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The West Is Still Buying Into Nonsense About Iran’s Regional Influence
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I was in Iraq in April 1991 when government security forces crushed the Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime, killing tens of thousands and burying their bodies in pits. I had been expelled from Iraq to Jordan at the start of the rebellion in March and then, to my surprise, allowed to return, because Saddam wanted to prove to the world that he was back in control.

I was taken along with other journalists to see Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, the vastly influential spiritual leader of the Shia in Iraq and elsewhere, who was being held in a nondescript house in Kufa in southern Iraq.

He lay on a couch looking all his 92 years, surrounded by Iraqi security men who were hoping that he would condemn the rebellion.

I asked him what he thought of it. For some minutes I thought he had not heard my question, but then, speaking in a low gasping voice, he said: “What happened in Najaf and other cities is not allowed and was against God.”

His words were deliberately ambiguous, but I had no doubt that he was speaking of the hideous vengeance being exacted by military units loyal to Saddam, the killing of Shia men, women and children regardless of whether or not they had taken part in the uprising.

The Shia had risen up against Saddam in the final days of his defeat in Kuwait by the US-led coalition. While they were not expecting full-scale foreign support, they did believe that the coalition would stop Saddam using his remaining tanks and helicopters against them. But the US conflated the Iraqi Shia with Iran, where the Shia are the overwhelming majority, and had decided that it was not in American interests to see the rebellion succeed.

Coalition forces stood aside as Saddam’s tanks, with helicopters overhead, smashed their way into Shia cities like Karbala, Najaf and Basra, and then began their mass executions.

Three decades later, the US and its allies are still making the same mistake, treating the millions of Shia in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan as if they were Iranian agents.

Down the centuries, the Shia have been one of the most savagely persecuted religious minorities; they fear today that in the wake of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, they are once again being demonised, as Donald Trump denounces all who oppose the US in the Middle East as Iranian proxies.

Yousif al-Khoei, the grandson of the grand ayatollah and the head of the London-based Al-Khoei Foundation, told me that the confrontation between Iran and the US was already leading to “the rise of anti-Shia sentiment”. He receives many calls from non-political but very worried Shia who hear what they interpret as crude anti-Shia propaganda being spouted in Washington.

“The threat to demolish ‘cultural sites’ in Iran was shocking to hear from a US president,” said Khoei. “Ordinary Shia express fear that this may mean attacking our holy places and institutions where faith and culture are intertwined.” He told me how young Shia are angered by potential “gross violation of the Shia faith” by US threats to holy sites and shrines that have only recently been targeted by Isis. “We are still recovering from the losses Isis inflicted on the Shia,” he said.

One of the most significant developments in the Middle East since 1945 has been the rise of the previously marginalised and impoverished Shia communities in many – though not all – of the region’s countries, above all Lebanon and Iraq, the latter becoming the first Shia-ruled state in the Arab world since Saladin overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 1171.

Yet American and British politicians too often treat the rise of the Shia as if this was purely the outcome of unjustifiable Iranian interference. Western leaders find it convenient to adopt the anti-Shia propaganda line pumped out by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, which persecutes its own Shia minority, and Bahrain, which has an even more oppressed Shia majority.

In both countries, Shia demanding civil rights are punished as terrorists and alleged proxies of Iran. Often, the Sunni authorities are convinced by their own propaganda: when the Bahraini government, backed by Saudi troops, crushed the Arab Spring protests on the island in 2011, Shia doctors in a nearby hospital were tortured to make them admit that they were receiving orders from Iran, though a high-level international investigation found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests.

After the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, its military commanders were paranoid about alleged Iranian plots to foster resistance to the occupation. In fact, it needed no fostering, because neither Shia nor Sunni wanted Iraq to be occupied by a foreign military force.

Old propaganda claims have resurfaced over the last week about Iran assisting the predominantly Saudi 9/11 bombers or enabling an IED campaign against British troops in southern Iraq, as if Iraq at that time was not knee-deep in discarded munitions.

