Recent events in the Middle East have forced a Western introspection on foreign policy and a wider critique of the powers at play in the region.
While the post-mortem will continue on the rise of ISIS, the factors that led to the rise of the Caliphate remain murky. Taking centre-stage are the groups resisting ISIS.
Much of this resistance, both direct and indirect, is said to come from Tehran. A well-known aspect of this resistance is its sectarianism: a Shia-dominated offensive rages on under the guise of Iraqi control. This is symptomatic of a supposed upsurge in Shia-orientated Iranian influence in the region, bringing reality to the term ‘Shia Crescent’ – the stretch of territory from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean of Lebanon, in which Iran is reportedly overseeing a Shiite resurgence.
The ascendancy of Iran has been at least a decade in the making. The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent installation of a Shia-dominated government was seen by some as the first signal of a Shia Crescent formation. Coupled with long standing alliances with the Shia’s of Hezbollah (a militant group based in Lebanon) and the Alewites of Syria, Iranian leverage is now a formidable force across the Middle East.
These alliances are now coming to fruition. Hezbollah has come to dominate Lebanese politics. Along with the Syrian civil war and the horror of ISIS (circumstances which Iran are continually exploiting for their own political ends) has left a power vacuum that has been hastily vacated by the US and surrendered by a faltering Saudi state. This position has been further emboldened by the Nuclear deal of 2015. Iran is now benefiting from billions more in oil money and the liberation of frozen assets at a time when Saudi Arabia is haemorrhaging oil revenue due to falling prices and a strong dollar. The shift is nowhere more clear than in Riyadh’s withdrawal of a substantial amount of aid to Lebanon in March, a response to the deepening influence of Hezbollah and the nuclear deal that has incensed officials in Riyadh.
The widening berth of Iran’s control is widely publicised in its coordination of the PMF (Popular Mobilisation Force), a group made up of 40 mostly Shia militias. This is the enforcer of much of the ‘Shia Crescent’ and has seized the majority of territory (along with the Shia-dominated Iraqi army) lost by ISIS in Northern Iraq. To assert that the majority of resistance to ISIS is propelled by a pan-Shiism agenda is ignoring both other forces in the region and Iran’s relationship toward the Shia sects in the region.
Many of the Iraqi militias said to be pawns of Tehran are recipients of Iranian support at their own request whilst the likes of Hezbollah and the Houthis of Yemen are engaged in movements rooted in local nationalism and opposition to the Western security sphere of Saudi Arabia. It is too easy to impose a narrative of sectarian power balancing between Shia and Sunni. The standing of Iran has advanced along with non-Shiite allies such as the Kurds of Iraq and Hamas of Gaza.
Whilst expanding Iranian influence cannot be denied, to attribute this to a pan-Shia movement only serves to overshadow the complexities surrounding Iran’s relationship to the rest of the Middle East and its intentions across the region. Iran may be the next superpower of the Middle East but not as a direct result of its Shiite affiliations.
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