This paper argues that far from there being a threatening “Shi‘i crescent,” or a Middle East about to be torn apart along Muslim sectarian lines, the pattern has been for mixed Sunni-Shi’i states to remain intact. The reason is that important differences remain among Shi’i communities. In many cases, the Shi’ah are more concerned with changing their lot within their existing countries than in binding themselves to Iran, the largest Shi’i community in the region, or in creating any other form of pan-Shi’i alliance.
As for Iran’s regional ambitions, and its alleged leadership of a “Shi‘i crescent,” these are not expressed or implemented in a sectarian Shi’i fashion. Iranian foreign policy aims to advance Iranian national interests as much as to promote any sectarian Shi’i agenda. Furthermore, the growing importance of the Shi’i Arabs of Iraq poses a threat as much as it presents an opportunity to Iran. It is as likely that the Shi’i Arabs of Iraq will rival Iran for the leadership of Shi’i communities in the Persian Gulf as it is that the Iraqi Shi’i Arabs will join with Iran as part of a pan-Shi’i alliance.
The “Shi’i crescent” is therefore largely a myth that masks important, but malleable state interests. By rejecting this myth, the United States can see the Shi’ah in the Middle East for what they are: varied communities with as much dividing them as uniting them, potential partners in some places and aspiring adversaries in others.
The eventual nature of relations between Iran and Shi’i Arab Iraq is a core issue for the Middle East. The nature of these relations will have a tremendous impact upon the smaller Shi’i communities in the Arab Middle East. Tehran prefers an undivided but weak Shi’i-dominated Iraq rather than an Iraq divided into three states: Shi’i, Sunni and Kurdish. A disintegrated Iraq poses a mixture of opportunity and threat that Iran would probably prefer to avoid. Iran is likely to exert strong influence over any Shi’i mini-state in southern Iraq and may even annex it. At the same time, Iran might encounter a significant domestic challenge were there to be an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq because this might encourage separatist feelings in Iran’s Kurdish population.
Even if the Iraqi Shi’ah Arabs emerge dominant and victorious in the current conflict with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, they might not prove to be the close allies of Iran that many imagine. Iran, after all, has pursued policies in contradiction with those of its apparent Iraqi Shi’i allies. For the moment, Iran, like Syria, has no stake in a stable Iraq. Fostering instability in Iraq is a means of indirectly inflicting damage on the United States, but it has also imposed a steep cost on the Iraqi Shi’ah. Quite how relations between Iran and Iraq will develop over the long-term is unclear, but the end result might not be to Iran’s liking.
Moshe Ma‘oz is Professor Emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and former Director of the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was recently a visiting scholar at Harvard University working on contemporary Muslim-Jewish relations. He has published widely on issues concerning the political and social history of the modern Middle East, notably Syria, the Palestinian territories, Arab-Israeli relations, and has studied religious and ethnic communities. He has been a visiting fellow at numerous leading institutions including the Brookings Institution, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the U.S. Institute of Peace.