Such self-serving conspiracy theories, whether they are being peddled in Washington, London, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, are counterproductive. They foster a sense of Shia solidarity that is to the benefit of Iran. We saw this over the last week, as anti-government protests in Iran in 2019 were replaced this year by crowds numbering millions jamming the streets of Iranian cities to mourn General Soleimani, that very same government’s top military commander.

At the heart of Shi’ism, more than in most religions, is martyrdom, and Soleimani is now being elevated in the eyes of Shia – and not just in Iran – to the status of a warrior martyr who died fighting for the faith.

The triumphant Iraqi army commanders I saw in the wrecked Shia cities of Iraq in 1991 all tried to persuade me that the Iranians had been the driving force behind the rebellion. Much the same nonsense is being uttered today about an Iranian hand being behind anything the west and its allies do not like in the Middle East.

When they claim to be targeting Iran, they are in practice targeting the Shia community as a whole – a mistake for which both they and the Shia are likely to pay a high price.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. https://www.google.com/search?q=Iraq+demonstrations+in+Tahrir+square&rlz=1C1GCEU_enUS821US821&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiN7PLa-fnmAhWoUt8KHSPvDXgQ_AUoA3oECAwQBQ&biw=1745&bih=877#imgrc=puQ0MBj5F-2cwM:

    Hundreds of thousands on the street demanding end to the foreign intervention ,sectarianism and terror by militias and death squads run by the Mullas .

    Iraqis neither want the yanks nor the Persian Mullas.
    Hundreds of thousands have marched against the Iranian interference and yet nothing is being mentioned here.

    The days of Persian neo colonial dreams in Iraq are coming to an end due to demand by Iraqi nationalists who want ALL foreigners OUT.

    • Replies: @Donald A Thomson
  2. Sean says:

    America and Britain got rid of Saddam who was the one actually oppressing and slaughtering Arab Shia and Iranians. Iraqi Shia as Arabs should realize that no good will come from the Persians, who by the way mistreat the Arab minority of Iran even though it is Shia.

    Courtesy of American military force Iraq was shattered, the Iraqi Sunnis made to accept they are a minority, and Saddam hanged, so Iran no longer has to worry about Iraq, which under Saddam had has been fighting Iran under the Mullahs (and the Shah). But Iran is not happy with just Iraq being taken down. Iran is now placing Saudi Arabia under extreme pressure though Yemen and in a rerun of what caused the Osama bin Laden and other Saudis to turn against the monarchy, forcing the reintroduction of US troops into Saudi Arabia itself.

    Iran’s terrain, relatively huge and homogenous population, and Shia suicide ethos make it a non starter for invasion or destabilization. Carter let the Shah into the US, which the Iranians foolishly interpreted as the prelude to a US backed coup, as if that would be possible again. Three decades later years later, Iranians are still paranoid, look at the way they just shot down an airliner taking off from their own airport. Iran is the one buying into nonsense, they would be left alone but for their own deluded belief that they have anything the US wants. Or maybe it is just political theatre to misdirect the Iranian middle class from their own pauperisation. Persian politicians can do that as well as American ones I suspect.

  3. @Sean

    “But Iran is not happy with just Iraq being taken down. Iran is now placing Saudi Arabia under extreme pressure though Yemen”.
    You speak as if Iran is responsible for the Iraq & Yemen horrors? It’s hard to believe someone could get this all so arse-backwards.
    But then you say —
    “Iran is the one buying into nonsense, they would be left alone but for their own deluded belief that they have anything the US wants”
    Obviously, the two concepts “oil” & “Israel” have never penetrated your “deluded” beliefs….

    • Replies: @Sean
  4. Anon[279] • Disclaimer says:

    This is what’s interesting about “nonsense”.
    That when it comes from others above one in the power ladder, one doesn’t see it as nonsense; he trusts, believes, and transmits it to others. Nonsense is nonsense if who tells it to one isn’t more powerful than he.

    It’s such an exquisite compound of comedy, drama, and tragedy, human social life.

