Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realitie

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Copyright © 2008 by the Brown Journal of World Affairs
Kayuax Baizicai is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Science and Research Campus,
Islamic Azad University, Tehran. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government,
Harvard University. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research (CSR) and a Senior
Research Fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, Tehran. Dr. Barzegar was a Post-doctorate
Research Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2002-2003.
Iran and The Shiite Crescent:
Myths and Realities
Kayuax Baizicai
Assistant Professor
Islamic Azad University
Ix :ooa, Kixc Anouiiau oi Jordan warned about the emergence of an ideological
Shiite crescent from Beirut to the Persian Gulf. Ever since then, the debate on Iran’s
intentions to create a Shiite crescent has been a significant topic of debate for the
panels and conferences held on the region’s issues. Tree presumptions center on Iran’s
role and intentions. A Shiite crescent is seen by the Arab Sunni elites as an attempt by
Iran firstly to engage the masses in the region
1
; secondly, to build an ideological belt of
sympathetic Shiite governments and political factions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the
Persian Gulf region
2
; and, thirdly, to expand its regional role and power.
3
Tese explana-
tions are inadequate and unrealistic; none of them are compatible with Iran’s real aims
and strategies. In this article, I aim to analyze this issue from an Iranian perspective.
Is Iran trying to engage the Arab Shiite masses? Is Iran attempting to expand its
regional influence by building an ideological Shiite crescent? What are Iran’s aims in
establishing friendly relations with the Shiite factions in the region?
With the new political developments in post-invasion Iraq, one should not dis-
pute that there is an ongoing conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis in the region.
Yet my argument is that this rivalry is a pure inter–Arab world power-sharing conflict
rather than an ideological Iranian-Arab rivalry. To examine this idea, I argue firstly that,
given Iran’s political dynamics and the existing cultural-societal and historical distinc-
tions between the Persian and Arab masses, the realization of an ideology-dominated
Shiite crescent, is rather difficult, if not impossible. I then argue that Iran’s attempt to
create a coalition of Shiite friendly governments is based on a strategic rationale and is
pragmatic and not ideological. Iran’s regional policies have always been affected by its
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geopolitical reality first and its ideology second. Lastly, I argue that Iran’s presence in
the region is a result of the need to make an alliance with friendly Shiite governments
in response to security threats caused after the arrival of U.S. troops in the region. It is
therefore defensive, not expansionist.
Tese arguments have significant implications for foreign policymakers to un-
derstand the roots of Iran’s recent involvement with the Shiite issues in the region.
Exaggerating the emergence of an ideological Shiite crescent should be avoided, because
it will bring about unnecessary new rivalries and promote further distrust and threat
perceptions in an already complex region.
THE SHIITE CRESCENT: WHY A THREAT?
Two groups of political and intellectual elites highlight the debates of an emerging
threat of a regional Shiite crescent: (1) the Arab Sunni elites and (2) opponents of Iran’s
growing regional role in the West, especially in the United States.
Te debate about the Sunni elites has three dimensions: (1) their own diminished
power, (2) concerns about the growing political demands of their Shiite populations,
and (3) Iran’s expanding role in “Arab” affairs. Firstly, from the perspective of the Arab
Sunni elites, the revival of Shiites in Iraq has unbalanced the bases of power and politics
in the Middle East. Tis situation will consequently lead to a new dynamic where the
Sunni elites’ political positions in the regions’ power division are off balance. Although
the majority of Shiites have been a driving force for political-social movements and
reform in Iraq and Bahrain, it was only recently that the Shiite factions found grounds
to assert themselves in their politics. Te rise to power of Shiites in an Arab state for
the first time has made the Sunni governing elites extremely concerned not only by the
demands of their Shiite populations (whether majority or minority) to acquire further
socio-political rights, but also by a process that could eventually lead to the removal of
the current Sunni elites from power in the so-called Shiite crescent areas.
Secondly, since such a revival is based on engaging the Shiite masses, it is ideologi-
cal. As a significant force, the sentiments of the Arab street and especially the increased
political-economic and social demands of the Shiite masses have always mattered for the
Sunni governing elites in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Lebanon.
In the course of history, the Shiite movements have been a driving force for Sunni
populations in demanding more political reform, and human rights in the region. Since
the early 1990s, the increased political reform and women’s rights in Bahrain and Ku-
wait have affected the entire Persian Gulf region. Terefore, any attempt to politically
mobilize the Arab masses (whether Shiites or Sunnis) and its subsequent effects have
been a matter of great concern for the Sunni elites, particularly when it relates to Iran’s
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attempts to take on a larger role in the region. As once discussed by Hosni Mobarak:
“Te Shiites in the region are more loyal to Iran than their own countries,”
4
which
substantiates just how much the Arab elites are concerned by the Iranian Shiite influ-
ence upon the average people in their countries. Te popularity of Hassan Nasrollah
of Lebanese Hezbollah and President Ahmadinejad of Iran, two Shiite leaders, in the
Arab streets is of great concern for the Arab Sunni elites.
5
Lastly, and perhaps most worringly, is that the driving force of this revival is Iran
itself. Either as a justification for some of the Arab regimes’ policies—such as embrac-
ing foreign troops in the region
6
—or a fear tactic to cement Washington’s political and
financial support for their regimes,
7

or even as a matter of bringing inter-
elite solidarity, the assertions to the
world about an Iranian threat have
long been present within the Sunni
Arab regimes. By naming himself an
Arab world hero and the guardian of
the Arab world’s eastern gate, Saddam Hussein justified his war with Iran by claiming
that it would block the Persian-Shiite influence. Subsequently, he gained the Arab Sunni
elites’ comprehensive political and financial support.
As one of the most unnecessary wars in the history of the Middle East, the
Iran–Iraq war occurred because of the rhetorical exaggerations of Iran’s traditional
threat perceptions in the Sunni Arab world. As Saud al-Feisal of Saudi Arabia states,
“All Arab countries assisted Iraq to not be occupied by Iran (in the Iran–Iraq war), but
now we are handing the whole country of Iraq over to Iran without reason.”
8
Despite
accepting today that past support for Iraq’s Ba’athist regime was a wrong and devas-
tating policy, as of now, no one within the Arab Sunni leadership has ever formally
apologized for that support. Today, the inappropriate depiction of Iran’s regional aims
as attempting to establish a “new Safavid Empire” has roots in this kind analogy of
Iran’s regional ambitions.
9
Traditionally, the regional and particularly Persian Gulf politics have always
been outweighed by a desire to maintain a balance of power between the region’s main
actors. For many years, Iran and Iraq balanced each other’s power, thereby allowing
other states of the region to feel more secure. With the current Iraqi crisis, the Arab
Sunni autocrats feel frightened of an Iran that is clearly fulfilling the regional power
vacuum. Tey believe Iran’s main forces for projecting its hegemonic interests in the
region are its Arab Shiite friends, especially in Iraq. As one expert asserts, “From the
Arab world’s standpoint, the prospect of Tehran dictating security and oil policy, and
most worrisome, intervening on behalf of local Shiite populations, has Sunni rulers
across the region pressing Washington to confront Iran.”
10

As one of the most unnecessary wars in the
history of the Middle East, the Iran–Iraq
war occurred because of the rhetorical
exaggerations of Iran’s traditional threat
perceptions in the Sunni Arab world.
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IRAN’S RISE TO REGIONAL POWER
Te prevailing view in the United States is that Iran is the winner of the 2003 war in
Iraq.
11
Some hawkish analysts argue that the evolution of Iran’s regional role goes against
U.S. interests and must somehow be restrained.
12
Tis debate has also three dimen-
sions: (1) U.S. national interests, (2) the security of Israel, and (3) the legitimacy of
the traditional Arab allies. Firstly, views in the United States tend to perceive that any
empowerment of Iran’s role in the region is in conflict with U.S. national and security
interests.
13
Presenting Iran as a regional or even super-regional power was first over-
stressed in the West to show that Iran, with its opportunistic ambitions, would try to
fill the power vacuum in post-invasion Iraq. From this perspective, since a half century
ago, U.S. policy in the Middle East
and especially in the Persian Gulf
has been to maintain a balance
of power while preventing any
regional supremacy.
14
Under the
new regional circumstances, and by establishing a Shiite crescent, Iran will be able to
expand its regional power and influence. And if this new dynamic were to exist, Iran
would be able to dictate its own terms and conditions to the international community
and especially to the United States on such crucial issues as international energy security,
oil prices, and even with respect to Iran’s policy on its nuclear program.
15
In addition,
Iran’s continued involvement with Arab world politics, as was the case in Lebanon and
the Hezbollah–Israel war in summer 2006, has been a source of continuing tension and
itself conveys a great impending danger for regional and international security.
16

