The Shia crescent between myth and reality

What Iran's influence over the region means and why religion does not really matter to the sectarian polarization within the Middle East.

It was the beginning of December 2004 when King Abdullah II of Jordan mentioned the “Shiite crescent” for the first time. Elections were around the corner, and it was still difficult to foresee what Iraq’s political future would be in the aftermath of the American-led invasion, and to determine which role the religious fractures inherent in the country would play in the creation of a post-invasion political order. Yet, the King – interviewed by the American broadcaster MSNBC – had already clear ideas of what the new map of the Middle East would look like: a “crescent” of countries influenced by the Islamic Republic that would seriously undermine the region’s inner security. According to him, the “worst case scenario” would have been a hypothetical “Shiite-led” Baghdad with a “special relationship” with Tehran. King Abdullah exhorted the international community to take a closer look to the “new crescent” that would ideally tie Iran to Lebanon (with Hizballah) by including Iraq and Syria. In his view, this new alliance would have been “very destabilizing for the gulf countries, and actually for the whole region”.      

In January 2016, a source within the entourage of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (who appears to be the real architect of the Lebanese stalemate) revealed to the Economist the existence of an actual “Shiite full moon” spreading up to Yemen and resulting from Iran’s hegemonic aspirations. At the same time, the creation of an Iran-made Shiite galaxy in the Middle East became the major preoccupation of the Sunni-majority Arab monarchies, as well as the US and Israel, whose narratives represent Iran as the number one threat to the region’s security. However, while the sectarian polarization discourse brings the focus on religion as the ultimate cause of instability, the Arab Sunni, Israeli and American concern is essentially political, and the actual cause of the diatribe is the new power distribution in the Middle East.

In the last few weeks, newspapers and media channels all over the world have pictured a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran as “imminent,” while the “danger” of a “Shiite crescent” has come back to the spotlight in the public discourse. In particular, the historical Riyadh-Tehran antagonism whose political origin lies in the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979 (and that does not necessarily stem from a thousand-year-old Sunni-Shia dispute) has escalated due to a new chain of events taking place between November 4th and 5th, 2017. First, Saad Hariri announced his official resignation as Prime Minister of Lebanon while he was in Saudi Arabia. Second, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman arrested more than 200 people charged with corruption. Third, a missile launched from Yemen was intercepted nearby Riyadh airport: Saudi Arabia pointed the finger at Iran, but Tehran denied its responsibility. In this regard, Iran Foreign Affairs Minister Jawad Zarif, who is well known for being one of the major negotiators of the historic nuclear deal between Tehran and the great Western powers (EU and P5+1 countries) tweeted: “Saudi Arabia is undertaking wars of aggression, regional bullying, destabilizing behaviour and high-risk instigations. Yet, it blames Iran for the consequences.”

A few days later, on November 16th 2017, Israel officially stepped into the dispute and narrowed the gap between Tel Aviv and Riyadh in an effort to foster an anti-Tehran front. As Israel’s mouthpiece Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot stated on Saudi online newspaper Elaph, “Iran seeks to take control of the Middle East, creating two “Shi'ite crescents”: the first one  from Iran to Lebanon passing through Iraq and Syria, and the second one from Bahrein to the Red Sea passing through Yemen. Israel and Saudi Arabia were never enemies and never fought each other. Israelis and Saudis are on the same page about Iran.” 

The “Shiite crescent” discourse not only made use of the confessional ruptures to sugarcoat the impact of the 2003 Iraq invasion, but it also constructs a “dangerous” Iran as the official source of regional security issues. However, first Iraqi, then Bahraini and Yemeni Shiites who rose up on the long wave of the so-called Arab Springs in 2011, revealed deeper complexities that the Sunni vs Shia paradigm is not able to explain. What pulled local communities (be them majorities or minorities) to the streets was the urge of being recognized as political entities, and not religious ones per se. In turn, Iran embraced this demand and became a supporting and galvanizing source. However, although religion has not much to do with the Yemeni conflict, according to Saudi Arabia, it is Iran that should be held responsible for the rebellion of the Houthis (Shiites Zaydites) against the central government of Sanaa, thus putting the IRI at the dawn of the insurgency instead of its aftermath.

As long as Syria is concerned, a mass revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad gradually became a proxy war with a higher stake. Iran has taken the side of Assad, joined by Hizballah, and has created what the official IRI rhetoric terms “Axis of Resistance.” In the opposite front, loyal to its habit of interfering in the region’s geopolitical order, Washington has aligned with Riyadh, fuelling armed groups and extremist guerrillas. Nonetheless, in Syria as well as in Yemen, the civilians are the only and true victims of these devastating conflicts. The latter are expression of a power-game and a longstanding dispute that seem now to be shifting to a new hotbed: not unexpectedly, since 2015, when Tehran began to return to the international arena thanks to the Iran Deal, and slowly thawing its diplomatic and economic relations with the West, Saudi Arabia has been joined by the US and Israel in an anti-Iran triumvirate, and has launched a new diplomatic offensive to the “Shiite crescent.”    

Therefore, always keeping the attention on Iran’s involvement in the abovementioned contexts from the region’s balance, the problem may be underestimating and neglecting three fundamental variables that are crucial to understand the strategies that the Middle Eastern powers have adopted to play this geopolitical Risk game. First, the domestic policy of the single countries and the local demands can-not be manoeuvred tout-court by external actors. Second, the foreign affairs agenda that Tehran has been following in the last four years is more open to dialogue and not prone to make use of the religious discrepancies. Third, Iran’s rapprochement with the West since the signing of the nuclear deal has raised new economic and strategic preoccupations in Riyadh as well as Tel Aviv and Washington.