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Iran: Hezbollah and Tehran's Sunni Gambit

Written by Stratfor

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April 4, 2008
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Summary
Hezbollah has been wooing Sunni religious scholars in Lebanon, according to a source in Lebanon. This Shiite courting of Sunnis sheds light on the Iranian bid to bridge ideological and religious divides to spread its influence in the Middle East.


MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images
Hezbollah supporters march in Lebanon


Analysis
Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah has been making a concerted effort to win the support of Sunni religious scholars in Lebanon, particularly in the cities of Beirut, Saida, and Tripoli, according to a source in Lebanon. Hezbollah reportedly pays a monthly allowance to about 30 Sunni mullahs in Beirut. The paid ulema are divided into two categories: aides and associates. Aides receive $300 per month and are assigned duties such as making pro-Hezbollah statements and meeting with Hezbollah representatives, while associates get paid $200 per month to attend Hezbollah-sponsored events on a regular basis.

Given the historic polarization between the Sunni and Shiite branches in the Islamic world, Shiite militants forging ties with Sunni religious figures is unusual, but not unprecedented. The Hezbollah campaign to enlist Sunni support in Lebanon sheds light on Iran’s ability to cross ideological and religious barriers to spread its influence in the Middle East.

Aware of its military disadvantage versus its principal adversaries Israel and the United States, Iranian defense strategy relies heavily on Shiite nonstate actors like Hezbollah and the array of Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias in Iraq. In addition to Iraq and Lebanon, Iran has murky connections with sizable Shiite populations in Sunni-ruled Arab countries like Bahrain (75 percent Shiite), Kuwait (30 percent Shiite), Saudi Arabia (15 percent Shiite), Afghanistan (19 percent Shiite) and Qatar (16 percent Shiite). Even in predominantly Sunni Egypt, where Shia account for a mere 1 percent of the population, security forces are actively tracking down Shiite militant cells in the country believed to be financed by Iran.

Though less apparent, the Iranians also have made inroads with a number of Sunni actors in the region, albeit to varying degrees. The overall intent in this strategy is to convince Iran’s rivals that Tehran has the ability to reach far beyond its borders to stir up trouble if sufficiently provoked.

The most notable example of Shiite-Sunni cooperation is in the Palestinian territories, where Iran has built a strong relationship with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The absence of a functional Palestinian government has given Iran the opportunity to establish ties with these groups. Though the two Palestinian militant groups continue to rely heavily on their Sunni sponsors, such as Saudi Arabia, deteriorating conditions in the territories and Hamas’ desperation for material support has provided an opening for Iran to directly influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby threatening Israel and Egypt. The exiled leaderships of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are based in Syria, where the government is closely tied to Iran. Hamas also looks to Hezbollah for inspiration in overcoming the challenges of developing into a political movement while retaining a strong militant arm.

Iran also has established links with the Sunni insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The relationship between Iran and these groups is highly paradoxical, given that a strengthened Taliban, al Qaeda or Baathist movement directly threatens Tehran. Iran’s support for these insurgencies is limited and extremely selective, however. Tehran’s goal is to deny U.S. forces the bandwidth needed to seriously threaten Iran from across its western and eastern borders.

Iranian support for these insurgencies proceeds through third parties and is mostly limited to weapons transfers. In the case of Afghanistan, Iran can use cultural and linguistic ties with the country’s Tajik population and religious ties with Afghan Shia.

In all of these cases, ideological differences cease to matter. The need for material support, a common adversary and the guise of a pan-Islamist agenda have formed a basis for Iran to establish useful connections in pockets of the Sunni world. Moreover, Iran’s successful projection of itself as the only state in the Muslim world willing to defy the United States and Israel has generated a great deal of appeal on the Arab street.

But this strategy also has its limits. As a Persian and Shiite power, Iran faces major obstacles in promoting its agenda and transcending the sectarian divide that has split the region for centuries. While the chaos of the Palestinian territories provides the Iranians with more room to act, Egypt and the Sunni Gulf states have strong and capable security apparatuses that more effectively keep Iran at bay.

Nevertheless, the Sunni Arab world is more conscious than ever of Iran’s rising influence now that the Iraqi Shia have assumed power in Baghdad. The thought of Iran stirring up Shiite populations throughout the region has thus put the Sunni Arab regimes on high alert.

Indeed, top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah, who was recently assassinated in Damascus, was the mastermind behind a contingency plan that involved training Shiite militants throughout the Gulf to stage attacks in their home countries in the event of a military strike against Iran. And there is no reason to believe those plans were shelved following his death. Sunni Arab concerns are only compounded now that Iran has taken the threat of using militant proxies one step further through its strategic flirtations with Sunni nonstate actors.
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 ©Copyright 2008 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved SOURCE: Stratfor
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