Secondly, creating such an ideologically based crescent in a region comprised of
Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq will endanger the security of Israel. Protecting Israel’s security
is one of the most significant pillars of U.S. Middle East policy.
17
Since it has already
suffered from an ideological war with Hezbollah, the Israeli regime is currently con-
cerned about the lasting effects of the Iraq war, arguing that the war has so far beneffit-
ted Iran. Some experts even argue that the Israel lobby has attempted to convince the
Bush administration to stay longer in Iraq, since any possible power vacuum during the
post-withdrawal window will inevitably be filled by Shiite political factions sympathetic
to Iran and starkly against Israel.
18
Tirdly, Iran’s growing ideological role and influence
in the region will weaken the position of the conservative Sunni elites, who have been
traditionally in line with U.S. policies in the region. At several stages, these elites have
welcomed U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf wars. Especially now, with anti-American
sentiments growing among the masses, the political legitimacy of these elites will be
questioned more and more as they have previously agreed to the U.S. presence in the
Under the new regional circumstances, and by
establishing a Shiite crescent, Iran will be able
to expand its regional power and influence.
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region.
19
Tis position has also been a major pretext for terrorist groups targeting the
Saudi and Jordanian governments in recent years.
20
IRAN AND THE SHIITE CRESCENT
Given the points outlined, crucial questions that remain include whether Iran is trying
to build such a Shiite crescent at the level of the masses, whether it is attempting to
expand its regional power by establishing such an ideological belt, and whether there
are other more strategic reasons behind Iran’s policies.
A COALITION AT THE LEVEL OF THE MASSES OR THE STATES?
Te idea of an emerging Shiite crescent, at the level of masses, can be challenged in
two aspects. First, one must question whether such an ideological-religious coalition
is actually feasible in the mentioned areas. Experts on Middle East issues tend to
agree that it is the factor of national identity rather than religion or ideology which
acts as a force of unity and solidarity in the region.
21
Today, Middle Eastern issues are
mostly centered along the lines of the cultural, political and geopolitical demands of
identity—e.g., the Persians, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, et cetera—and these have basically
become consolidated due to their common language, territorial proximity, and his-
torical origins. Accordingly, the Iraqi Shiites, Lebanese, and Syrians are first Arabs and
only then Shiites. Moreover, the Iranian Shiites are first and foremost Persians. It was
for this reason that Iraqi Shiites actively joined the Ba’athist regime’s war against Iran,
seeing it as their national duty.
22
Even today, despite Iran’s support, members of the Iraqi Shiite leadership, from
the far extremists to the more moderate and independent sides, have their own views
about how Iraq should be governed. Although there is a religious and cultural issue
posed by mutual travel to Karbala and Najaf, as well as to Mashad and Qom—which
matters considerably for both the Iranians and the Iraqis respectively—there is a larger
picture. Te people, given their cultural-societal and historical backgrounds, will find
it hard to build a coalition between Iranians or elites with any other Arab nation. Tis
feeling of cultural distinction and unique identity exists on the Arab sides, mostly be-
cause of the long absence of interaction at the level of people as well as the misinformed
policy of the Sunni governing elites and outside powers which today define Iran as the
region’s major threat.
Te genuine prospect of establishing a Shiite ideological coalition is yet to be
institutionalized in Iranian or Arab societies and therefore has little weight in regulat-
ing Iran’s foreign policy. Terefore, although ideology does form a significant part of
the Islamic republic’s world-view, there exist a number of facts that demonstrate Iran’s
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actions are motivated primarily by pragmatic considerations. Te governing elites
in Iran perceive the Shiite-Sunni issue in the broader context of the Islamic world.
To avoid any tension, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution,
announced the “Week of Unity” in the Iranian calendar. Since the revolution, other
Iranian officials have followed this line of thinking. For instance, in his recent trip to
Saudi Arabia (June 2008), Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, ex-president and the head
of Iran’s Expediency Council, expressed the necessity of keeping unity between Shiites
and Sunnis in the region.
23
Te issue of Iranian Shiite influence in the region is more centered on Iran’s actual
engagement with the affairs of neighboring Arab countries. Iran’s policy in this regard
has been quite clear. Like any other major revolutions that were at the start influenced
by revolutionary excitements and then shifted to pragmatism, Iran, except for a few
years in the early 1980s and immediately after the Islamic revolution, has always fol-
lowed a pragmatic policy towards its neighboring Arab states. In this context, how-
ever, there are other Iranian viewpoints which tend to agree that, given the two sides’
distinctive regional aims and security concerns, too much engagement with the Arab
world’s politics works neither to the benefit of the country’s national interests nor, as
history shows, to the appreciation of the Arab Sunni elites.
24
Terefore, the perspec-
tive among analysts in Iran seldom pushes for the creation of such a Shiite crescent
at the level of the masses due to its incompatibility with Iran’s substantive power and
politics. It is thus very “Non-Iranian” to even discuss the possibilities of establishing
an Iranian Shiite crescent.
Secondly, since the end of the Iran–Iraq war and especially since the early 1990s,
the Islamic republic has made a strategic decision to pursue balanced relations with
its Arab neighbors in order to preserve Iran’s national interests.
25
Although Iran made
several efforts toward détente and confidence-building policies, the region’s political
developments, i.e. the first Persian Gulf in 1990 and subsequently the foreign presence
in the region, never allowed Iran to fully develop or act on this policy. Yet again, there
is evidence that the Iranian government believes that building trust and advancing
relations at the regional level requires establishing cordial relations with Arab govern-
ments.
26
Tis necessity is especially important given that the elites in the Arab world
form their countries’ foreign policies and relations. Iran’s first attempt to establish close
relations with the masses immediately after the 1979 Islamic revolution was rather
unsuccessful and resulted in tensions, especially with Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Given
its geopolitical, cultural-societal, and political-economic characteristics, Iran has more
or less attempted to establish good relationships with the Arab world.
27
By implying an
“accommodating foreign policy” which endeavors to establish good and close relations
with the main actors of the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Iran enhances its
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regional status and political-security integration in the region. Geopolitical and politi-
cal security realities in the region will force Iran to continue this policy in the future.
IDEOLOGICAL OR PRAGMATIC?
Is the Shiite ideological force the main stimulus for an emerging Shiite coalition? Te
creation of such an alliance based on ideological orientation is unrealistic, since it is
incompatible with the geopolitical nature and current demands of the governments in
such a coalition. As reflected in Iran–Syria relations, experts tend to agree that such an
alliance depends more on the two sides’ common strategic threat perceptions, as posed
by the United States and Israel in this case, rather than the Shiite origins of their ruling
elites.
28
Although Shiite culture has not significantly influenced the closeness of the two
governments, the combined hostility of the supposedly secular leadership of the Sunni
Arab countries has reinforced their
religious bonds. In fact, relying
on each other to tackle threats in
crucial moments has mattered for
both sects, especially in a region in
which they feel alone and encircled
by enemies. In addition, Iran will not forget the vital Syrian support it received during
its war with Iraq. Syria also considers Iran a source of political and logistical support
and a friend at crucial moments. By contrast, in the case of Iraq, ideology has never
been a force to bring the two sides’ policies together. Syria and Iran support rival Sunni
and Shiite political factions, respectively. Te ideological factor never acted to create
a Shiite crescent in this manner. Although partly an exception, the Iran–Hezbollah
relationship shows a more strategically oriented alliance for tackling the same enemy’s
military security threats and as a means of outweighing their rivals regionally and in-
ternationally. Ideological forces do, of course, act as a stimulus in connecting people
morally and in winning hearts and minds, as well as in obtaining their occasional
mutual political support.
In Iran–Iraq relations, because of long historical, cultural and religious con-
nectedness, Iran will support Shiite-dominated governments in Iraq. Te vital interest
for Iran, though, is to block the emergence of an unfriendly Iranian regime (no mat-
ter Shiite or Sunni) in Baghdad, rather than supporting a Shiite government of any
kind, such as Iyad Allawi (a secular faction), which might itself be merely a regional
rival some time in the future. Tis sensitivity is due to both the existence of past war
and the historical threat perception that exists among the Iranian statecrafts. In this
respect, Iraq should be watched carefully, as it has the potential to pose a new kind of
Ideological forces do, of course, act as a
stimulus in connecting people morally and in
winning hearts and minds, as well as in obtain-
ing their occasional mutual political support.
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military extremism and threat to Iran. Iran’s current support for the Al-Maliki Shiite
government emanates from the sense that such a government could never in essence
be unfriendly toward Iran in the future. If otherwise, then Iran’s policy would under-
standably change quite quickly.
In addition, being encircled in a Sunni neighborhood, having less sympathetic
neighboring states, and for balancing its domestic politics and regional relations, a Shiite
government in Iraq would inevitably seek Iran’s political support. Terefore, ideology is
only one factor among many that unifies Iran and the Iraqi Shiite government. In the
same vein, Iran welcomed the Afghan Karzai government, despite its Sunni base and
strong American support, because a nationalistic Afghan government—given the two
sides’ strong historical-cultural connectedness—could not in its nature be unfriendly
toward Iran.
Since the last two to three centuries, the presence of unfriendly foreign powers
(Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Britain) and regimes in the region has been costly
and a source of great tension, war, and instability across Iran’s national boundaries.
29

