Edition 4 Volume 3 - February 03, 2005
The "Shi’ite crescent"
Iraq transitional phase will determine the future -
The exclusion of Iraqi Sunnis from any power-sharing equation in Iraq is a recipe for disaster.
Much ado about nothing -
Under deeper scrutiny, King Abdullah's sectarian concerns do not tally with the evidence.
A crude generalization -
Islam is not a monolith or a ‘duolith’, and politics will always create strange bedfellows.
An Iranian perspective -
Does Iran desire this? And if so, does Tehran consider it feasible?
Iraq transitional phase will determine the future
Even as the dust of the recent elections settles, it is becoming increasingly clear that occupied Iraq could be headed for civil war fuelled by chaotic US policies and deeply-rooted ethnic and sectarian rifts.
For the first time in 80 years, the Shi’ite majority has had and grabbed the chance to seize hold of the country's reins of power. Ironically perhaps, since it was handed this opportunity by the US, the ultimate power broker behind this newly dominant Iraqi Shi’ite community is Washington’s archenemy Iran.
It was anticipating such an event that prompted King Abdullah of Jordan's rather undiplomatic warning against the creation of a Shi’ite crescent reaching from Tehran to Beirut and Hizballah. The comment provoked an angry reaction from Iran as well as Syria, whose ruling family hails from the Allawi sect, a Shi’ite Muslim group. The king later sought to qualify his statement by saying he was not referring to Shi’ites as a religious community but rather as a political current, but there was no hiding Jordan’s concern: the Sunni kingdom had backed Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its war against Iran from 1980 to 1988, and under the new distribution of power Jordan is likely to lose a major ally and its primary trading partner for the foreseeable future.
The exclusion of Iraqi Sunnis from any power-sharing equation in Iraq is a recipe for disaster. By the same token, the Shi’ites will not accept any under-representation in the country's 275-seat parliament, and as the majority group in the country, will in effect insist on their dominance in the country’s representative body.
The key then becomes how Iran wishes to use its influence. Since the fall of Baghdad, Iran flung open all its border crossings with Iraq, notably Shalamjah near Basra, to intruders, militants and mostly Arabized Iranian Shi’ites. This is a state of affairs that continues until this day, right under the noses of the British troops deployed in Basra, the biggest southern city of some two million people. Britain denies any complicity with Iran on this issue, but facts on the ground indicate that British troops could better control the elsewhere meticulously guarded Iranian border.
Not only have Iranians flooded southern Iraq, Iranian-backed agents have sought to impose Tehran’s version of Islamic rule there. To give just one example, more than 150 Christian-owned liquor shops have closed and dozens of Christian families have fled Basra, home to a 4,000 strong Christian minority.
At the same time, the Shi’ite and Kurdish communities, long suppressed under Saddam Hussein, have an alliance of interests in seeing that they are never similarly disenfranchised, and are certain to want to maintain their respective and strongly autonomous entities in the southern and northern parts of Iraq.
Taken to its logical conclusion, such a scenario could see Iraq disintegrate into three entities in the absence of safety valves to prevent this from happening. One such valve could be a growing realization, especially among Shi’ites, that a united Iraq could offer an even better deal.
Ultimately then, the future of Iraq depends on the regional ambitions of both Iran and the US. And while on the surface they appear to be on a collision course, in actual fact, a peaceful united Iraq would seem to serve both countries’ interests better. Such an inevitably Shi’ite-dominated country will leave Iran reaping the greater benefits, but it will only be possible if Iraqi Shi’ites are also prepared to allow Sunnis their say.
The transitional phase will be a crucial test in shaping the future. It is a difficult mission and the US must show signs of consistency and foresight that have so far been absent from its haphazard approach to its occupation of Iraq. The US must work to ensure that the new Iraqi constitution, to be ratified toward the end of the year, guarantees a measure of power sharing between the three communities that will allow Sunnis especially to participate meaningfully in a state with Shi’ite pre-eminence.- Published 3/2/2005 © bitterlemons-international.org
Saad Hattar is an Amman-based political analyst.