  5. unit472 says:

    I was puzzled as to why Bush 41 let Saddam stay in power after the 100 hour Desert Storm campaign. It seemed to make no sense given Saddam’s history. Subsequent events have shown why. Better to leave a dictator in power than to set off a free for all between regional powers over the carcass of a collapsed state.

    I suspect the Iranian response to the targeting of General Soleimani will be a lot more subdued owing to their admission they shot down the Ukrainian civil airliner. Whatever political support they may have had in world opinion died with the 176 people on board that airplane.

    This might be an opportune time for the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Gulf Monarchies to step back and see what kind of settlement can be achieved in the Levant. The Imperial ambitions of Turkey and Iran are not going to be allowed by the Great Powers and neither country can afford the cost of their nascent empires.

  6. I welcome Cockburn’s analysis as a needed corrective to much Western thinking, and I especially like this:

    “Much the same nonsense is being uttered today about an Iranian hand being behind anything the west and its allies do not like in the Middle East. When they claim to be targeting Iran, they are in practice targeting the Shia community as a whole – a mistake for which both they and the Shia are likely to pay a high price.”

    But I do think many aspects of the Middle East’s religious division are just naturally blurred into politics and geopolitics, and perhaps it is unavoidable.

    I regard the Shia-Sunni divide as something akin to the Catholic-Protestant one that dominated Europe from the 16th century.

    It permeated all of European politics and generated wars. There was bloodshed for a very long period in Europe, actually a bit of it extending right into the 20th century in places like Ireland.

    The division drove all kinds of violence in a number of European countries, including wars of succession and massacres, and it was a key part in Britain’s “Glorious Revolution.”

    It played an important role, often now unrecognized, in America’s revolt when Britain put parts of what would become the American Midwest, then regarded as Indian Reserve lands, under the jurisdiction of Quebec Province with the Quebec Act of 1774.

    America’s colonials resented the well-intentioned Act deeply, both for cutting off their opportunities to exploit those lands and for putting them under the control of “popery,” a word very much heard then in New England.

    So, for Europeans, political and religious matters were largely indistinguishable and remained that way for centuries.

    If you understand that history, you do not look at the Muslim world’s situation as anything mysterious or unusual.

    It likely reflects a basic division in human psychological make-up when we see vast religious movements divide into factions, just as people divide themselves into political factions. Indeed, in Britain’s early 18th century Parliament, there were no political parties as we know them, and when they began to emerge, they were called factions.

    I think I might identify the Shia a bit with the early Protestants in that some of what they represent is regarded as revolutionary or at least upsetting to the old order.

    In any event, a lot of what is said about Muslims in the West is inaccurate and self-serving.

    Remember, “the West” is really a global imperial power, the United States, with loyal satraps like Britain or France scurrying along behind.

    The primary interest of “the West” in the world at large is control, not understanding or cooperation.

    So, the Muslim world’s natural divisions are exploited towards control.

  7. Sean says:
    @animalogic


    Customers for their oil are declining almost as fast as those for their nonsense about not trying for a nuke. Iran’s terrain, large population, homogeneity and ethos whereby 13 year olds who destroy themselves and an enemy tank are national heroes make it a non starter for invasion to seize the oil. Facing behemoth India, which has the manpower to conquer and hold Pakistan, has a acquired nuclear weapon without any great objection from the US. What on Earth does Iran need a nuclear weapon for?

    The answer is they need it for a Nuclear Mexican Standoff and projected asymmetric and possibly regular-conventional offensive against Saudi Arabia at some time in the future. Iran is neither as vulnerable as Saudi Arabia or as rich a prize as Saudi Arabia. It’s hardly surprising he was so effective considering who he was up against; unlike the Saudi Clown Prince; Soleimani was not coked out of his skull or fucking Lindsay Lohan. In the time of the Shah, such diversions were available in Iran. I think the history of decadence from contact with Western culture is repeating itself.