Te Ba’athists and Taliban regimes are only two notable examples in recent time. A
sense of insecurity from the unstable neighborhood is today a part of Iran’s political
culture. As a strategic standpoint, therefore, it is understandable that the Iranian elites
would and should work hard to support a new generation of friendly political elites,
factions, and governments in their own backyard. Tis policy will prevent Iran from
facing similar sources of instability and hostility in the future, such as those imposed
by countries with either anti-Iranian policies or who let their soil be used by foreign
troops that pose a military threat.
AN EXPANDING REGIONAL ROLE OR TACKLING SECURITY THREATS?
Te most controversial part of the debate over the supposed Shiite crescent centers on
Iran’s expansionist policy to make best use of the new situation in post-invasion Iraq
for empowering its regional role. I argue instead that Iran’s desire for an active presence
in the region’s politics is mostly defensive and is aimed at tackling security threats. As
discussed earlier, the presentation of Iran as a spoiler regional power as a result of the Iraq
crisis was first spread by Western analysts and later welcomed by the Sunni elites. Tis
image depicted Iran as the new ideological threat to the region and even the world.
Tese kinds of drawings have simultaneously brought about new constraints for
Iran at both the regional and international levels. Iran is a regional power politically
and militarialy and a developing country economically, from both the sense of growth
and progress. It is currently attempting to find a more genuine and balanced position
in the region as well as in its relations with the international community. Showing Iran’s
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attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, advancing military strength and missile capability,
and holding the current assumption of “Iran rising to power” only asserts Iran’s destruc-
tive role in the region.
30
One should instead argue that Iran’s sources of power are more
based on its geo-strategic position, size and energy sources, skilled population and big
middle class, and vast economic potentials, rather than its military forces, which are
only one factor among others. Activating Iran’s potential power bases requires a decisive
and positive engagement in the region, both for securing its immediate security circle
and creating economic opportunities for its progressing economy.
Iran’s regional policies have always been affected by two significant elements:
geopolitical reality and ideology. Tese elements have led consistently to Iran’s either
pragmatic or ideological foreign policy orientations in the region. As one renowned
expert of Iran’s foreign policy argues, over the course of past history, these two factors
have struggled hard to balance each other.
31
Although there is no doubt they are sub-
stantively different and both remain constant to some degree in Iran’s foreign policy,
the geopolitical factor will continue to regulate Iran’s relations with the other regional
states. Since the last century, the most prominent duties of the Iranian political elites
have been to tackle security threats and promote Iran’s pace of economic and political
development. Iran’s Strategic 20-Year Plan (2005-2025) asserts that: “Iran is a developed
country ranking the first in the region economically, scientifically, and technologi-
cally.”
32
Today, the common perspective among the Iranian elites is that achieving this
ambitious plan requires a stabilized and peaceful periphery on the one hand and the
creation of economic opportunities in the region on the other. No rationale as strong
as this could justify Iran’s presence in the region.
From a strategic point of view, Iran’s delicate geopolitics, substances of power, and
political-cultural dynamics are such that it is forced to be present in the region. Iran’s
geopolitics brings both opportunities and challenges. Given the fluctuating political
situation of its immediate borders in the Persian Gulf region, particularly with Iraq
and Afghanistan, Iran has to be pragmatic in its regional policies. Meanwhile, given the
nature of threats that emanate from the region such as the spread of civil war, ethnic-re-
ligious rivalries, population displacement,
a power vacuum, refugee issues, al-Qaeda
terrorist activities, and narcotics traffick-
ing and kidnapping, Iran has to develop
good relations with neighboring states to ensure stability within the region.
In order to preserve its national interests, any Iranian government will inevitably
be against a neighboring foreign presence or occupying power, both of which would
be a source of tension and an impediment to Iran’s economic growth. In this respect,
intense U.S. presence in Iraq since 2003, as well as the Bush administration’s attempt
Iran’s desire for an active presence in the
region’s politics is mostly defensive and
is aimed at tackling security threats.
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to establish military bases in Iraq, have provided further pretext for violent groups
such as al-Qaeda, Sunni extremists, and Ba’athists to seek political tension, sectarian
violence, and civil war which will spur Iraqi instability and raise the spectre of desta-
bilizing Iran and the entire region. Te Bush administration’s policy in Iraq has also
worked to deny Iran’s economic and trade activities in Iraq. In another instance, the
arrest of an Iranian official by U.S. troops in the Kurdistan area in 2007 cut the trade
activities at the provincial level between Iran and the Kurdistan Regional Government
(KRG) for some time.
With this strategic rationale, Iran has asked foreign troops to gradually leave Iraq
and the Persian Gulf region. In order to effectively counter the threats to the country
posed by spreading instability in the region and in order to secure Iran’s national inter-
ests and security, the Iranian elites argue that there should be a reasonable and positive
Iranian presence in the region’s politics. For instance, by supporting the Shiite politi-
cal factions in Iraq that are friendlier today towards Iran, Iran has attempted to coax
Iraq into fulfilling the role of a strategic partner in the region. Viewed in this context,
establishing bilateral and mutual economic, cultural, and political-security agreements
with Iraq will lead the region toward greater stability and mutual cooperation.
33
Yet,
the controversial issue in Iran’s foreign policy is to what extent should Iran be engaged
in the region’s politics. Some analyses tend to perceive that engaging too much in the
region’s politics has even been costly for Iran’s vulnerable geopolitical situation and
should therefore be avoided.
34

