Everybody believes that the worsening civil war in Iraq is a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites -- except, apparently, for the most powerful Shiite on earth. That would be Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the "supreme leader" and head of state of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a talk yesterday, Khamenei expressly denied that the conflict had any real sectarian character. We've been told that the ISIS (or ISIL) army -- I don't get why they're not called an army instead of mere "militants" -- has exploited Sunni discontent with the way Iraq's Shiite prime minister has seemed to monopolize power for himself personally and for Shiites generally. Many reports have stressed that Sunni tribes have risen to support ISIS or simply oppose the al-Maliki regime. However, Khamenei makes a distinction between Sunnis and those he calls "takfiris." We've seen the term before and it really is a useful one and a "politically correct" alternative to "Islamists." As the Tehran Times explains, "A takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of being an unbeliever. Most takfiri groups believe that only their group’s interpretation of Islam -- or sometimes also similar groups’ interpretation -- is correct, and all other Muslims are unbelievers." One of the early "Islamist" terror groups in Egypt, for instance, called itself Takfir wa Hijra. They called on Egyptians to denounce the military regime (then led by the doomed peacemaker Anwar el-Sadat) as pagan and to withdraw from society and politics to form an alternate government, as Muhammad himself did in abandoning Mecca for Medina. In Protestant Christianity the nearest equivalent is "come-outerism," though that usually comes without plans to reclaim the mainstream by force. Takfiri is presumably a pejorative with most Muslims because mainstream Islam, at least in theory, frowns upon anyone questioning the sincerity of anyone else's faith. By dubbing ISIS takfiris, Khamenei hopes to marginalize them, portraying them as a sectarian fringe without support among mainstream Sunnis. He's probably right to note that ISIS is "as hostile toward the faithful Sunnis who believe in Iraq's independence as they are hostile toward Shias." The real question is how many "faithful Sunnis" there are right now.
For Khamenei, "Iraq's independence" is synonymous with the country's alignment with Iran. Since an ISIS takeover presumably would take Iraq out of alignment with Iran, Khamenei takes the conspiratorial "who benefits" view and blames the ISIS offensive on "the hegemonistic powers," i.e. the U.S. and Europe. That interpretation would seem to be belied by the hysteria over ISIS in the U.S. media. It's fair to say that no one here is rooting for ISIS to win, though many Americans may no longer give a damn who wins in Iraq. At the least, if this is all an Obama conspiracy to reduce Iranian influence in the region, he hasn't shared that information with Republicans. The only real reason for Khamenei to smell a rat is the growing volume of calls for al-Maliki to step down in favor of a leader more capable or more willing to reconcile Iraq's different sects, tribes and factions. If the Iranians see al-Maliki as their boy (even though he was once our boy) they'll raise a ruckus if he's pressured to step down or is simply forced from power. The Iranians seem isolated in their apparent belief that al-Maliki has done nothing wrong in power, from a policy standpoint, and that "faithful" Sunnis have no legitimate complaint against him. But I'm not very comfortable myself with the idea that the duly elected leader of Iraq may have to be thrown under the bus in order to save his country -- especially when, to my astonishment at this late date in history -- none other than Ahmad Chalabi, the neocon poster boy of 2003, is mentioned as a possible replacement for al-Maliki. The problem with Iraq is that every other country seems to want a say in how it's governed, while its diverse population has little sense of common identity. It may be that only the will of a strongman like Saddam Hussein could keep Iraq viable, but that raises the question of whether Iraq's viability, as an arbitrarily bordered creation of European imperialism, is worth anyone's trouble.