his enthusiasm for nuclear weapons and the assassination, now and then, of troublesome dissidents. Iranian emissaries often have no trouble shaking the hands of (male) Westerners. With only the rarest exceptions, Sunni hardcore Islamists who spring from the Saudi Wahhabi tradition are cultural reductionists. They zealously strip their own history of its color and complexity. They are incurious about foreign lands. They loathe the touch of infidels. 

Sunni jihadists are certainly scarier now than their Shiite counterparts: Public decapitation with swords and knives is, at least in modern times, more Saudi than Persian, and suicide bombing, which Sunni radicals now relish, has passed into desuetude among Shiites. Even the radical Shiite clergy​​—​​Sunnis don’t really have a clerisy to whom they give their obeisance​​—​​was never particularly enamored of this type of terrorism, even though Arab Shiites in Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon were its trailblazers. It’s questionable whether the leaders of the Sunni jihad raging across Syria and Iraq really want to blow themselves up, but certainly the rank-and-file radicals appear more wild than even the shock troops of the Lebanese Hezbollah, who’ve slaughtered Sunni civilians in Syria. Hezbollah’s fighters are more professional and camera-shy when they butcher their enemies. 

Compared with Shiite holy warriors, Sunni jihadists, especially in Arab lands, are morally more distant from their fathers’ and grand-fathers’ socially conservative traditions, which despite their severity allowed for furtive sin and hypocrisy. In this sense, modern Sunni jihadists aren’t just stateless; they’re village-less. Their pristine, zealously egalitarian faith has become fluid, ready to be poured into any projectile that radical Sunni leaders have the skill to aim. That is just less true of militant Shiites. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has certainly tried to turn Islam into an ideology, a never-ending charge against the United States and Westernization. But the vanguard of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, who have brutally battered the older mores of the faith and the restraining politesse of Persian culture, kill and torture selectively, more carefully now than they had to 30 years ago. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the praetorians of the revolution, who’ve used terrorism at home and abroad as an essential tool of statecraft, still have to, however reluctantly, give deference to clerics. 

This isn’t an intentional system of checks and balances; it’s just what happens when an Islamic revolution is made by well-educated Iranian mullahs who can’t quite figure out how the Persian-Islamic marriage works in a modern theocratic state with a global revolutionary mission. Iranians can shift from zealous, arrogant, extroverted believers to introverted, polite, and pious worshippers to rampaging cynics in fairly short order. They’re not schizophrenic; they’re just giving due deference to all of the component parts of their heavy yet evolving cultural inheritance.

By contrast, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, defers to no one, and certainly not to Ayman al Zawahiri, the far less powerful titular head of al Qaeda central, who probably fears that his group, hiding on the subcontinent, may no longer be that competitive among Arabs. Most Arab Sunni jihadists have grown up in societies without any real moral compass. From the 1950s through the 1990s, Arab military dictatorships more or less obliterated the old order, with its deference to family, class, education, and religious institutions. The only thing that gave comfort and security in this vacuum was the faith, but the faith was in free fall.  

Shiites have an advantage over Sunnis in times of trouble because their historic evolution, even after Iran became a powerful Shiite empire in the 16th century, has been at a distance from “those who hold the reins.” In the Islamic Republic, the state and the clergy are not interchangeable. There is a tension​​—​​a constant negotiation​​—​​among clerics about who are the proper arbiters of right and wrong. Sunnis have always been much more closely married to the state; they are more likely to collapse into crises of faith when government gives way or comes to be seen as illegitimate. Both are happening throughout the Arab Middle East. 

Mutatis mutandis, something similar has happened with radicalized young Sunni Arab men who’ve grown up in Europe. Westernization has stripped them of their past, their conservative hierarchies and customs, while offering them a difficult integration into unfriendly societies whose national identities are still ethnic (think German) or impossibly vague (think Belgian) and still more than a little bit Christian. Liberal individualism, the elixir of Western strength, can be a lonely, cold creed for immigrants, and the children of immigrants, in an identity crisis. And alienation in Europe now pairs up with desecration in the Middle East. Islam, the oldest of such people’s available identities, naturally rises and becomes supercharged. Jihadism can then quickly emerge​​—​​especially if the right hot war is nearby. 

