Regional Upheavals Leave Iran’s ‘Shi’ite Crescent’ on Shaky Ground
Tehran’s attempt to carve out contiguous territorial corridor toward Mediterranean appears to be in jeopardy
Geopolitical earthquakes caused by civil unrest are risking fractures in the foundations of the “Shi’ite Crescent,” a contiguous land bridge Iran has carved out across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon by investing tens of billions of dollars of political and military capital.
With its ability to project dominance throughout the Middle East already significantly hampered by US economic sanctions, mass protests partially fueled by anger over Iranian interventionism in at least two of those countries have thrown a wrench in the Islamic Republic’s expansionism.
In Lebanon, where religion-based enmity sparked a civil war from 1975 to 1990, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets, demanding an end to the decades-long corrupt power structure that reserves the presidency for a Maronite Christian, the premiership for a Sunni Muslim and the position of parliament speaker for a Shi’ite. While the turmoil forced the resignation of prime minister Saad al-Hariri, many Sunnis are directing their ire primarily at Hizbullah, Iran’s terror proxy, which is an integral, if not the most dominant, component of the system targeted by the unrest.
While rampant cronyism and mismanagement in Beirut is perhaps the primary reason for the decimation of the economy, Hizbullah is viewed as making matters worse through its involvement in the Syrian civil war and the resulting influx of some 1 million refugees into Lebanon. These individuals have few prospects and are widely considered a further burden on inadequate civil services and a crumbling infrastructure.
Any weakening of Hizbullah’s status would, by extension, diminish Iran’s manipulation of internal Lebanese policy.
“The movement in Lebanon started over corruption, but when Iran directed Hizbullah to begin crushing the protests, the people realized that the issue is bigger,” Tom Harb, co-director of the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy, told The Media Line.
“Hizbullah could try to deflect attention away from the situation by screaming at Israel or Arab nations,” he said, before adding that growing instability has severely limited the options of Iran and its proxies.
In Baghdad, the situation is more acute – and dire. Mass protests, initially precipitated by a demand for better access to basic staples like fresh water and electricity, quickly turned violent, with the civilian death toll currently closing in on 300. Scores of those dead were reportedly killed by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an amalgamation of Shi’ite paramilitary organizations. Although some have been officially incorporated into the Iraqi army, they retain close ties to, and often act at the directive of, Iran.
Fury over Tehran’s perceived influence over the Iraqi government was manifest in this week’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Karbala, a holy city to which millions of Shi’ites make annual pilgrimages, not unlike the yearly Hajj undertaken by Sunnis to Mecca.
Perhaps not lost on the rioters is that a battle in Karbala between opposing Muslim factions in 680 AD was a major catalyst to the split between the primary, and still competing, sects of Islam. Indeed, many analysts view this ongoing Sunni-Shi’ite divide as the central factor contributing to instability in the Middle East.
“Iraq is the crown jewel of Iran’s imperialist activities – the country means everything when you consider the depth of Tehran’s penetration there,” Prof. Uzi Rabi, director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and a senior researcher at its Center for Iranian Studies, told The Media Line.
“Tehran is afraid that Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who is sort of an Iranian protégé, could be toppled,” Rabi said, “which would be viewed as a major victory for the protesters” and a huge blow to the Islamic Republic.
Rabi highlighted one element of the Iraqi demonstrations that he believes is being overlooked, noting that the classical rivalry between Sunnis and Shi’ites is being compounded by internal discord within the Shi’ite population itself.
“Some, including [Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani, [the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites], are putting pressure on the government to remove Baghdad from Tehran’s orbit,” another development that would lead to a reduction of Iranian influence, he said.
Rabi thus envisions Tehran “doubling down on its efforts, because having bargaining chips all over the Middle East is essential to the regime’s survival.” In his estimation, the mullahs will do whatever is necessary to preserve their assets by continuing to “test the waters,” which will likely result in additional flare-ups with rivals.
Syria could be a perfect test case for this hypothesis, where conflict erupted when the Sunni-majority population – backed by the likes of Saudi Arabia – revolted against the Assad regime, whose elites are mainly Alawite, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. This prompted Iran, which considers itself the vanguard of Shi’ite Islam, to provide Damascus with crucial military hardware, boots on the ground and the tactical knowhow to overcome opposition fighters.