Similarly, Iran’s size and great economic potential can best fill the regional mar-
kets’ demand, thereby creating economic opportunities for Iranian trade companies
and young industries. Being situated at the crossroads of the world’s main energy
consumption, production, and transferring routes, Iran has attempted to connect its
economic potential with the region and world economy. Te transit of energy sources;
the geopolitics of pipelines and other sources of energy transfer; and the fulfillment of
economic demands of regional markets, namely in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the
Persian Gulf are all significant parts of Iran’s presence in the region. Having a greater
regional role requires establishing close political-strategic relationships with the neigh-
boring governments. Te political reality, considered from this perspective, shows that
any attempts by the Iranian government to secure its immediate neighborhood is based
on this strategic rationale.
CONCLUSION
Te debate about the emergence of a Shiite crescent has three dimensions: (1) it is an
attempt by Iran to mobilize the masses, (2) it is an attempt by Iran to build an ideo-
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logical belt of friendly Shiite governments, and (3) it is an attempt by Iran to expand
its regional power.
However, because of the cultural-societal and political distinctions, the creation of
a Shiite coalition based on the Persian and Arab masses is rather difficult. Te revival of
the Shiite ideology in Iraq is the natural consequence of the country’s political-societal
realities following recent political developments. In addition, it is a manifestation of
the Shiite factions’ struggle to establish a new political order in Iraq’s power division,
in which they hope to strengthen their positions in an era of power transference; it
would therefore be present in the region’s politics in the future. Consequently, given
the political-cultural connection, Iran will naturally have more political-economic
weight among the Iraqi Shiites.
Te ongoing Shiite-Sunni rivalry in the region is a pure inter-Arab world power-
sharing conflict, rather than an ideological Iranian-Arab rivalry. Iran’s presence in the
region is more pragmatic rather than ideological. Iran’s regional policies have always
been affected by two significant elements, namely its geopolitical reality and its ideol-
ogy. Geopolitical considerations will dictate Iran’s foreign policy and regional strategy.
Using ideology as an effective factor in foreign policy conduct in the region would cause
excessive tension in Iran’s relations with the neighboring Arab countries as well as with
the international community, particularly the United States—contradicting Iran’s path
of advancement, which needs integration with the regional and world economy.
Finally, Iran’s aims are more defensive and pragmatic than expansionist. It is not
attempting to become the only regional power through empowering the friendly Shiite
factions in the region. Iran’s aims are primarily oriented at building a secure environ-
ment at its immediate borders on the one hand and creating economic opportunities
for strategic purposes on the other. As a major nation-state, Iran has strategic state-
matters interests in the region. While the mainstream debate on the Shiite crescent
points to Iran’s destructive projection of power in the region, my arguments suggest
instead that the creation of a Shiite crescent is by nature a non-Iranian concept that
is also incompatible with the region’s power structure and politics. Exaggerating the
emergence of an ideological Shiite crescent of violence and destruction should therefore
be avoided, since it has the potential to obfuscate attempts to make sound policy in a
complex region.
NOTES
1. I refer to remarks expressed by Hosni Mobark, which caused anxiety among Shiite communities in
the Arab world and Iran, Baztab, 21 Farvardin 1385, 10 April 2006, www.baztab.ir (in Persian).
2. Robin Wright and Peter Baker, “Iraq, Jordan See Treat to Election From Iran: Leaders Warn Against
Forming Religious State,” e Washington Post, 8 December 2004.
3. Saud al-Feisal voiced Saudi Arabia’s concern about Iran’s increased role in post-invasion Iraq as
A
W
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unbalancing the traditional power structure in the region. Edward Gnehem,” Iraq: A View from the
Neighborhood,” 23 February 2006, http://www.gwu.edu/elliott/news/transcript/shapiro5.html.
4. Baztab. 21 Farvardin 1385, 10 April 2006, www.baztab.ir (in Persian).
5. In a recent survey, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, increased his popularity as the most admired
leader in the Arab world (26%). Shilbly Telhami, 2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll, March 2008,
Brookings Institute, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/events/2008; “Seeing Iran Trough an
American Prism,” Brookings Institute, May 14, 2008.
6. Stephan Zunes, “US Policy toward Political Islam,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 12 September 2001,
available at: http://www.alternet.org/story/11479.
7. Fouad Ajami in Fouad Ajami, Vali R. Nasr, and Richard N. Haass, “Te Emerging Shia Crescent
Symposium: Implications for the Middle East and U.S. Policy” (panel meeting, Council on Foreign
Relations, New York, 5 June 2006), http://www.cfr.org/publication/10866/emerging_shia_crescent_sym-
posium.html.
8. For an analysis on Saud al Feisal’s remarks, see Edward Gnehm, “Iraq: A View from the Neighbor-
hood” (lecture, George Washington University, Washington, DC, 23 February 2006), http://www.gwu.
edu/~elliott/news/transcripts/shapiro5.html.
9. Tis analogy has been increasingly expressed by American officials and the Sunni Arab elites. See one
analysis by Robert Dreyfuss, “Te Shia Fellas,” e American Prospect, 20 May 2007, http://www.prospect.
org/cs/articles?article=the_shia_fellas.
10. Vali Nasr, “Behind the Rise of the Shiites,” Time.com, 19 December 2006, http://www.belfercenter.
org.
11. See Zalmay Khalilzad’s recent remarks at Columbia University. See “Iran Should be Tankful to
U.S.” Febraury 2, 2008, http://www.panarmenian.net/news/eng/?nid=24729.
12. See Norman Podhoretz, “ Te Case for Bombing Iran,” June 2007; and “Stopping Iran: Why the
Case for Military Action Still Stands,” February 2008, http://www.commentarymagazine.com.
13. Tis school of thought is the official line of the Neo-Conservatives in the Bush Administration.
Dick Cheney, Vice President and John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations are
the two most significant figures in this line. American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Te American Israel
Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are the two main institutes for picturing Iran in this way; see Michael
Rubin, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq” (lecture, University of Haifa, Israel, 13 March 2007), http://www.aei.
org/publications/pubID.26500/pub_detail.asp.
14. See, for instance, Henry A. Kissinger, “Te Next Steps with Iran,” e Washington Post, 31 July
2006; Henry A. Kissinger, “ A Nuclear Test for Diplomacy,” e Washington Post, 16 May 2006; Zbigniew
Brzezinski, “Been Tere, Done Tat,” e Los Angeles Times, 23 April 2006; Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Do
not Attack Iran,” e International Herald Tribune, 26 April 2006.
15. Nasr, “Rise of the Shiites.” Note 10.
16. See Efraim Inbar, “How Israel Bungled the Second Lebanon War,” Middle East Quarterly 14, no. 3
(Summer 2007); Ibrahim Nawar, “ Iran’s Expanding Influence,” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 22–28 November
2007, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/872/focus.htm.
17. John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “Te War over Israel’s Influence,” Foreign Policy, July–Au-
gust 2006.
18. Referring to the recently published book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, e Israel
Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
19. Kayhan Barzegar, “Te Middle East and the New Terrorism,” Journal on Science and World Affairs
1 (Summer 2005): 115-117.
20. See Abu-Massab Zarqawi’s statement in http://www.Elaph.com/Elaphweb/Politics/2005/7/77159.
html; “Excerpts: ‘Al-Qaeda tape’ threatens attacks,” BBC News, 6 April 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/
hi/middle_east/3605593.stm.
21. Mahmood Sariolghalam, “Te Shia Revival: A Treat or An Opportunity,” Journal of International
Affairs 60, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2007): 205; F. Gregory Gause in Ajami, Nasr, and Haass, “Te Emerg-
ing Shia Crescent Symposium.”
22. Graham Fuller, e Center of the Universe: e Geopolitics of Iran (New York: Westview Press,
Barzegar.indd 98 10/31/08 8:28:14 PM
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Faii/Wixrii :oo8 • voiuxi xv, issui 1
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1991).
23. Iran Strives for Muslims Unity: Rafsanjani,” June 8, 2008, IRNA, http://www2.irna.com
24. Ahmad Naghibzadeh, “Rectification of Iran’s Foreign Policy Shortcomings during Khatami’s Presi-
dency,” Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly 3, no.3 (Winter 2002): 85-100.
25. Since the early 1990s Iran’s formal foreign policy orientation towards the Arab world and especially
in the Persian Gulf region as expressed by high-ranking Iranian officials has been based on détente and
confidence-building. For further information on this issue, see Kayhan Barzegar, “Détente in Khatami’s
Foreign Policy and its Impact on Improvement of Iran-Saudi relations,” Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly
2, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 163-164.
26. Ibid.
27. See Rouhollah K. Ramazani, Iran’s Foreign Policy 1941-1973: A Study of Foreign Policy in Modern-
izing Nations, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975).
28. Esther Pan, “Syria, Iran, and the Middle East Conflict,” CFR.org, 18 July 2006, http://www.cfr.
org/publication/11122; Mona Yacoubian, “Syria’s Alliance with Iran,” USIP.org, May 2007, http://www.
usip.org/pubs/usipeace_briefings/2007/0531_syria_iran.html.
29. A historical example in this regard is the way the Soviets used Azerbaijan’s territory to pressure
Iran through establishing the Gillan Socialist Movement (Gillan is a northern province in Iran). Another
example is the invasion of Iran by the Allied Forces during World War II. Te imposition of the eight-
year Iran–Iraq war was also perceived by the Iranian government as a plot by great powers supporting the
Ba’athist regime to outweigh the Islamic revolution and Iran’s regional role. Today a major concern among
the Iranians is the United States’ use of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to attack Iran.
30. See “Vice President’s Remarks to the Washington institute for Near East Policy,” speech, Lansdowne,
VA, 21 October 2007, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/10/20071021.html.
31. Rouhollah K. Ramazani, “Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran’s Foreign Policy,” Middle East Journal,
58, no. 4 (Fall 2004): 550; see also David Menashri, “Iran’s Regional Policy: Between Radicalism and
pragmatism,” Journal of International Affairs 60, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2007).
32. Te 20-Year Strategic Plan was ratified by Iran’s Expediency Council. Te Persian version of this
document is available at the website of Iran’s Majlis Research Center at http//law.majlis.ir
33. Assertions on enhancing bilateral and mutual economic and political-security cooperation have always
been initiated by Iran’s officials: see for instance president’s Ahmadinejad’s 12-Article Initiative presented
in the recent GCC summit in Qatar at: www.rajanews.com; see also the 10-Article Plan presented by
Hassan Rohani, former secretary of Iran’s National Security Council at: www.csr.ir
34. Naghibzadeh, “Iran’s Foreign Policy Shortcomings.”
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indd 88 10/31/08 8:28:10 PM . because it will bring about unnecessary new rivalries and promote further distrust and threat perceptions in an already complex region. (2) concerns about the growing political demands of their Shiite populations. erefore. It is therefore defensive. I argue that Iran’s presence in the region is a result of the need to make an alliance with friendly Shiite governments in response to security threats caused after the arrival of U. e debate about the Sunni elites has three dimensions: (1) their own diminished power. Egypt.S. not expansionist. troops in the region. since such a revival is based on engaging the Shiite masses. especially in the United States. ese arguments have significant implications for foreign policymakers to understand the roots of Iran’s recent involvement with the Shiite issues in the region. it is ideological. it was only recently that the Shiite factions found grounds to assert themselves in their politics. Exaggerating the emergence of an ideological Shiite crescent should be avoided. and human rights in the region. Lastly. the revival of Shiites in Iraq has unbalanced the bases of power and politics in the Middle East. Although the majority of Shiites have been a driving force for political-social movements and reform in Iraq and Bahrain. the sentiments of the Arab street and especially the increased political-economic and social demands of the Shiite masses have always mattered for the Sunni governing elites in Saudi Arabia. the increased political reform and women’s rights in Bahrain and Kuwait have affected the entire Persian Gulf region. any attempt to politically mobilize the Arab masses (whether Shiites or Sunnis) and its subsequent effects have been a matter of great concern for the Sunni elites. Firstly. and (3) Iran’s expanding role in “Arab” affairs. THE SHIITE CRESCENT: WHY A THREAT? Two groups of political and intellectual elites highlight the debates of an emerging threat of a regional Shiite crescent: (1) the Arab Sunni elites and (2) opponents of Iran’s growing regional role in the West. is situation will consequently lead to a new dynamic where the Sunni elites’ political positions in the regions’ power division are off balance. In the course of history.K B geopolitical reality first and its ideology second. the Shiite movements have been a driving force for Sunni populations in demanding more political reform. from the perspective of the Arab Sunni elites. Bahrain. As a significant force. particularly when it relates to Iran’s 88       Barzegar. Jordan. but also by a process that could eventually lead to the removal of the current Sunni elites from power in the so-called Shiite crescent areas. and Lebanon. Secondly. Since the early 1990s. e rise to power of Shiites in an Arab state for the first time has made the Sunni governing elites extremely concerned not only by the demands of their Shiite populations (whether majority or minority) to acquire further socio-political rights. Kuwait.