Much ado about nothing
According to Jordan’s King Abdullah, Iran’s meddling in the recent Iraqi elections was an attempt by Tehran “to create a Shi'ite crescent from Iran to Syria and Lebanon”. Although the king retracted his blatantly racist remark following the political storm that Iran raised, the young monarch was articulating what seems to be a regional concern: Shi'ite dominance over Iraq might pave the way for a Shi'ite-based alliance in the Middle East.
On the face of it, this proposition seems to be valid, at least in theory. Indeed, Shi'ite dominance in Iraq bridges the geographical gap between Iran, which is predominantly Shi'ite, and Syria, where political power rests with adherents of the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Lebanon’s sizable Shi'ite community and its Hizballah-backed power extend the Shi'ite crescent further. To be sure, the geopolitical implications of such a scenario aroused angst among other Arab monarchs and princes, so much so that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain--all of which include large Shi'ite communities--sought, at least initially, to delay the Iraqi elections.
Upon deeper scrutiny, however, King Abdullah’s sectarian concerns do not tally with the evidence. In particular, the assumptions upon which his fears are based are overly simplistic, if not altogether faulty. Like any other group, Shi'ites are not monolithic. Iraqi Shi'ites are different from their Iranian counterparts at the cultural, psychological, and historical levels. At the political level, most Iraqi Shi'ites do not believe in a theocracy like the one in power in Iran. Unlike the late Ayatollah Khomeini who viewed politics as part and parcel of Islam, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani supports the secular notion of separation of church (read mosque) and state. Moreover, the difference between Syria's Alawis and Shi'ites, whether in Iraq or Iran, is even greater.
Second, Shi'ite domination of Iraq’s new Constitutive Assembly does not necessarily mean that Iraq will toe Iran’s political line. That a host of Iraqi Shi'ites worked for months alongside Washington to stitch the elections together--while Washington and Iran were trading invective over Iran’s nuclear program--is one case in point.
Third, Syrian relations with Iran are not based on sectarian affinity. Rather, the strategic alliance that binds the two states is premised on the late Hafez al-Assad’s view that the Islamic Republic that ousted Iran’s pro-western imperial order was an asset to the Arabs in their confrontation with Israel. That alliance was also meant to contain Iraq and to deter Saddam, Iraq’s former dictator, from further military adventures. Similarly, the Syria-Hizballah relationship has a lot more to do with the geopolitics of the region than with sectarian affinity. Syria’s support for Hizballah is a product of its strategic calculations vis-a-vis Israel, not a result of Hizballah’s Shi'ism. Evidence that sectarian affiliation is not a factor in Syria’s decisional calculi is provided by the fact that Damascus supports militant Palestinian organizations as well--all of which are Sunni.
Taken together, these nuances strongly suggest that national political elites act more out of state interests than out of sectarian considerations. Iran would surely be elated at a Shi'ite victory in Iraq. But in the (likely) event that Iran intervened in the Iraqi elections, it was to keep the Americans on the defensive. The Iranian regime obviously does not like the Americans to be on its borders, nor does it want the American project in Iraq to succeed. Moreover, that Syrian leaders encouraged the interim Iraqi government to go forth with the elections, and that Syria encouraged the thousands of Sunni Iraqi residents of Syria to participate in the vote are additional indications that King Abdullah’s sectarian argument is flawed. Syria adopted that policy out of concern that prolonged instability in Iraq might spill across its borders.
In the final analysis, the Shi'ite crescent thesis that King Abdullah advanced does not hold water. That he jumped too quickly to this conclusion may have more to do with his fear, and that of other Arab monarchs, of a democratic government next door.- Published 3/2/2005 © bitterlemons-international.org
Murhaf Jouejati, an expert on Syrian foreign policy, is the director of the Middle East Program and a visiting professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.