We don’t know how many European and American Sunnis have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq. But it appears that something has finally snapped in the West’s young Arab Sunni males, at least in Europe. If true, that crackup mirrors, or imitates, the cultural Gotterdämmerung in the motherlands. It’s interesting: Even though millions of Iranians and Arab Shiites now live in the West, we’ve not seen them in significant numbers answer a call to jihad against Sunnis or Westerners. Although Westernization once produced a remarkable number of Iranian Islamist revolutionaries, that is no longer the case. Westernization among Shiites now appears to severely dampen their enthusiasm for Muslim fraternity or more violent callings. 

In his loathing of the United States, al-Baghdadi is probably indistinguishable from Khamenei or Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the expeditionary and preeminent terrorist unit within the Revolutionary Guard Corps, who, with considerable foresight and planning, killed probably hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. The difference between these men, at least vis-à-vis the West, is not really of ideas or ideals or even means. In Iraq, Khamenei and Suleimani, like al-Baghdadi, have doggedly encouraged sectarian politics and violence to increase Tehran’s leverage over the Iraqi Shiites, who tend to take their distance from Iran as they become more self-confident. The triumph of Sunni militants in the north of Iraq doesn’t weaken Tehran’s position in that country; it fortifies it. It’s doubtful that Suleimani is all that worried about Baghdad falling​—​the capital is now Shiite turf, and Suleimani has an excellent, eyewitness grasp of the Battle of Baghdad between 2005 and 2007, which the Iranian-backed Shiite militias decisively won. Sunni numbers and weaponry are still woefully insufficient for urban combat in hostile territory. Al-Baghdadi’s forces could easily get destroyed in a protracted conflict in the capital. The loss of Samarra, one of Shiism’s shrine cities, to Sunni radicals is embarrassing to all Shiites. And the certain increase of Sunni terrorism in Baghdad and elsewhere will anger Iranians. But such terrorism will inevitably tighten the ties between the Quds Force and Iraqi security and intelligence services, which is an enormous, long-term plus for Khamenei’s regime.

Iran has never been averse to Sunni radicals who lived to harm the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, Rafsanjani, with Rouhani always at his side, institutionalized  an ecumenical approach towards militant Sunni fundamentalists: The Islamic Republic would esteem and aid them​—​even if they had unkind thoughts about Shiites​—​so long as they expressed enmity towards the United States and Israel.

What’s different now is that Sunni radicals have succeeded spectacularly in Syria and Iraq, threatening Tehran’s most important Arab Shiite ally in the Levant, Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime. Sectarian conflict on this scale makes it difficult to find Sunni Muslims willing to bless the Islamic Republic’s overarching mission against the United States. However, this loss isn’t going to moderate the clerical regime’s anti-American calling​—​the hope of those who now see an Iranian opportunity for America in Iraq. Just read the supreme leader’s speeches since the Sunni uprising in Syria started threatening the Islamic Republic’s alliances. Anti-Americanism is as strong as ever if not worse —​even though President Obama has shown that he has no intention of militarily threatening Assad’s rule. 

What is going to happen? The Iranians will probably double down on their militant Sunni outreach, even as they fan the flames of sectarian war in both Syria and Iraq. They will reflexively try to find common ground with jihadists in anti-American rhetoric. They will try to rally all Muslims to their side in the nuclear test of wills with Washington and Europe. The Iranians know that they are in a major religious battle with Saudi Arabia, comparable to the tug of war when the Iranian revolution led to the expansion of militant missionary activity on both sides. The Saudis decisively won that round; one of its deleterious byproducts was the Wahhabization of so many Sunni schools and mosques in the Islamic world and Europe.  

It is possible that the present Sunni-Shiite conflict could, if the Iranian body count rises and too much national treasure is spent, produce shock waves that fundamentally weaken the clerical regime. Iran has millions of Sunnis living within its borders​—​many more than the regime likes to admit. Things could get violent inside the Islamic Republic. Further down the road, it’s even conceivable that if the Sunni-Shiite slaughter were sufficiently intense, both sides might exhaust themselves and grow more tolerant. 

But whenever Islam is superheated, infidels fare poorly. While both sides of this old and bitter divide kill each other, Sunni and Shiite radicals will surely try to outbid each other over who is the staunchest enemy of the United States. In this ugly contest, the Iranians will be the more fascinating to watch: They are highbrow Islamic revolutionaries, which means, among other things, that they can esteem risqué Persian verse as much as they do nuclear physics. Qassem Suleimani, my Shiite Iraqi friends swear, can even be an entertaining dinner guest.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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