The rise of the Houthi movement in Yemen, the militias of Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and even the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad are being configured by many analysts as evidence of a wide-ranging Iranian Shiite incursion into the Middle East. The Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, Israel’s recent bombing of Hezbollah bases in southern Syria, and Gulf Cooperation Council unease about Iraq’s Tikrit campaign are all a result of this theory of “the Shiite Crescent,” a phrase coined by King Abdallah II of Jordan. But is Iran really the aggressor state here, and are developments on the ground in the Middle East really being plotted out or impelled from Tehran?
It is an old fallacy to interpret local politics through the lens of geopolitics, and it is a way of thinking among foreign policy elites that has led to unnecessary conflicts and even wars. Polarized analysis is only good for the military-industrial complex. The United States invaded Lebanon in 1958, ostensibly on the grounds that Druse shepherds protesting the government of Camille Chamoun were Communist agents. A retired State Department official once confessed to me that many in Washington were sure that the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini was planned out in Moscow. On the other hand, I met a Soviet diplomat at a conference in Washington, DC, in 1981 who confessed to me that his country simply could not understand the Islamic Republic of Iran and was convinced that the CIA must be behind it. I would argue that Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and many Saudi and Gulf analysts have fallen victim to this “geopolitics fallacy.”
Iraqi Shiite militias can’t be read off as Iranian instruments. The Peace Brigades (formerly Mahdi Army) of Muqtada al-Sadr are mostly made up of Arab slum youth who are often suspicious of foreign, Persian influences. They became militant and were made slum-dwellers as a result of US and UN sanctions in the 1990s that destroyed the Iraqi middle classes and then of the US occupation after 2003. The ruling Dawa Party of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi does not accept Iran’s theory of clerical rule, and in the 1980s and ’90s many Dawa Party stalwarts chose to live in exile in London or Damascus rather than accept Iranian suzerainty. At the moment, Iraq’s Shiite parties and militias have been thrown into Iran’s arms by the rise of ISIL, which massacres Shiites. But the alliance is one of convenience and can’t just be read off from common Shiism.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah is strongly aligned with Iran. But it was formed around 1984 under the tutelage of the Iraqi Dawa Party in exile, and its main project was ending the Israeli occupation of 10 percent of Lebanon’s territory, which began in 1982. Its rival, the Amal Party, was more middle-class and less connected to Iran, even though it was also made up of Shiites. Exit polling suggests that some half of voters who vote for Hezbollah among Lebanese Shiites are nonreligious; they are supporting it for nationalist reasons and seeking self-defense against Israeli incursions. Lebanon is a country of only 4 million, and the Twelver Shiites are only about a third of the population, some 1.3 million, most of whom are children. The way in which Hezbollah has been built up in the Western imagination as a major force is a little bizarre, given that they have only a few thousand fighters. At the moment, they have a strong alliance with Lebanese Christians and Druze because all three generally support the government of Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria. But Lebanese politics are kaleidoscopic, and that political dominance could change abruptly. Lebanese Shiites are no more cat’s paws of Iran than are Lebanese Christians, many of them now allied with the Shiites and Alawites as well.