Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.
Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.
In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.
The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.
But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.
Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.
There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.
The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading…]