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Inside Iran with Robin Wright and David Ignatius

            Two long-time Middle East experts have recently returned from Iran. Their discussions with cabinet members, ayatollahs, hardliners, members of parliament, economists, opposition figures and ordinary Iranians offer rare insights into Iran’s increasingly vibrant political scene since President Rouhani took office and the implications of the new nuclear agreement. Robin Wright and David Ignatius offer fresh perspectives on what’s next.


Iran’s Leaders Alarmed by Sunni-Shiite Tension

            Iran’s top religious and political leaders are alarmed by growing Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East. Tehran is especially worried about the influx of Sunni militants into Syria, al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq, and Sunni-Shiite clashes in Lebanon. Sectarian violence is “the most serious security threat not only to the region but to the world at large,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned in a November 2013 BBC interview. And in October 2013, President Hassan Rouhani called for Muslim unity and regional cooperation to prevent bloodshed.

      Other Iranian leaders are blaming the intra-Muslim fighting on the West, Israel and the Sunni Gulf states. Western intelligence services are fomenting “bloody sectarian, ethnic and national conflicts” in Syria and elsewhere with “the help of [Arab] petrodollars,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei charged in April 2013. Saudi Arabia is “fulfilling Zionists’ orders for fomenting sectarian war in the Muslim world,” claimed Reza Mohseni Sani, a member of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission. 
           The Shiite theocracy has a strategic interest in preventing further Sunni-Shiite violence. Iran is the biggest Shiite country in the world. Some 89 percent of its 79 million people are Shiites. But overall, they are a minority in the Middle East. Outside of Iran, Shiites make up only 11 to 14 percent of the region’s Muslim population, according to the Pew Research Center. Bahrain and Iraq are the only other Arab countries with majority-Shiite populations, while Yemen is estimated to be 35 percent Shiite. The following is a rundown of remarks by top Iranian leaders on sectarianism.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
            “One of the great plights in the world of Islam today is the plight imposed intentionally and wickedly by the#arrogant powers to inflame discords among the Islamic nation and religious sects.
            “The arrogant and #imperialist system is highly experienced at sowing religious discords…
            “Confrontation of religious sects will not be limited to #Shia and #Sunni conflicts…”
            Nov. 11, 2013 in a meeting with Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) officials
Nov. 19, 2013 Facebook post
            “Any statements and actions that set fire between Muslims or insulting sanctities of any Muslim sects is a service to the camp of disbelievers and haram.”
            Oct. 14, 2013 at a ceremony marking the beginning of the Hajj
            “It is necessary that both Sunnis and Shiites understand, as well as everyone in Iran and the Muslim world, that the disagreement between Shiites and Sunnis is one of the tools and equipment of the enemy [used] against the Muslim community.”
            Aug. 21, 2013 Facebook posting with a quote from Aug. 8, 2006
President Hassan Rouhani
            The following tweet refers to President Rouhani’s call with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
            “We should fight terrorism in unity. This terrorist attack [on the Iran-Iraq gas pipeline] revealed that terrorists targeted material and spiritual interests of different religions and ethnicities.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
      “I think we need to come to understand that a sectarian divide in the Islamic world is a threat to all of us.”
      “Some people have fanned the animosity for short-sighted political interests.”
     “This business of fear-mongering has been a prevalent business… Nobody should try to fan the flames of sectarian violence. We should reign it in, bring it to a close, try to avoid a conflict that would be detrimental to everybody's security.”
      “I think all of us... regardless of our differences on Syria, we need to work together on the sectarian issue.”
            Nov. 10, 2013 in an interview with the BBC
