In December 2004, Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke of the emergence of a “Shia crescent” as a direct manifestation of the democratisation of the Middle East. He was referring to the possibility of an alliance between Iran, a Shia-controlled Iraq, Syria (ruled by Iran’s Allawi allies), and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The warning was interpreted as an attempt to raise the spectre of a new Iran-led order in the Middle East — and build a case for the continuation of pro-US autocratic Arab regimes.
It is too soon to predict the implications of the deal reached on Tuesday, but it has certainly upset America’s traditional friends in the Middle East — and is bound to have a significant impact across the Muslim world where Saudi Arabia and Iran are competitors for influence.
Israel’s opposition to the deal works for Iran — it doesn’t have to forego support to the Palestinians, or shut shop in Lebanon. Instead, talk of “bonhomie” between Saudi-led Arab monarchies and Israel — whose strategic interests have started to overlap — helps the Tehran regime in its political constituency.
Middle East scholar Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, wrote that “by liberating and empowering Iraq’s Shiite majority, the Bush administration [had] helped launch a broad Shiite revival that will upset the sectarian balance in Iraq and the Middle East for years to come”. The sheer size of the Shia population — 140 million living in the arc from Lebanon to Pakistan — made them a powerful constituency, he wrote. “Many, long marginalised from power, are now clamouring for greater rights and more political influence.”
This political empowerment — triggered by the fall of the Saddam regime in Iraq — has already pitched the Saudis and Iranians together in the ring. Protests against the dictatorship in Syria have Saudi support, while Iran favours the rule of Bashar al-Assad over the Sunni majority. The pro-democracy protests in Shia-majority Bahrain have Iran’s open support, while Saudi sent its troops to help the regime of King Hamad quell the protests. And although the Salafi Daesh — or ISIS — considers the Arab monarchs enemies, the Saudis are more comfortable bombing north Yemen to punish the Zaydi Shia Houthis allied to Iran than going all out to stop the barbaric Daesh advance in Syria and Iraq.
There is now a serious possibility of this rivalry and mistrust growing — and widening the sectarian chasm between the Sunnis and Shias. The divide is old, but its current manifestation raises dangerous possibilities in the context of the rise and spread of ISIS, and growth of al-Qaeda in post-Saddam Iraq.
What can be the implications for India?
Despite the existence of tensions, India — with one of the largest Shia populations in the world — has remained insulated from sectarian violence. Indian Muslim politics is focused on identity, and commonalities between the sects have overwhelmed differences in the understanding and practice of the faith. The branch of the Deoband school that grew in Pakistan — which has seen repeated Shia-Sunni conflict — has virtually nothing in common with the Indian original. The absence of al-Qaeda in India has contributed to keeping the divide within a threshold.