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Shi’ism on the Rise

October 680 A.D. marked the separation of the Shi’ites from mainstream Islam. It was then that Hussein, son of ‘Ali, was martyred in the Battle of Karbala, losing his claim to the leadership of the Muslims.
A total of 1,299 years had passed before a powerful Shi’ite leader summoned up the courage to reclaim the leadership of the Muslim world under the flag of Shi’ism. This was Ayatollah Khomeini, who in 1979 assumed power over Iran and announced his doctrine of "exporting the revolution."
The Iranian revolution had a profound effect on Shi’ites across the Middle East, who until that time, were under the paralyzing influence of the Battle of Karbala. While the ancient battle turned the Shi’ites into submissive subjects of Sunni leaders, the Iranian revolution, under the charismatic Shi’ite cleric, Khomeini, made them begin to demand political inclusion in the various Muslim countries they lived in.
The year 2003 marked yet another important milestone in the history of the Shi’ites. This time it was not a Shi’ite leader who brought about the change; it was a Western, Christian leader, who was – at least partly – responsible for it. His name was George W. Bush.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, a major political power shift took place in the country. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator, was ousted and a democratic voting system was installed. In 2005 the parliamentary elections brought to the fore the Shi’ite movements, which represented over 60 percent of the country’s population. These Shi’ite movements now hold the majority in the parliament and the government.
"It is the crumbling of the Sunni domination of Iraq, which is giving us the impression of the rise of the Shi’ite Crescent, because it has facilitated Iran in [its] access to the heart of the Arab world," says Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University in Britain.
The Shi’ite Crescent is a well-known Middle Eastern term. It points to a region, which stretches from Iran in the east to Lebanon in the west, with Iraq and Syria in the middle. The Shi’ites in this region have recently accumulated much political and paramilitary power, with Iran playing a significant role in the process.
Iran, this article will show, also has considerable influence on Shi’ite minorities in other Middle Eastern countries, much to the dismay of their Sunni leaders. These include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Iran is undoubtedly proving to be an extremely important regional and international power, even before taking into account its nuclear development program.
Iraq‘s Shi’ite movements and the Iranian connection
When the United States ousted Saddam Hussein, it hoped that Iraq’s various religions and sects would show a strong sense of nationalism and cohesiveness. But that did not happen. Instead, the country is drowning in rivers of blood, as Sunnis and Shi’ites turned on each other with unprecedented brutality.
The sectarian strife was exploited – and to a large extent initiated – by Iran. After years of rivalry with Iraq’s Sunni regime, suddenly Iran has gained direct access to the government and parliament. Two years into the American invasion of Iraq, the county experienced its first democratic elections in decades. Iran saw the potential of the democratic process. The math was simple: the Shi’ites in Iraq outnumbered all other minorities, with approximately 60 %of the population. Iran, therefore, sought to persuade the Shi’ite factions to work together to ensure their dominance in the political arena. And, indeed, the 2005 elections saw the sweeping victory of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) – a coalition of Iranian-backed Shi’ite parties.
The UIA includes the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Islamic D’awa Party and a strong faction led by Muqta’da A-‘Sadr.
"Many in the new political elite in Iraq spent probably much of their adult life in Iran," Ehteshami says.
Many, he adds, were deported in the early 1980s by Saddam Hussein and took refuge in Iran. When Saddam was ousted, they returned to Iraq and turned to their Iranian patrons for moral, practical and psychological support, which then transformed into political support.
"Finally there is the security-military side to it as well, and that is where Iran is proactively pursuing its Iraqi agenda," Ehteshami explains.
Although the new Iraqi regime owes its existence to the American-led international coalition forces, its leaders – including Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki himself – know they are deeply indebted to Iran.
SCIRI, for example, was formed in Tehran in 1982. Its military wing (the Badr Brigades), which now commands 20,000 armed men, was trained and staffed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. But it is the Mahdi Army, under Muqta’da A-‘Sadr, which is "the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq," according to the Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq report, issued by the U.S. Defense Department in November 2006. The Mahdi Army commands approximately 60,000 fighters, the report revealed.
The Iraqi prime minister, who is one of the top leaders of the Islamic D’awa Party, is also between a rock and a hard place. His movement was funded and trained for years by Iran and many of its members even served in the Iranian army. He also knows that Iran’s masters have considerable influence in his country, and that, while the U.S. is bound to leave sometime, Iran will always remain in the region.
"It is a very difficult relationship that he has to balance and the fact that Iran, the U.S. and Syria met in Baghdad to talk about Iraq, must come as a mighty relief to Al-Maliki," Ehteshami says.
