EYE The myth of the Shi'ite
crescent By Pepe Escobar
TEHRAN - A specter haunts the Middle East
- at least in the minds of Sunni Arabs, especially
Wahhabis, as well as a collection of conservative
American think tanks: a Shi'ite crescent,
spreading from Mount Lebanon to Khorasan, across
Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf and the Iranian
But facts on the ground are much
more complex than this simplistic formula whereby,
according to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait,
Tehran controls its allies Baghdad, Damascus and
parts of Beirut.
Seventy-five percent of
the world's oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf.
Seventy percent of the Gulf's population is
Shi'ite. As an eschatological - and revolutionary
- religion, fueled by a mix of
despair, Shi'ism cannot but provoke fear,
especially in hegemonic Sunni Islam.
more than a thousand years Shi'ite Islam has been
in fact a galaxy of Shi'sms. It's as if it was a
Fourth World, always maligned with political
exclusion, a dramatic vision of history and social
and economic marginalization.
Shi'ites finally have acquired political
representation in Iraq, have conquered it in
Lebanon and are actively claiming it in Bahrain.
They are the majority in each of these countries.
Shi'ism is the cement of their communal cohesion.
It's a totally different story in Saudi Arabia,
where Shi'ites are a minority of 11%, repressed as
heretics and deprived of their rights and
fundamental freedoms. But for how much longer?
The Shi'ite sanctuary Shi'ism
has been the state religion in Iran since 1501, at
the start of the Safavid dynasty. But with Grand
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic
revolution, for the first time in history the
Shi'ite clergy was able to take over the state -
and to govern a Shi'ite-majority society. No
wonder this is the most important event in the
history of Shi'ism.
Asia Times Online has
confirmed in the holy Iranian city of Qom that as
far as major ayatollahs are concerned, their
supreme mission is to convert the rest of Islam to
what they believe is the original purity and
revolutionary power of Shi'ism, always critical of
the established social and political order.
But as a nation-state at the intersection
of the Arab, Turk, Russian and Indian worlds, as
the key transit point of the Middle East, the
Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the
Indian sub-continent, between three seas (the
Caspian, the Persian Gulf and the sea of Oman),
not far from Europe and at the gates of Asia,
Tehran on a more pragmatic level has to conduct an
extremely complex foreign policy.
Diplomats in Tehran don't say it
explicitly, but this is essentially a
counter-encirclement foreign policy. And not only
because of the post-September 11 American military
bases that today encircle Iran almost completely.
Iran rivals Turkey for influence in
Central Asia and rivals Saudi Arabia for hegemony
in the Persian Gulf - with the added complexity of
this being a bitter Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry as well.
Rivalry with Pakistan - again for influence in
Central Asia - subsided after the Taliban were
chased out of power in Afghanistan in 2001. But
basically Tehran regards Pakistan as a
pro-American Sunni regional power, thus not
exactly prone to be attentive to Shi'ites. This
goes a long way to explain the Iran-India
It's impossible to deal with
Iran without understanding the complex dialectics
behind the Iranian religious leadership. In their
minds, the concept of nation-state is regarded
with deep suspicion, because it detracts from the
umma - the Muslim community.
nation-state is just a stage on the road to the
final triumph of Shi'ism and pure Islam. But to go
beyond this stage it's necessary to reinforce the
nation-state and its Shi'ite sanctuary, which
happens to be Iran. When Shi'ism finally triumphs,
the concept of nation-state, a heritage from the
West, will disappear anyway, to the benefit of a
community according to the will of Prophet
The problem is that reality
often contradicts this dream. One of the best
examples was the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Saddam Hussein invaded Iran first. Iranians
reacted culturally - this was a case of Persians
repulsing an Arab invasion. But Tehran at the same
time also expected Iraqi Shi'ites to rebel against
Saddam, in the name of Shi'ism. It did not happen.
For the Shi'ites in southern Iraq, the
Arab nationalist impulse was stronger. And still
is. This fact undermines the neo-conservative
charge that Iran is fueling a guerrilla war in
southern Iraq with the intention of breaking up
the country. The Ba'athist idea of integration of
Iraqi communities under a strong state, in the
name of Arab nationalism, persists. Few in the
Shi'ite south want a civil war - or the breakup of
Azerbaijan and Afghanistan Azerbaijan - where 75% of the population is
Shi'ite - could not be included in a Shi'ite
crescent by any stretch of the imagination, even
though it was a former province of the Persian
empire that Russia took over in 1828.