A crude generalization
As ill-conceived and poorly executed as the American military adventure in Iraq has been, it is hard to imagine that policymakers in Washington did not foresee the eventual rise to dominance in the country of its Shi’ite majority.
Since the Shi’ites comprise an estimated 60 percent of Iraq’s population, any system of governance not completely totalitarian would necessarily have to share power in one way or another with the Shi’ite community. As it is, with Iraq’s approximately 20 percent Sunni minority mostly opting out of the recent so-called elections, Shi’ite representation in the body that will vote on Iraq’s future constitution might be even higher.
The greater the Shi’ite dominance in Iraq, the greater the likelihood would seem of close Iraqi ties with Iran. Two closely allied countries of the size of Iraq and Iran with their combined oil resources would in turn give rise to a new balance of power in the region. It could embolden Shi’ite communities in Gulf countries to ask for, perhaps demand, greater political rights, even autonomy. It could see Hizballah angling for greater influence in Lebanon, supported by the Allawi Shi’ite Syrian leadership, less cowed by Israel’s military dominance. It could create, as Jordan’s King Abdullah recently appeared to caution, a Shi’ite crescent from Tehran to Beirut.
It is a scenario some find alarming. Surely it is not the “New Middle East” Bush, Cheney and gang envisaged they were creating when they invaded Iraq. Certainly Washington neo-conservatives could not have wanted to waste all the “political capital” they invested in destroying one member of the “evil axis” only to vastly empower another country in that dreaded triad. But then maybe, as they huddled around their White House crystal ball, this was not the scenario that appeared behind the cloud.
Perhaps, and here we may be giving the present US administration a little more credit then its Middle East “policy” in any way merits, American policymakers understood that the Shi’ite crescent scenario is pretty unlikely. First of all, while Iraqi Shi’ites will come to dominate Iraqi politics, they will have to do so in the framework of some kind of power sharing agreement with the Sunni and Kurdish communities. If they don’t, Iraq risks being divided. The risk is real as it is; the Kurds, unless suitably assured of their influence, will not want to give over any of the autonomy they have enjoyed for more than a decade now. Iraqi Sunnis will fight any exclusionist Shi’ite regime as hard as they are fighting the current occupation.
A divided Iraq may lead to a change in the regional balance of power, but not necessarily noticeably in favor of Iran. A united Iraq with a balance of power between the three communities will serve Iran better but curb its influence. Either way, the necessary component of the so-called Shiite crescent will not be present.
In any case, there are important differences within the various Shi’ite communities. Iraqi Shi’ites are Arabs and culturally closer to Iraqi Sunnis than to Persian Shi’ites. The Allawis are a small sect within Shi’ite Islam, and Syria’s Muslims are in any case 85 percent Sunni. Lebanon’s treacherous ethnic and religious mix is volatile at the best of times and Shi’ites there are as little interested in a flare-up of inter-communal violence as anyone else.
Islam is not a monolith or a ‘duolith’ for that matter. Neither Sunni nor Shi’ite Muslims can be understood as single bodies. Politics will always create strange bedfellows, and, in this case, both Iran and the US would seem to be best off with the same end result, a united and stable Iraq where power is divided among the three main communities more or less according to their size.
Perhaps then, when looking at the region in the medium term, the US administration understood to shy away from crude generalities. Or perhaps it is simply planning to invade Iran next.- Published 3/2/2005 © bitterlemons-international.org
Omar Karmi is a Jordan Times correspondent based in Jerusalem.
An Iranian perspective
In March 2003 the United States invaded Iraq, confident that it could install in Baghdad a secular pro-American regime much as it had done in Kabul nearly a year earlier. Two years after the invasion, these hopes have proven to be only a mirage. Instead, Iraqi Shi'ites seem poised to win the January elections, in which case a government will emerge in Baghdad that will be more like the one in neighboring Iran than that in Afghanistan.
