It is naïve and dangerously sectarian to assume—as American analysts who view Iraq through the military’s lens so often do—that Iraqi Shi‘ites are Fifth columnists, somehow more loyal to Iran than to Iraq. The simple fact of the matter is that the Shi‘ites are as much if not more victims of the Iranian regime as others. Because the interpretation of Shi‘ism that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed on Iran is outside the mainstream, the Islamic Republic is especially sensitive to theological dissent coming from Shi‘ites themselves. (I detail the theology behind this and give several examples in this 2008 book chapter from Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion).
Yesterday, Al-Sharqiyah, a London-based Iraqi television station, reported (and the Open Source Center translates an excerpt):
Sources from Al-Najaf Governorate, southwestern Iraq, have revealed that the Iranian authorities have arrested Iraqi Religious Scholar Ahmad al-Qubanshi, who is currently on a visit to Iran. Neither the sources, nor the Iranian authorities revealed the reasons behind the arrest of Al-Qubanshi. Al-Qubanshi is known for publishing, throughout the past thirty years, many books and studies in which he severely criticized the Iranian regime and the means of running Iran’s affairs.
Regimes that have self-confidence do not arrest those who express dissent.
While Iran makes no secret of its arrest of political dissidents, Iraq’s liberation has opened up the Pandora’s Box of religious dissent: Most Shi’ite scholars do not accept the notion the Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is the “deputy of the Messiah on Earth.” Remove that claim, and the whole Iranian system collapses on itself. This is the reason why the Islamic Republic kept the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri under house arrest until his death, and also Ayatollah Kazemini Boroujerdi.
Several years ago, I penned a proposal in The Washington Post that the United States should establish a consulate in Najaf. While the idea received bipartisan support from Iraq analysts, the idea went nowhere in Foggy Bottom. Alas, maintaining outreach to independent Shi‘ites has never been more important, not only for Iraq and those in Lebanon suffering under Hezbollah’s yoke, but also in Iran itself.
There are lots of things that have to occur if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, but the first thing has to be the collapse of the Iranian regime. That will never happen with muddle through reform, and it will not happen if the United States blindly follows Turkey and Saudi Arabia and acts more Sunni than the Sunnis. Such partisan games on the part of the State Department and U.S. military only strengthen Iran’s hand among the Shi’ites by allowing Iranian leaders to claim a role as protectors of Shi’ites. Instead, peace will only have a chance—or at least the malevolent role Iran plays in the region will cease—when Shi‘ite scholars let Khamenei know that Iran’s turbaned emperor has no clothes.
How can the White House or Congress make this happen? Speaking out on behalf of Qubanshi’s freedom would be a good place to start.