The Shiite Crescent
Are the fears expressed by Sunni monarch King Abdallah II of Jordan of increasing instability in the Middle East caused by the emergence of a “Shiite crescent”, dominated by Iraq and Iran, being realized? It is too early to say. But the “historic” visit to Teheran by Iraqi Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the only Shiite head of government outside of Iran, was a spectacular demonstration of warming relations between the two countries, who from 1980 to 1988 fought a pitiless war in which more than a million people died.
Shortly after his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, condemned as military aggression by Teheran, Saddam Hussein made a half-hearted attempt to reestablish diplomatic relations with his large neighbor but only at the level of chargé d'affaires and with plenty of reciprocal acrimony. In March 2003, Teheran condemned the US invasion of Iraq for its illegality while observing the fall of the “impious” Ba’athist regime from the sidelines of declared neutrality--but not without a certain amount of satisfaction. In November 2003, a year and a half later, Iran was one of the first nations to recognize the Provisional Governing Council put in place by the Americans and dispatched its first ambassador to Baghdad since 1980. Since then, normalization between the two regional powers has only accelerated.
Normalization with Iran was imposed on the US occupier by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual guide for Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. Iranian by birth, Ayatollah al-Sistani is nevertheless regarded with circumspection by the leaders of the Islamic Republic because he opposes “a cleric-led government.” Iran supported the Iraqi elections in January and welcomed the ascent to power of its Shiite “brethren,” who had long lived in exile--many of whom in Iran. Ibrahim al-Jaafari himself spent half of his 20-year exile in Teheran before going to London.
Today in Baghdad power is dominated by the Shi’a. A minority among Muslims worldwide (an estimated 25% of all Muslims), the Shi’a are numerous in Lebanon and in Bahrain. With the knowledge that the Shi’a account for an important share of minorities elsewhere, the fears of Sunni regimes are understandable fearful. But perhaps unnecessarily.
Iran and Iraq are not yet ready to begin discussions towards a formal peace treaty. There remain many issues to be settled between the two nations. But history between 1980 and 1988 has shown that a shared religion among the Arab Shi’a of Iraq and the Persian Shi’a of Iran does not prevent them from engaging in warfare. While 90% of all Iranian combatants in the war was Shi’a, so were three-quarters of middle ranking officers in Iraq.
A rapprochement and a warming of relations have certainly taken place. But if Iraq is able to avoid civil war, ancient Mesopotamia would not appear to be on the eve of surrendering its interests and its nationalism to an alliance of religion with its neighbor.