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The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Enemy

No one should mistake Iran for a friend.

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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When Ottoman armies marched into Europe in the mid-14th century, Europeans started looking hopefully eastward for enemies of the Turks. Spanish and French kings sent ambassadors to Tamerlane when the last great Muslim Mongol conqueror started marching west. Europeans and Byzantines rejoiced when the Central Asian obliterated the hitherto invincible legions of the Ottoman sultan, Beyazid the Lightning Bolt, at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. When

Another friendly flag-and-Obama-burning in Tehran

Another friendly flag-and-Obama-burning in Tehran

AP / Vahid Salemi

the Persian Safavid shah Abbas I started gaining strength in the late 16th century, Europeans took note, seeing a potential powerful ally against their dreaded Muslim foe. 

Change dates and Muslims: Some Westerners are again hoping that Iranians can be helpful against Sunni holy warriors in the Middle East. This thought has crossed the minds of senior administration officials and even a dogged skeptic of Iranian intentions like the Republican senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham. He wants Tehran to help save Baghdad from the onrushing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a ferocious offshoot of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s savage Al Qaeda in Iraq. 

“We need to coordinate with the Iranians,” the senator urged, “and the Turks need to get in the game and get the Sunni Arabs back into the game, [and] form a new government without [Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-] Maliki.” Through talks, Graham believes, the United States can persuade the clerical regime not to seek dominion over the Shiite regions of Iraq. 

None of this makes sense. Sunni radical Islamists are more primitive than their Iranian counterparts: In the Islamic Republic there has been a vivid debate, and a seesawing of government policy, about whether the public stoning of adulteresses, now banned, is a civilized practice; lapidation is de rigueur among staunch Sunni fundamentalists. The onetime major-domo of the politicized clergy and President Hassan Rouhani’s most consequential patron, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has a real appreciation for history and literature, which may partly explain his enthusiasm for nuclear weapons and the assassination, now and then, of troublesome dissidents. Iranian emissaries often have no trouble shaking the hands of (male) Westerners. With only the rarest exceptions, Sunni hardcore Islamists who spring from the Saudi Wahhabi tradition are cultural reductionists. They zealously strip their own history of its color and complexity. They are incurious about foreign lands. They loathe the touch of infidels. 

Sunni jihadists are certainly scarier now than their Shiite counterparts: Public decapitation with swords and knives is, at least in modern times, more Saudi than Persian, and suicide bombing, which Sunni radicals now relish, has passed into desuetude among Shiites. Even the radical Shiite clergy​​—​​Sunnis don’t really have a clerisy to whom they give their obeisance​​—​​was never particularly enamored of this type of terrorism, even though Arab Shiites in Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon were its trailblazers. It’s questionable whether the leaders of the Sunni jihad raging across Syria and Iraq really want to blow themselves up, but certainly the rank-and-file radicals appear more wild than even the shock troops of the Lebanese Hezbollah, who’ve slaughtered Sunni civilians in Syria. Hezbollah’s fighters are more professional and camera-shy when they butcher their enemies. 

Compared with Shiite holy warriors, Sunni jihadists, especially in Arab lands, are morally more distant from their fathers’ and grand-fathers’ socially conservative traditions, which despite their severity allowed for furtive sin and hypocrisy. In this sense, modern Sunni jihadists aren’t just stateless; they’re village-less. Their pristine, zealously egalitarian faith has become fluid, ready to be poured into any projectile that radical Sunni leaders have the skill to aim. That is just less true of militant Shiites. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has certainly tried to turn Islam into an ideology, a never-ending charge against the United States and Westernization. But the vanguard of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, who have brutally battered the older mores of the faith and the restraining politesse of Persian culture, kill and torture selectively, more carefully now than they had to 30 years ago. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the praetorians of the revolution, who’ve used terrorism at home and abroad as an essential tool of statecraft, still have to, however reluctantly, give deference to clerics. 

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