The fall of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and the new alignment of political forces in the country, which in the perception of some regional countries as well as the United States may pave the way for the further connection of Shia territories and lead to the increased influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is a major change in regional geopolitics. The Shia rise to power in Iraq has created a perception among some Sunni political circles that such a trend can forge a coalition among Shia parties and countries in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as lead to the doctrinal linkage among the region's Shia populations. Some Arab leaders have called this perception the formation of a "Shia Crescent," and a number of political circles in the West have worked to aggravate these concerns.

 The Proposition of the Shia Crescent

Following the fall of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq, which was the main source of instability in the Persian Gulf region, some states tried to prevent the expansion of Iran-Iraq relations, believing that friendly ties between the two neighboring nations would lead to the emergence of a "Shia Crescent" in the region.  Some Arab circles in the region and a group of American Neo-Conservative thinkers view the Shias' rise to power in the Middle East as a nightmare.  In their opinion, a Shia Crescent is growing that stretches from Lebanon to Afghanistan, and from Mesopotamia through the Persian Gulf and the Iranian Plateau. Some Arab countries in the region also regard the issue as a very complicated one and assert that Iran controls its allies in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.  Nevertheless, a notable point is that these propositions are made by certain countries in the region that dislike the primary implementation of democratic rule and whose people -- particularly minorities -- do not enjoy political rights.  Worried about the rise of an Iraq with a Shia majority that has close ties and affinities to Iran and lays in the sensitive region of the Persian Gulf, King Abdullah of Jordan expressed his concern about the creation of a crescent consisting of Shia movements and governments and regarded it as a threat to the interests of the regional countries.  King Abdullah's remarks gave rise to new debates on whether regional geopolitics are changing to Iran’s benefit. Those who   this is the case contend that the traditional balance of power between the Shia and Sunnis will be disturbed, generating new challenges to the interests of Washington and its allies.

The proponents of this argument hold that because the world’s important energy resources lay in the Shia parts of the Middle East, including southern Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s neighboring regions and Iran, U.S. efforts at controlling the Middle East’s energy resources will be challenged. Iran’s opponents see the realization of a Shia coalition as Washington's worst nightmare, if this coalition takes control of the most important oil reserves of the world from the United States.

In any case, one question that arises is whether the proposition of a "Shia Crescent" reflects the realities of the region and whether it is even possible to forge a bloc of Shia vis-à-vis Sunni nations of the Middle East or other powers.

 The Reality of Shia Presence

In the aftermath of the fall of the Ba’athist Saddam-led regime in Iraq and the establishment of democracy there, the Iraqi Shia, who constitute roughly 60 percent of the country’s population, were able to win free elections. The victory of the Shia political parties in Iraq’s elections led to the formation of the first Arab nation under Shia leadership. This development encouraged the Shia throughout the region to become more determined to claim their rights and to have their status recognized. Some Arab states have worried that the new Iraq would lead the Shia throughout the region to claim their social and political rights. If this happens, regional geopolitics will undergo changes, and ultimately the Shia would ask why they should not be granted a fair share in their countries' decision-making structures based on their demographic composition. Indeed, the fundamental change that has occurred is that the Shia, who were suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, the Great Britain and pro-West dictatorships of the region in the past, are now becoming a new, powerful political force through an entirely democratic process as demanded by the people.  Under Saddam’s rule in Iraq, the Shia were deprived of their rights, and even their existence was denied by Saddam’s anti-Shia regime, whereas in the first free elections in the country, the representatives from Shia parties and groups were elected by the majority of people.

Shia efforts at gaining social and political rights in other regional countries where they constitute part of the population have increased significantly. In Lebanon, which is a multiethnic and multi-religious society, the Shia, who has a considerable population, are not able to gain their deserved share in the country’s political and governmental structure. On the other hand, Hezbollah’s victory over Israel during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in summer 2006 led to both the enhancement of its position among the Lebanese people and the intensification of certain enmities as provoked by the Israelis and some Western countries. 