Syria – Alawite regime at the heart of the Shi’ite Crescent
The Syrian regime is growing increasingly closer to Iran, as the two countries face similar pressures from the West. Although Syria is part of what has been termed the Shi’ite Crescent, the country is run by President Bashar Al-Asad, a member of the Alawite minority.
Although the Alawites claim to represent an extension of one the Shi’ites’ offshoots (the Twelver Shi’ism), they are considered by many as non-Muslims. They do not regard the Quran as their holy book, and worship ‘Ali as a divine entity, whose standing, according to them, far exceeds that of Prophet Muhammad.
Many geopolitical reasons stand behind the tight relations between the Syrian and Iranian regimes. In the past few months Iran has signaled its wish to further increase its relations with Syria. From scientific cooperation, to building car factories in Syria, Iran is continuously trying to increase Syria’s dependence on it.
And still, the Alawites are not Shi’ites; they are not even – depending on who you ask – proper Muslims. Their affiliation to the Shi’ite Crescent therefore derives to a large extent from geopolitical motives.
But this is not the only reason.
As religion plays a major role in the Middle East, a religious explanation also has to be provided. According to Dr. Meir Litvak of the Tel Aviv University, a religious explanation can, indeed, shed more light on the reality of the two nations’ relations.
"One of the reasons for the relationship between Iran and Syria – beyond the geopolitical elements – is the fact that the Alawites do not share with the Sunnis the same religious-ideological aversion for the Shi’ites in Iran," Litvak says.
Lebanon – a stronghold of Shi’ism
The tight relationship between Iran and Lebanon’s Shi’ites goes back 500 years. When the Persian Safawid dynasty decided to make Shi’ism the country’s established faith in 1501 AD, they imported Shi’ite clerics from Lebanon to help the new faith take root. When Ayatollah Khomeini took control over Iran in 1979, he announced he would transport the revolution to the entire world. Lebanon was a good place to start.
Unofficial estimates indicate that Lebanon has a 60% Shi’ite population; they are, however, under-represented in the parliament. In 1975, the first powerful Lebanese Shi’ite movement – Amal – was established. Amal was founded by Mousa A-‘Sadr, a charismatic Shi’ite cleric who studied in Iran during the 1950s. Nevertheless, his movement was primarily supported by Syria.
In 1982, a second Shi’ite movement – Hizbullah – was established in Lebanon. This time, it was clearly an Iranian creation.
"The Iranian influence on Hizbullah is pervasive to say the least," says Prof. Hilal Khashan of the American University in Beirut.
Hizbullah, Khashan explains, accepts the directives of the Iranian regime in an unquestionable and enthusiastic manner.
"The link between Hizbullah and the Islamic regime in Iran is organic."
The two Shi’ite movements in Lebanon – Amal first and then Hizbullah – played a significant role in the country’s 15-year-long civil war, which began in 1975. At the end of 1989, an agreement between the Lebanese religions and sects divided the political power between them. The Shi’ites, nevertheless, felt deprived. They were given the position of parliamentary speaker, but received a quota of only 20% of the parliamentary seats.
Meanwhile, Hizbullah gained more and more support among the Shi’ite community. In the year 2000 they were considered the force behind the Israeli army withdrawal from southern Lebanon. During the Second Lebanon War (July-August 2006) they fired over 10,000 Iranian-made rockets into Israel and engaged in face-to-face battles against the Israeli army.
The Iranian-backed Hizbullah popularity in Lebanon was unquestionable, especially after the summer war with Israel. Therefore, the movement decided to capitalize by making political gains from this wave of popularity. In the past four months, followers of Hizbullah, allied with Amal, have been staging demonstrations in Beirut and across the country, calling to oust the current government led by the Sunni premier Fuad Siniora.
"They argue that they are the largest sect in Lebanon and they want their participation in the system to reflect their numbers and their achievements. They want to have one third of the cabinet ministers, plus one, so that they will have a veto power," Khashan says.
According to Khashan, the Shi’ites already control the presidency through the presence of Emil Lahoud, who is pro-Syrian and pro-Hizbullah. They are also in control of the parliament, as they hold the position of parliamentary speaker.
"And now they want to control the cabinet by having a veto power," Khashan says.
Khashan is of the opinion that, although Hizbullah has Iran’s backing; a large paramilitary force under its command and a massive base of support within the weak Lebanese army, it will not attempt to overthrow the regime by force.
"I don’t think Hizbullah wants to do this right now. They want to maintain the existing institutions of the Lebanese system, but they want to control it. If we take Hizbullah’s open letter, which was published in February 1985… they made it very clear, that their ultimate objective would be the creation of an Islamic state in Lebanon, and that would certainly be a Shi’ite-Islamic state… But these people can wait. They are patient," Khashan sums up.