”10 89 F/W •  .indd 89 10/31/08 8:28:11 PM . the prospect of Tehran dictating security and oil policy. the assertions to the world about an Iranian threat have war occurred because of the rhetorical long been present within the Sunni exaggerations of Iran’s traditional threat Arab regimes. By naming himself an Arab world hero and the guardian of perceptions in the Sunni Arab world. and perhaps most worringly. Subsequently. is that the driving force of this revival is Iran itself.”4 which substantiates just how much the Arab elites are concerned by the Iranian Shiite influence upon the average people in their countries.”8 Despite accepting today that past support for Iraq’s Ba’athist regime was a wrong and devastating policy.5 Lastly. As Saud al-Feisal of Saudi Arabia states. the Arab world’s eastern gate. he gained the Arab Sunni elites’ comprehensive political and financial support. in the Arab streets is of great concern for the Arab Sunni elites. especially in Iraq. two Shiite leaders. “All Arab countries assisted Iraq to not be occupied by Iran (in the Iran–Iraq war). the Iran–Iraq war occurred because of the rhetorical exaggerations of Iran’s traditional threat perceptions in the Sunni Arab world. the Arab Sunni autocrats feel frightened of an Iran that is clearly fulfilling the regional power vacuum. has Sunni rulers across the region pressing Washington to confront Iran. thereby allowing other states of the region to feel more secure. For many years. Either as a justification for some of the Arab regimes’ policies—such as embracing foreign troops in the region6—or a fear tactic to cement Washington’s political and financial support for their regimes. the regional and particularly Persian Gulf politics have always been outweighed by a desire to maintain a balance of power between the region’s main actors. “From the Arab world’s standpoint.7 As one of the most unnecessary wars in the or even as a matter of bringing interhistory of the Middle East. Saddam Hussein justified his war with Iran by claiming that it would block the Persian-Shiite influence. As one expert asserts. intervening on behalf of local Shiite populations.9 Traditionally. With the current Iraqi crisis. the Iran–Iraq elite solidarity. no one within the Arab Sunni leadership has ever formally apologized for that support.Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realitie attempts to take on a larger role in the region. but now we are handing the whole country of Iraq over to Iran without reason. As one of the most unnecessary wars in the history of the Middle East. Iran and Iraq balanced each other’s power. and most worrisome. ey believe Iran’s main forces for projecting its hegemonic interests in the region are its Arab Shiite friends.  Barzegar. the inappropriate depiction of Iran’s regional aims as attempting to establish a “new Safavid Empire” has roots in this kind analogy of Iran’s regional ambitions. as of now. As once discussed by Hosni Mobarak: “ e Shiites in the region are more loyal to Iran than their own countries. e popularity of Hassan Nasrollah of Lebanese Hezbollah and President Ahmadinejad of Iran. Today.

S.13 Presenting Iran as a regional or even super-regional power was first overstressed in the West to show that Iran.16 Secondly. Iran will be able has been to maintain a balance to expand its regional power and influence.S. U. and even with respect to Iran’s policy on its nuclear program.K B IRAN’S RISE TO REGIONAL POWER e prevailing view in the United States is that Iran is the winner of the 2003 war in Iraq. troops in the Persian Gulf wars.S. since any possible power vacuum during the post-withdrawal window will inevitably be filled by Shiite political factions sympathetic to Iran and starkly against Israel.12 is debate has also three dimensions: (1) U. Iran’s growing ideological role and influence in the region will weaken the position of the conservative Sunni elites. Iran would be able to dictate its own terms and conditions to the international community 90 and especially to the United States on such crucial issues as international energy security. policies in the region. and Iraq will endanger the security of Israel. interests and must somehow be restrained. as was the case in Lebanon and the Hezbollah–Israel war in summer 2006.S. of power while preventing any regional supremacy. And if this new dynamic were to exist. Lebanon.15 In addition.14 Under the new regional circumstances. policy in the Middle East Under the new regional circumstances. Especially now. Middle East policy. Some experts even argue that the Israel lobby has attempted to convince the Bush administration to stay longer in Iraq.18 irdly. and by establishing a Shiite crescent. and (3) the legitimacy of the traditional Arab allies. Iran will be able to expand its regional power and influence. has been a source of continuing tension and itself conveys a great impending danger for regional and international security.11 Some hawkish analysts argue that the evolution of Iran’s regional role goes against U. oil prices. the political legitimacy of these elites will be questioned more and more as they have previously agreed to the U. Iran’s continued involvement with Arab world politics. presence in the       Barzegar. with anti-American sentiments growing among the masses.S. with its opportunistic ambitions.S.17 Since it has already suffered from an ideological war with Hezbollah. and by and especially in the Persian Gulf establishing a Shiite crescent. these elites have welcomed U. Firstly. national interests. national and security interests. would try to fill the power vacuum in post-invasion Iraq. Protecting Israel’s security is one of the most significant pillars of U. arguing that the war has so far beneffitted Iran. At several stages.indd 90 10/31/08 8:28:11 PM .S. the Israeli regime is currently concerned about the lasting effects of the Iraq war. views in the United States tend to perceive that any empowerment of Iran’s role in the region is in conflict with U. since a half century ago.S. (2) the security of Israel. From this perspective. who have been traditionally in line with U. creating such an ideologically based crescent in a region comprised of Syria.

