A quarter-century after its first traumatic confrontation with the Shiite world, when the U.S. Embassy was seized in Iran, the United States is moving on several fronts to support, recognize or hold out the prospect of engagement with Islam's increasingly powerful minority.
The White House is now counting on a Shiite-dominated government to stabilize Iraq. In a tactical shift, the United States is indirectly reaching out to Iran, backing Europe's offer of economic incentives to get Tehran to surrender any nuclear weapons program.
Shiite Muslim activists seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans captive for 444 days. In the 1980s, Shiite groups in Lebanon blew up U.S. military facilities and later seized dozens of Western hostages.
And in Lebanon, President Bush suggested yesterday, Washington might accept Hezbollah as a political party -- if it renounces terrorism, as the Palestine Liberation Organization did in 1988. "I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not [a terrorist organization] by laying down arms and not threatening peace," he said in a joint appearance with Jordan's King Abdullah.
The shift is a striking contrast from the U.S. encounter with Shiite activism in 1979, when students stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The showdown, which contributed to President Jimmy Carter's defeat and spawned the first yellow ribbon, inspired the famous political cartoon of an American booting a map of Iran. "Kick the Shiite out of Iran," read the caption, replicated on such items as posters and coffee mugs.
Shiite extremism in the 1980s embodied the main terrorist threat to the United States, as Shiite groups in Lebanon blew up two U.S. embassies and a Marine compound, and later seized dozens of Western hostages. In Kuwait, Iraq's Shiite Dawa movement simultaneously bombed the U.S. and French embassies as well as Western businesses.
The tentative U.S. moves to engage Shiite leaders are often not by choice or design, but rather a reflection of realities on the ground, including the fact that Shiites make up the largest sect in three countries in which the United States has enormous stakes, U.S. officials and regional experts say. Together, the steps represent a turning point after decades in which Washington's relations with and policies toward the Middle East were shaped largely by interaction with Sunni leaders, who controlled the region's oil resources and politics.
"The United States is coming to grips with Shiite power," a senior State Department official said. "We've come a long way since the 1980s in recognizing their growing role in the region. It's not a new principle but a practicality."
Ironically, the Bush administration's promotion of democracy is a primary factor, forcing Washington to interact with emerging players and parties, officials and experts say.
"America is going to have to deal with newly empowered groups in the region for whom religion clearly has much greater centrality than for the Sunni elites with whom the U.S. has been dealing up to now," said Shaul Bakhash, an Iranian-born Middle East expert at George Mason University. "It's a turning point in the sense that it recognizes the realities in the region."
In Iraq, U.S. dealings with Ibrahim Jafari, the Dawa party chief and the likely prime minister, represent a "stunning" switch, said Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East expert at Boston University who has written extensively about Shiite movements. In 1983, Dawa was tied to the U.S. Embassy bombing in Kuwait as well as bombings and kidnappings in Iraq, he noted.
But in democratic elections this year, Dawa was on a Shiite-dominated slate that won the majority in Iraq's new national assembly. On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Jafari as "someone who is devoted to a better future for Iraq" and said "we will work very well with him" on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Norton said: "Now, suddenly, Dawa is very respectable. We seem to be moving grudgingly to a more nuanced appreciation of these groups."
As a pro-democracy movement gains momentum in Lebanon, the United States faces the same challenges in what to do about a long-standing nemesis, Hezbollah. In the 1980s, Party of God cells were tied to suicide bombings that destroyed two embassies, killed 241 Marines (the largest loss of U.S. military life in a single incident since World War II) and held Americans hostage for as long as seven years.
But Hezbollah has since evolved from a militant underground movement to include a political party that has won a dozen seats in parliament as well as providing social services such as health care, education and welfare to thousands of Lebanese. Washington remains deeply concerned about Hezbollah's ties to extremist groups targeting Israel, yet U.S. officials noted changes last week at its first demonstration. Called to support Syria, demonstrators flew Lebanese flags -- not Hezbollah or Syrian banners.
"It was a very Lebanese assemblage -- and peaceful," said a senior State Department official familiar with Lebanon policy, who said Washington is prepared to envision a different future. "If Hezbollah decides it's willing to get out of the terrorism business, we'll look at them again."
"They face a moment of decision," he added, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Do they want to gain a role from legitimate political activity or continue the terrorism that has tainted them and caused them to be blacklisted in the U.S.?"
Iran, which Washington considers the worst state sponsor of terrorism, is the most sensitive challenge. Yet after decades of isolating Tehran, the Bush administration now backs diplomatic outreach on the biggest controversy: nuclear weapons.
The shift responds in part to numbers. Shiites are 10 percent to 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. But almost half of Muslims from Lebanon to Pakistan are Shiites, said Norton, who worked in Lebanon and wrote "Hizballah of Lebanon: Extremist Ideals vs. Mundane Politics." "In part, we're just recognizing the demographics," he said.
If democratic openings widen, the United States may find its dealings with Shiite communities deepen. Often persecuted, Shiites have long challenged autocratic rule, said Laith Kubba, an Iraqi Shiite at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Given current opportunities, some fall naturally into the role of agents of change. "For over 1,000 years, Shiites have been critical of political affairs in Muslim states," Kubba said. "The Shiites have been encouraged recently to speak up and spell out injustices. They've now become really vocal about it."