ISTANBUL, Turkey — Call it wishful thinking or yet another unrealistic expectation of the new Iranian president, but I believe Hassan Rouhani could actually ease the growing Sunni-Shiite polarization and open a new anti-sectarian phase in the Middle East.
This prospect is not only because of his personal qualities, but also because he might very well be at the right place, at the right time, to deliver.
The so-called “Shiite Camp” under the Iranian leadership is prone to make major adjustments under the presidency of Rouhani, a moderate cleric faithful to the Khomeini doctrine.
During his eight years as president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad formulated a new model of Shiism. It was a powerful blend of radical Messianic Shiite thought and Persian nationalism, which was against the Ayatollah Khomeini’s teachings.
Ahmadinejad and his close companion, Rahim Mashai, allegedly spent millions of dollars to spread globally their brand of Shiism — a brand they promoted as the “right Islam.” A particular target of Ahmadinejad’s was Wahhabi thought in Saudi Arabia, thus fueling the sectarian race with Riyadh, among other Sunni-dominated countries.
The Sunni states in the region were alarmed by the 1979 Islamic revolution because of the Shiite character of the new regime in Tehran. But the ensuing sectarian conflict in the region actually brought Shiism closer to Sunnism, according to experts.
Iranian expert Hossein Alaei explains, “Following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Islamic Republic decided to provide opportunities to foster unity between Shias and Sunnis, and the uprising of the Iranian people was an ‘Islamic, not Shia’ uprising. Iman Khomenini has issued very important fatwas (religious decrees) in this regard, the most important of which was about allowing Shias to say Friday and congregational prayers alongside of Sunnis.”
In a nutshell, the Khomeini doctrine was based on the Velayat-e Faqih principle, which gave all the authority to the Supreme Leader on behalf of Prophet Muhammad. The Ayatollah saw his authority as being above the sonstitution that was based on Sharia, especially when the survival of the Islamic state was in question.
The leader could act against Sharia, or Islamic law, in order to protect the regime; he must be obeyed without question. By being the first Islamic state, the new Iranian regime tried to embrace both Sunnis and Shiites.
Tehran maintained good relations with Riyadh until Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, even while the American occupation of Iraq pitted Sunnis against Shiites there and in the region.
Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini’s Facebook update on July 5, 2013, provides context: “From the outset of Revolution we didn’t want to give priority only to Shia but to Islam so as to gather everyone together … In my [youth] … I used to convey deep Islamic knowledge. Even since those years, I’ve insisted on unity. However, some people accused me of pan-Sunnism but I used to say that I don’t have time to answer such allegations.”
The chance for a real Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is seen as slim at the moment, since the countries are pursuing conflicting policies in the region. Still, following Rouhani’s election, both sides have shown strong willingness to ease the extreme sectarian rivalry.
President Rouhani’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia on his first trip abroad was a major gesture by Iran, warmly welcomed by Riyadh. A thawing of relations would benefit both countries. It would allow Iran to embrace both Shiites and Sunnis once again, thus ending its regional isolation and calming the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia.
Any improvement between Tehran and the West over Iran’s nuclear program might further convince Riyadh to end its sectarian policies. The easing of sectarianism would help the US maintain stability in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria.
The latest developments in the Middle East — the coup in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood and the leadership change in Qatar — have dramatically shifted regional balances. In Turkey, the Gezi Park protests damaged the regional standing of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a strong supporter of pro-Muslim Brotherhood Sunni policies.
Many observers agree that the ”Sunni Camp,” the alliance between Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia — allegedly supported by the US to contain Iran — has effectively dissolved for now. This development would further help President Rouhani to deliver.
But the radical Islamist groups and their supporters who have mostly benefitted from sectarianism would no doubt take any measures to prevent such an outcome.
Selin Çaglayan has worked as a diplomatic and international correspondent for 23 years in Ankara, Athens, Brussels and Tel Aviv-Ramallah for leading Turkish newspapers and TV stations. She has published three books on the Middle East in Turkish. She is working on her fourth book, "Filistin Sözlüğü: The Lexicon of Palestine."