Lebanese. et cetera—and these have basically become consolidated due to their common language. crucial questions that remain include whether Iran is trying to build such a Shiite crescent at the level of the masses. will find it hard to build a coalition between Iranians or elites with any other Arab nation. at the level of masses. although ideology does form a significant part of the Islamic republic’s world-view.g. from the far extremists to the more moderate and independent sides. mostly because of the long absence of interaction at the level of people as well as the misinformed policy of the Sunni governing elites and outside powers which today define Iran as the region’s major threat. seeing it as their national duty. e genuine prospect of establishing a Shiite ideological coalition is yet to be institutionalized in Iranian or Arab societies and therefore has little weight in regulating Iran’s foreign policy.21 Today.22 Even today. the Iranian Shiites are first and foremost Persians. Kurds. the Persians. Arabs. A COALITION AT THE LEVEL OF THE MASSES OR THE STATES? e idea of an emerging Shiite crescent. the Iraqi Shiites. as well as to Mashad and Qom—which matters considerably for both the Iranians and the Iraqis respectively—there is a larger picture. can be challenged in two aspects. and Syrians are first Arabs and only then Shiites. despite Iran’s support. is feeling of cultural distinction and unique identity exists on the Arab sides. territorial proximity. there exist a number of facts that demonstrate Iran’s 91 F/W •  ..19 is position has also been a major pretext for terrorist groups targeting the Saudi and Jordanian governments in recent years. It was for this reason that Iraqi Shiites actively joined the Ba’athist regime’s war against Iran. and historical origins. Turks. Accordingly. Moreover. whether it is attempting to expand its regional power by establishing such an ideological belt. erefore. First. political and geopolitical demands of identity—e. given their cultural-societal and historical backgrounds. Middle Eastern issues are mostly centered along the lines of the cultural. and whether there are other more strategic reasons behind Iran’s policies. e people.20 IRAN AND THE SHIITE CRESCENT Given the points outlined.  Barzegar. Experts on Middle East issues tend to agree that it is the factor of national identity rather than religion or ideology which acts as a force of unity and solidarity in the region. Although there is a religious and cultural issue posed by mutual travel to Karbala and Najaf. have their own views about how Iraq should be governed.indd 91 10/31/08 8:28:11 PM .Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realitie region. one must question whether such an ideological-religious coalition is actually feasible in the mentioned areas. members of the Iraqi Shiite leadership.

cultural-societal.e. as history shows. Yet again.24 erefore. announced the “Week of Unity” in the Iranian calendar. the first Persian Gulf in 1990 and subsequently the foreign presence in the region.27 By implying an “accommodating foreign policy” which endeavors to establish good and close relations with the main actors of the region. the Islamic republic has made a strategic decision to pursue balanced relations with its Arab neighbors in order to preserve Iran’s national interests. ex-president and the head of Iran’s Expediency Council. however. Iran has more or less attempted to establish good relationships with the Arab world. leader of the Islamic revolution. there are other Iranian viewpoints which tend to agree that. e governing elites in Iran perceive the Shiite-Sunni issue in the broader context of the Islamic world. given the two sides’ distinctive regional aims and security concerns. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. especially with Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Since the revolution. Like any other major revolutions that were at the start influenced by revolutionary excitements and then shifted to pragmatism. to the appreciation of the Arab Sunni elites. Iran’s policy in this regard has been quite clear. Iran’s first attempt to establish close relations with the masses immediately after the 1979 Islamic revolution was rather unsuccessful and resulted in tensions. i.K B actions are motivated primarily by pragmatic considerations. Iran enhances its 92       Barzegar. namely Saudi Arabia and Egypt. never allowed Iran to fully develop or act on this policy. and political-economic characteristics. the perspective among analysts in Iran seldom pushes for the creation of such a Shiite crescent at the level of the masses due to its incompatibility with Iran’s substantive power and politics.indd 92 10/31/08 8:28:12 PM . in his recent trip to Saudi Arabia (June 2008). It is thus very “Non-Iranian” to even discuss the possibilities of establishing an Iranian Shiite crescent. since the end of the Iran–Iraq war and especially since the early 1990s. To avoid any tension. the region’s political developments. For instance. except for a few years in the early 1980s and immediately after the Islamic revolution. Iran. other Iranian officials have followed this line of thinking.25 Although Iran made several efforts toward détente and confidence-building policies. has always followed a pragmatic policy towards its neighboring Arab states. Secondly. too much engagement with the Arab world’s politics works neither to the benefit of the country’s national interests nor. expressed the necessity of keeping unity between Shiites and Sunnis in the region.23 e issue of Iranian Shiite influence in the region is more centered on Iran’s actual engagement with the affairs of neighboring Arab countries. there is evidence that the Iranian government believes that building trust and advancing relations at the regional level requires establishing cordial relations with Arab governments. In this context.26 is necessity is especially important given that the elites in the Arab world form their countries’ foreign policies and relations. the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Given its geopolitical.

 . which they feel alone and encircled by enemies. of course. By contrast. though. the combined hostility of the supposedly secular leadership of the Sunni Arab countries has reinforced their Ideological forces do. is to block the emergence of an unfriendly Iranian regime (no matter Shiite or Sunni) in Baghdad. of course. In this respect. cultural and religious connectedness. as it has the potential to pose a new kind of F/W •  . because of long historical. especially in a region in ing their occasional mutual political support. as well as in obtainboth sects. Syria also considers Iran a source of political and logistical support and a friend at crucial moments. act as a stimulus in connecting people morally and in winning hearts and minds. Iran will support Shiite-dominated governments in Iraq. As reflected in Iran–Syria relations. e vital interest for Iran. rather than the Shiite origins of their ruling elites. In fact. as posed by the United States and Israel in this case. in the case of Iraq. is sensitivity is due to both the existence of past war and the historical threat perception that exists among the Iranian statecrafts. as well as in obtaining their occasional mutual political support. act as a religious bonds. e ideological factor never acted to create a Shiite crescent in this manner. respectively. experts tend to agree that such an alliance depends more on the two sides’ common strategic threat perceptions. Geopolitical and political security realities in the region will force Iran to continue this policy in the future. relying on each other to tackle threats in stimulus in connecting people morally and in crucial moments has mattered for winning hearts and minds.Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realitie regional status and political-security integration in the region. since it is incompatible with the geopolitical nature and current demands of the governments in such a coalition. In addition. Iran will not forget the vital Syrian support it received during 93 its war with Iraq. the Iran–Hezbollah relationship shows a more strategically oriented alliance for tackling the same enemy’s military security threats and as a means of outweighing their rivals regionally and internationally. Ideological forces do. In Iran–Iraq relations. Iraq should be watched carefully. Although partly an exception. rather than supporting a Shiite government of any kind. such as Iyad Allawi (a secular faction). ideology has never been a force to bring the two sides’ policies together. Syria and Iran support rival Sunni and Shiite political factions.28 Although Shiite culture has not significantly influenced the closeness of the two governments. which might itself be merely a regional rival some time in the future. IDEOLOGICAL OR PRAGMATIC? Is the Shiite ideological force the main stimulus for an emerging Shiite coalition? e creation of such an alliance based on ideological orientation is unrealistic.

