The ongoing sectarian strife in Iraq remains a subject of intense debate on Arabic-language radical Islamist online chat forums in the context of the perceived emergence of a Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East. More recently, tensions between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, extensive influence in Iraq and speculation regarding a possible military confrontation are also receiving a great deal of attention among forum participants. In general, most Sunni extremists who subscribe to al-Qaeda’s brand of militancy consider Shiite Muslims to be heretics. As a result, they tend to harbor deeply hostile views of Iran and its Shiite Islamist government, especially as Tehran is implicated in supporting Shiite militias that target Sunnis in Iraq and oppressing Sunni minorities within its own borders. In many respects, these sentiments are analogous to their hostility toward the United States, Israel and the incumbent autocratic regimes that they so violently oppose.
Not all Sunni extremist sympathizers, however, see Iran in a negative light. In a statement posted on the Tajdeed forum on February 26, entitled “The Withdrawal of British Forces From Southern Iraq…Prelude to Striking Iran…Who Do We Stand With?” one forum participant writes that despite theological and ideological differences with its Sunni counterparts, Iran is in fact a Muslim country. The statement proceeds to mention that the perceived emergence of a Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq and elsewhere are products of “the same trap” used repeatedly by foreign enemies to divide and conquer Muslims throughout history (http://www.tajdeed.org.uk).
In contrast to other countries in the region, the author states: “Iran is the only country today that is openly hostile to America.” In a further critique of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan that voice fears over the spread of Iranian influence in sectarian terms, the writer claims: “striking Iran would remove the only force in the region that stands up to Israel,” thus bolstering their fledgling positions in relation to widespread domestic opposition to their rule. The statement asserts that the recent announcement of the upcoming withdrawal of British forces from southern Iraq represents “the first step” toward a U.S. invasion of Iran, since London is not willing to contend with what is sure to be a massive uprising in the predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq following any strike on Iran. The author concludes by criticizing Sunnis who support attacking Iran on theological grounds, saying that by doing so they are betraying Islamic principles, which call on Muslims to unite in the face of oppression (http://www.tajdeed.org.uk).
Considering that Tajdeed serves as a venue for Sunni extremist discourse, it is no surprise that any suggestion of support for Iran, even against the United States, is met with strong opposition. One forum participant expressed his hostility to Iran by raising a question: “why would you want the Islamic nation to be between the Shiite anvil and the Zionist-Crusader hammer and their Arab client regimes?” Another responder highlights Iran’s role in cooperating with the United States in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, a reference to joint U.S. and Iranian support for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and hints at possible cooperation in the invasion of Iraq. Others allege that Iran is “our enemy” and that Shiites will “cooperate with the devil and then against us” (http://www.tajdeed.org.uk).
It is important to put the debate over Iran and the perceived Sunni-Shiite divide in perspective. Despite deep-seated opposition to Iran and Shiites among the narrow and most extreme fringes of Sunni militancy, the majority of Arab and Muslim public opinion in the Middle East does not see Iran through a sectarian lens, but instead as a force of resistance to unpopular U.S. policies in the region. The impressive performance by Shiite-led Hezbollah during the summer 2006 war with Israel evoked a similar nationalist impulse across the region. In contrast, it is U.S.-backed Sunni autocrats that feel threatened by the prospects of a confident and capable Iran that is willing to challenge the United States in the region and on the international stage, thus inspiring domestic opposition to their own rule.