Debit/Credit Payment

Credit/Debit/Bank Transfer

Shi’ism on the Rise

June 13, 2007
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The year 680 AD marked the separation of the Shi’ites from mainstream Islam. That year, Hussein, son of Ali (Muhammad’s cousin, who many believed was groomed to be his successor), was martyred in the Battle of Karbala, losing his claim to the leadership of the Muslims. A total of 1,299 years passed before a powerful Shi’ite leader rose to reclaim the leadership of the Muslim world. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, a charismatic Shi’ite cleric, inspired the Shi’ites to demand political inclusion in the various Muslim countries they lived in.

The year 2003 marked yet another important milestone in the history of the Shi’ites. When the United States invaded Iraq that year, a major political power shift took place in the country. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator, was ousted, and a democratic voting system was installed. In 2005, the parliamentary elections brought to the fore the Shi’ite movements, which represented over 60% of the country’s population. These Shi’ite movements now hold the majority in the government and in parliament. “It is the crumbling of the Sunni domination of Iraq, which is giving us the impression of the rise of the Shi’ite Crescent, because it has facilitated Iran in [its] access to the heart of the Arab world,” says Anoush Ehteshami, professor of International Relations at Durham University in Britain.

The Shi’ite Crescent is a well-known Middle Eastern term. It refers to a region which stretches from Iran in the east to Lebanon in the west, with Iraq and Syria in the middle. The Shi’ites in this region have recently accumulated much political and paramilitary power, with Iran playing a significant role in the process. Iran, this article will show, also has considerable influence on Shi’ite minorities in other Middle Eastern countries, much to the dismay of their Sunni leaders. It is proving to be an extremely important regional and international power, even before taking into account its nuclear development program.

The Iraq-Iran Connection

When the United States ousted Saddam Hussein, it hoped that Iraq’s various religions and sects would show a strong sense of nationalism and cohesiveness. But that did not happen.

The violent sectarian strife, which erupted thereafter, was exploited—and to a large extent initiated—by Iran. After years of rivalry with Iraq’s Sunni regime, suddenly Iran has gained direct access to Iraq’s government and parliament. It sought to persuade Iraq’s Shi’ite factions to work together to ensure their dominance in the political arena. And, indeed, the 2005 elections saw the sweeping victory of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a coalition of Iranian-backed Shi’ite parties including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Islamic D’awa Party, and a strong faction led by Muqtada al-Sadr (leader of an Iranian-backed insurgent force, who has opposed the new Iraqi government and constitution).

“Many in the new political elite in Iraq spent probably much of their adult life in Iran,” Ehteshami says. Many, he adds, were deported in the early 1980s by Saddam Hussein and took refuge in Iran. When Saddam was ousted, they returned to Iraq and turned to their Iranian patrons for moral, practical, and psychological support, which then transformed into political support. “Finally, there is the security-military side to it as well, and that is where Iran is proactively pursuing its Iraqi agenda,” Ehteshami explains.

Although the new Iraqi regime owes its existence to the US-led coalition forces, its leaders know they are deeply indebted to Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a member of the Shi’ite Islamic D’awa Party, is one of those between a rock and a hard place. His movement was funded and trained for years by Iran. He also knows that Iran has considerable influence in his country, and that, while the United States is bound to leave sometime, Iran will always remain in the region. “It is a very difficult relationship that he has to balance, and the fact that Iran, the US, and Syria met in Baghdad to talk about Iraq must come as a mighty relief to al-Maliki,” Ehteshami says.

Syria, an Alawite Regime

The Syrian regime is growing increasingly closer to Iran, as the two countries face similar pressures from the West. Although Syria is part of the Shi’ite Crescent, the country is run by President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite minority.

Although the Alawites claim to be an extension of one of the Shi’ites’ offshoots, they are considered by many as non-Muslims. They do not regard the Koran as their holy book, and they worship Ali as a divine entity, whose standing, according to them, far exceeds that of Prophet Muhammad. The Alawites’ affiliation to the Shi’ite Crescent, therefore, derives to a large extent from geopolitical rather than religious motives.

However, according to Dr. Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University, who specializes in Arab anti-Semitism, a religious explanation may shed more light on the reality of the two nations’ relationship. “One of the reasons for the relationship between Iran and Syria—beyond the geopolitical elements—is the fact that the Alawites do not share with the Sunnis the same religious-ideological aversion for the Shi’ites in Iran,” Litvak says.

Lebanon, a Stronghold of Shi’ism

Unofficial estimates indicate that Lebanon has a 60% Shi’ite population; they are, however, underrepresented in parliament. In 1975, the first powerful Lebanese Shi’ite movement, Amal, was founded by Musa al-Sadr, a charismatic Shi’ite cleric, who studied in Iran during the 1950s. Nevertheless, his movement was primarily supported by Syria. In 1982, a second Shi’ite movement, Hizbullah, was established in Lebanon. This time, it was clearly an Iranian creation. “The Iranian influence on Hizbullah is pervasive to say the least,” says Professor Hilal Khashan of the American University in Beirut.

