Recalling Moynihan’s Wisdom When Analyzing Iraq and Iran

The great scholar-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted correctly that ethnicity was too powerful a centrifugal force for even the Soviet Union to contain. Similar perspicacity is nowhere in evidence in all the recent predictions about the emergence of an Iran-Iraq Kingdom of Greater Shi’a.

The U.S. media bears part of the blame for consistently getting wrong for more than a decade of Iraq coverage the distinction between a religion and an ethnicity. How many articles have you read discussing the “tensions within Iraq between the Sunnis and the Kurds”? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Most of the Iraqi Kurds are Sunni Muslims, meaning that analyses that shorthand “Sunni Arab” as “Sunni” tend to be misleading. If ethnicity dissolved in religion, the Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Iraq would have a close and trusting relationship.

All the overstated “Iran and Iraq unity” commentary likewise ignores the fact that an Arab is not a Persian, even in those cases when both happen to be Shi’a Muslims. The two ethnic groups have different cultures, languages, outlooks and history (indeed, history of imperial domination which breeds resentment among Iraqi Arabs and snobbery among Iranians). Tellingly, the closest ties across the Iran-Iraq border are between people with same ethnicity: Kurds (who on the Iranian side are about 50% Shi’a).

I am reminded of the great fear of 1960s foreign policy “experts” prior that Viet Nam and China would become strong allies because, after all, they were both “Communist”. This ignored the imperial history of China in Viet Nam and the different languages and cultures of the two countries. For whatever reason, even smart people tend to forget that just because two groups of people are different from us does not mean that they perceive each other as similar.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.