Iran’s security chief, Hassan Rowhani, proclaimed in October that it was in Iran’s best interest for George W. Bush to be re-ele over John Kerry. His comment left American commentators stunned. However, it is now clear that Rowhani was right: The Bush administration has done more than any other American administration to advance the interests of Shi’a Islamic political leadership in Iran and, indeed, in the rest of the Mideast.
Some groups of religious supporters in Iran are beginning to call President Bush “the 13th Imam,” an ironic reference to the 12 historical Imams sacred to the branch of Shi’ism dominant in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Bush’s support for Shi’ism may be unintentional, to be sure, but there is no doubt about the effects of his administration’s policies in boosting Shi’ite power throughout the region.
The Bush administration has lent massive help to the Iranian economy by letting U.S. corporations circumvent the Clinton-era economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic republic. While the U.S. Treasury Department cracks down on insignificant infractions of the trade sanctions _ such as prohibiting U.S. publishers from providing editorial services to Iranian authors, and restricting scholarly groups from holding meetings in Iran _ it overlooks large American corporations’ operating in Iran through dummy subsidiaries operating out of Canada, Europe and Dubai. Oil-service companies, including Halliburton, continue to conduct business in Iran on a pre-revolutionary scale, while the shops and bazaars are awash in American goods.
Additionally, by failing to exercise control over rising oil prices, the U.S. government has created windfall profits for the Iranian government. In the late 1990s, Iran’s economy was in disastrous shape; now, with oil selling at well over $50 a barrel, Iran is again awash in money.
However, the greatest benefits have been political. Nothing has done more to increase the popularity of Iran’s Shi’ite leaders than the Bush administration’s attack on Iran’s nuclear development. Tehran’s leaders are highly unpopular with the majority of Iran’s youthful population, because of their social policies, but Iran’s right to develop its nuclear industry is the one point on which virtually all Iranians agree. This strong national feeling has boosted the credentials of the mullahs, and will probably rocket former clerical President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani back into the presidency.
In Iraq, of course, the desperation of the Bush administration to demonstrate America’s ability to conduct elections by Jan. 30 was effectively used by the majority Shi’ite community _ especially its astute leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The result is that the Shi’ites are likely to emerge as the dominant power in Iraq.
U.S. pressure on other Mideast powers to “democratize” has resulted in the emergence of Shi’ite power in minority communities throughout the region. The United States encouraged Saudi Arabia to liberalize its governmental system to allow the election of local leaders; the chief beneficiaries were the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. Long disadvantaged and downtrodden by the conservative Wahhabi-dominated Saudi government, the Shi’ites will now have their own local officials and real political power, for the first time in the history of the state.
Qatar, for its part, has established a separate legal court for the Shi’ites, and the Sunni rulers of Bahrain are on tenterhooks about how U.S. pressure will translate into increased power for their country’s Shi’ite majority population.
Bush’s insistence that Syria evacuate its troops from Lebanon is a godsend to the Shi’ites there. Hezbollah, the Shi’ite movement established more than 20 years ago to combat oppression from Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims, is now the strongest, most organized political party in Lebanon, with an effective military wing. U.S. actions in that nation will eventually lead to Shi’ite domination of Lebanon, after a likely revival of the civil war that the Syrian occupation quelled.
Even the Syrians are benefiting from Bush’s politics. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, from the Alawite branch of Shi’ism, is a weak leader, dominated by shadowy figures left over from the heavy-handed rule of his father, Hafez Assad.
American assaults on the Syrian government have accomplished the almost impossible task of increasing Bashar’s popularity and the credibility of his government.
As the Bush administration must surely know, Shi’ite politicians favor incorporating Islamic Shari’a law into the governmental structures of their nations whenever possible. The realization of the U.S. Republicans’ vision of “democracy breaking out all over” will give these religiously oriented Mideast politicians the best chance to realize their Shari’a-law vision in more than a thousand years. This will truly earn Bush the title of one of the greatest promoters of Islamic rule in all of history – a fitting legacy for America’s 43rd president.
(William O. Beeman is a professor of anthropology and director of Middle East Studies at Brown University.)