At the end of 1989, an agreement between the Lebanese religions and sects divided the political power between them. The Shi’ites, nevertheless, felt deprived, as they received a quota of only 20% of the parliamentary seats. However, the Iranian-backed Hizbullah popularity in Lebanon was unquestionable, especially after the summer war with Israel in 2006. The movement capitalized on this wave of popularity, making political gains. Followers of Hizbullah, allied with Amal, have been staging demonstrations in Beirut and across the country, calling for the ouster of the current government led by Sunni Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

“They want to have one third of the cabinet ministers, plus one, so that they will have veto power,” Khashan says. According to him, the Shi’ites already control the presidency through Syrian-appointed Emil Lahoud, who is also pro-Hizbullah. They are also in control of parliament, as they hold the position of parliamentary speaker. Khashan is of the opinion that although Hizbullah has Iran’s backing, a large paramilitary force under its command, and a massive base of support within the weak Lebanese army, it will not attempt to overthrow the regime by force. “I don’t think Hizbullah wants to do this right now. They want to maintain the existing institutions of the Lebanese system, but they want to control it. If we take Hizbullah’s open letter…published in February 1985…they made it very clear that their ultimate objective would be the creation of an Islamic state in Lebanon, and that would certainly be a Shi’ite-Islamic state…But these people can wait. They are patient,” Khashan sums up.

Iran‘s Influence Outside the Crescent

The Shi’ite population in a few concentrated areas along the western coast of the Persian Gulf constitutes a large percentage of the total population and, in some cases, even a majority. That is the case in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and in Kuwait. These large Shi’ite concentrations, according to a report by the British-based Chatham House, are a source of discomfort to their uniformly Sunni regimes. The areas in which the Shi’ites reside are of great strategic and economic value, as they contain huge oil reserves.

In March 2007, an Iranian dissident diplomat revealed details of the recruitment and training in Iran of citizens from the Persian Gulf states. Adil al-Asadi was an adviser to Iran’s foreign minister and was later posted to Dubai as the Iranian consul. He said that the majority of these recruits were Shi’ites.

As the tension rises in the region, and as the prospects of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States or Israel loom, Iran seeks to destabilize America’s main bases in the region. “These [bases] are no longer in Saudi Arabia or in Turkey, or in Israel or even in Egypt, but are actually in the smaller states of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, in which…Iran has much greater weight and influence,” Ehteshami explains.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinians

Iranalso has influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, its neighbors to the east. According to Ehteshami, Iran is trying to provide protection for the 30 million-strong Shi’ite population in Pakistan, where it sees them as being under constant threat and persecution.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai faces a similar dilemma to Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Maliki. According to Chatham House, Karzai wishes to build regional cooperation with Iran without antagonizing his American patrons. Afghanistan is concerned that alienating Iran would not only disrupt their economic relations, but might also lead to Iranian interference in the country. The Afghans are worried that Iran would provoke its local Shi’ite minority to destabilize the regime.


Iran’s influence in the Palestinian territories adds another angle to the story—its wish to dominate the Muslim world as a whole. Its major Palestinian protege is Hamas, which won three-quarters of the parliamentary seats in the 2006 elections. Hamas, however, represents a deviation from the usual Iranian method, as it is a Sunni movement. “As the Shi’ite–Sunni divide widens, [Iran] wants to be seen to be supporting Sunni organizations, so as to counter the argument that there is a major divide between radical Shi’ites and radical Sunnis. It is, if you like, ‘realpolitik’ in this sense,” Ehteshami explains.

A Shi’ite Iranian-Dominated Empire?

Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shi’ite cleric. Shi’ite movements across the Middle East are on the rise, no doubt with Iranian backing. But what will Iran do with the power it acquires?

“The educational system in Iran…teaches the people that Iran is basically a superpower equal to the United States,” says Dr. Eldad Pardo of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “They see the world as bipolar: US on the one hand, and Iran on the other hand.”

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, is one of the most powerful politicians in Iran today. In a recent speech in Tehran, Rafsanjani attacked those who were trying to sow discord between Shi’ites and Sunnis. He then said: “There are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, whose countries possess approximately 60% of the world’s energy resources and strategic locations. These resources are tidings of a great power to emerge in the near future.”

Is Iran about to create a regional alliance of Muslim countries under the flag of Shi’ism? According to Khashan, this aspiration is inherent in Khomeini’s doctrine. “In the Middle East, people have a tendency to think in imperial terms. For thousands of years until 1918 when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, people in this region lived as part of empires. One empire would be replaced by another until the arrival of the West in 1918,” says Khashan.

Khashan maintains that this is still Iran’s long-term strategic objective. “The fate of this plan, which I believe is real, will depend on the outcome of the current standoff between the US and Iran. If Iran prevails, or if Iran is able to hold its ground against the US, then eventually Iran will be able to achieve this objective,” he says.

Khashan’s view is not, however, shared by Ehteshami. The latter believes that Shi’ite movements around the Middle East are not united, not even under Iran. Each movement is focused on its own immediate concerns. “I do not think Iran is able to lead a regionwide international movement of that sort,” Ehteshami explains and offers food for thought: “Over time, the balance of power in Shi’ite theology will shift away from Qum [in Iran] to Najaf and Karbala [in Iraq]. For all the concerns that we have of Iranian domination, we can think about this differently: what would happen if Ayatollah Sistani [Iraq’s most prominent Shi’ite cleric] would begin to flex his Shi’ite muscles in ways that he has simply not done so far?”

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit: Shi'ite cleric

Latest News

Current Issue

View e-Dispatch

PDF Dispatch

Search Dispatch Articles

  • Order