TEHRAN – Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are crucial protagonists in the specter of a Shi’ite crescent, according to the Saudi royal family, King Abdullah of Jordan and conservative American think tanks. Once again, the facts on the ground are much more complex than a simplistic formula.

Syria, although 86% Muslim, is a multiethnic and multiconfessional country. The Sunni majority cohabits with 13% of Alawites (who are Shi’ites), 3% of Druze and 1% of Ismailis. The Alawites derive from a schism in the 9th century around the 11th imam, al-Askari, who they consider the last legitimate descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Sunnis as well as Western scholars consider them Shi’ites. But many Islamic scholars are not so sure.

Since the early 20th century, Syrian nationalists have never accepted the creation of Lebanon, Jordan and much less Palestine – which became Israel. Alawites – a persecuted minority for centuries – have reached their current enviable position in Syria thanks to the Ba’ath Party ideology, which has always been secular and nationalist.

Ba’ath ideology exalted Arabism. So Alawites joined en masse both the Ba’ath Party and the army. The result was inevitable: at the end of the 1960s they took over power in Syria. The incarnation of this process was strongman Hafez Assad. Sunnis in Syria always felt they had been “robbed” of power. But Assad never feared the Sunnis as much as he feared Islamic fundamentalism.

Damascus is close to Tehran. In Lebanon – to counteract Christian Maronite power – Syria has always supported the Shi’ites. Does that mean that Alawite-controlled Syria is part of the Shi’ite crescent? Not necessarily. Lebanese Shi’ism is practically the same as in Iran. But for the Iranian ayatollahs in Qom, Alawites themselves are heretics. In the 1980s, in Damascus, there was plenty of official talk about a Shi’ite “international” from the Mediterranean to Pakistan. But Assad – coming from a sect considered heretic – could never be the head of such an entity.

The point now with Hafez’s son Bashar is whether he will be able to keep the Alawites in power by remodeling the state’s upper echelons. Not if Washington neo-conservatives can have a word on the matter. Regime change in Syria may remain a priority in Washington. But nobody knows how Syrian unity would be affected – the country could become another factionalized Lebanon, or another factionalized Iraq – or what the consequences would be over the stability of Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shi’ites in Lebanon are predominant in two non-contiguous regions, the south and the northeast near the Syrian border. Lebanese Shi’ites finally achieved political representation as they have become the predominant Lebanese community (about 60%). They woke up from decades of political and social torpor, their political consciousness determined by the fact that they were Shi’ites. This extraordinary, painful process has served as an example for Shi’ites in Iraq, and may serve as an example for Shi’ites in the Persian Gulf.

Lebanese Shi’ites essentially want to be able to co-direct the country along with the Christian Maronites – the financial power. This could only happen in a Lebanon free from the current confessional, institutional model, something that is unlikely in the short term. The only possible solution for Lebanon would be a broad agreement between the Maronites (the financial power), the Shi’ites (the demographic power) and the Sunnis (the link with Saudi financial power, and until recently with Syria as well). With former premier Rafik Hariri’s son as the new prime minister – which means the Saudi connection is intact – that seems unlikely to happen. The point is that for Lebanese Shi’ites, Lebanon is the most important thing, not a Shi’ite crescent, even though Iran and Hezbollah remain extremely active.

Breaking up (Iraq) is hard to do

Under whoever was in charge – the Ottoman empire, the Hashemites, the British, the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hussein – Shi’ites in Iraq were always denied political influence. That was the main reason, at the end of the 1950s, for the creation of the Da’wa Party – which became the expression of Shi’ite specificity. Now a Da’wa member, Ibrahim Jaafari, brother-in-law of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has become prime minister of Iraq, probably to be reconfirmed in the December elections. History has delivered it: this is what Iran had wanted in Iraq since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

The Ba’ath Party and Saddam wanted to create a strong, secular, Arab Iraqi nation. They had everything they needed: a sea of oil, lots of water (unlike any other Arab country) and a significant population. In this ambitious project there was no room for religious or ethnic affirmation. So Kurds as well as Shi’ites were immolated in the altar of this concept – a modern and secular Iraq.

During the 1980s – because of the appeal of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution – Saddam’s ultimate nightmare was seeing Iraq break up in three weak statelets: a Kurdistan, a “Shi’itestan” and a Sunni center with no oil. That was a key reason for Saddam to launch the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s. The pretext, according to Saddam himself, was to recover what Iraqis call Arabistan – the Iranian province of Khuzistan, where most of Iran’s oil lies.

George Bush senior, as is well documented, decided to keep Iraq intact. He knew that the inevitable consequence of an implosion of Iraq would be a Kurdistan and a Shi’itestan near the Gulf. That spelled the death sentence for the Shi’ite uprising after Saddam’s armies were defeated in early 1991 in the first Gulf War.

Sunni repression was horrendous: more than 40,000 Iraqi Shi’ites were killed and hundreds of thousands had to flee to Iran. It’s Western wishful thinking to believe that Iraqi Shi’ites will ever forget this betrayal. In the early 1990s, the Americans, the “international community,” Arab regimes, nobody wanted to see the Iraqi state break up. By another cruel historical irony, the Bush junior administration’s actions could produce exactly this outcome.

A smatter of Sunni Arab politicians meeting last week in Amman in Jordan proclaimed that Iraqi Sunni Arabs were facing genocide. They fully agreed with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s recent claim that Iran was destabilizing Iraq. Saudi Arabia never tires to fuel the myth of the Shi’ite crescent.