The specter of the Shi'ites coming to power has fueled speculation that an alliance is in the making that will comprise the Shi'ite-dominated regimes in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The rise of this so-called "Shi'ite crescent", some Arab leaders have argued, has the potential to change the political landscape of the Middle East.
Looking at the issue of a Shi'ite crescent from an Iranian perspective, we need to ask two questions: Does Iran desire this? And if so, does Tehran consider it feasible? With respect to the first question, the answer is a definite yes. Since its establishment, one of the chief foreign policy goals of the theocratic regime in Iran has been to help Shi'ites everywhere claim their fair share of political power. It was in that context that for 25 years Iran harbored, organized, trained, and armed Iraqi Shi'ite groups opposed to Saddam Hussein. Hence, despite its many denials, the Iranian government is eagerly awaiting a Shi'ite election victory that would make it possible to integrate Iraq into the extant Tehran-Damascus-Beirut axis. Iraq has long been the missing link in this alliance. Its falling into position, Tehran believes, will multiply the power and influence of this axis.
With regard to the second question, the answer is negative. It is negative not because Iranian leaders have any doubts about Iraqi Shi'ites' willingness to join them if they win the January elections, but because they hold that the regime in Syria is not a Shi'ite regime, and its foreign policy is not geared to serving Shi'ite interests. Rather, the current regime in Syria ascribes to Arab nationalism and its primary foreign policy goal is furthering Arab interests as defined by Damascus. For Iran, the alliance with Damascus is based on opposition to the US and Israel and has nothing to do with Shi'ites. Therefore, while there is every chance that an alliance will emerge in the wake of the elections between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, it would be wholly inappropriate to label it a Shi'ite crescent. This concept is the figment of the imagination of those inside and outside Iraq whose interests require them to present Iran as a threat to the Arab world.
But does the fact that the alliance cannot be correctly described as a Shi'ite crescent mean that the coming to power of a government in Iraq dominated by Shi'ites will not have any impact on the Middle East? There is good reason to believe that it will. Its first impact will be felt in Shi'ite communities in the GCC countries. however, that impact will be very uneven. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait where there is a history of Shi'ite political activism the coming of Shi'ites to power in Iraq is likely to encourage this activism. But it will not be directed at overthrowing Sunni rule. Rather, it is likely to aim at securing greater religious freedom, greater political say in issues that affect Shi'ites, and a bigger share of the economic pie. Elsewhere in the GCC--Oman and the United Arab Emirates--the impact will be minimal because there has been no history of Shi'ite political activism there. In Yemen and Turkey, which are outside the GCC, the same will hold true.
In the Persian Gulf, the rise of a Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad will lead to a novel alliance with Tehran that will change the balance of power there in favor of the two. In practice this is going to mean that GCC members will no longer be able to use Iran-Iraq rivalry to undermine both. Nor will they be able to press their territorial claims against Iran with the same vigor. GCC members will also have to pay more attention to Iranian and Iraqi views in OPEC when deciding on an "acceptable" price band for crude, thereby diminishing their ability to manipulate prices to suit their political interests.
In the eastern Mediterranean, the integration of Iraq into the alliance between Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut will also influence the balance of power. Iraq, like Iran, will provide political, financial and military support to Syria. It will provide Damascus with greater strategic depth as well as direct land links with Iran. The alliance is also likely to provide more support for Islamic groups such as Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. All of this will strengthen Syria's hand in peace negotiations with Israel.
To sum up, while the Middle East is not going to witness a "Shi'ite crescent", the coming to power of a Shi'ite-dominated government in Iraq will have important consequences. There will be greater political activism in support of Shi'ite political rights. Iran and Iraq are likely to form an alliance against the GCC. And Iraq will in all likelihood join the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut alliance, strengthening the position of Syria and Islamic groups vis-a-vis Israel.- Published 3/2/2005 © bitterlemons-international.org
Kamran Taremi is a lecturer in the department of political science, University of Tehran.