NAM Summit exposes rifts in Islamic world
By G Parthasarathy
16th September 2012 12:00 AM
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was treated as a privileged and honoured guest when he visited Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit. He was received by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had detailed discussions with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and was given a place of honour during the summit meeting. Given Iran’s controversial role in the world, only 36 of 120 members of NAM were present at the level of Head of Government. More importantly, of Iran’s six Sunni Arab neighbours, only Qatar, which has taken a hard-line anti-Iranian position on developments in the Middle East, was represented by its ruler. Other Sunni neighbours chose to send their foreign ministers, while Saudi Arabia was represented by a deputy foreign minister.
Two recent events have transformed the course of developments in the Persian Gulf and Middle East— the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which resulted in Iraq coming under the rule of its Shia majority, after centuries of minority Sunni domination. Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 revived latent Shia-Sunni and Persian-Arab rivalries. Adding fuel to the fire, he described the Saudi Arabian monarchy as an “unpopular and corrupt dictatorship” and an “American lackey”, which he claimed was “ripe for revolution”. Israel, an ally of the Shah of Iran, became a foe to be ‘wiped off the map”. Khomeini’s aim was to undermine neighbouring Arab regimes by taking a hard-line position on the Palestinian issue by appealing to popular sentiment in the “Arab Street”. The Iranians also spared no effort to promote unrest among Shias in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen and Lebanon. Given their immense financial resources and US backing, the Saudis retaliated by moves undermining Iranian ambitions and provoking militant Sunni reactions to Shia minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
At the Tehran Summit, Iran’s leaders continued with their anti-Israeli rhetoric, but faced setbacks. The Iranians regarded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as an American puppet and were highly critical of Egypt’s role in recognising Israel and promoting Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. They expected Egypt’s newly elected President Ahmed Morsi to join them in condemning American and Saudi policies in Syria, amid the bloody civil war there, unleashed by its minority Shia President Bashar al-Assad. While quite different in his approach to domestic and international issues from his predecessor Mubarak, Morsi, who has been a long-term member of the conservative Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, lashed out at the violence unleashed by Assad, labelling his regime as “oppressive” and calling for support to the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition. The Iranians also received a setback when Sunni Arab countries successfully thwarted their efforts to undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, by inviting his rivals from the radical Hams, to the summit.
The US invasion of Iraq has, however, resulted in great strategic benefit to Iran, as it has produced a Shia majority government in Baghdad, which is deeply distrustful of both the US and Saudi Arabia. Iraq now helps Iran to transport weapons to the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria. At the same time, the anti-Assad opposition is backed by an alliance of Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, together with the US and its European allies. If rivalries between Protestants and Catholics figured prominently in the geopolitics of the Christian world for centuries, events since the 1979 Iranian Revolution appear to be producing Shia-Sunni rivalries of a new type. Pakistan, with roughly 20 per cent of its population made up of Shias, is seeing an upsurge in anti-Shia sectarian violence and killings. Whether in Gilgit, Baluchistan, Karachi or the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, Shias are being described as “Kafirs” and targeted by groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Shia doctors have largely fled Karachi. How would have Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, who was himself a Shia, survived in today’s Pakistan, is a question that Pakistani Shias now ask.
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