The waxing of the Shi'ite Crescent - AT
[As Iran gets stronger on world stage, Shiites make waves across the Sunni world.]
ASIA TIMES - 20 April 2005
The waxing of the Shi'ite Crescent
Since the Islamic revolution took place in Iran in 1979, one of its prime objectives was to strengthen Shi'ites all over the Muslim world. Before that revolution, they were a disinherited, underprivileged and neglected community in Lebanon and Iraq.
This "Shi'ite emancipation" was first done in Lebanon, through the charismatic cleric Musa al-Sadr, who was funded and supported by the mullahs of Tehran in his "Movement of the Dispossessed" and its military branch, Amal, created in 1974 and 1975, respectively.
They later supported Hezbollah, a pure Iranian creation, that strove at first to establish a theocracy in Lebanon, similar to the one in Iran. In time, the role of Hezbollah became to defend the Shi'ite community in Lebanon, rather than bring them to power in Beirut, and safeguard their political rights in the complex confessional system of Lebanon.
In Iraq, the mullahs began to fund, train, protect and harbor Shi'ite dissidents opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, where they were oppressed by the Sunni minority. Ibrahim Jaafari, the new prime minister, who is the de facto ruler of the new Iraq, spent the years 1980-89 as a fugitive in Iran.
After 25 years of underground struggle, this community succeeded in toppling Saddam, ironically, with the help of the US. The overthrow of Saddam, the newfound status of the Shi'ites in Iraq, their victory in the January 2005 elections, and the election of Jaafari were all well received in Tehran. They summed up what Iran had wanted in Iraq since 1979.
Jaafari, who has been active in Shi'ite politics since 1968, raises hopes throughout the Muslim world that struggle, persecution and long years of banishment will not prevent the Shi'ites from rising to power in their respective communities, just like they did in Iran in 1979, and Iraq in 2003. A member of the pan-Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, and a brother-in-law of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Jaafari's appointment as premier raises more than an eyebrow in the Arab world.
The Shi'ites and Syria
Syria's relationship with Iran and its Shi'ites has always been a strategic one, based on pragmatism and mutual interests rather than pan-Shi'ite loyalties, as was the case with Lebanon and Iraq. The Shi'ite community in Syria is small and has no history of political ambitions. They are first-class citizens, and occupy several senior posts - as Syrians, however, and not as Shi'ite Syrians.
Among the most prominent are Dr Hani Murtada, the current minister of higher education, who had been president of Damascus University and is one of the finest pediatricians in Syria, and comedian and political satirist Duraid Lahham.
During the entire pre-Ba'ath era, only one Shi'ite politician rose to fame in Syria, namely Said Haydar from Baalbak, who co-led the revolt against the French in the 1920s, and served several times as a deputy in the Syrian parliament, and who was a co-author of its constitution.
Syria's support for the Iranian revolution began in 1979, due to its animosity toward the US-backed and Israel-allied regime of Shah Reza Pahlevi. Actually, Damascus had even involved itself in the Shi'ite underground, by helping some of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's lieutenants prior to the revolution that deposed the Shah.
Men like Ibrahim Yazdi, Mustapha Chamran and Sadiq Qotbzadeh (two future ministers in the Islamic Republic) were all allies of Syria, and Qotbzadeh, for example, had been given a Syrian passport to conduct anti-Shah activities, disguised as a Paris correspondent for the Syrian daily al-Thawra.
Damascus was pleased when Iran's new leader, Khomeini, closed down the Israeli Embassy in Tehran, to show his distance from the Shah and his alliances, then reopened it as an embassy for the Palestinian Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat. Syrian leader Hafez Assad had offered Khomeini asylum in Syria in October 1978. When Khomeini came to power, Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam remarked that the Islamic revolution in Iran was the "most important event in our contemporary history" and boasted that Syria had supported it "prior to its outbreak, during it and after its triumph".
Syria also backed, but provided no arms or money to, Iran during its eight-year war with the Ba'athist regime of Saddam, starting in 1980. When the war ended, the two countries found more room for cooperation vis-a-vis combating Israel through Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Iran did it out of pan-Shi'ite loyalties. Syria did it to continue its war by proxy with Israel.
Some speculated that with Saddam gone in 2003, the common enemy of Damascus and Tehran, both countries would have little reason for future cooperation, especially since the new leaders of Baghdad were Shi'ite allies, and proteges, of Iran. The new Iran-friendly regime in Baghdad, many argued, would end all logical reasons for a Syrian-Iranian honeymoon.
Yet Iran continued its support for Syria, even after international pressure mounted on Damascus following the assassination of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14. Iran feared, some believed, that Hezbollah's alliance with Syria in the aftermath of the Hariri crisis would damage the guerrilla movement's standing in Lebanon.
These fears were brushed aside by a statement by Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari expressing solidarity with Iran, and by Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref, who said, "We are ready to help Syria confront all threats." Syria noted Iran's positive attitude and responded with positive gestures, reacting very warmly to the appointment of Iran's ally, Jaafari, as premier.
The Shi'ites of Bahrain
In Bahrain, which has a 70% Shi'ite majority (of a total population of about 443,000), ruled by a Sunni minority, the Shi'ites hoped that Shi'ite power in Tehran and Baghdad would bring more regional and international attention to their plight. To them, the ascent of Jaafari and the Shi'ites in Iraq is of no less importance than the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Treated as an underclass, they rose against the Bahraini government in 1994, with the funding of Iran, demanding reforms, better living conditions and restoration of the parliament abrogated by Sheikh Issa bin Salman al-Khalifa in 1975. Hopes were a little heightened in 2002 when Issa's son, King Hamad, restored constitutional life to Bahrain, but curbed its powers, and reduced Shi'ite representation.
