The American presidential election campaign took a bizarre theological turn recently when Barack Obama accused John McCain of not being able to distinguish Sunnis from Shiites.
The exchange started when Sen. McCain suggested that the Islamic Republic in Iran, a Shiite power, may be helping al Qaeda, a Sunni outfit, in its murderous campaign in Iraq and elsewhere. Basing its position on received wisdom, the Obama camp implied that Sunnis and Shiites, divided as they are by deep doctrinal differences, could not come together to fight the United States and its allies.
The truth is that Sunni and Shiite extremists have always been united in their hatred of the U.S., and in their desire to "bring it to destruction," in the words of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar.
The majority of Muslims does not share that hatred and have no particular problem with the U.S. It is the country most visited by Muslim tourists and it attracts the largest number of Muslim students studying abroad.
But to understand the problem with extremists, it is important to set aside the Sunni-Shiite divide and focus on their common hatred of America. Theology is useless here. What we are dealing with is politics.
For Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, the slogan "Death to America" was as important as the traditional device of Islam "Allah Is The Greatest" – hence his insistence that it be chanted at all public meetings and repeated after each session of the daily prayers. And to that end, Khomeinists have worked with anyone, including brother-enemy Sunnis or even Marxist atheists.
The suicide attacks that claimed the lives of over 300 Americans, including 241 Marines, in Lebanon in 1983, were joint operations of the Khomeinist Hezbollah and the Marxist Arab Socialist Party, which was linked to the Syrian intelligence services. The Syrian regime is Iran's closest ally, despite the fact that Iranian mullahs regard the Alawite minority that dominates it as heretics or worse. Today in Lebanon, Tehran's surrogate, Hezbollah, is in league with a Maronite Christian faction, led by ex-Gen. Michel Aoun, in opposition to a majority bloc that favors close ties with the U.S.
For more than a quarter century, Tehran has been host to the offices of more than three dozen terrorists organizations, from the Colombian FARC to the Palestinian Hamas and passing by half a dozen Trotskyite and Leninist outfits. It also finances many anti-American groups and parties of both extreme right and extreme left in Europe and the Americas. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has bestowed the Muslim title of "brother" on Cuba's Fidel Castro, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. Communist North Korea is the only country with which the Islamic Republic maintains close military-industrial ties and holds joint annual staff sessions.
George Ibrahim Abdallah, the Lebanese maverick who led a campaign of terror in Paris in the 1980s on behalf of Tehran, was a Christian. So was Anis Naqqache, who led several hit-teams sent to kill Iranian exile opposition leaders. For years, and until a recent change of policy, Tehran financed and offered shelter to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Marxist movement fighting to overthrow the Turkish Republic. Why? Tehran's displeasure with Turkish membership of NATO and friendship with the U.S.
Yes, Mr. Obama might ask, but what about Sunni-Shiite cooperation?
The Islamic Republic has financed and armed the Afghan Sunni Hizb Islami (Islamic Party) since the 1990s. It's also financed the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS), a Sunni political-terrorist outfit in Algeria between 1992 and 2005.
In 1993, a senior Iranian delegation, led by the then Islamic Parliament Speaker Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi, attended the Arab-Muslim Popular Congress organized by Hassan al-Turabi, nicknamed "The Pope of Islamist Terror," in Khartoum. At the end of this anti-American jamboree a nine-man "Coordinating Committee" was announced. Karrubi was a member, along with such Sunni eminences as Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr. Turabi and the Algerian Abdallah Jaballah. The fact that Karrubi was a Shiite mullah did not prevent him from sitting alongside Sunni sheikhs.
In 1996, a suicide attack claimed the lives of 19 American servicemen in Al Khobar, eastern Saudi Arabia. The operation was carried out by the Hezbollah in Hejaz, an Iranian-financed outfit, with the help of the Sunni militant group "Sword of the Peninsula."
In 2000, Sunni groups linked to al Qaeda killed 17 U.S. servicemen in a suicide attack on USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. This time, a Shiite militant group led by Sheikh al-Houti, Tehran's man in Yemen, played second fiddle in the operation.
In Central Asia's Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Tehran has for years supported two Sunni movements, the Rastakhiz Islami (Islamic Awakening) and Hizb Tahrir Islami (Islamic Liberation Party). In Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, Tehran supports the Sunni Taleshi groups against the Azeri Shiite majority. The reason? The Taleshi Sunnis are pro-Russian and anti-American, while the Shiite Azeris are pro-American and anti-Russian.
There are no Palestinian Shiites, yet Tehran has become the principal source of funding for radical Palestinian Sunni groups, notably Hamas, Islamic Jihad and half a dozen leftist-atheist minigroups. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh refuses to pray alongside his Iranian hosts during his visits to Tehran. But when it comes to joining Khomeinist crowds in shouting "Death to America" he is in the forefront.
With Arab oil kingdoms no longer as generous as before, Iran has emerged as the chief source of funding for Hamas. The new Iranian budget, coming into effect on March 21, allocates over $2 billion to the promotion of "revolutionary causes." Much of the money will go to Hamas and the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah.
In Pakistan, the Iran-financed Shiite Tehrik Jaafari joined a coalition of Sunni parties to govern the Northwest Frontier Province, until they all suffered a crushing defeat at last month's parliamentary elections.
The fact that the Sunnis and Shiites in other provinces of Pakistan continued to kill each other did not prevent them from developing a joint, anti-U.S. strategy that included the revival of the Afghan Taliban and protection for the remnants of al Qaeda. Almost all self-styled "holy warriors" who go to Iraq on a mission of murder and mayhem are Sunnis. And, yet most pass through Syria, a country that, as already noted, is dominated by a sect with a militant anti-Sunni religious doctrine.
Next month, Tehran will host what is billed as "The Islamic Convergence Conference," bringing together hundreds of Shiite and Sunni militants from all over the world. The man in charge, Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Taskhiri, has described the goal of the gathering to be delivering "a punch in the face of the American Great Satan."
Still, Mr. Obama might ask: what about al Qaeda and Iran?
The 9/11 Commission report states that Tehran was in contact with al Qaeda at various levels before the 2001 attacks. Tehran has admitted the presence of al Qaeda figures in Iran on a number of occasions, and has arranged for the repatriation of at least 13 Saudi members in the past five years. The Bin Laden family tells us that at least one of Osama's sons, Sa'ad, has lived in Iran since 2002.
Reports from Iran claim that scores of Taliban leaders and several al Qaeda figures spend part of the year in a compound-style housing estate near the village of Dost Muhammad on the Iranian frontier with Afghanistan. One way to verify these claims is to allow the world media access to the area. But Tehran has declared large segments of eastern Iran a "no-go" area, even for its own state-owned media.
In short, the claim that al Qaeda and the Khomeinists, not to mention other terrorist groups operating in the name of Islam, would not work together simply because they have theological differences is both naive and dangerous.
Messrs. McCain and Obama do not need to know about doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The problem they face is not theological but political. All they need to know is that there are deadly and determined groups dedicated to destruction of the U.S. in the name of a perverted version of Islam, and that they need to be resisted, fought and ultimately defeated.
Mr. Taheri's new book, "The Persian Night: Iran and the Khomeinist Revolution," will be published later this year by Encounter Books.