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As sectarian violence spreads from Syria and Iraq across the broader region, it is often easy to consider all Shi'ites as within the Iranian sphere of influence. On Thursday, however, a multipanel event at AEI emphasized that this approach is both misleading and counterproductive.
The first panel discussed the diversity within the Shi'ite communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Pakistan and underscored how each community resists Iranian attempts to politically and religiously dominate their communities.
The second panel examined the current theological debates within Shi'ism. While Ali Alfoneh of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said that Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tried to impose the Wilayat al-Faqih (guardianship of the jurists) model of leadership on the remaining Shi'ite communities abroad, Ahmed Ali of the Institute for the Study of War noted that Iraq's Ayatollah Ali Sistani supports quietism, a traditional approach that calls for the separation of mosque and state.
The final panel assessed the shortcomings of US policy toward Shi'ite communities, concluding that Washington should not take sides in the growing sectarian conflict in the Middle East, but should instead partner with both Shi’ite and Sunni moderates to promote regional stability.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution unleashed a sectarian wave, which has flooded the Middle East. But while many characterize Middle Eastern Shi‘ites as under the sway of the Islamic Republic, Shi‘ites from countries like Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, and Azerbaijan relentlessly work to resist Iranian influence.
Please join analysts from the United States and across the Middle East to discuss Shi‘ite strategies to preserve communal independence and how the United States can successfully work with Shi‘ite communities outside Iran. This event will coincide with the release of a new report based on firsthand fieldwork in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Azerbaijan.
If you are unable to attend, we welcome you to watch the event live on this page. Full video will be posted within 24 hours.
Lunch and Registration
Panel I: The diversity of Shi’ite communities and politics
Jasim Husain, Former Member of the Bahraini Parliament
Abbas Kadhim, Johns Hopkins University
Ahmad K. Majidyar, AEI
Toby Matthiesen, University of Cambridge
Brenda Shaffer, Georgetown University
Phillip Smyth, University of Maryland
Michael Rubin, AEI
Panel II: Assessing quietists versus Wilayat al-Faqih today
Ali Alfoneh, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Ahmed Ali, Institute for the Study of War
Michael Rubin, AEI
Panel III: Should the US have a Shi’ite policy?
J. Matthew McInnis, AEI
Kenneth M. Pollack, Brookings Institution
Robert Rook, Towson University
Danielle Pletka, AEI
For more information, please contact Ahmad Majidyar at [email protected] , 202.862.5845.
For media inquiries, please contact [email protected], 202.862.5829.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a top expert on Iran and the inner workings of its regime. A former resident fellow at AEI, Alfoneh’s research areas include civil-military relations in the Middle East, with a special focus on Iran and the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the politics of the Islamic Republic. Previously, Alfoneh was a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defense College and taught political economy at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the author of “Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards Is Transforming Iran from Theocracy into Military Dictatorship” (AEI Press, April 2013). He is also the author of a series of articles on Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s extraterritorial operations branch.
Ahmed Ali is an Iraq senior research analyst and Iraq team lead at the Institute for the Study of War. He focuses on the political dynamics of Iraq, including democratization, Arab-Kurdish relations, Kirkuk, national reconciliation, security affairs, relations between the legislative and executive branches of the Iraqi government, and Iraq’s foreign policy. Ali was previously an analyst at Georgetown University and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he coauthored a study. Ali regularly briefs military, diplomatic, and nonprofit organizations on the situation in Iraq. He has provided commentary for the national and international media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Voice of America, Al-Jazeera, and various Iraqi, Arab, and Kurdish media outlets.
Jasim Husain was elected to Bahrain's parliament in 2006 and 2010. However, he resigned in early 2011 as part of a group decision in protest of the use of force against those seeking democratic reforms. Before running for public office, Husain worked as an academic at the University of Bahrain. He remains active in regional politics, partly through sustained traveling. He took advantage of an annual Shi'ite occasion to visit Iraq in late May and visited New Delhi in April for discussions on regional implications of Indian elections. Other than commissioned studies, Husain writes two weekly columns in Dubai and Doha, focusing on Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies. His current research interests include GCC's sovereign funds. In 2010, the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research published a commissioned book for Husain, dealing with GCC currencies. Not all of his works appear in his name, including contributions made to the Economist Group between 1996 and 2006.
Abbas Kadhim is a senior foreign fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, specializing in Iraq, Islam, and the Persian Gulf. His recent publications include “Reclaiming Iraq: the 1920 Revolution and the Founding of the Modern State” (University of Texas Press, 2012), “The Hawza under Siege: A Study in the Ba‘th Party Archive” (Boston University, 2013), “Governance in the Middle East and North Africa” (Routledge 2013), and “Efforts at Cross-Ethic Cooperation: The 1920 Revolution and Iraqi Sectarian Identities" (IJCIS, 2010). He is currently engaged in research examining the Ba’ath Party Archives held at the Hoover Institution.