Iran‘s influence on Shi’ites outside the crescent
The Shi’ite population in a few concentrated areas throughout the western littoral of the Persian Gulf constitutes a large percentage of the total population, and in some cases even a majority. That is the case for example in Bahrain (where 70% of the population is Shi’ite), in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and in Kuwait.
These large Shi’ite concentrations, according to a report by the British-based Chatham House, are a source of discomfort to their uniformly Sunni regimes. The areas in which the Shi’ites reside are of great strategic and economic value as they contain huge oil reserves.
In March 2007 an Iranian dissident diplomat revealed details of the recruitment and training in Iran of citizens from the Persian Gulf states. ‘Adil Al-Asadi was an adviser to Iran’s foreign minister and was later posted to Dubai as the Iranian consul. He said that the majority of these citizens were Shi’ites.
After receiving military training in Iran, these mostly Shi’ite citizens formed dormant cells in their countries, where they now await Iranian orders, Al-Asadi told the Saudi-owned Al-‘Arabiyya online news service.
As the tension rises in the region, and as the prospects of a military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. or Israel loom, Iran looks to destabilizing America’s main bases in the region.
"These [bases] are no longer in Saudi Arabia or in Turkey, or in Israel or in even in Egypt, but are actually in the smaller states of Kuwait and Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in which countries Iran has much greater weight and influence,". Ehteshami explains.
Iran, of course, rejected Al-Asadi’s allegations as "baseless and fabricated."
Afghanistan, Pakistan…and the Palestinian Authority
Iran also has influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, its neighbors to the east. According to Ehteshami, Iran is trying to provide protection for the 30 million-strong Shi’ite population in Pakistan, where it sees the Shi’ites as being under constant threat and persecution.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai deals with a similar dilemma to Iraq’s Al-Maliki. According to Chatham House, Karzai wishes to build regional cooperation with Iran without antagonizing his American patrons. Afghanistan is concerned that alienating Iran would not only disrupt their economic relations, but also might lead to an Iranian interference in the country. The Afghans are worried that Iran would provoke its local Shi’ite minority to destabilize the regime.
Iran’s influence in the Palestinian territories adds another angle to the story, which reflects its wish to dominate the Muslim world as a whole.
Its major Palestinian protégé is Hamas, which in the 2006 elections won three quarters of the parliamentary seats. Hamas, however, represents a deviation from the usual Iranian method, as it is a Sunni movement.
"As the Shi’ite-Sunni divide widens, [Iran] wants to be seen to be supporting Sunni organizations, so as to counter the argument that there is a major divide between radical Shi’ites and radical Sunnis. It is, if you like, ‘realpolitik’ in this sense," Ehteshami explains.
A Shi’ite-Iranian-dominated empire?
Shi’ite movements across the Middle East are on the rise, no doubt with Iranian backing. But what will Iran do with the power it maintains?
"The educational system in Iran… teaches the people that Iran is basically a superpower, equal to the United States," says Dr. Eldad Pardo of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "They see the world as bi-polar: U.S. on the one hand and Iran on the other hand. They see themselves as replacing the Soviet Union."
Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is one of the most powerful politicians in Iran today. In a recent speech in Tehran, Rafsanjani attacked those who were trying to sow discord between Shi’ites and Sunnis. He then proceeded to say:
"There are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, whose countries possess approximately 60% of the world’s energy resources and strategic locations. These resources are tidings of a great power to emerge in the near future."
Is Iran about to create a regional alliance of Muslim countries under the flag of Shi’ism? According to Prof. Khashan, this aspiration is inherent in Khomeini’s doctrine.
"In the Middle East people have a tendency to think in imperial terms. For thousands of years, until 1918 when the Othman [Ottoman] Empire was dismantled, people in this region lived as part of empires. One empire would be replaced by another until the arrival of the West in 1918," says Khashan.
Khashan maintains that this is still Iran’s long-term strategic objective.
"The fate of this plan, which I believe is real, will depend on the outcome of the current standoff between the U.S. and Iran. If Iran prevails, or if Iran is able to hold its ground against the U.S., then eventually Iran will be able to achieve this objective," he says.
Khashan’s view is not however shared by Ehteshami. The latter believes that Shi’ite movements around the Middle East are not united, not even under Iran. Each movement is focused on its own immediate concerns.
"I do not think Iran is able to lead a region-wide international movement of that sort," Ehteshami explains and offers food for thought:
"Over time, the balance of power in Shi’ite theology will shift away from Qum [in Iran], to Najaf and Karbala [in Iraq]. For all the concerns that we have of Iranian domination, we can think about this differently: what would happen if Ayatollah Sistani [Iraq’s most prominent Shi’ite cleric] would begin to flex his Shi’ite muscles in ways that he has simply not done so far?"