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, a 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 the 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” 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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “Recalling Moynihan’s Wisdom When Analyzing Iraq and Iran”

  1. you say ‘ethnicity was too powerful a centripetal force for even the Soviet Union to contain.’ but I think you men centrifugal. Centripetal foces bring things together towards the same center, centrifugal forces separate from that center.

    1. I think there is a law that says every comment correcting an error includes an error! But in any event you are absolutely right about centrifugal and I have edited accordingly – thank you.

  2. Is it ethnicity that is the powerful centri-whatever force? I’m not sure. I think that word Humphreys is looking for is “nationalism.” America has plenty of ethnicity, but (unreconstructed Confederates aside) little in the way of competing nationalisms. The UK also has plenty of ethnicity, but the only ones that count for nationalism purposes are Scottish and Irish. (Welsh may disagree.) I don’t see any beur nationalism in France, either. Turks are willing (barely!) to live with Kurdish ethnicity, but cannot tolerate Kurdish nationalism. Etc.

  3. Ummm…Iranians have plenty of “resentment” towards a “history of imperial domination” which unites them with the Arabs on this point – read up on the Constitutional Revolution and the Tobacco Concessions in Iran’s history.

    1. Hass: The history of imperial domination to which I refer is that of Persians/Safavids dominating what is now Iraq

  4. Pedant mode ON

    Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a centrifugal force. What there is, is inertia. Absent a force to draw the orbiting object to the center (a centripetal force, it might be provided by gravity or by tension via a physical connection) an object in rotational motion will follow a geodesic.

    So, if one wanted to say

    The great scholar-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted correctly that ethnicity was too powerful a centrifugal force for even the Soviet Union to contain.

    in a physically correct way, one would say something like,

    “The great scholar-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted that even the Soviet Union exerts insufficient centripetal force to hold its various ethnicities in its orbit.”

    Pedant mode OFF

      1. Has Munroe made an XKCD strip yet about how for every argument on the Internet there’s an appropriate XKCD strip to link?

  5. Well, it’s true that there are a lot of barriers to Iran-Iraq Shia cooperation, but we definitely made it quite a bit more likely (as well as murdering over 4,000 brave American servicemembers and perhaps half a million innocent Iraqis) by invading Iraq.

  6. Regarding the longstanding disagreements (to put it mildly) between Iraqi and Iranian Shia communities, there’s the countervailing factor that for decades now most Shia opposition movements were necessarily based in, supported by, and heavily influenced by Iran. There’s quite likely a whole generation of Shia religious and secular leaders trained in exile in Iran; even those that remained in Iraq under Saddam go to Iran for religious training (eg Moqtada).

    Mind you, I’m very much not an expert, and I’m not disagreeing with the thrust of your post. But there are factors not mentioned in it.

  7. Re: China and Viet Nam
    I remember reading about Uncle Ho saying: It it better to eat French shit for 100 years than Chinese shit for 1000 years.
    People forget that at one time the West was 100% Catholic.

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