Islamic State: rewriting borders?

Many oppose the military operations against IS because no one knows what to do afterwards. We clear up some fundamental issues: on the one hand, the intra-Islamic religious conflict; on the other, the new Iranian ruling class, a leading player in the region.

Among the many risk factors that opponents of the Persian-American peace process point to, there are two that I believe are worth noting and will analyse here: 1) religious competition between the different strains of Islam in the Middle East and 2) the elections in Iran at the end of February.

The Sunnis currently represent approximately 85% of the world’s Muslim population, and Shiites account for the remaining 15%. After the death of the Prophet Mohammed (632 AD), Sunnis recognized Abu Bakr, the prophet’s friend and father-inlaw, as their new religious and political leader, while the Shiites have always considered the rightful successor to be Mohammed's cousin and brother-in-law, Ali.

All of the world’s Muslims (1.6 billion) agree that Allah is the only God and that Mohammed is his Prophet, just as they all uphold the five pillars of Islam: declaration of faith; prayer, five times a day; giving zakat (“alms”); fasting during the month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Qur'an is their sacred text.

But while Sunnis base their religious practices on the prophet’s actions and teachings (Sunna), Shiites view their religious leaders, the ayatollahs, as reflections of God on earth. This prompted the Sunnis to accuse the Shiites of heresy, while the Shiites underline how Sunni dogmatism has led to the formation of many extremist sects. For the Shiites, the twelfth and final imam lies hidden and shall reappear to restore the divine order. The Sunnis, for their part, have a number of schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi' and Hanbali) that are the same in principle, but differ in practical terms. Hanbalism, in particular, is a forerunner of the Wahhabi movement, which was inspired by Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and is very influential in Saudi Arabia. Since the second half of the 20th century, Wahhabism has also been associated with Salafism, which doesn’t fit in to any of the four schools of jurisprudence.

Following the division of majority-Islamic territories into nation-states, the clash between the two different religious branches has moved away from a purely ideological and religious divide to a more geopolitical one. We can therefore speak of a Sunni axis, supported by the Gulf petro-monarchies, headed by Saudi Arabia.

In Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein (2003), a number of prime ministers were appointed, each lasting only a few months. This continued until Nouri al-Maliki took the post in 2006, nominated by the Islamic Da'Wa Party (Shiite) and sponsored by the United States. His eight-year government gradually ousted the Sunni factions from the political arena, and the ensuing tensions brought about a sectarian clash that cleared the way for the rise of radical groups like Islamic State (IS). It is hardly surprisingly that such groups include Sunni extremists and former members of Hussein’s Ba’athist military forces.

In Syria, a civil war that began as a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian government soon became a conflict between government-backed militias and rebel groups, who were for the most part linked to Islamic extremism. The protests and early battles of 2011, which involved anti-Assad rebels fighting to depose the Alawite regime (a Shiite religious minority), were essentially devoid of religious connotations. But this soon changed, and the antigovernment forces were gradually replaced by extremist groups with Salafi leanings such as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. These forces managed to gain control over large swathes of territory and thus transformed the Syrian conflict into a religious one.

The Arab Spring in Yemen in 2012 led to the deposition of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who’d ruled the country since 1978). The new president, Mansur Hadi, a Sunni backed by the Gulf countries, the US and other Western governments, soon found himself having to deal with opposition from the Zaidi Shiite rebels, known as Houthi, mainly entrenched in the north. This clash has intensified since 2014, when the Iranian-backed rebel forces managed to force their way into the capital, Sana’a, and oust the president. Since 2015, an Arab coalition, headed by Saudi Arabia and backed by Egypt, has joined the fray and is still trying to recapture the territories that have fallen into rebel hands. It is a very complex situation that raises serious questions concerning post-World War I frontiers and the balance of power in the area.

Now let’s take a look at what’s happening in Iran. On 26 February (we will be on newsstands just three days later, so this article will have already been written), for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, votes will be cast to renew both the Iranian Parliament (290 members) and the Assembly of Experts (88 fellows), assigned the task of appointing the supreme leader and assessing his performance. Both organisms are currently dominated by conservatives and may continue to be so.

Let’s examine why:

a) All candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council of the Constitution. Six of its 12 members are theologians appointed by the supreme leader, while the other six are jurists named by the judiciary (also heavily influenced by the supreme leader) and approved by the Parliament. The Council is therefore controlled by conservatives.

b) The Guardian Council of the Constitution vetoed 99% of the candidates nominated by the reformist wing (30 out of 3000 admitted) for the next parliamentary elections. However, following appeals by rejected candidates, 1,400 were readmitted, proof positive that the admission process is for real.

c) The exclusion of Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the country’s first supreme leader and a reformist, from the list of candidates for the Assembly of Experts is a very symbolic and momentous decision.

d) Conservatives currently control Parliament, the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council of the Constitution. They even control the Revolutionary Islamic Guard, a military corps that is supposed to complement the traditional armed forces but actually has deep influence over Iranian politics and economics (via trusts and subsidiary companies, which might risk falling into foreign hands).

e) The conservatives view the nuclear accord as a Trojan Horse that will enable the West to infiltrate the country.

Despite the complications, the success of the nuclear accord has been greeted with enthusiasm by young Iranians and could offer reformists some degree of leverage in Parliament. Many Iranians have celebrated Iran’s return to international markets after years of heavy sanctions and shown their trust in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s reformist approach even by returning to their native country, after decades abroad.

The international community is relying on this change of tack: a new Middle East, with a new balance of power that’s far from tried and tested, where religious, economic, historical and geopolitical factors all come into play making it very tough to reach a lasting peace. It must nevertheless be Europe’s top priority. 

@GiuScognamiglio

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