Azeris speak a language close to Turkish,
but at the same time they are kept at some
distance by the Turks because they are in the
majority Shi'ites. Unlike Iran, the basis of
modern, secular Turkey is national - not religious
- identity. To complicate matters further, Shi'ism
in Azerbaijan had to face the shock of a society
secularized by seven decades of Soviet rule.
Azeris would not be tempted - to say the least -
to build an Iranian-style theocracy at home.
It's true that Azeri mullahs are
"Iranified". But as Iran and Azerbaijan are
contiguous, independent Azerbaijan fears too much
At the same time, Iran does
not push too hard for Shi'ite influence on
Azerbaijan because Azeri nationalism - sharing a
common religion on both sides of the border -
could embark on a reunification of Azerbaijan to
the benefit of Baku, and not of Tehran.
And if this was not enough, there's the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an enclave of Armenian
people completely within Azerbaijan, where Iran
supports Armenia for basically two reasons: to
reduce Turkish influence in Azerbaijan and to help
Russia counteract Turkey - perceived as an
American Trojan horse - in the Caucasus.
fair resume of this intractable equation would be
that Azerbaijan is too Shi'ite to be totally
pro-Turkish, not Shi'ite enough to be completely
pro-Iranian, but Shi'ite enough to prevent itself
from becoming a satellite of Russia - again.
On Iran's eastern front, there are the
Hazaras of Afghanistan, the descendants of Genghis
Khan. In the 17th century Hazarajat, in central
Afghanistan, was occupied by the Persian empire.
That's when it converted to Shi'ism. Hazaras have
always suffered the most in Afghanistan - totally
marginalized in political, economic, cultural and
religious terms. Under the Taliban they were
massacred in droves - as the Taliban were
surrogates of Saudi Wahhabism: that was a graphic
case of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia
being played out in the heart of Afghanistan, as
much as a case of pro-Pakistan Pashtuns against
Hazaras compound a
significant 16% of the Afghan population. As far
as Tehran is concerned, they are supported as an
important political power in post-Taliban
Afghanistan. But once again it's not a case of a
Iranian military aid
flows to the Shi'ite party Hezb-e-Wahdat. But
there are more important practical issues, like
the road linking eastern Iran with Tajikistan that
goes through Mazar-e-Sharif in northern
Afghanistan and bypasses Hazara territory. And
there's the strong Iranian political influence in
Herat, in western Afghanistan - the privileged
fiefdom of warlord Ishmail Khan. When Khan was
jailed by the Taliban in 1997 in Kandahar, he was
liberated thanks to Iranian mediation. Khan is now
energy minister in the Hamid Karzai government,
but he still controls Herat. The road linking
Herat to the Iranian border was rebuilt and paved
by Iranian engineers. People in Herat can't get a
single TV program from Kabul, but they get three
Iranian state channels. Western Afghanistan is as
much Afghan as Iranian.
South Asia ... The Moghul empire in India
was heavily Persianized. The Moghuls had been
speaking Persian since the 14th century - it was
the administrative language of the sultans and the
empire's high officials in Delhi, later carried as
far away as Malacca and Sumatra. India - as much
as Central Asia - was extremely influenced by
Persian culture. Today, Shi'ites concentrate in
northern India, in Uttar Pradesh, around Lucknow,
and also in Rajastan, Kashmir, Punjab, the western
coast around Mumbai and around Karachi in
Pakistan. Most are Ishmalis - not duodecimal, like
the Iranians. Pakistan may have as many as 35
million Shi'ites, with a majority of duodecimal.
India has about 25 million, divided between
duodecimal and Ishmalis. The numbers may be huge,
but in India Shi'ites are a minority inside a
minority of Muslims, and in Pakistan they are a
minority in a Sunni state. This carries with it a
huge political problem. Delhi sees the Shi'ites in
Pakistan as a factor of destabilization. That's
one more reason for the close relationship between
India and Iran.