    Soleimani was said to have been killed shortly before he was to meet with Saudi Arabian officials in order to reach an agreement over cessation of hostilities between their two countries. This was a sure sign that the fast agile methods of al-Quds, (“Jerusalem Force”) were already inside the OODA loop of Saudi Arabia, which is buckling economically and ideologically. The Saudi ex-Imam of Mecca ‘no longer considers Shia Muslims as heretics’. The Quds force commander was not a diplomat, the meeting had something of a victor accepting the capitulation of the vanquished about it.

    • Replies: @animalogic
  8. anastasia says:
    @Sean

    Man alive. Do you really believe all that? Wow!

    • Replies: @Sean
  9. Sean says:
    @anastasia

    If Saudi Arabia was begining to be conciliatory towards Iran, that was unlikely to make Iran give up whatever plans it may have had. Cockburn always thinks the US overreacts. I think sometimes governments underreact, as with Carter not withdrawing the embassy from Tehran. Soleimani may have been killed because the US thought he was leading Iran to success against Saudi Arabia. Do not think that the CIA. Pentagon and US government have a monopoly on strategic deception and dissimulation.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OODA_loop#Overview

    The key is to obscure your intentions and make them unpredictable to your opponent while you simultaneously clarify his intentions. That is, operate at a faster tempo to generate rapidly changing conditions that inhibit your opponent from adapting or reacting to those changes and that suppress or destroy his awareness. Thus, a hodgepodge of confusion and disorder occur to cause him to over- or under-react to conditions or activities that appear to be uncertain, ambiguous, or incomprehensible.

  10. @NegroPantera

    It’d be very hard for Iran to withdraw imaginary troops from Iraq. There are Iraqis who disagree with other Iraqis about the desirability of allying with Iran and it’s reasonable for them to fear a US war of aggression or sanctions.

    It’s the USA who have refused to withdraw their very real troops from Iraq. It’s only US troops who have murdered Iraqi troops and an Iranian general in Iraq who was there at the request of the Iraqi Government. It’s the USA that wages war against Syria from Iraq. It’s the USA that threatens Iraq with sanctions.

    The longer the USA remains in Iraq hiring Sepoys the more dangerous they are to Iraqi democracy and independence. [email protected]

  11. Mr. Grey says:

    Mistake or not, there won’t be a high price to be paid. Arabs are pros at hyperbole and many in the West who profit off of clickbait are happy to repeat their empty threats.

  12. @Sean

    “Soleimani was said to have been killed shortly before he was to meet with Saudi Arabian officials in order to reach an agreement over cessation of hostilities between their two countries. This was a sure sign that the fast agile methods of al-Quds, (“Jerusalem Force”) were already inside the OODA loop of Saudi Arabia, which is buckling economically and ideologically.”
    I think there are a few issues here.
    Soleimani was to meet Iraqi leaders, carrying a letter from Iran in answer to a previous letter from the KSA which had sought to explore de-esculation possibilities with Iran.
    So, essentially, here Iraq was acting as a go-between /mediator between Iran & KSA.
    It appears we don’t know the contents.
    Hence statements like:
    “in order to reach an agreement over cessation of hostilities between their two countries.” are not supported by any evidence, not by common sense. (Insanely complex relations such as btwn Iran & KSA will not be settled with a couple of letters.)

  13. Sean says:

    While there was not going to be an end to it the Kingdom was giving ground in a naive attempt to end a run of reverses. Military reverses have caused the majority of revolutions and the Saudi monarchy was disheartened. I don’t see the relations between the US/Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia as being any more Byzantine than they were at the time of Byzantium. You still have the same three: European orientated Med coast, the awkward squad Persians (who switched from Sunni to Shia) and the Arabian peninsula.

    With an eye to the Osama type trouble caused by the Americans being in the KSA to protect it from Saddam’s Iraq, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is even more fearful of being undermined by domestic unrest within the KSA about the US forces being in the KSM to protect the Custodian Of the Two Holy Mosques from Iran than any capability Iran has to harm the KSA from without. The US forces in the Middle East are carefully placed around Saudi Arabia rather than in the KSA, but things are escalating to the point where masses of US forces would have to be actually stationed in the KSA. Sunni Saudi Arabia has made audacious initiatives in Yemen, Qatar and with Khashoggi that went not very well, and such leadership as the KSA currently has is easily disheartened by the style of pressure exerted by Shia Iran, which is constant and unremitting.
    (See http://www.shiavault.com/books/the-ahlul-bayt-ethical-role-models/chapters/27-patience ).

