Community Forum, Haviland Smith: Iran, Islam and Nukes
This week’s Community Forum is by Haviland Smith, a retired CIA Station Chief who served, inter alia, in Lebanon and Iran.
In 1953, America participated in the overthrow of the only democratically elected government Iran has ever had by removing Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh from office and installing the Shah in his place. Iranians of all political persuasions have never forgotten that fact and the act itself has since played a critical role in souring bilateral relations between our two countries.
Viewed against the realities of official Iran’s hatred for all things American, it is not surprising that any number of Iran’s regional sectarian surrogates have run paramilitary operations, now labeled “terrorist operations”, against regional American interests. The bombing of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Lebanon come immediately to mind.
President Trump has decided to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This will transfer to the American Congress the right to reinstall sanctions on Iran. Ultimately, if JCPOA is killed, the Iranians will be able to resume their currently suspended nuclear weapons programs.
Many Americans, including many of today’s senior military advisors and professional foreign policy specialists, think that the suspension of JCPOA and the concomitant reinstallation of sanctions is a really bad idea. Along with virtually all the Europeans countries, even Russia and China think the suspension could preface a disaster, putting the potential for the unfettered development of nuclear weapons back in the hands of the Iranians.
It appears that Trump believes the JCPOA was poorly negotiated. He believes that we should have gone after other activities in which Iran is involved, even though Iran made it crystal clear during the original JCPOA negotiations that they were prepared to discuss and negotiate only the nuclear weapons issue. To have done otherwise would have been to renounce their perceived sectarian responsibilities to regional Shia minorities.
What seems perfectly clear is that Trump believes that the JCPOA is essentially worthless without the inclusion of provisions banning what he sees as unacceptable behavior on the part of the Iranians. First and foremost in this behavioral arena is the involvement of Iran in supporting her Shia co-religionists in their centuries-old struggle with Sunni Islam. Ongoing since 632 A.D., this activity is now often labeled “terrorism”. America condemns Iranian behavior simply because we, along with most of the West, have traditionally supported Sunni Islam, probably because that is where we have traditionally found critical supplies of petroleum.
Islam split into Sunni and Shia with the 632 A.D. death of the prophet Mohammad and the question of who was going to succeed him. That rift continues to this day. The most influential Sunni state is Saudi Arabia. Iran is clearly the most influential Shia state. As self-appointed leaders, and like their opponents on the Sunni side, they feel an overwhelming motivation to protect Shia interests in the Muslim world — and thus their own.
Shia majority countries are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain. They are also the largest group in Lebanon. Shias constitute 36.3 percent of the entire local population and 38.6 percent of the Muslim population of the Middle East. In addition, there are many countries in the Muslim world where Shias are in the minority but still have significant populations. Where that is the case, those Shia minorities are almost always under the Sunni gun and thus worthy of Shia (read Iranian) protection. Such situations exist and are currently critical in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
In Syria, the Shia, known there as Alawites, are less than 20 percent of the total population, but run the country. They are under the gun from the large Sunni majority of the population (supported by America) and, as a result are supported in every way by Iran.
In Yemen, Shia Houthis comprise about 35-40 percent of the population and are involved in a civil war against the Sunni majority. Here we see the perfect international sectarian struggle with Saudi Arabia, (supported by America) openly supporting the Sunnis and Iran supporting the Shia.
In the uneasy situation in Lebanon, Iran gives material and political support to the Shia Hezbollah in their ongoing political and military struggles with the Sunni and the Christians (supported by America).
In addition to the fact of Iranian support to Shia minorities in the Muslim world, Iran is virtually always condemned here in America as “supporting terrorism”. This is not to say that Shia minorities do not use terrorist tactics. They clearly do. What it does say is that many American political leaders, most emphatically including Trump and his “alternative facts,” indiscriminately use the words “terror and terrorist” to marshal public opinion in support of their policies.
It may not change your opinion of Iran and its activities in the region, but what they are doing is what any nation or group might do. They are trying to protect their fellow believers who are under the guns of traditional enemies in other countries.
We have been known to do the same.
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