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Myth Of Shiite Revival

Iraq's Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Nawaf Obaid
UPI Outside View commentator
Riyadh (UPI) Oct 19, 2006
When King Abdullah of Jordan claimed last year that a "Shiite crescent" was emerging as the dominant force in the Arab world, few disputed him. It can be safely assumed that they would be even less inclined to do so today. Not only are Shiite parties still governing Iraq, but the Shiite militia Hezbollah is seen to have defeated Israel -- the regional military superpower -- this summer in Lebanon.

As these cases show, the theory that the balance of power in the Middle East is shifting from the Sunnis (who have ruled for centuries) to the Shiites (who have suffered discrimination throughout this rule) is a plausible one.

But an analysis of the reality on the ground shows that for demographic, economic, and military reasons, the Shiites are unlikely to overturn the status quo. The fate of any Shiite "revival" hinges on the ability of Iran, the sole Shiite state with any real power, to foster and fund it. And Iran faces insurmountable obstacles to becoming a hegemonic power in the region.

Demographics provide the first hurdle. Since about 85 percent of the world's one billion plus Muslims are Sunni, the odds of a Shiite state assuming pan-Islamic leadership are remote.

It is worth noting that each the world's six most populous Islamic states -- Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Egypt -- are between 80 percent and 99 percent Sunni. The demographics are more favorable for the Shiites in the Middle East, but only relatively so: Sunnis comprise 62.5 percent of all Muslims in the region (excluding Turkey) -- a comfortable majority.

Considering the pre-eminent role religion plays in the power and politics of the region, neither Iran nor any other Shiite state will likely be viewed as a legitimate leader of all Muslims.

It is no less difficult to see how a state can become the regional power with an economy that is as dysfunctional as Iran's. Although its GDP is larger than any of the other three states with Shiite majorities -- Bahrain, Iraq, and Azerbaijan -- it is considerably smaller than Saudi Arabia's, its Sunni regional competitor. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Kingdom's GDP is 60 percent larger. (And Iran's central bank says that its GDP is 20 percent less than what the IMF reports.)

Worse, Iran's unemployment rate is sky-high -- around 30 to 40 percent -- and its per-capita income is among the lowest in the region. This represents an internal obstacle to Iran's hegemonic ambitions: the millions of unemployed and poor Iranians will not long tolerate their government funneling large sums for reconstructing Lebanon while their own lives fail to improve.

In fact, it may not be able to keep this up for much longer. Even with high oil prices, Iran ran a $1.5 billion deficit in 2005 -- not a negligible sum, considering its total revenues were only $63.5 billion.

Iran also has an official inflation rate 14.6 percent (the actual rate is likely higher) and it owes an estimated $24 billion in foreign debt.

Iran's oil reserves are also unimpressive in comparison to Saudi Arabia's. The Kingdom is the world's largest oil exporter; Iran is the fourth-largest, trailing both Russia and Norway.

In fact, Saudi Arabia exports four times more oil than Iran, projected to hit an estimated $180 billion in oil revenue in 2006, while Iran is expected to collect only about $50 billion -- less than both the UAE and Kuwait.

And Iran's "oil weapon," of which it often reminds the world, will be considerably less potent by the middle of 2007, when Saudi Arabia will have enough spare capacity to offset all of Iran's oil exports.

Admittedly, Iran's military is second in size only to Israel's in the Middle East. But it is not as powerful as troop totals alone might suggest.

First, the gap between Iran and Israel is huge; and Egypt's military is almost as large as Iran's.

Second, its armaments, especially its air force assets, have rapidly deteriorated and, thanks to U.S. sanctions, Tehran has not been able to buy a sufficient number of replacement parts to keep its forces fully functional.

Third, any act of aggression by Iran will be met not only with the military power of the Sunni states in the region, but probably with the United States' as well.

Finally, the balance of military power will still be preserved if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. This is because a nuclear-armed Iran won't deter Sunni states; on the contrary, it will compel them to acquire a nuclear deterrent as well. In fact, Egypt has recently announced that it is restarting its own nuclear power program.

Iran is a great civilization with a rich history, and it will undoubtedly continue to play a leading role in the region's politics. But demographics, economics, and military power all provide insurmountable obstacles to its becoming the regional hegemon and fomenting a so-called "Shiite revival."

In fact, bluster from Tehran will only continue to destabilize the region, hurt the Iranian people, and lead to unrealistic expectations among the Shiites of the Middle East. A better approach would be to accept that co-existence is unavoidable and to secure Shiite rights through peaceful reform.

Nawaf Obaid is managing director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project in Riyadh and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

Source: United Press International

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