London, March 26, 2015—(Updated with link from al-Ahram on Iran’s shadow presence at Arab League summit) In 2004, King Hussein of Jordan warned of the emergence of a “Shiite Crescent” of Iranian influence in the Middle East from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon.
Alarm over the presumed existence of a band of states and populations beholden to Shiite Iran rather than the Sunni Muslim-dominated governments of Arab world intensified after the US-led invasion of Iraq. The 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein had opened the door to Iranian influence in a major Sunni Muslim-ruled Arab country. Egypt’s then-Arab League president Amr Moussa warned the fall of Iraq would “open the gates of hell,” among the hellish possibilities, Iranian penetration of the Arab world.
Worries that were once rhetorical have ripened into warfare across the region. You might say they are battlefields in a single war:
- This week in Yemen, warplanes from Saudi Arabia, the paladin of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, bombed military positions of Houthi rebels, who espouse a form of Shiism and have taken over much of the country. Oppnents of the Houthis say they are Iran’s cat’s paw.
- In Iraq, Shiite militias, some trained by Iran and led by Iranian military officials, are battling the radical Sunni Islamic State(ISIS) insurgents–and have US warplanes helping them try to take the city of Tikrit.
- In Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led countries support Sunni insurgents against the government of Bashar al-Assad, member of the Allawite Shiite offshoot and an ally of Iran. Iran arms his troops while Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese militia and Iranian client, lends Assad fighting units.
- At a lower intensity, in 2011, Saudi Arabia was fundamental in shutting down Shiite “Arab Spring” protests in Bahrain by sending troops to reinforce Bahraini security forces that underpin rule by a Sunni monarchy.
How much of the Shiite Crescent threat is real and how much of it reflects concerns of Sunni ruler about losing influence, about unrest within their own Shiite populations and downright distrust of the rival religion? A little of everything is in play. There are Iranian territorial disputes over gas deposits in the Persian Gulf with small gulf kingdoms. Iran reportedly backs the Houthis in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia considers its own backyard. Tehran’s support for the al-Assad regime against Syria’s disgruntled Sunni majority upsets the Saudis and others who feel a need to express Sunni solidarity. Syria was implicated in the 2005 car bomb killing of Rafik Hariri, then prime minister and friend of Saudi Arabia.
The Sunni-Shiite religious rivalry is far from new. It dates from the 7th Century, in a conflict over who were the rightful successors to Mohammed’s leadership. Iran and Iraq fought an eight year war in which Saddam Hussein presented himself as bulwark against the Shiite Islamic State. Sunni governments helped fund the vicious contest. At the grassroots, Sunni groups have violently attacked Shiites in places as distant as Egypt and Pakistan.
Some academics and policy-makers argue that the regional Iranian threat is overblown and that Shiites in the Arab world are unlikely to accept domination by Persian Iran. In this view, even Shiite-led Iraq is primarily Iraqi and Arab, not an Iranian surrogate.
Other Iranian alliances have to do with local political or wider geopolitical needs not purely religious affinity: in Syria, the Assad regime shares with Iran a both stand against US influence in the region; in Lebanon, Hezbollah grew out of resistance to Israel’s 1982 invasion and the desire of the growing Shiite population for a greater share of Lebanese political power; Houthis oppose the post-Arab Spring government in Yemen, which they consider corrupt. Even if all the clients prevail, it would not necessarily amount to an ironclad Iranian alliance, say those who downplay the theory of Iran-on-the-march.
But actions are speaking louder than words. Both Iran and the Sunni Muslim-ruled countries are arming their allies in pitched battles. That means contending sides will have to cling ever more closely to their patrons for support, possibly in return for losing their autonomy. What may have started as alliances of convenience may turn into dominance by Tehran or Riyadh or other contending capital. Certainly in the foreseeable future, an unprecedented array of intra-Middle East proxy wars is in store.
The International Crisis Group provides good background and a way out of the Yemen crisis.
A view of Iranian influence in the region.
This paper from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science International Affairs aims to debunk the Shiite Crescent Threat.