In Bahrain, 70 percent of the population is Shia.  However, they play a scant role in the country’s political and governmental structure. Although the Shia rise to the highest positions of domestic politics in Iraq has led Bahraini Shia to expect regional and international attention to their unsuitable domestic conditions more than at any other time, no considerable change has been witnessed in the status of the Shia on this Persian Gulf island. The Shia continue to live in Bahrain as an inferior class, while they demand access to a better life and the establishment of a parliamentary system in their country.

In Kuwait, despite the fact that they constitute one third of the population, the Shia have not possessed a fair share in neither the parliament nor the government cabinet. Presently, only one Shia minister sits on the 16-member cabinet, and only five Shia are among the parliament's 50 members. Because of Iraq’s developments, the Kuwaiti Shia -- like their counterparts in the entire Arab World -- has found the courage to make attempts to claim their rights.

In Saudi Arabia, while the Shia constitutes roughly 20 percent of the country’s citizens, they do not enjoy suitable political and social rights. Some Saudi authorities are extremely concerned about any possible connection between the Shia in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Therefore, failing to pay attention to their Shia citizens, some Saudi authorities frequently express concern that the Shia are conspiring to form a Shia bloc comprising  Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. At the same time, regional authorities have embarked on certain moves in order to improve the present conditions, like holding broader elections.

It should be stressed that the Shia, as huge political and social forces, have been an obvious reality of the Middle East region throughout history.  Nevertheless, given regional conditions, they have consistently been deprived of their rights. The current trend in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries and the Shia endeavor to claim their inalienable rights are completely based on principles of democracy and popular self-determination. These developments must be supported rather than opposed and should not be seen as a cause for regional and international concerns.

 Real Intentions behind the Proposition of a Shia Crescent

A study of the Arab regimes’ concerns about the future of Iraq and the Shia rise to power demonstrates that some Arabs wish for the execution of the policy of Arabism in Iraq in order to preserve the Arab World's integrity with traditional, secular sovereignty. Hence, they continue to warn the United States about what they describe as Iran’s threat, particularly since they are well aware of the problems found between Iran and the United States.

Certain Arab rulers expect the United States to shape Iraq’s political future, relying on Iraq’s Arabness with particular attention to its Sunni minority as Great Britain did in the early 20th century. The projection and aggrandizement of Iran’s threat derives from the fact that the Shia constitute the majority of Iraq’s population.  A proper and true democratic process also brings them into power, particularly since the Shia convergence (at least in doctrinal terms) and the Kurds' attachment (in historical and cultural terms) with Iran is far more than their attachment to the Arab World bloc.

The proposition of the question of a Shia Crescent by some regional Arab countries can be considered as their attempt to prevent the Shia from attaining their rights. It is an effort which was also seen in the region's history. Indeed, the "Shia Crescent" is a fabricated expression that tries to expose to advance the formation of a bloc of Shia vis-à-vis Sunni nations of the region. The fact that must be accepted is that the Shia -- as a reality throughout the region’s history -- have sought the realization of their rights through democratic processes and wish to establish good relations with all regional countries, both Shia and Sunni.

In a nutshell, those who have expressed concern about the formation of a "Shia Crescent" seem to be motivated by the following aims:

Their objection to the rise of Shia to power in Iraq and Lebanon and elsewhere is an attempt to attenuate Iran’s role in the region because the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the establishment of a Shia government have caused concerns for the mainly Sunni countries of the region. In the meantime, these countries believe that the establishment of a Shia government in Iraq would complete Iran’s rising power and dominance over the entire region.

The proposition of such an issue is largely an attempt to politicize old controversies between the Shia and Sunnis in the region. Indeed, the Sunni nations of the region intend to obstruct Iraq's stabilization and the institutionalization of a government elected by the country's Shia majority.

Those who put forward the concept of a "Shia Crescent" do not want the materialization of a democratic government to become a role model for similar changes in their own countries. If a democratic, popular government is institutionalized in Iraq and tranquility is established, some of the authoritarian governments in the region would feel threatened for their own existence.

In general, it can be suggested that the proposition of a "Shia Crescent" as a doctrinal and ideological bloc vis-à-vis the Sunnis is not a real occurrence and is instead a fictitious concept fabricated by some politicians of the region.