Trojan horses in the
Gulf Seventy-five percent of the
population of the Persian Gulf - concentrated in
the eastern borders of Saudi Arabia and the
emirates - is Shi'ite, overwhelmingly members of a
rural or urban proletariat. Hasa, in Saudi Arabia,
stretching from the Kuwaiti border to the Qatar
border, has been populated by Shi'ites since the
10th century. That's where the oil is. Seventy
percent of the workforce in the oilfields is
Shi'ite. The potential for them to be integrated
in a Shi'ite crescent is certainly there.
Another historical irony rules that the
bitter rivalry - geopolitical, national,
religious, cultural - between Iran and Saudi
Arabia has to played out in Saudi territory as
well. A Shi'ite minority in the land of hardcore
Sunni Wahhabism - and the land that spawned
al-Qaeda - has to be the ultimate Trojan horse.
What to do? Just as in Iraq under Saddam, the
Saudi royal family swings between surveillance and
repression, with some drops of integration, not as
much promoting Shi'ites in the kingdom's ranks but
heavily promoting the immigration of Sunnis to
Hasa. Deeper integration has to be the solution,
as the access to power of Shi'ites in Iraq will
certainly motivate Saudi Arabian Shi'ites.
Kuwait lies north of Hasa. Twenty-five
percent of Kuwaitis are Shi'ite - natives or
immigrants, and they provoke the same sort of
geopolitical quandary to the Kuwaiti princes as
they do to the Saudis. Although they are a
religious, social and economic minority as well,
Shi'ites in Kuwait enjoy a measure of political
rights. But they are still considered a Trojan
horse. South of Hasa, in Qatar, where also 25% of
the population is Shi'ite, is the exact same
And then there's Bahrain.
Sixty-five percent of Bahrain is Shi'ite.
Basically they are a rural proletariat. It's the
same pattern - Sunnis are urban and in power,
Shi'ites are poor and marginalized. For decades,
even before the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran
had insisted that the Shi'ites in Bahrain were
Iranians because the Safavid dynasty used to
occupy both margins of the Persian Gulf. Tehran
still considers Bahrain as an Iranian province.
The Shi'ite majority in Bahrain is prone to
turbulence. Repression has been inevitable - and
Bahrain is helped in the process by, who else,
But there are some
encouraging signs. The small Bahrain archipelago
is separated from Saudi Arabia by just a bridge.
Every weekend in the Muslim world - Thursday and
Friday - Saudis abandon Wahhabi suffocation in
droves to relax in the malls of Manama and its
neighboring islands. Women in Bahrain are closer
to women in Tehran than to Saudi. They wear
traditional clothes, but not a full black
chador, they drive their own cars, they go
about their business by themselves, they meet
members of the opposite sex in restaurants or
cinemas. For them, there are no forbidden places
or professional activities.
tend to believe this is due to the relative
modernity of the al-Khalifa family in power. Even
the South Asian workforce is treated much better
than in the neighboring emirates.
is not particularly wealthy - compared to the
other emirates - and unlike Dubai it does not
strive to become an economic powerhouse. There are
plenty of schools and a good national university -
although most women prefer to study in the US or
Lebanon. But all this can be illusory. Shi'ites
won't stop fighting for more political
participation. Six months ago there was a huge
demonstration in Bahrain, demanding a new
constitution. Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Khamenei are extremely popular in Bahrain.
There are only 6% of Shi'ites in the
wealthy United Arab Emirates. But they can
compound a problem as acute as in Kuwait or Qatar
because of the enormous trade and business Iranian
influence in Dubai.
The whole equation of
Persian Gulf Shi'ites has to do with a tremendous
identity problem. The key argument in favor of
them not being an Iranian Trojan horse is that
first and foremost they are Arabs. But the
question remains in the air. Are they most of all
Arabs who practice a different form of Islam,
which the Sunni majority considers heretic? Or are
they Shi'ites bound to pledge allegiance to the
motherland of Shi'ism, Iran? The answer is not
only religious; it involves social and political
integration of Shi'ites in regimes and societies
that are basically Sunni. Shi'ism in the Arab Gulf
may be "invisible" to the naked eye. Only for the
moment. Sooner or later the sons of Imam Ali will