The United States Cannot Afford to Pick a Side in the Shia-Sunni Fight

    Payam Mohseni, Ammar Nakhjavani

    Security, Middle East

    U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement after signing it in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

    America is going all in with the pro-confrontation camp led by Saudi Arabia.

    The President of the United States has decided that the best approach to Iran is to speak loudly and carry a big stick—in the hopes that relentless pressure on Iran will either lead to regime change or the country abandoning its contentious foreign policies. Such saber-rattling will more likely enfeeble American power within the region and set U.S. policy on track for yet another dangerous conflict in the Middle East. Just as importantly, increasing tensions with Iran also bode poorly for sectarian de-escalation in the Muslim world. This is because the Shia view American policies without a balance between regional Sunni and Shia actors.

    Under Trump, America is going all in with the pro-confrontation camp led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The United States has reversed President Obama’s policies to take a balanced approach towards Iran and other transnational Shia groups. This shift has included pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, which has only further deepened the sectarian battle lines in the region. While Trump’s strategy is standard combative neocon policy at face value—i.e., ideologically driven opposition to Iran rather than realpolitik—it has also acquired a partisan, sectarian edge with rhetoric and policies that appear as if the United States is taking sides in sectarian conflicts in the Islamic world.

    The administration’s narrow focus will provoke precisely what the Trump White House aims to prevent—a more cohesive regional Shia movement under Iran’s protection and aggrieved Shia supportive of countering U.S. influence in the region. In other words, the current U.S. course is narrowing policy discussions both within individual Shia organizations as well as across transnational Shia alliances by closing the door to pro-U.S. policy alternatives. Trump’s policies are causing a consolidation of a shared anti-American security outlook that unites the various groups found across the Shia world.

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