They boycotted elections in 2002, and were very poorly represented in the lower chamber of parliament (the upper chamber was appointed by the king). Before the elections, in an attempt at bolstering Sunni representation in Bahrain, authorities decided to grant dual citizenship to nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council living in Bahrain (mostly Sunnis). This aroused much controversy, and the Bahraini government decided to back down, fearing Shi'ite wrath, and grant citizenship to 10,000 Shi'ites living in Bahrain as an appeasement before the elections of October 2002.
On March 26 this year, shortly after it was confirmed that Jaafari was the new prime minister of Iraq, 80,000 Shi'ite demonstrators came out in Bahrain to demand a new constitution giving them more rights, among which was electing a prime minister, and not having him appointed by the king. In the past, demonstrators in Bahrain carried photographs of Iraq's Sistani and Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.
The Shi'ites of Saudi Arabia
The same scare has taken over Saudi Arabia since 2003, where 11% of its 25 million people are Shi'ites. They, too, complain of being discriminated against, and have strong alliances in Baghdad and Tehran. Only a few days after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Sheikh Hasan al-Saffa, a leading Saudi Shi'ite reformist, appeared on satellite television to demand an end to the injustice done against the Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia.
Shi'ite districts in Saudi Arabia were underdeveloped, and Saudi authorities prevented Shi'ites from practicing their rituals and building mosques, in addition to denying them equal access to government jobs and the Saudi army. By the end of April 2003, the Shi'ites had petitioned Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, for political and religious freedoms. Among other things, they demanded increased representation in government, the right to set up their own courts, publish their own books, the lifting of bans on their rituals, and the creation of a special department to oversee their issues at the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs.
Deeply rooted in the Arabian desert, the Shi'ites were around before the modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in the 1920s. In 1913, they swore allegiance to King Abd al-Aziz (the kingdom's founder, who was then sultan of Nejd), in exchange for a promise made by him to guarantee their safety and freedom of expression, once the desert was united. This was done despite promises by the British to grant them protectorate status, similar to the one according to the small Persian Gulf sheikhdoms.
Abd al-Aziz honored his initial promise, yet reneged on his promises when creating Saudi Arabia in 1925. Matters remained strained, more or less, throughout the 20th century, and in 1993 an agreement was reached between expatriate Saudi Shi'ites and King Fahd. They promised to halt opposition activities from abroad, urge Shi'ite activists to return to Saudi Arabia, in exchange for an amnesty by the king, and no more discrimination. This did not happen.
Today, fears are heightened that the Shi'ites of Saudi Arabia will be influenced, funded or helped by the victorious Shi'ites of Iraq. The Saudi Shi'ites, it must be noted, refused to cooperate with Iran when it called on them in 1980-88 to rebel against the House of Saud.
Shi'ites in the remainder of the Gulf are not as active, or as dangerous to established regimes, as they are in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Many have become active, however, since the rise of the Iraqi Shi'ites in 2003. In Yemen, the Shi'ites, who are 30% of the country's 20 million, have also been highly influenced by the Iraq debacle. They live in tribal regions of Yemen, are heavily armed and are greatly underdeveloped. In 2004, seeing the benefits their co-religionaries were getting in Iraq, they launched a failed rebellion against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and it was suppressed by authorities, leading to the killing of more than 400 people.
In Kuwait, where the Shi'ites are 25% of Kuwait's 2.2 million, they are loyal and in harmony with the established government, represented with five deputies in parliament, and until recently with Mohammad Abu al-Hassan, a Shi'ite, as minister of information. Matters became tense in 2004 when Yasser Habeeb, a Kuwaiti Shi'ite student activist, was arrested for distributing material offending leaders of the Sunni faith who were companions of the Prophet Mohammed. He was released in February 2004, but authorities tried to arrest him again, to no avail. The only two countries (in addition to Syria) with a significant Shi'ite majority, which nevertheless has no history of political ambitions, or activism, are Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
There is a fear rapidly creeping throughout the Arab world from the rising Shi'ite influence in the Middle East.
Two years after the fall of Saddam's regime in Iraq, it is safe to ask: Who were the real victors in this bloody war of the Middle East in 2003? At first glance, the only victors were George W Bush and the neo-conservatives at the White House. A closer look would show, however, that Iran as well, ironically, has a lot to gain from the new Middle East.
Or more specifically, the real victors are the Shi'ites of Iran and the Muslim world. They will enjoy the fruits of the post-Saddam order long after Bush's army leaves Iraq. This region, many fear, is now dominated by a "Shi'ite crescent" uniting the Shi'ites of Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arab Gulf region.
Fear of this threat was first used by King Abdullah of Jordan in an interview with the Washington Post last December, arousing anger of the Shi'ite community in the Arab world. Actually, the fear of a "crescent" in this part of the world dates back to the 1950s, when Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Sa'id talked about a "fertile crescent" plan for the Middle East, to unite Iraq with Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, in a federal union to be ruled by the Hashemite family in Baghdad.
This plan, lobbied for extensively in Amman and Baghdad, was received with cold shivers in Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Riyadh. The "crescent" remains, but players and roles have shifted over the past 50 years. Today's "crescent" is lobbied for extensively by its Iranian creator, and supported by Baghdad, parts of Beirut and Damascus, while it is being spurned in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Kuwait.