Tehran went so far as to import to Syria tens of thousands of Shi’ite mercenaries from Central Asia and the Far East with a view not only to ensuring Assad’s ongoing rule, and thus Iran’s dominance over Syria, but also to change the country’s demographic composition.
Nevertheless, Iran’s stranglehold on Syria, a crucial hub of the “Shi’ite Crescent,” may be waning. Russia has emerged as the major power broker since intervening militarily in support of Assad in 2015. Notably, Moscow is weary of Islamic extremism after being targeted in recent years by Muslim terrorists residing in the restive Northern Caucasus.
Tehran’s grip has been further loosened by the cross-border incursion into northeastern Syria by Sunni Turkish forces, and by virtue of the American troop presence in adjacent areas. The United States is also keeping soldiers at the al-Tanf base, which is strategically located near the border-crossing with Iraq.
The American Mideast Coalition for Democracy’s Harb also noted that Tehran may have suffered a major setback in Yemen, where for half a decade, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has provided material support to Shi’ite Houthi rebels in their war against the internationally recognized government, which itself is backed by a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni states.
This week, Yemen’s government – which in 2014 was forced out of the capital Sanaa by the Houthis – signed a power-sharing agreement with the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group backed by the United Arab Emirates. The reconciliation’s ostensible aim is to halt infighting and thereby allow efforts to be redirected back toward reestablishing control over areas in northern Yemen that are still under the control of the rebels.
Then there is Israel, which over the past two years has struck hundreds of Iranian military sites in Syria, greatly impinging on the Islamic Republic’s ability to establish a permanent infrastructure and use the prevailing chaos there as cover to smuggle advanced weaponry to its Hizbullah underling.
All of this is occurring against the backdrop of heightened tensions in the Gulf.
Over the summer, Iran was accused of perpetrating numerous attacks on commercial oil tankers transiting vital waterways. In September, a two-pronged strike by cruise missiles and drones against critical Saudi oil infrastructure temporarily cut the kingdom’s output by half. Despite Iran’s denial, Riyadh, Washington and several European capitals blamed Tehran, placing a brighter spotlight on the actions of the IRGC and making it more difficult for its elite Quds Force to conduct operations abroad.
The mullahs may also come to regret downing a US drone over international airspace near the Strait of Hormuz, a move that prompted President Donald Trump to direct the Pentagon to deploy additional military personnel to the region.
Finally, Iran has significantly upped its nuclear activities since announcing that it would be decreasing its commitments to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which the US withdrew in May 2018.
Tehran has reportedly increased tenfold its daily production of low-enriched uranium, and this month unveiled new, advanced centrifuges into which it has begun to inject uranium gas. These measures almost undoubtedly will strengthen the resolve of the Islamic Republic’s adversaries to counter the mullahs’ potential dash to the bomb.
It is worth noting that some historians believe Iran’s conceptualization of nuclearization was shaped in the 1980s during its brutal war with Iraq, which claimed the lives of some one million people on both sides. The Ayatollahs’ inability to vanquish Saddam Hussein – a Sunni ruling over a majority Shi’ite country and possessing non-conventional weapons – may have convinced them that achieving a nuclear capability would be a prerequisite to actualizing the goal of the 1979 revolution, which is to export and impose their radical interpretation of Islam throughout the Middle East and beyond.
While a confluence of factors has created shock waves in virtually every point along the territorial route stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean, Iranian leaders nevertheless remain strategically adept, committed to their ideology and, perhaps most significantly, willing to employ ruthless and destructive measures – including against restive segments of their own population – in order to realize their ambitions.
This has caused actors in the Sunni Muslim world to begin pushing back more strongly against this potentiality. But given their military limitations, how ironic it would be if “Big Satan” – the predominantly Christian United States – and “Little Satan” – the predominantly Jewish state – were ultimately responsible for inflicting the coup de grace that ended the Iranian regime’s dream of establishing a Shi’ite caliphate.