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The Myth of the Shia Crescent

AMMAN – Recently, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz offered an unequivocal veto on a key issue in the Middle East peace process. Any return of the Golan Heights to Syria would result in an “Iranian foothold” on Israel’s border and would thus not only be politically naïve but irrational.

Mofaz’s statement is symptomatic of a perception that is now deeply entrenched, not only in the Middle East, but in the United States as well. That notion is of a hegemonic Iran that is attempting to dominate the region through an array of Shiite proxies. This Iranian fifth column is believed to stretch from Beirut via Damascus, Gaza to Baghdad and finally from Iran to Saudi-Arabia to Yemen.  Recent armed clashes between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government are, it is said, just another sign of Iran’s hegemonic reach.

Ironically, this perception brings Israel some rather unlikely partners. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt claims that Shiites are “always loyal to Iran," while King Abdullah of Jordan has coined the axiom about a rising “Shiite crescent.” This “rise of the Shiites” and the resulting “Sunni/Shia divide” is alleged to be creating an ever widening chasm in the region.

Although this perception may convince at first glance, it is ultimately based on generalizations that reveal more about its advocates than the actual reality on the ground.