Fear of a Shia full moon
Events are proving that the king of Jordan was right to warn of a 'Shia crescent' across the Middle East - even though the phrase was a tad undiplomatic, writes Ian Black
Friday 26 January 2007 06.52 EST
Late in 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan coined a controversial phrase that still resonates powerfully in the Middle East: there was, he argued, a "Shia crescent" that went from Damascus to Tehran, passing through Baghdad, where a Shia-dominated government had taken power and was dictating a sectarian brand of politics that was radiating outwards from Iraq across the whole region.
The king's words were certainly prescient: the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims looks like being one of the big themes of 2007 as both come to terms with the apparently unstoppable chaos in Iraq, the rise of Iran as a regional power, and the fear of new and catastrophic consequences if the US and/or Israel enter into armed confrontation with the Islamic republic.
Now some scholars are even talking of a new "30 years' war" between the two branches of Islam - something akin to the struggle between Protestants and Catholics in 16th-century Europe.
Some of this deepening anxiety has been evident in comments by the Jordanian monarch in recent days. A journalist from the London-based Sharq al-Awsat newspaper reminded him that officials in Iran were "looking forward to a full Shia moon, not just a Shia crescent." The king responded by stressing that he had never used the word Shia in a sectarian sense - "let's not delve into these labels," he insisted - but rather was referring to "political alignments".
His "Shia crescent" tag went down badly because it was simply too frank; it was simplistic, too, smoothing over local factors of ethnicity and nationalism to provide a single, overarching explanation. In a region where political discourse is often coded, it was highly unusual to hear such blunt language.
But pro-western Jordan
is a small, vulnerable, Sunni country, and it has real concerns about the disintegration of Iraq next door. It is already sheltering an estimated 1 million Iraqi refugees and fears many more will flood across the borders if "ethnic cleansing" escalates further.
Protests from Iraq itsellf and from Lebanon were predictable. But there was nervousness in the Gulf, too, where Bahrain has a Shia majority and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (in its oil-rich eastern province) sizeable Shia minorities.
"It's true to talk of a Shia crescent, but the phrase didn't have a good ring to it," concedes a Jordanian official. The gossip on the diplomatic circuit is that the chief of the country's powerful Mukhabarat intelligence agency, who thought it up, was later sacked because of these adverse reactions.
Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have good reason to be anxious. Iran, flaunting its nuclear ambitions, has emerged as the biggest winner of the war in Iraq, and it has a strategic ally in Lebanon's Shia organisation Hizbullah, which triggered last summer's war with Israel. Tehran is also now an influential player in the Palestine question, having forged close ties with the ruling Islamist movement, Hamas.
"Iran should stop seeking to destabilise Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq or any other country so that we can build constructive relations," King Abdullah said. As he put it in another interview, with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz: "Through Hamas, Iran has been able to buy itself a seat at the table in talking about the Palestinian issue."
Jordan, perennially caught in the crossfire, is a good vantage point from which to view these multiple and intersecting crises. Until 1958, Iraq was also ruled by the Hashemite dynasty, and the late King Hussein managed to maintain good relations with Saddam Hussein, though he angered his US and British backers by supporting the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The kingdom's long exposure to, and involvement in, the Palestinian question has given it a good feel for the intricacies of the conflict with Israel - its own position enhanced by the (domestically unpopular) peace treaty it signed with the Jewish state in 1994.
Jordanians say, wearily, that they do not believe Iran really cares for the fate of the Palestinians, but rather is exploiting the issue for its own ends, complicating the already difficult search for a negotiated solution. The semi-official media has been encouraged to snipe at Tehran along these lines, especially since the execution of Saddam, which was widely seen in Jordan and elsewhere in the Sunni world as an act of pure sectarian vengeance; 22 Jordanian MPs called for a severing of diplomatic relations with Iran.
Iran's assertiveness has reawakened dormant historical resentment. Sunnis now talk routinely of the Safawis - the Arabic name for the Shia Persian Safavid dynasty, which fought the Sunni Ottomans for control of Iraq in the 16th and 17th centuries.
"The current order in Iraq has contributed to opening sectarian wounds throughout the region that most of us thought had been consigned to the past, " commented the Egyptian analyst Amr Elchobaki.
It is natural enough that Jordanians worry about the immediate repercussions of a disintegrating Iraq. But the problem is much bigger than their own immediate neighbourhood.
"We knew that Iraq would be just as complex as it is proving today for the Americans and British, though we are not in the business of saying 'I told you so,'" said a senior Jordanian government figure.
"If the Americans succeed, we will be able to regain Iraq. The extremists want to defeat the Americans at the expense of losing Iraq. If Iraq is divided into two sectarian states, they will be magnets for sectarian war across the Muslim world."
King Abdullah again put it surprisingly bluntly: "If sectarianism deepens and spreads, its destructive effect will reflect on everyone. It will foster division, polarisation and isolationism. Our region will drown in a conflict whose outcome cannot be foreseen."
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