Are the Shias on the brink of taking over the Middle East? - Observer
Nasrallah denies Iran is seeking 'Shiite crescent' in Middle East - Haaretz
[ Threats of Shia takeoever premature. ]
ARE THE SHIAS ON THE BRING OF TAKING OVER THE MIDDLE EAST?
Jason Burke - The Observer, 23 July 2006
This weekend, as bombing in Lebanon and rocketing in Israel continue and the diplomacy finally gets under way, intelligence analysts from Washington to New Delhi are embarking on a gigantic game of 'join the dots'. Some of the questions they are trying to answer are familiar - what is the true nature of the links between Hizbollah and Damascus and Tehran? What involvement do the Iranians have in Gaza or the West Bank? But another question is of greater significance: Are we witnessing a profound shift in the power balance of the Middle East that will determine the geopolitics of the region for decades to come?
Answers are, like most analysis of the Middle East, a mixture of hunch, experience, prejudice and fact, but it seems clear there is a new phenomenon in the region that can be described as, at the very least, 'a Shia resurgence'.
Ten or 15 per cent of the world's 1.4bn Muslims are Shia. The differences with the majority Sunnis are doctrinal, cultural and often political, and date back to a schism over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago. For much of that time Shias were a persecuted minority, creating a powerful culture of martyrdom. However, there have been several episodes when the Shia, despite their smaller numbers, have been more dominant - most recently in 1979 when the Iranian revolution and the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini inspired hundreds of millions of Muslims of all denominations worldwide, promoting a re-energised political Islam. For a short period, all eyes turned to the Shia. In the intervening years their star waned. Now, it is shining bright again.
Five major elements underpin the new Shia revival. The first is the sudden militancy of Iran, which has been led aggressively onto the world stage by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This new Iranian confidence is itself based on internal developments but also three main external factors: the removal of the Taliban from its eastern border in 2001; the removal of Saddam (a chauvinist Sunni) from its border; and vastly increased oil revenues.
The second major element of 'the Shia comeback' is the new power of Iraq's Shia who, though 65 per cent of the population, had been ruled by the Sunni minority for at least 400 years. Now the 'National Unity government' of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad is dominated by Shia friends of Iran.
Iran has profited enormously from chaos in Iraq. A recent report for the American Institute of Peace, a Washington think-tank, pointed out that Iran's leaders meet with Iraq's most influential personality, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who will not meet Americans. The report continued: 'Iraq's leaders visit to Tehran to negotiate on substantive issues such as border security and joint energy projects. Iranian businessmen are investing heavily in Iraq's overwhelmingly Shia southern regions, and Iran's intelligence operatives are embedded throughout Iraq's nascent security forces and within the Shia militias that have tremendous street power in the south, especially in the city of Basra.'
This is reinforced by British and US military sources in Iraq. 'The Iranians were there before we arrived,' said a British intelligence officer. 'I have no doubt they will be there when we leave.'
Yet the other elements of the new 'Shia revival' are less certain. The 'Shia axis' depicted by Israeli, US and some European commentators and by Sunni regional powers links Syria, Hizbollah and finally Sunni Palestinian organisations such as Hamas. While rulers like King Abdullah of Jordan or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak have obvious reasons to fear a resurgent Shia bloc, the broad coalition of 'neo-conservative' analysts seek to minimise local social, economic and political factors behind radical movements in favour of all-encompassing explanations that finger individual people or states. The latter insist the overt indications of co-operation - such as the fact that Hizbollah's local leadership shares an office in Tehran with Hamas - are 'the tip of the iceberg' of close co-ordination. 'Hizbollah is an Iranian creation,' said Ilan Berman, of the American Foreign Policy Council.
Yet, despite the claims, there are many who are wary of such analyses. 'It is almost too easy to believe in the "Shia crescent",' said Professor Jean-Francois Seznec, of Columbia University's Middle East Institute. 'If you look at the map it seems to make a lot of sense but, though there is to an extent a revival, it is a bit far-fetched to go from that to a conspiracy to take over the region.'
