When the U.S. government toppled Sad-dam Hussein in 2003, it thought regime change would help bring democracy to Iraq, and then to the rest of the region.  President Bush and his aides based their expectations on the premise that politics in the Middle East revolves around the relationship between individuals and the state, as it does in the West, and failed to recognize that, in that part of the world, people see politics as the balance of power among communities, as Vali Nasr, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs.

Indeed, rather than viewing the fall of Saddam as an occasion to create a liberal democracy, most Iraqis saw it as an opportunity to redress injustices in the distribution of power among the country’s major ethnic and religious groups.

Hence, while Bush-administration officials were celebrating the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and spinning it as another “turning point” in the “War on Terror,” the elimination of Zarqawi was seen in Iraq as another victory for the Shiites and their current Kurdish allies as they try to contain an insurgency led by various Sunni groups, such as former members of the Ba’ath regime and Islamist guerrillas, including foreign recruits such as the Jordanian Zarqawi (and, apparently, his Egyptian successor).  In fact, some analysts have speculated that Zarqawi was betrayed by rival Sunni insurgents.

To put it differently, what is needed now more than ever is something akin to an epistemological change in the way we interpret the developments taking place in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East.  The Bush administration’s conception of a grand struggle between the Forces of Light (secular, liberal, pro-American democrats) and the Forces of Darkness (radical anti-Western and anti-American “Islamo-Fascists”) should be replaced with a new paradigm that accentuates the balance of power among tribal, ethnic, and religious communities whose main commitment is not to advance pro- or anti-Western values but to their own self-interests.  Such interests could, depending on the circumstances, coincide with or run against American interests.

In that context, much of what has happened in the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been a shift of power from the Sunni minority to the Shiite majority—and, more specifically, to Shiite politicians and clerics with strong ties to the clerics who rule Iran.  Indeed, the evolving demographic, cultural, economic, and military ties between the two countries are likely to turn Iraq into a satellite of Iran in the coming years.

Moreover, the Shiite-Sunni war in Iraq could spill over into other countries in the Middle East where Shiite communities, having been treated for years as second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni elites, see the Shiite revival in Iraq as a model to emulate.  In Bahrain, Shiites make up 75 percent of the population; in Saudi Arabia, they reside in the oil-rich area of the country; and, in Lebanon, the Shiites are now about 45 percent of the population and control the powerful Hezbollah militia.

The Arab-Sunni leaders of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan have been terrified by the rising political power of the Shiites in the region, who seem bent on challenging the old order.  King Abdullah of Jordan has even warned of a new “Shiite crescent” stretching from Lebanon to Iran.  The Saudis believe that the collapse of Hussein, the Sunni strongman, has opened the door for a Shiite Iraq to emerge as the leading power in the Middle East and have warned the Americans that, unless Washington does something to counter Iran’s power, they will have no choice but to appease and cut deals with Tehran (which is exactly what Syria’s Bashar al Assad is doing these days).

At the same time, the success of Zarqawi’s group in Iraq is just another sign of the growing power of radical Islamic groups that are challenging the existing military dictators (Egypt, Syria) and royal families (Saudi Arabia, Jordan) and that range from the more “moderate” wings of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas, to the more extremist groups allied with Al Qaeda.  If and when these groups come to power, one could expect them to assert their political and military power, not only against the United States but first and foremost as a way of rallying their Sunni coreligionists against the perceived Shiite threat.

“The Middle East that will emerge from the crucible of the Iraq war may not be more democratic, but it will be definitely more Shiite—and perhaps more fractious,” warns Nasr, who does not exclude the possibility that the Sunni-Shiite struggle for power in the Middle East could end up devastating the current political status quo.  He believes that one way the United States could help prevent such a scenario is by working together with Tehran to establish order in Iraq.  A worst-case scenario that could follow a U.S.-Iran military confrontation would be the secession of the large Sunni and Kurdish minorities from Iran.  At the same time, the growing power of radical Sunni groups, such as Al Qaeda, in Iraq, could create a mini “Talibistan” in the Sunni areas of Iraq that would try to export their ideology and military aid to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.  The end result could be a series of civil and regional wars involving all the major players in the region as well as outside powers, reshaping the map of the Middle East.

Sounds familiar?  The Thirty Years’ War was, from the outset, a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics and grew out of the territory of what is now Germany.  It ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, which gave birth to the modern European state system.

To help prevent a Middle Eastern version of the Thirty Years’ War, the United States would do well not to promote any further “regime change” or continue  “spreading democracy” in the region—actions that have helped to bring to power the Shiites in Iraq and Hamas in Palestine.  A wise and realistic administration in Washington would try to work with the existing powers in the region, including Tehran, to preserve the status quo while promoting gradual liberalization, mostly in the economic arena.

Perhaps it is too late to close Pandora’s box in Iraq and Palestine, and all that remains for us is to control the damage done by our “Iraqization” of the Middle East.  If so, Zarqawi and his group will probably end up a small footnote in this chapter of history.