An important backdrop to the militant American foreign policy of recent years is the fear that also pervades many Arab capitals of a rising “Shi’a Crescent” across the Middle East, which refers to the rise in militant power of Shi’ites across the region. Shi’ites represent about 12% of the Muslim population worldwide, as opposed to Sunnis who are the vast majority. King Abdullah of Jordan gave a grim warning of this rise on December 8, 2004 in anticipation of the Iraqi elections.

But Dr. Moshe Maoz, Israel’s most senior expert on Syria and Iran, and also passionately committed to peace, has exposed this fear as oversimplified and misplaced, in an important study for the Saban Center. What appears as a rising crescent of the moon is actually more like crumb cake. There are separate and isolated movements across the region of Shi’ites asserting their presence, their rights and their power. There are some linkages between these movements by way of state-based support. This is most notably an expression of Iran’s national and strategic interests through support of Shi’ites and their militant movements such as Hezbollah. But this must be understood in traditional terms of the state interests of Iran, not as some collective Shi’ite conspiracy.

There is also resistance to Iran’s state interests by Shi’ites themselves when Iran is seen to be doing harm to Shi’ites. For example, it is in Iran’s interest to bog down American troops endlessly in Iraq in order to make it more and more difficult for American troops and ships to surround the Persian state on all sides. But many innocent Shi’ites are being harmed by this interference, and many of the hired thugs are wreaking havoc on innocents all over Iraq as a result. According to Michael Messing inThe New York Review of Books, even Moqtada Al-Sadr, the founder of the Mahdi Army, is upset about how out of control these Iranian-supported thugs really are. What Iran wants out of its interference in Iraq and what Shi’ite Iraqis want is different. Furthermore, Iran’s interference may be more due to American provocation than American citizens generally realize. The hundreds of millions of dollars of American tax dollars that are going toward violence INSIDE IRAN, perpetrated by American supported or covert sources is not very known by Americans, but it may explain a great deal of Iran’s behavior in Iraq.

Whatever the circumstances, all of this conflict between Iran and the United States, going back many decades, and now exacerbated by an extreme Iranian president, but also a violent foreign policy that is essential to the current White House. But this has little to do with some kind of collective Shi’a threat. Maoz claims that in the long run a Shi’ite dominated Iraq may very well become an important counter-balance to Iran, which is why Iran may have as its aim to bog down both America and Shi’ite Iraq.

The most important point, in my opinion, is that Iran is a serious emerging power in the region that will not go away. It has very strong state interests, it is a force to be reckoned with, and its foreign policy shows a degree of genius that must be faced constructively by Arab Sunnis regimes and by the West. It will be in the interest of Sunni Arab states, for example, to develop a fundamentally new approach to their Shi’ite Muslim brethren. They must move decisively away from old prejudices that reduced Shi’ites to poverty and humiliation, and instead help their Shi’ite brethren to integrate successfully in each country of the Middle East. Maoz argues that integration and equality is precisely what the vast majority of Shi’ites want, the same search for the satisfaction of basic human needs that we in conflict resolution theory see all over the world. Maoz states:

In many cases, the Shi’ah are more concerned with changing their lot within their existing countries than in binding themselves to Iran…or in creating any other form of pan-Shi’i alliance….The “Shi’i crescent” is therefore largely a myth that masks important, but malleable state interests.

If the Sunni states take these human needs and rights seriously then using these minorities for state purposes will become less possible for Iran, and specifically less tempting for the radical elements in Iran, most notably the President and the Revolutionary Guard.

Once again, it is clear that human rights and the satisfaction of citizens’ basic needs is a rational foreign policy in the Middle East, far better than goading someone to attack Iran. An American or Israeli military attack will indeed create an even greater Shiite-Sunni confrontation than already exists, it will destabilize states with mixed Shi’a/Sunni populations, which only helps radicals and those who seek a war of civilizations with Islam and a civil war within Islam. This is as reckless as it gets, but there is a better way—come January 20, 2009.

© Marc Gopin