            “Iran believes that what is happening in Syria can have a huge impact on the future of our region and the future beyond the region. Because we believe that if the sectarian divide that some people are trying to fan in Syria becomes a major issue it will not recognize any boundaries. It will go beyond the boundaries of Syria. It will go beyond the boundaries of this region. You will find implications of this on the streets of Europe and America.”
            Dec. 7, 2013 in an interview with TIME magazine
Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan
      The “inhuman and dangerous phenomenon of takfiri terrorism” and extremism is spreading “from Syria to Iraq.”
      Dec. 1, 2013 according to Fars News Agency
Chairman of Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Alaeddin Boroujerdi
            “The terrorist groups including al Qaeda and the al Nusra Front in Syria are serving the interests and policies of the United States and Britain through the brutal killing of this country’s [Syria] Muslim people.”
            Oct. 29, 2013 in a meeting with a member of Somalia’s parliament
Member of Parliament Ali Motahari
            “Western countries are after dispersion in the Islamic World and on account of such fact, Muslim scholars, both Shiites and Sunnis, should stand against such danger hand in hand. The takfiri movements are the brain child of Wahhabi credos, traced back to many years ago, which of its nature, reject other Islamic sects and denominations and do not even recognize the four main Islamic Schools of Sunni denominations.”
            “Intimidated by Muslim nations’ power, Western countries seek disunity in the Islamic world. And the more dispersion pervades Islamic countries, the more benefit they [Western countries] will reap.”
            Oct. 28, 2013 in an interview with Taqrib News Agency
Grand Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani
            “Our message to Sunni community is that we should not let the enemy to take advantage of our divide. We need to unify against the common enemy.”
            Dec. 28, 2013 in a meeting with members of Hezbollah, Lebanese Shiite militia and political party
Member of Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Mohammad Reza Mohseni Sani
“Saudi Arabia is the U.S. and the Zionist regime’s agent in the region… Fulfilling Zionists' orders for fomenting sectarian war in the Muslim world is Saudi Arabia’s mission.”
            Jan. 4, 2014 to Fars News Agency
Tehran's Interim Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ahmad Khatami
            “Prominent Sunni clerics, who are highly disappointed with the conduct of the murderer takfiris [Muslims who declare other Muslims unbelievers] are advised to join Shiite clerics in announcing that those criminals’ deeds are totally unrelated to Islam. The Shiite and Sunni clerics will save Islam’s prestige if they do so.”
            Jan. 3, 2014 in a sermon
Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Spokesperson Hossein Naqavi Hosseini
            “The petrodollars of some regional governments are in the pockets of takfiri terrorists, Salafis and extremist groups… Saudi Arabia’s support of takfiris in Syria, terrorist activities in Iraq and Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia and even some European countries such as Serbia and Bosnia shows that a great threat [is jeopardizing] the region’s security.
            “Many al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups are being supported by the Saudi Arabian government, and what [Saudi Intelligence Chief] Bandar bin Sultan looks for in Saudi Arabia is worrying for the entire region, and the international community must deal with such moves.”
            Jan. 6, 2014 according to Press TV
Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri
            “The Iranian nation during history has played an important role in supporting Sunni Muslims to the point that imams of Sunni denomination and even the authors of Sunni reference books were all from Iran… Both Shiite and Sunni [sects] are necessary for a perfect understanding of Islam.
            “The crimes committed against the Iraqi nation by terrorists and takfiri groups are a tragedy…The disagreement between different Islamic denominations in Iraq is probably a result of the high rate of violence in the country.”
            Oct. 8, 2013 at Iraq’s Kufa University
Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi
            “The Zionists are trying to stage a sectarian war among Muslims with the help and the support of the United States and Britain in a bid to delay their destruction.”
            Aug. 2, 2013 according to Tasnim News Agency