Ahmad K. Majidyar studies political and security affairs in South Asia and the Middle East at AEI, with a special focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. He also travels frequently to military bases across the United States to instruct senior US Army officers about culture, religion, and domestic politics in Afghanistan, and about terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Before joining AEI in 2008, Majidyar completed a one-year fellowship program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and between 2003 and 2005, he worked as a media analyst with BBC Monitoring in Kabul. Previously, Majidyar served as an aid worker with the United Nations agency for refugees in Peshawar. He is a coauthor of “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI and the Institute for the Study of War, May 2012). Majidyar is fluent in Farsi, Pashto, and Urdu.
Toby Matthiesen is a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and is associated with the Department of Politics and International Studies and the faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern studies. He was previously a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His first book, “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t” (Stanford University Press, 2013), examines how Persian Gulf states responded to protests at home and in the wider Arab world. From 2007 to 2011, he wrote his doctorate on the politicization of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a community at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His second book, "The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism" (Cambridge University Press), is forthcoming.
J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the AEI, where he focuses on Iran, specifically its intentions, strategic culture, military power, and goals. He also works on US defense and regional security issues in the Persian Gulf (Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula) and on the effectiveness of the US intelligence community. Before joining AEI, McInnis served as a senior analyst and in other leadership positions for the US Department of Defense.
Danielle Pletka was a long-time US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia. In that role, Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel, and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia (Pakistan, India and Afghanistan). Pletka is the coeditor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the coauthor of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, where his work focuses on the political-military affairs of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other countries of the Levant and Persian Gulf. Pollack began his career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he was employed from 1988 to 1995. He served twice on the staff of the National Security Council: in 1995–96 as a director for Near East and South Asian affairs and in 1999–2001 as director for Persian Gulf affairs. He has also been a senior research professor at the National Defense University and director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2002 to 2009, he was the director of research for the Saban Center, and from 2009 to2012, he served as director. He is the author of eight books on the Middle East, including the best-selling “The Threatening Storm: What Every American Needs to Know before an Invasion in Iraq” (Random House, 2003) and “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America” (Random House, 2005). His most recent book is “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb and American Strategy” (Simon and Schuster, 2013), which was chosen by The New York Times as one of its 100 Notable Books of 2013 and by both Foreign Affairs and The Economist as one of the Best Books of the Year for 2013.
Robert Rook is currently a professor of history and director of interdisciplinary studies at Towson University and is an adjunct lecturer in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Post-Graduate School. He lived in the Middle East for nearly 10 years working at the American International School in Tel Aviv (1984–87) and Cairo American College in Cairo (1987–92). He has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, spending significant periods of time in Jordan, Syria, and Morocco. Rook has been a postdoctoral fellow at the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman and a Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Fellow in Israel, where he participated in a seminar on counterterrorism. His current research areas include war and memory in the Middle East and transnational labor issues in the Persian Gulf. Rook recently returned from several months conducting research on civil-military relations in the Arab world and on perceptions of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. He has a longstanding interest in security and sustainability issues in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf, particularly as they relate to food security.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations. He regularly instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East on regional politics and teaches classes on Iraq, Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on US aircraft carriers. Rubin is a former editor of Middle East Quarterly and, between 2002 and 2004, worked as a staff adviser for Iran and Iraq in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has lived in Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. Earlier this year, Encounter Books published his newest book, “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes.”
Brenda Shaffer is a specialist on Azerbaijan, the Caucasus, Caspian Sea energy, energy and foreign policy, energy security polices, and Eastern Mediterranean energy issues. She is currently a visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies. Shaffer is on sabbatical from the University of Haifa, Israel, where she is a professor in the School of Political Science. She previously served as research director of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University. Her articles include, “Natural gas supply stability and foreign policy,” “Nagorno-Karabakh after Crimea,” “Pipeline problems,” and “Gas politics after Ukraine.” She is the author of “Energy Politics” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), “Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity” (MIT Press, 2002), and “Partners in Need: The Strategic Relationship between Russia and Iran” (Washington Institute, 2001). She is editor of “Limits of Culture: Islam and Foreign Policy” (MIT Press, 2006) and “Beyond the Resource Curse” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
Phillip Smyth is a researcher focused on Shi'a Islamist groups at the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics. He is also author of Jihadology.net’s Hizballah Cavalcade, an influential blog covering Shi'a Islamist organizations.