    I remember reading about the training given to Hezbollah fighters. They were being told to go to to empty warehouse and await further orders; they were left there a day or more, to teach them patience. Iran went Shia to be different to their Arab hereditary racial enemies, but it is a good religion for a military minded people to have. It is of course Lebanese in origin and probably the Arabs are in more need of it that Persians, for Arabs have ‘a prodigious variety of ideas, but these succeed each other so rapidly that they cannot arrange themselves and there is poverty in practical results’. The Shah was preening in front of the world with the 2,500 year celebration of the Persian Empire, getting escort girls sent from London and smoking weed with an aide de camp, which decadence explains how he lost the throne despite being militarily powerful.

    The Saudi royal family have even less religious and racial resistance to such decadence than the Shah did, and they are being overwhelmed by a confluence of difficulties. Iran is slowly but surely winning as would be expected from it’s sheer size. The only real mistake Revolutionary Islamic Iran has made in thirty years was alienating the USSR (as Russia then was) by persecuting communists, which caused the Soviets to save Saddam from a likely total defeat. Tight with Russia because of Syria, gifted Iraq courtesy of the US invasion, and now turning on the Kingdom, Iranian total victory was looking increasingly likely.

    Then came a setback for Iran with demonstrations against Iranian influence in Iraq being ruthlessly suppressed by snipers picking off the leaders, and the US got intelligence of Soleimani having instructed Muhandis to kill members of U.S. forces in order to provoke retaliation and cause anger toward America. Muhandis was responsible for the 1983 U.S. and French embassy bombings in Kuwait according to a Kuwaiti court that sentenced him to death thirteen years ago. On December 11 Baghdad international airport was hit by rockets and members of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service injured. Two days later more than 30 rockets rockets killed a contractor and wounded four American and two Iraq soldiers. American air strikes killed 25 Kataib Hezbollah militia who they said were doing the rocketing, whereupon Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups rioted into the U.S. Embassy’s perimeter.

    So what was the US supposed to do, let Soleimani attend that meeting, which he would interpret as the KSA begining to cry uncle, while the US was forced to kill people including some innocent people in retaliatory attacks? Or hit Soleimani and his minion. As it happened the Iranians are in no rush for open conflict with the US and everyone would have been on Iran’s side, except that they erroneously used their enormously sophisticated and expensive Russian air defence system to shoot down a airliner that had just took off from Tehran; these are the people who can be trusted with the ability to construct a nuclear weapon?

  14. @Sean

    La,La La. We have here not a Muslim but a Whaabhi of the Saudi persuasion shilling not for Sunnies but the Persion Gulf Whaabbi Arabs.

    I am not a Muslim but hate Whaabhis with the same passion as they both are one and the same.

    “Shia suicide ethos make it a non starter for invasion or destabilization. Carter let the Shah into the US, which the Iranians foolishly interpreted as the prelude to a US backed coup, as if that would be possible again. Three decades later years later, Iranians are still paranoid, look at the way they just shot down an airliner taking off from their own airport.”

    Stop writing gibberish.
    You sir are a are aligned with the robbers (USA) and they already control and have their hand on the oil spigot of Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

    The next year will have Turkey screwing the Israelis and taking their oil. It’s then we’ll see what the USA is made of.

  15. William says:

    Sir,
    Your analysis of U.S. — Iranian policy is wrong. Markedly so in my opinion. U.S. policy toward Iran is
    shaped by Neo-cons (Israeli boosters), and a stand-down between Iran and the U.S. is impossible because U.S.intransigence will not allow any compromise. Iran must yield on all points or face the war so avidly desired by Israel.

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