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 plateau.
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 romanticism and despair, Shi’ism cannot but provoke fear, especially in hegemonic Sunni Islam.
For 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.
But now 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 alliance.
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.
The 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 Mohammed.
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 Iraq.
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 Iranization.
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.
A 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 pro-Iranian Hazaras.
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 Shi’ite crescent.
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.
Meanwhile, in 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 thing.
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, Saudi Arabia.
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.
The locals 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.
Bahrain 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 wake up.