Beyond the countries where they are majorities, Seznec said, the Shia position is complicated. In Saudi Arabia, the substantial Shia minority is not moving closer to Iran, not least because the ruling royal family has offered them substantial political concessions. Elsewhere, there are also complicated issues of ethnicity and nationalism that militate against loyalty to Tehran. There are millions of Shias in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan whose political allegiances are determined by local factors rather than pretensions of distant regimes. Even in Iraq, there are vicious splits between clerical factions led by maverick cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and those loyal to the far more senior Ali Sistani. Al-Sadr's challenge to the older leader has its roots in the myriad arguments that fissure the international Shia clerical community.
There is also ethnicity. Alexis Debat, an analyst at The Nixon Centre, stressed the profound animosity that has pitted Arabs against those, dominant in and around Iran, of Persian descent. 'I do not buy the "Shia axis" argument at all,' he said. 'A lot of people put it in those terms for political reasons, but Shias are too diverse, there are too many factions, too many conflicting allegiances.'
There are religious and cultural ties between Shia that become important in specific situations. Minor details, such as the fact that Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah studied both in Iraq and Iran, take on a far greater significance. When men like Nasrallah look at the political landscape it is with two frames of reference, one secular, the other religious.
All analysts agree Iran has gained a huge amount of influence - 'soft' power - by saying openly what the majority, Arabs and Persians, Shia and Sunni, in the Middle Eastern 'street' say privately. 'The [Iranian] discourse is pan-Islamist and plays the chord of anti-imperialism, Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism,' said Olivier Roy, the director of the National Scientific Research Centre in Paris.
What Tehran says is also exactly what rulers like King Abdullah, Mubarak or the House of al-Saud cannot say for fear of angering Western allies. And though such regimes can buy off local discontent for a period with increased expenditure on social services and finely calibrated political concessions, the anger in the bazaars and the mosques cannot be contained for ever. It needs an outlet. Tehran, Hizbollah and others have understood this. In the great game of Middle Eastern politics, Western analysts are not the only ones joining the dots.
The day at a glance
· Israeli forces carry out 'limited' incursions inside southern Lebanon. Up to 1,500 soldiers are thought to have crossed the border.
· US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will go to the Middle East today.
· Israeli army says it attacked more than 150 targets in the past 24 hours. War planes launched raids on the town of al-Khiam and near the port of Tyre
· Evacuation of foreign nationals from Lebanon to Cyprus now tops 25,000.
· Militant groups in the Gaza Strip agreed to stop firing at Israel last night, senior Palestinian officials said.
· At least 345 civilians and a handful of Hizbollah fighters have been killed in Lebanon. Nineteen Israeli soldiers and 15 civilians have died.
· The Bush administration is rushing precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the shipment last week.
29 January 2009
NASRALLAH DENIES IRAN IS SEEKING SHIITE CRESCENT IN MIDDLE EAST
Hezbollah leader says accusations Iran is trying to form Shiite bloc in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are 'baseless.'
LEBANON - Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in a speech on Monday evening defended Iran and said Tehran is not planning to implement a "Shiite crescent" in the Middle East.
"Iran is far from this plot of transforming Sunnis into Shiites or forming a Shiite Crescent in the region, such accusations are baseless," Nasrallah told a religious ceremony in Beirut's southern suburbs.
In December, Jordan's King Abdullah II told the Washington Post that Iran was seeking to create "a Shiite crescent" in the Middle East that would include Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. The comments angered Iran.
"Shiites are not seeking to take control of the region, and we do not pose a threat to everyone," Nasrallah said.
Hezbollah has been accused by the anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon of acting as Iran's proxy in Lebanon and stirring Sunni-Shiite tensions.
At least three people were killed and 152 injured last Tuesday in clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims apparently triggered by a row inside the campus of the Beirut Arab University between government supporters and the opposition led by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and the formation of a new national unity government which will give the opposition power of veto.