AN EXPANDING REGIONAL ROLE OR TACKLING SECURITY THREATS? e most controversial part of the debate over the supposed Shiite crescent centers on Iran’s expansionist policy to make best use of the new situation in post-invasion Iraq for empowering its regional role. is image depicted Iran as the new ideological threat to the region and even the world.K B military extremism and threat to Iran.29 e Ba’athists and Taliban regimes are only two notable examples in recent time. I argue instead that Iran’s desire for an active presence in the region’s politics is mostly defensive and is aimed at tackling security threats. and Britain) and regimes in the region has been costly and a source of great tension. having less sympathetic neighboring states. the presentation of Iran as a spoiler regional power as a result of the Iraq crisis was first spread by Western analysts and later welcomed by the Sunni elites. If otherwise. Iran welcomed the Afghan Karzai government. and instability across Iran’s national boundaries. A sense of insecurity from the unstable neighborhood is today a part of Iran’s political culture. ideology is only one factor among many that unifies Iran and the Iraqi Shiite government. Iran’s current support for the Al-Maliki Shiite government emanates from the sense that such a government could never in essence be unfriendly toward Iran in the future. is policy will prevent Iran from facing similar sources of instability and hostility in the future. As discussed earlier. In addition. and for balancing its domestic politics and regional relations. Since the last two to three centuries. It is currently attempting to find a more genuine and balanced position in the region as well as in its relations with the international community. and governments in their own backyard. it is understandable that the Iranian elites would and should work hard to support a new generation of friendly political elites. ese kinds of drawings have simultaneously brought about new constraints for Iran at both the regional and international levels. war. As a strategic standpoint. the presence of unfriendly foreign powers (Russia. from both the sense of growth and progress. despite its Sunni base and strong American support. because a nationalistic Afghan government—given the two sides’ strong historical-cultural connectedness—could not in its nature be unfriendly toward Iran. a Shiite government in Iraq would inevitably seek Iran’s political support. In the same vein. factions. therefore. the Ottoman Empire. erefore. Showing Iran’s 94       . Iran is a regional power politically and militarialy and a developing country economically. then Iran’s policy would understandably change quite quickly. being encircled in a Sunni neighborhood. such as those imposed by countries with either anti-Iranian policies or who let their soil be used by foreign troops that pose a military threat.

ese elements have led consistently to Iran’s either pragmatic or ideological foreign policy orientations in the region. No rationale as strong as this could justify Iran’s presence in the region. and narcotics trafficking and kidnapping. as well as the Bush administration’s attempt F/W •  . intense U. From a strategic point of view. size and energy sources. the most prominent duties of the Iranian political elites have been to tackle security threats and promote Iran’s pace of economic and political development. and political-cultural dynamics are such that it is forced to be present in the region.indd 95 10/31/08 8:28:13 PM . Given the fluctuating political situation of its immediate borders in the Persian Gulf region. Iran’s desire for an active presence in the a power vacuum. which are only one factor among others. over the course of past history. Iran’s delicate geopolitics. and vast economic potentials. Iran’s geopolitics brings both opportunities and challenges.”32 Today. both of which would be a source of tension and an impediment to Iran’s economic growth. given the nature of threats that emanate from the region such as the spread of civil war. Activating Iran’s potential power bases requires a decisive and positive engagement in the region. Iran’s regional policies have always been affected by two significant elements: geopolitical reality and ideology.  Barzegar. In this respect. population displacement. Meanwhile. Iran has to develop is aimed at tackling security threats. both for securing its immediate security circle and creating economic opportunities for its progressing economy. substances of power. advancing military strength and missile capability. any Iranian government will inevitably be against a neighboring foreign presence or occupying power. refugee issues. skilled population and big middle class. al-Qaeda region’s politics is mostly defensive and terrorist activities. rather than its military forces. Since the last century. Iran has to be pragmatic in its regional policies.30 One should instead argue that Iran’s sources of power are more based on its geo-strategic position. good relations with neighboring states to ensure stability within the region. these two factors have struggled hard to balance each other.31 Although there is no doubt they are substantively different and both remain constant to some degree in Iran’s foreign policy. presence in Iraq since 2003. As one renowned expert of Iran’s foreign policy argues. the geopolitical factor will continue to regulate Iran’s relations with the other regional states.S. the common perspective among the Iranian elites is that achieving this ambitious plan requires a stabilized and peaceful periphery on the one hand and the creation of economic opportunities in the region on the other. In order to preserve its national interests.Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realitie attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. and holding the current assumption of “Iran rising to power” only asserts Iran’s destructive role in the region. ethnic-religious rivalries. particularly with Iraq and Afghanistan. scientifically. Iran’s Strategic 20-Year Plan (2005-2025) asserts that: “Iran is a developed country ranking the first in the region economically. and technologi95 cally.

In order to effectively counter the threats to the country posed by spreading instability in the region and in order to secure Iran’s national interests and security. establishing bilateral and mutual economic. In another instance. considered from this perspective. production. and Ba’athists to seek political tension. and the fulfillment of economic demands of regional markets. troops in the Kurdistan area in 2007 cut the trade activities at the provincial level between Iran and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for some time.34 Similarly. (2) it is an attempt by Iran to build an ideo- 96       Barzegar. and political-security agreements with Iraq will lead the region toward greater stability and mutual cooperation. Iran has attempted to coax Iraq into fulfilling the role of a strategic partner in the region. and transferring routes. Iran has attempted to connect its economic potential with the region and world economy.indd 96 10/31/08 8:28:13 PM . Syria. the Iranian elites argue that there should be a reasonable and positive Iranian presence in the region’s politics. With this strategic rationale. the controversial issue in Iran’s foreign policy is to what extent should Iran be engaged in the region’s politics. Iraq. CONCLUSION e debate about the emergence of a Shiite crescent has three dimensions: (1) it is an attempt by Iran to mobilize the masses. the geopolitics of pipelines and other sources of energy transfer. Sunni extremists. by supporting the Shiite political factions in Iraq that are friendlier today towards Iran. thereby creating economic opportunities for Iranian trade companies and young industries. For instance. shows that any attempts by the Iranian government to secure its immediate neighborhood is based on this strategic rationale. namely in Afghanistan. Having a greater regional role requires establishing close political-strategic relationships with the neighboring governments. cultural. Some analyses tend to perceive that engaging too much in the region’s politics has even been costly for Iran’s vulnerable geopolitical situation and should therefore be avoided. Iran’s size and great economic potential can best fill the regional markets’ demand. and the Persian Gulf are all significant parts of Iran’s presence in the region. have provided further pretext for violent groups such as al-Qaeda.S. Iran has asked foreign troops to gradually leave Iraq and the Persian Gulf region. e political reality.K B to establish military bases in Iraq. Being situated at the crossroads of the world’s main energy consumption. sectarian violence. e Bush administration’s policy in Iraq has also worked to deny Iran’s economic and trade activities in Iraq. e transit of energy sources. Viewed in this context.33 Yet. and civil war which will spur Iraqi instability and raise the spectre of destabilizing Iran and the entire region. the arrest of an Iranian official by U.

Robin Wright and Peter Baker. Iran will naturally have more political-economic weight among the Iraqi Shiites. Finally. the creation of a Shiite coalition based on the Persian and Arab masses is rather difficult. Baztab. W A NOTES 1. e revival of the Shiite ideology in Iraq is the natural consequence of the country’s political-societal realities following recent political developments. As a major nation-state. e ongoing Shiite-Sunni rivalry in the region is a pure inter-Arab world powersharing conflict.ir (in Persian). Iran’s aims are more defensive and pragmatic than expansionist. it would therefore be present in the region’s politics in the future.  Barzegar. since it has the potential to obfuscate attempts to make sound policy in a complex region.indd 97 10/31/08 8:28:13 PM . However. While the mainstream debate on the Shiite crescent points to Iran’s destructive projection of power in the region. “Iraq. It is not attempting to become the only regional power through empowering the friendly Shiite factions in the region. 21 Farvardin 1385. Consequently. Iran’s aims are primarily oriented at building a secure environment at its immediate borders on the one hand and creating economic opportunities for strategic purposes on the other. which caused anxiety among Shiite communities in the Arab world and Iran. particularly the United States—contradicting Iran’s path of advancement. because of the cultural-societal and political distinctions. and (3) it is an attempt by Iran to expand its regional power. Geopolitical considerations will dictate Iran’s foreign policy and regional strategy.baztab. namely its geopolitical reality and its ideology. 8 December 2004. 3.Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realitie logical belt of friendly Shiite governments. Iran has strategic statematters interests in the region. rather than an ideological Iranian-Arab rivalry. which needs integration with the regional and world economy. Saud al-Feisal voiced Saudi Arabia’s concern about Iran’s increased role in post-invasion Iraq as 97 F/W •  . 2. In addition. I refer to remarks expressed by Hosni Mobark. given the political-cultural connection. 10 April 2006. in which they hope to strengthen their positions in an era of power transference. Iran’s regional policies have always been affected by two significant elements. Jordan See reat to Election From Iran: Leaders Warn Against Forming Religious State. my arguments suggest instead that the creation of a Shiite crescent is by nature a non-Iranian concept that is also incompatible with the region’s power structure and politics. Exaggerating the emergence of an ideological Shiite crescent of violence and destruction should therefore be avoided. it is a manifestation of the Shiite factions’ struggle to establish a new political order in Iraq’s power division.” e Washington Post. Iran’s presence in the region is more pragmatic rather than ideological. Using ideology as an effective factor in foreign policy conduct in the region would cause excessive tension in Iran’s relations with the neighboring Arab countries as well as with the international community. www.