Iraqi Shi’ites for their part know very well that al-Qaeda wants civil war. They are determined not to succumb to provocation. Sistani has issued a fatwa in full support of the constitution to be voted in mid-October. Shi’ites know they have the numbers to win the general election in December. That will seal the arrival of Shi’ites to real power in Iraq.

This is not about religion – or a Shi’ite crescent. It’s about power. A civil war in Iraq is already on. And the Holy Grail is power. The US wants power over the whole Middle East. The Sunnis don’t want to lose the power they thought was theirs in Iraq by divine will. Other Sunni Arab regimes in the Middle East obviously hate to see a Shi’ite renaissance. The Shi’ites are about to reach power after centuries of suffering. And al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers wants power as well, in the form of an Islamic emirate of Iraq, Taliban-style, possibly controlled by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who may or may not be a cipher.

Zarqawi was forced to moderate his call of “total war” against Iraqi Shi’ites. Most of the Sunni Arab resistance – led by Iraqi nationalist, former Ba’ath Party military officers – totally rejected it. A resistance communique last week, signed by the First Army of Mohammed, the Islamic Army, the al-Qa’qa Brigades, the Army of the Mujahideen of Iraq and the an-Nasir Salah ad-Din Brigades, proclaimed that “the aim of the Iraqi resistance is the expulsion of the occupation, making it an example for anyone who might dare to think in the future about occupying any Arab or Islamic state.”

And according to the powerful Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, “The Shi’ites of Iraq do not bear the guilt for the brazenly open sectarian policy that the government is pursuing with American blessings. They are not at fault for the naked aggression carried out by the government forces against Tal Afar and other cities, nor for the terrorist crimes against peaceful people.”

The Washington-Najaf axis

Sistani said that even if half of Iraq’s Shi’ites were killed, there would be no civil war. The message could not be clearer: hold on, power is at hand.

It was much easier for Sistani to deliver this message with the knowledge that the Americans have left “his” holy Najaf for good. Najaf security is now the responsibility of the Badr Organization (previously Badr Brigade), the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which rules the whole of Najaf province. This means that the Iranian-trained Badr, by themselves, have to protect Sistani’s life and have to face whatever turbulence is caused by Muqtada al-Sadr’s anti-occupation, anti-establishment Mehdi Army.

The Washington-Najaf axis is a neo-con dream. It would fit in a pattern of divide and rule, splitting the Arab world between Sunnis and Shi’ites perpetually at each other’s throats. This would include, of course, Shi’ites fighting Sunnis in Hasa, in Saudi Arabia. That’s a graphic case of neo-con thinking encouraging the rise of a Shi’ite crescent as a means to weaken the Arab world.

The neo-cons should beware of what they want. It may be exactly what al-Qaeda wants: civil war in Iraq leading to mini-civil wars in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and ultimately regime change, but to the benefit, in al-Qaeda’s point of view, of Salafi jihadi regimes. As Washington wrestles – at least for public relations purposes – with the dilemma of controlling Iraqi oil or bringing the troops home, the temptation persists of an attack against either Syria or Iran. All scenarios seem to come straight from Pandora’s box.

One from the heart

No Shi’ite crescent – and no Shi’ite “international” – to speak of may exist because the Shi’ite galaxy, with the exception of Iran, remains fragmented, polymorphous, an archipelago. Even Shi’ism itself can be fragmented in many factions – Iranian or Arab, with or without a powerful clergy. The only thing that unifies Shi’ite communities everywhere – and that’s been the case for almost 1,400 years – is opposition to “illegitimate” Sunni Islam and rejection of other religions.

Of course there is the Iranian Shi’ite “sanctuary,” sophisticated Iranian diplomacy and still a pan-Shi’ite Iranian dream. But national and theological antagonisms prevail. The best example is the renewed rivalry between Qom in Iran and Najaf. Iranian ayatollahs are extremely concerned by the ramifications of Shi’ites opposed to the concept of velayat-e-faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent), the Khomeini-concocted base of the Islamic republic’s political system. That’s why the renaissance of Najaf – the site of Imam Ali’s tomb, the holiest city of Shi’ite Islam – can be so problematic. Sistani, arguably the most important religious authority in Shi’ism today, although an Iranian, sits in Najaf. If the center of gravity of Shi’ism goes back to where it was before – in Iraq – Iran’s influence will be tremendously reduced. And Shi’ism – traditionally apolitical – will be back to where it was before the Islamic revolution.

Speculation about an imminent Iranian nuclear bomb have been circulating for at least 10 years. It’s fair to speculate on what would be the meaning of a hypothetical Shi’ite bomb. Shi’ism in this case will have not only a political sanctuary, but a nuclear sanctuary. With Iran practically invulnerable to an outside attack, would the religious leadership be tempted to again start exporting its vision of pan-Shi’ism?

Meanwhile, the Shi’ite dream embodied by Iran, or at least the ayatollahs in Qom, keeps burning – the revolutionary power, the aspiration to be the flag-bearer of the misery of the world, a kind of beggars banquet, or the ticket for the beggars to finally accede to a banquet, the last hope for the damned of the earth.

No wonder Sunnis fear the power of this idea, which for Shi’ites comes straight from the heart. It’s not unfit that in the 12th century the great Persian poet Nezami Ghanjavi, in the famous Haft Peykar, wrote that “the world is the body/and Iran is the heart.”