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Research Report

The Shi’ites of the Middle East: An Iranian Fifth Column?

Michael Rubin
Ahmad K. Majidyar
Copyright Date: Jul. 18, 2014
Pages: 153
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-5)

    Shi’ism has a public relations problem, at least, in the United States. Most Americans formed their perception of Shi’ism not by reading its rich internal debates or exploring its diversity and cultural heritage, but rather by seeing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lead chants of “Death to America” after the 1979 Iranian revolution and Iranian hostage takers scaling embassy walls and then parading blindfolded, abused diplomats on television. Less than four years later, Shi’ite operatives in Lebanon rammed a truck bomb into the headquarters of US Marines serving as peacekeepers in Beirut, killing 241 in an incident that propelled suicide terrorism to...

  2. (pp. 6-20)

    Al Qaeda’s seizure of Ramadi and Fallujah in January 2014 propelled questions of sectarianism in Iraq to the forefront of Iraqi politics. Sectarianism, of course, is nothing new in Iraq. While some analysts attribute the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq with unleashing sectarianism, the tension between Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqis long predates Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ba’athism, the ideology that late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein embraced, was inherently sectarian. While it embraced Arabism as its central pillar, Saddam and many of his aides saw true Arabism through a sectarian lens. He suspected Shi’ites of harboring loyalty to Iran; indeed,...

  3. (pp. 21-44)

    Over the last half century, the Shi’ite community in Lebanon has emerged from obscurity to become the most influential political and military powerhouse in the country. With Iranian financial and military assistance, Hezbollah—a predominantly Shi’ite group and a US-designated terrorist organization—dominates Lebanese politics, maintains a militia force stronger than the Lebanese Armed Forces, runs an extensive social welfare program, and functions as a state within a state.

    Recently, Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian civil war has inflamed long-standing Shi’ite-Sunni tension in Lebanon, radicalized the Sunni community, and paralyzed the political system, threatening to plunge the country into another...

  4. (pp. 45-57)

    Bahrain, the smallest Arab country, is on the frontlines of the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide. It is a diverse country, home not only to Muslims but also to an indigenous Christian and Jewish population. While the Bahraini royal family, security forces, and much of the business elite are Sunni, the majority of the population is Shi’ite. Indeed, Bahrain may have the highest proportion of Shi’ites among any Arab country, surpassing even Iraq. Political sensitivities make an exact census impossible, but what is clear is that the country’s Sunni minority monopolizes power.

    With the eruption of sectarian unrest on February 14, 2011,...

  5. (pp. 58-73)

    For decades the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been America’s indispensable ally in the Middle East, and the Kingdom’s stability remains vital for US strategic interests in the region. While antigovernment protests in the Kingdom’s Sunni-majority regions have been small and sporadic in the wake of Arab Spring, there has been an unremitting unrest in the strategic Eastern Province, home to Saudi Arabia’s marginalized Shi’ite minority and major oil fields. As in the 1980s, if government repression and discrimination push the Shi’ites to extremes, some may resort to violence and terrorism, jeopardizing American interests in the region, benefitting Iran and...

  6. (pp. 74-94)

    Kuwait has a population of perhaps 2.7 million, half of whom are citizens. Of these, between a quarter and a third are Shi’ites.¹ Kuwait’s Shi’ites are diverse in terms of ethnicity—Arab, Persian, and Indian—and time spent in country. Kuwaitis differentiate between the “old settlers,” who have been in Kuwait for centuries, and “new settlers,” who may have called Kuwait home for only three or four generations.

    In addition, every Shi’ite theoretically follows a single source of emulation, a living ayatollah to whom he pays khums, or religious taxes. But Kuwaiti Shi’ites follow several different sources of emulation and...

  7. (pp. 95-111)

    The Persian Gulf states of Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have largely been immune to the rising tide of sectarianism that has rocked the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. The three monarchies have successfully integrated their Shi’ite minority populations into their countries’ sociopolitical and economic spheres, giving those populations little reason to engage in violence or seek political guidance from Iran or Iraq. Omani, Qatari, and Emirati Shi’ites strongly identify themselves as citizens of their respective countries and remain loyal to their ruling regimes. However, the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war—...

  8. (pp. 112-125)

    Since Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991, it has been only the world’s second Shi’ite-led state after Iran. Azerbaijan respects separation of mosque and state, and despite pressure from its neighbors, remains independent from political domination. Given its strategic importance, safeguarding the country’s independence remains a US priority. And the threat from Iranian meddling is particularly acute. From Tehran’s perspective, the combination of Azerbaijan’s pre–19th-century Iranian past, modern Azerbaijan’s embrace of secularism, and its relative economic success challenge Iran’s legitimacy. As Iranian authorities have sought to undermine and destabilize Azerbaijan through political, clerical, charitable, and media channels, Azerbaijan’s counterstrategy...

  9. (pp. 126-139)

    While the world has understandably focused on al Qaeda–linked terrorism in Pakistan’s tribal region, escalating sectarian violence against the country’s Shi’ite minority has largely been overlooked. On June 8, in the latest episode of anti-Shi’ite violence, gunmen and suicide bombers belonging to a banned Sunni outfit called Jaish-ul-Islam, or the Army of Islam, killed at least two dozen Shi’ite pilgrims in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan Province. Over the past five years, radical Sunni groups have killed more than 2,000 Shi’ites across the country, forced hundreds of thousands more to leave their communities, and turned Shi’ite religious ceremonies into scenes of...

  10. (pp. 140-145)

    Less than four decades ago, Iran was one of America’s chief allies in the Middle East. American and Iranian generals, diplomats, and businessmen wined and dined together. That these officials were Shi’ites mattered little. Indeed, most Americans understood Shi’ites to be more cosmopolitan and tolerant than the Sunnis with whom they interacted elsewhere in the Middle East. And, until the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps created Hezbollah, helped defeat its rivals, and moved to impose its leadership on Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, Lebanese Shi’ites were also friendly with the West. Shi’ite hostility toward the United States today is more an anomaly than...