“US Policy toward Political Islam. Graham Fuller. “ e Middle East and the New Terrorism. “ e Shia Revival: A reat or An Opportunity.prospect. Straus and Giroux. 5. American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and e American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are the two main institutes for picturing Iran in this way. Nasr.K B unbalancing the traditional power structure in the region.” e Los Angeles Times. “Excerpts: ‘Al-Qaeda tape’ threatens attacks. Henry A. ambassador to the United Nations are the two most significant figures in this line. 23 April 2006. org. “ e Emerging Shia Crescent Symposium. 5 June 2006). 20. See. Vali Nasr. Ibrahim Nawar.” Journal on Science and World Affairs 1 (Summer 2005): 115-117.S. Baztab. Walt. 26 April 2006.gwu. 2 (Spring/Summer 2007): 205. http://www. See “Iran Should be ankful to U. Henry A. See Efraim Inbar.” Middle East Quarterly 14. John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. 21. Haass. July–August 2006. 98       Barzegar. no. Shilbly Telhami. 2008. Nasr. 2007). http://www. http://www. http://news. See Abu-Massab Zarqawi’s statement in http://www. In a recent survey. Policy” (panel meeting.gwu. Fouad Ajami in Fouad Ajami. “How Israel Bungled the Second Lebanon War.edu/~/media/Files/events/2008. 6 April 2004. 16. Hassan Nasrallah. http://www.cfr. “ e War over Israel’s Influence. http://www. DC.ir (in Persian). for instance. Mahmood Sariolghalam. “ A Nuclear Test for Diplomacy. 19 December 2006. “Iraq: A View from the Neighborhood” (lecture. Kissinger. 17. May 14. See Zalmay Khalilzad’s recent remarks at Columbia University.baztab. http://www.” Iraq: A View from the Neighborhood. Vice President and John Bolton. March 2008.htm. 12. See Norman Podhoretz.eg/2007/872/focus. 10 April 2006.ahram. Dick Cheney. org/publications/pubID.bbc. see Edward Gnehm. “Iranian Strategy in Iraq” (lecture.com.” Al-Ahram Weekly Online. 3 (Summer 2007). see Michael Rubin.26500/pub_detail. Vali R.” June 2007. Referring to the recently published book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Hezbollah’s leader. is analogy has been increasingly expressed by American officials and the Sunni Arab elites.commentarymagazine. 23 February 2006).” e Washington Post.uk/2/ hi/middle_east/3605593. available at: http://www. “ e Emerging Shia Crescent Symposium: Implications for the Middle East and U. “Do not Attack Iran. html. org/cs/articles?article=the_shia_fellas. “ Iran’s Expanding Influence.Elaph. 18.html.com/Elaphweb/Politics/2005/7/77159. is school of thought is the official line of the Neo-Conservatives in the Bush Administration.” Febraury 2. Gregory Gause in Ajami. increased his popularity as the most admired leader in the Arab world (26%). http://www.stm. http://www.alternet. Kissinger. Council on Foreign Relations. “ e Case for Bombing Iran. 20 May 2007. 11.” BBC News.aei.belfercenter. “Seeing Iran rough an American Prism.” Foreign Policy.edu/elliott/news/transcript/shapiro5.” e Washington Post. e Israel Lobby and U. 13.S. http://www.asp. Done at. New York. Israel. and “Stopping Iran: Why the Case for Military Action Still Stands. 8.” Journal of International Affairs 60. e Center of the Universe: e Geopolitics of Iran (New York: Westview Press. and Richard N.org.com.brookings.org/publication/10866/emerging_shia_crescent_symposium. 13 March 2007). 15. and Haass. For an analysis on Saud al Feisal’s remarks. “Behind the Rise of the Shiites. Zbigniew Brzezinski.” e American Prospect. 19. 7. 2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll. the former U. edu/~elliott/news/transcripts/shapiro5.co. “ e Shia Fellas. “Been ere. 12 September 2001. 31 July 2006.” Brookings Institute. Zbigniew Brzezinski. 6.” 22.” Time.” Foreign Policy in Focus.S. Stephan Zunes. Washington. 21 Farvardin 1385.” Note 10.net/news/eng/?nid=24729. University of Haifa.S. 10.indd 98 10/31/08 8:28:14 PM .” 23 February 2006. Kayhan Barzegar. Walt. F.html. 9. See one analysis by Robert Dreyfuss.org/story/11479. 22–28 November 2007. Brookings Institute. “Rise of the Shiites. www. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar. Edward Gnehem.” February 2008.html. George Washington University. “ e Next Steps with Iran. 2008.panarmenian. 14. http://weekly. 4. 16 May 2006.” e International Herald Tribune. Nasr. no.

3 (Winter 2002): 85-100.” June 8. usip. 21 October 2007.Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realitie 1991). 31.” Middle East Journal. no. 1975). 25. Esther Pan. Ibid.whitehouse. 18 July 2006.cfr. 23. “Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran’s Foreign Policy. see also the 10-Article Plan presented by Hassan Rohani. May 2007. Iran’s Foreign Policy 1941-1973: A Study of Foreign Policy in Modernizing Nations. http://www2.” USIP. Mona Yacoubian.indd 99 10/31/08 8:28:14 PM . “Iran’s Foreign Policy Shortcomings. 4 (Fall 2004): 550.” CFR.” Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly 2.org. Ramazani. 27. “Rectification of Iran’s Foreign Policy Shortcomings during Khatami’s Presidency.” Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly 3. 2008.majlis. 32. “Détente in Khatami’s Foreign Policy and its Impact on Improvement of Iran-Saudi relations. 2 (Spring/Summer 2007).ir 33. “Iran’s Regional Policy: Between Radicalism and pragmatism. A historical example in this regard is the way the Soviets used Azerbaijan’s territory to pressure Iran through establishing the Gillan Socialist Movement (Gillan is a northern province in Iran). 29. Another example is the invasion of Iran by the Allied Forces during World War II. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. and the Middle East Conflict.com.html. Assertions on enhancing bilateral and mutual economic and political-security cooperation have always been initiated by Iran’s officials: see for instance president’s Ahmadinejad’s 12-Article Initiative presented in the recent GCC summit in Qatar at: www.ir 34.” speech. e imposition of the eightyear Iran–Iraq war was also perceived by the Iranian government as a plot by great powers supporting the Ba’athist regime to outweigh the Islamic revolution and Iran’s regional role. See “Vice President’s Remarks to the Washington institute for Near East Policy. Iran Strives for Muslims Unity: Rafsanjani. see also David Menashri. For further information on this issue. Since the early 1990s Iran’s formal foreign policy orientation towards the Arab world and especially in the Persian Gulf region as expressed by high-ranking Iranian officials has been based on détente and confidence-building.irna. org/publication/11122.rajanews.com 24. e 20-Year Strategic Plan was ratified by Iran’s Expediency Council. 30. http://www. See Rouhollah K. Naghibzadeh.html. Ahmad Naghibzadeh. “Syria. Lansdowne.gov/news/releases/2007/10/20071021.csr. see Kayhan Barzegar.org/pubs/usipeace_briefings/2007/0531_syria_iran. VA. 2 (Fall 2000): 163-164.” 99 F/W •  . 26. 58. no. http://www.org. 28. http://www. Iran. Ramazani. Today a major concern among the Iranians is the United States’ use of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to attack Iran. no.” Journal of International Affairs 60. “Syria’s Alliance with Iran. IRNA. e Persian version of this document is available at the website of Iran’s Majlis Research Center at http//law.  Barzegar. former secretary of Iran’s National Security Council at: www. no. Rouhollah K.

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