The Real Challenge From the ‘Shia Crescent’

As Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure is being destroyed by the Israeli air force and artillery, the Arab leaders are fighting their own petty "sectarian war." The first salvo of that war was fired by King Abdullah of Jordan in December 2004 when he described the emerging alliance as a "Shia crescent." He was describing the "coalition" between Iran, the Alawite-ruled Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Syrian branch of the Hamas movement. Then President Hosni Mubarak made the controversial observation that the Shias of Iraq owe their loyalty to Iran, a comment that annoyed many in Iraq’s unity government.

There is little doubt that a new political-religious fault line is developing in the Middle East. The Sunni Arabs are worried about the emergence of an Iran-Iraq nexus over the long run. These are two important countries, and their potential cooperation would at least challenge the Sunni dominance of Persian Gulf-Levant affairs. Assuming that the regime of Bashar al-Assad stays in power, Syria will also become a part of that nexus, since the ruling elite of Syria is Alawite, which is a Shia sect.

The most important aspect of this Shia crescent is the fact that Shia Islam has been open to revolutionary change. After all, there was an Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978-1979. That revolution played an extremely crucial role in politicizing the Shias of Lebanon and those of the Persian Gulf region, most importantly Bahrain, which also has a Shia majority.

Revolutionary Shia Islam has been the religion of the state of Iran. About the only real challenge the ayatollahs face these days is from the reformers, some of whom claim to prefer Western secular democracy as an alternative to the Islamic republic. However, there is no Islamic version of another revolutionary ideology to challenge the revolutionary credentials of the ayatollahs.

Sunni Islam has its own revolutionary version, the Salafi jihadists. The Salafi jihadists are at war with the existing regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and a number of other major Muslim countries. Further east, the government of Pakistan has been declared a legitimate target of these jihadists because of its close ties with the United States in the post-9/11 era. The same forces are also rampant in Afghanistan and Bangladesh. In Indonesia, the Salafi jihadists are challenging the duly elected government.

Back in the Middle East, there is a major fight brewing between the Sunni jihadists and a number of governments. Those governments are under increased pressure from the United States to democratize and even to liberalize Islam. That very suggestion puts these governments in a precarious position, because any measures to reform educational curricula are envisaged within their polities as aimed at sabotaging Islam. This perception also leads to further erosion of the legitimacy of those governments. A classic example of this growing dilemma is faced by Saudi Arabia. Egypt is also feeling the same type of pressure and related anxieties.

No clear political-military alliance is developing among the Sunni states to counter the Salafi jihadist threat. In fact, an argument can be made that the Sunni governments are confused about how proactive they ought to be in reforming their Islamic curricula without triggering the criticism from Sunni religious scholars that they are playing politics with Islam merely to appease the United States.

Shia Islam in Iran and Syria is free of such profound tensions that undermine the legitimacy of the governments. In Iraq, the legitimacy of the national unity government is not being questioned by the Shias or the Kurds. Even the Sunnis are getting over their major misgivings and are gradually cooperating with the government of Nouri al-Maliki.

As a leading Shia state, Iran’s prestige in the world appears to be on the rise. It is being offered a major political-economic package by the Perm-5 Plus-1 as an enticement for abandoning its uranium enrichment program. It just attended the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an observer, and is reported to be joining it in the near future. Iran’s membership in that entity is important, considering the fact that both China and Russia – two major members of the SCO – are Iran’s chief defenders in the UN Security Council, which is considering sanctions against Iran in view of its refusal to accept the aforementioned package.

The United States has agreed to initiate a dialogue with Iran on stabilizing Iraq. That dialogue has not yet started; however, the Sunni Arab states are not pleased by the fact that Iran – a Shia state – will be negotiating about the political stability (or the lack thereof) of Iraq with the United States, while no Sunni state is expected to be a party to such talks.

To top it all off, Iran is supposed to be playing a major role in the decision of Lebanon’s Hezbollah to initiate a major conflict with Israel. It is possible that when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israeli territory, kidnapping two soldiers and killing eight, they did not expect the Jewish state to unleash the kind of disproportionate response that it has. Unless the ultimate outcome of this conflict emerges in the total dismantling of Hezbollah as a military organization, Iran’s alleged role in giving a green light to Hezbollah to carry out that attack will not result in a diminution of its clout in the Middle East.

Even under the worst-case scenario from the vantage point of Iran – a major blow to Hezbollah – that organization’s popularity in the Middle East is at an all-time high. Hezbollah is perceived in the Arab streets not as a Shia organization, but as an Arab organization that can challenge mighty Israel, which no Arab state can even imagine doing.

In the post-9/11 era, when Arab self-esteem is much damaged as a result of the conquest of Iraq, when the Bush doctrine continues to hang as Damocles’ sword over the head of Syria, when the Arabs see their religion under attack in the Western media, Hezbollah’s gutsy and plucky decision to confront the Jewish state has, rightly or wrongly, become a source of considerable cheer.

The Sunni Arab states are wary of the long-term spill-over effect of this particular development, especially regarding Iran’s ability to exploit it for its strategic purposes in its future negotiations with the United States. This is one reason why the Saudi government was so critical of Hezbollah for provoking Israel. The Saudis might have had second thoughts about their harsh comments, since they followed up by also criticizing Israel.

The real significance of the emerging Shia crescent is that it is challenging the strategic dominance of the United States in a manner that no Sunni state ever did. The only similar challenge to both the U.S. and the Sunni states is coming from Salafi forces. However, since no state is behind those forces, the real threat stemming from their activities has not yet jelled. The Shia crescent, on the contrary, carries with it the support of Iran and Syria. In that sense, it is more threatening than the Salafists to the traditional orientations of the Sunni Arab states. The United States appears a little wary of the emerging Shia crescent for the very same reason. It has been easier for Washington to co-opt the Sunni states. The rising Shia challenge appears to be too radical and too unwilling to be tamed.

In the post-9/11 era, when Islamic radical forces are running rampant, taking on the United States, the Arab regimes, and Israel, a potential coalescing of the Shia (or Shia-dominated) states is causing a lot of consternation among the Sunnis. That is one reason why they hope the United States will buy into scary rhetoric about how the "Shias are coming."

In reality, there is not much substance to that type of hyperbole. Iran has been a major state in the Middle East for a long time. It is likely to remain so. In the final analysis, its gain or loss of clout and political influence will be determined by its capabilities to maneuver effectively as a major nation-state, not as a major Shia power. The Sunni Arab leaders appear to be underscoring the "Shia factor" purely as an ill-conceived political ploy.