Photo credits: Khamenei.ir via Facebook, Mohammad Javad Zarif via US State Department, Hossein Dehqan via Ministry of Defense


Facts and Figures on Sunni-Shiite Balance

            The rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states reflects the deepest schism in the Islamic world. The split dates back to the seventh century, when the sects disagreed over the issue of leadership after the Prophet Mohammed’s death. Shiites believed that the Prophet should have been succeeded by relatives or descendants most familiar with his thinking and practices. The other Muslims who evolved into the Sunnis thought the early Muslim community had the right to select leaders with no blood ties to Mohammed.
            Today, more than 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni, according to the Pew Research Center. Shiites are a minority virtually everywhere except for Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq. Yemen and Lebanon are estimated to be 35 and 27 percent Shiite, respectively. 

            The major flashpoints between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East today are:
            Bahrain: Shiites have long been the majority in the small island-nation but have felt neglected by the minority Sunni government. In February 2011, thousands marched in Manama to call for government reform. The protest movement has been predominantly Shiite.
            Iraq: Sunni militants affiliated with al Qaeda have rebelled against the Shiite-dominated central government. They took over Falluja, a city some 43 miles west of Baghdad, in January 2014.
            Lebanon: The Syrian civil war has exacerbated long-standing sectarian tensions. Violent street clashes between Sunnis and Shiites have broken out in Lebanese cities. In Sidon, followers of a hardline Sunni cleric have traded artillery and small arms fire with supporters of Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party. Since 2011, Alawites and Sunnis have had sporadic gunfights in Tripoli. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiism.
            Saudi Arabia: Between 10 and 15 percent of Saudi Arabia is thought to be Shiite. The Sunni monarchy’s oil-rich Eastern Province is home to a large Shiite minority that has long felt neglected by Riyadh. Since 2011, demonstrators have taken to the province’s streets to protest corruption, high unemployment and discrimination against Shiites.
            Syria: Sunni militants have flocked to Syria to fight Bashar al Assad’s regime, which is dominated by Alawites. Hezbollah has sent forces from Lebanon to defend the regime. And Shiite Iran has provided military and political support to Damascus.
            Yemen: Shiite rebels in northern Yemen called Houthis have been intermittently fighting against the Sunni-majority government since 2004. U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar announced a ceasefire between Sunni Salafists and the Houthis in November 2013. But the violence has not subsided.
      Tensions are so deep that significant numbers of Sunnis – in some countries exceeding 50 percent – do not recognize Shiites as Muslims 14 centuries after the schism, according to a 2012 Pew study. The two sects agree on Islam’s most important articles of faith, belief in one God and the prophethood of Mohammed. But many Sunnis reject Shiite traditions, such as visiting saints’ shrines and appealing to the deceased for aid. Only in Lebanon and Iraq, where sizeable populations from both sects coexist in the same urban areas, do large majorities accept Shiites as Muslims.
      The two sects celebrate the holiday of Ashura differently and for separate reasons. Sunnis believe the day commemorates the day God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh. They fast, according to a tradition that claims Moses fasted on that day. For Shiites, however, Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson who fell in battle against the Sunni Ummayad Dynasty in 680. Ritual chest beating and self-flagellation are common practices in the Middle East on the holiday. But some Shiite and Sunni leaders do not approve of these customs.
            Iran has the world’s largest Shiite population. The Islamic Republic is also the only country ever ruled by Shiite clerics. Both factors made it the de facto leader of the Shiiite world politically, even though the historic center of Shiite scholarship is in Najaf, Iraq. A 2013 Zogby poll found that 76 percent of Iranians surveyed believe their government’s foreign policy is designed primarily to protect vulnerable Shiite communities elsewhere in the region.
            The six neighboring Gulf sheikhdoms, all ruled by Sunnis, are home to some 3 million Shiites. Many have cultural or religious ties to Iran. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have long claimed that Iran was trying to foment unrest among their Shiite minorities. “Clerical authorities in Iran still tend to act as if they lead the Islamic World--issuing ultimatums, intimidating their neighbors, and inciting dissidence and revolution,” Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said in October 2013. But Iran also claims that the sheikhdoms discriminate against Shiites.
            Numerically, Iran’s 79 million population is almost twice as large as the 45 million people who populate the six Gulf sheikhdoms, especially since the Gulf numbers include foreign residents. The Sunni monarchies are concerned that Iran could more actively support their brethren inside the Gulf sheikhdoms.
Photo credits: Sunni-Shi'a map by DinajGao (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Pew Research Center


Rouhani Tweets on Freedom of Arts

            On January 8, President Hassan Rouhani appealed for loosened censorship of the arts in an address to six art and cultural guilds. “Art without freedom is meaningless,” he told the gathering of prominent Iranian artists. “Every system has its red lines, but it's absolutely essential for these lines to be transparent and clear, so to avoid arbitrary restrictions,” said Rouhani. Theater, music, poetry, cinema and calligraphy associations had invited the president to speak at Tehran’s Vahdat Hall. The following is a series of @HassanRouhani’s tweets based on his address.  

Rouhani Op-ed on “Moderation and Common Sense”

            The Daily Star, a Lebanese English-language daily published the following op-ed by President Hassan Rouhani on December 31, 2013.

