Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

The United States Cannot Afford to Pick a Side in the Shia-Sunni Fight

| June 25, 2018

The President of the United States has decided that the best approach to Iran is to speak loudly and carry a big stick—in the hopes that relentless pressure on Iran will either lead to regime change or the country abandoning its contentious foreign policies. Such saber-rattling will more likely enfeeble American power within the region and set U.S. policy on track for yet another dangerous conflict in the Middle East. Just as importantly, increasing tensions with Iran also bode poorly for sectarian de-escalation in the Muslim world. This is because the Shia view American policies without a balance between regional Sunni and Shia actors.

Under Trump, America is going all in with the pro-confrontation camp led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The United States has reversed President Obama's policies to take a balanced approach towards Iran and other transnational Shia groups. This shift has included pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, which has only further deepened the sectarian battle lines in the region. While Trump's strategy is standard combative neocon policy at face value—i.e., ideologically driven opposition to Iran rather than realpolitik—it has also acquired a partisan, sectarian edge with rhetoric and policies that appear as if the United States is taking sides in sectarian conflicts in the Islamic world.

The administration’s narrow focus will provoke precisely what the Trump White House aims to prevent—a more cohesive regional Shia movement under Iran’s protection and aggrieved Shia supportive of countering U.S. influence in the region. In other words, the current U.S. course is narrowing policy discussions both within individual Shia organizations as well as across transnational Shia alliances by closing the door to pro-U.S. policy alternatives. Trump’s policies are causing a consolidation of a shared anti-American security outlook that unites the various groups found across the Shia world.

In October of last year, the White House argued that past U.S. policy was incorrect because it “consistently prioritized the immediate threat of Sunni extremist organizations over the longer-term threat of Iranian-backed militancy.” This statement alluded to and conflated diverse and indigenous Arab Shia forces with Iran and indirectly to groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Additionally, Previous Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for “Iranian militias that are in Iraq...to go home,” prompting a frosty response from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi especially since the rhetoric replicated sectarian language which equated all Arab Shia with the Iranian ethnic identity. These policies together create the perception that the United States has taken a side against the Shia in the struggles ongoing in the region.

Prior American administrations recognized that the path to regional peace requires a non-sectarian approach. However, Trump’s coupling of Iran regime change policy with a regional outlook echoing sectarian rhetoric threatens to upend this fragile understanding. The Bush administration was careful to label Islam as a “religion of peace,” and worked with previous Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki despite his pro-Iranian sympathies. The Obama administration also practiced a pragmatic agnosticism as to its regional partners, as evident in its attempt to thaw U.S.-Iranian relations and its insistence that Saudi Arabia and Iran “learn to share the Gulf.”

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For Academic Citation: Mohseni, Payam and Seyed Ammar Nakhjavani.“The United States Cannot Afford to Pick a Side in the Shia-Sunni Fight.” The National Interest, June 25, 2018.