The “Shiite crescent”

What is the “Shiite crescent”? The term “Shiite crescent” or “Shia crescent” refers to an alleged Iranian strategy of regional and potentially geopolitical relevance. It suggests that Iran plans to establish a belt or a crescent of allied states stretching from its western border to the Mediterranean Sea. Obviously, the term consists of two parts, the first referring to Shiites, an Islamic sect, and the second to the shape of the specific territories of alleged Iranian allies.

Why is this political catchphrase important? The “Shiite crescent” is still used today and has become one of the most powerful narratives in the Middle East since its inception in 2004. However, the question is whether it is also analytically and scientifically important. To answer these questions, it is necessary to take a look at the origins of this term.

Analytically valuable?

Originally, the term “Shiite crescent” was coined in 2004 by the current king of Jordan, Abdullah II. As al-Monitor, however, has critically noticed, the Jordanian king “is not known for his depth of strategic analysis, or for the eloquence with which he expresses his ideas (particularly in Arabic) […]”. Therefore, it is assumed that his coining of the narrative had been planned long ahead. This is important to note as Saudi Arabia, the key adversary of Iran, is one of Jordan’s main partners.

As a consequence, the term “Shiite crescent” is highly valuable for political analysis as it indicates the “Saudi view” of Iranian strategy. In the “Middle Eastern Cold War”, the Saudis perceive Iran and its support for Shiite groups as destabilising, Shiites are being perceived as “fifth column of Iran”. This can be shown with the phrase “Shiite crescent”, too. Other than highlighting other narratives such as the revolutionary or the oppressed vs oppressors, the term highlights the Shiite aspect of Iran’s foreign policy.

In fact, the states forming this “crescent” represent states in which Iran has supported groups or is allied with the respective governments. However, this term is flawed for two reasons. First, it is over-stating the “Shiite” nature of Iranian foreign policy. Tehran also supported revolutionary Sunni groups such as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Hamas. Secondly, it insinuates that Iran has a “masterplan”, an observation which may but is not necessarily accurate.

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