'Shiite Crescent' might not be what it seems

The Baltimore Sun

"Shiite Crescent" is Washington's new buzzword. Coined by Jordan's King Abdullah, the Shiite Crescent extends from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon and threatens the Middle East's status quo. With the Shiite community's rise to political prominence in Iraq, instability in Shiite-majority Bahrain, and Iran's invigorated confrontation with the West, the spotlight is shining on the rising power of this religious minority.

The premise of the Shiite Crescent assumes that states sharing common sectarian ties tend to form alliances and choose cooperation partners. But do they?

Several new Muslim-majority states emerged in the Caspian basin and Central Asia from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, neighboring the self-declared "Islamic Republics" of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Islam and cultural affinity were a basis for alliance formation and cooperation, surely it would be seen in the relations among these states.

But an examination of the foreign policy decisions of these new states and their neighbor Iran during their first 10 post-Soviet years reveals that neither Islamic identity nor common culture reliably served as a predictor for either alliance formation or cooperation - but the material interests of the state did.

The multiethnic Islamic Republic of Iran clearly illustrates this point.

Despite all its rhetoric on Islamic solidarity, Iran has rarely promoted cultural or ideological goals at the expense of its material interests. A number of conflicts erupted among Iran's neighbors to the north in which Muslims were pitted against non-Muslims, and Tehran aligned with the non-Muslim side each time (Moscow vs. Chechnya, Russia vs. Islamic forces in Tajikistan's civil war, and Christian-majority Armenia vs. Shiite-majority Azerbaijan).

In the first two examples, Iran's siding with Russia at the expense of Muslims and Islamists is explained by the nuclear assistance and other aid that Russia has been providing to Iran. The third and most blatant example is the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan lost close to a fifth of its territory, more than 800,000 Azerbaijani Shiites became refugees, and yet Iran deepened its cooperation with Armenia. Most recently, Tehran opened a gas pipeline to Armenia, serving as an important energy supplier to the state at war with Shiite Azerbaijan. Why? Tehran fears domestic repercussions from a strong neighboring Azerbaijan because Azerbaijanis, although Shiites, are Iran's largest ethnic minority.

Consider Tehran's relations with Arab Shiites in neighboring Iraq. Iran has ties with some of these groups, but rivalries do exist, and many Iraqi Shiites fear Iran's meddling and attempts to lead them. In Afghanistan as well, Tehran arms and supports non-Shiite groups.

The United States should not be deterred by other states' rhetoric. As with Iran, other states can make policy choices that contradict their official, culturally based rhetoric without serious repercussions. This can help analysts to identify a number of conflict lines and rivalries among groups sharing common culture and religion - and help policymakers to act upon them.

Culture has its limits: It is only one of the many forces that shape foreign policy outcomes and is not the defining element. The Islamic Republic of Iran and the rest of the Shiite Crescent states can be deterred and enticed just like other states. We are not in the era of a "clash of civilizations" but only of a clash of rhetoric.

Brenda Shaffer, research director of the Caspian Studies Project at Harvard University, is editor of the book "Limits of Culture: Islam and Foreign Policy." Her e-mail is brenda_shaffer@harvard.edu.

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