      When I campaigned to become president of Iran, I promised to balance realism and the pursuit of the Islamic Republic’s ideals – and won Iranian voters’ support by a large margin. By virtue of the popular mandate that I received, I am committed to moderation and common sense, which is now guiding all of my government’s policies. That commitment led directly to the interim international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program reached with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany last November in Geneva. It will continue to guide our decision-making in 2014.
      Indeed, in terms of foreign policy, my government is discarding extreme approaches. We seek effective and constructive diplomatic relations and a focus on mutual confidence-building with our neighbors and other regional and international actors, thereby enabling us to orient our foreign policy toward economic development at home. To this end, we will work to eliminate tensions in our foreign relations and strengthen our ties with traditional and new partners alike. This obviously requires domestic consensus-building and transparent goal-setting – processes that are now underway.
           While we will avoid confrontation and antagonism, we will also actively pursue our larger interests. But given an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, challenges can be addressed only through interaction and active cooperation among states. No country – including the big powers – can effectively address on its own the challenges that it faces.
           Indeed, developing and emerging economies’ rapid “catch-up growth” suggests that their aggregate economic weight is about to surpass that of the advanced world. Today’s developing and emerging countries are likely to account for nearly 60 percent of world GDP by 2030, up from around 40 percent in 2000, enabling them to play a much greater role on the world stage.
           In such a period of transition, Iran can enhance its global role. The election this year, in which close to 75 percent of eligible voters turned out, showed how our religious democracy is maturing. Iran’s ancient culture and civilization, long state continuity, geopolitical position, social stability amid regional turmoil, and well-educated youth enable us to look to the future with confidence, and aspire to assume the major global role that our people deserve – a role that no actor in global politics can ignore.
           We are also considering how to rebuild and improve our bilateral and multilateral relations with European and North American countries on the basis of mutual respect. This requires easing tensions and implementing a comprehensive approach that includes economic ties.
           We can begin by avoiding any new strain in relations between Iran and the United States and, at the same time, endeavoring to eliminate inherited tensions that continue to mar relations between our countries. While we may not be able to forget the mistrust and suspicion that have haunted Iranians’ thinking about U.S. governments for the last 60 years, now we must focus on the present and look to the future. That means rising above petty politics and leading, rather than following, pressure groups in our respective countries.
           In our view, cooperating on issues of mutual interest and concern would contribute to easing tensions in our region as well. This means countering those in the U.S. and our region who seek to distract international attention from issues in which they are directly involved and prevent Iran from enhancing its regional status. By diminishing the prospects for a permanent negotiated agreement on our nuclear program, such behavior increases the likelihood that the Iran-U.S. standoff will continue.
          Our region is grappling more than ever with sectarianism, group enmities and potential new breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism. At the same time, the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria could haunt the region’s peoples for many years. We believe that, under such circumstances, a voice of moderation in the region could affect the course of events in a constructive and positive way.
           There is no doubt that the turmoil in nearby countries affects the interests of many regional and global actors, which need to act in concert to ensure long-term stability. Iran, as a major regional power, is fully prepared to move in this direction, sparing no effort to facilitate solutions. So those who portray Iran as a threat and thus seek to undermine its regional and global credibility should cease – in the interest of peace and tranquility in the region and beyond.
           I am profoundly disturbed over the humanitarian tragedy in Syria and the enormous suffering that the Syrian people have endured for almost three years. Representing a people who have experienced the horror of chemical weapons, my government strongly condemned their use in the Syrian conflict. I am also concerned that parts of Syrian territory have become breeding grounds for extremist ideologies and rallying points for terrorists, which is reminiscent of the situation on our eastern border in the 1990s. This is an issue of concern to many other countries as well, and finding a durable political solution in Syria requires cooperation and joint efforts.
           So we are pleased that in 2013 diplomacy prevailed over threats of military intervention in Syria. We must build on this headway and understand that Syria is in dire need of coordinated regional and international efforts. We are ready to contribute to peace and stability in Syria in the course of serious negotiations among regional and extra-regional parties. Here, too, we need to prevent the talks from becoming a zero-sum game.
            That is no less true of Iran’s peaceful nuclear-energy program, which has been subject to enormous hype in recent decades. Since the early 1990s, one prediction after another regarding how close Iran was to acquiring a nuclear bomb has proved to be baseless. Throughout this period, alarmists tried to paint Iran as a threat to the Middle East and the world.
           We all know who the chief agitator is, and what purposes are to be served by hyping this issue. We know also that this claim fluctuates in proportion to the amount of international pressure to stop settlement construction and end the occupation of Palestinian lands. These false alarms continue, despite U.S. national intelligence estimates according to which Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon.
           In fact, we are committed not to work toward developing and producing a nuclear bomb. As enunciated in the fatwa issued by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, we strongly believe that the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are contrary to Islamic norms. We never even contemplated the option of acquiring nuclear weapons, because we believe that such weapons could undermine our national-security interests; as a result, they have no place in Iran’s security doctrine. Even the perception that Iran may develop nuclear weapons is detrimental to our security and overall national interest.
          During my presidential campaign, I committed myself to doing everything in my power to fast-track a resolution to the standoff over our nuclear-energy program. To fulfill this commitment and benefit from the window of opportunity that the recent election opened, my government is prepared to leave no stone unturned in seeking a mutually acceptable permanent solution. Following up on November’s interim agreement, we are ready to continue to work with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and others with a view to ensuring our nuclear program’s full transparency.
           The peaceful nuclear capability that we have achieved will be used within an internationally recognized framework of safeguards, and it will be accessible to multilateral monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as has been the case in the past several years. In this way, the international community can ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of our nuclear program. We will never forgo our right to benefit from nuclear energy; but we are ready to work toward removing any ambiguity and answer any reasonable question about our program.
           The continuation of pressure, arm-twisting, intimidation and measures aimed at cutting off Iranians’ access to a whole range of necessities – from technology to medicines and foodstuffs – can only poison the atmosphere and undermine the conditions needed to make progress.
           As we showed in 2013, Iran is fully prepared to engage seriously with the international community and to negotiate with our interlocutors in good faith. We hope that our counterparts, too, are ready to take advantage of this window of opportunity.

Click here for the original article, published by The Daily Star in collaboration with Project Syndicate-Asia Society.


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