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Cultural Diplomacy?

Does the Shiite Crescent, a term used to describe a geopolitical entity consisting of Iran, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, represent the mainstay of of Iran’s expansionist strategy in West Asia?

Geo-politically, Syria, as the central component of this political setup, plays an exponential role. If Syria goes out of Iranian orbit, it would cause a vacuum inside the Crescent as it would lose the connection between its eastern part (Iran, Iraq and Bahrain) and the western side (Lebanon). It would disrupt Iran’s military supplies and financial aid to the Lebanese Hezbollah outfit, weakening the group with the help of which Tehran projects influence in Syria, maintains control in Lebanon, and puts pressure on Israel. With the loss of Syria, Iran is also losing strategic positions in the Mediterranean and connection with the Gaza Strip.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) with Supreme Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Tehran cannot afford a break within the Crescent, and maintaining Syria in a status quo that possibly favours Iranian expansionist policies in West Asia. That has become a priority.

Syria is the only country within this setup that does not have a Shiite majority population, being ruled by a Shiite or Alawite minority. Iran wants to shift this by changing the demographics of Syria. As a part of this, Tehran supports religious seminars for Shia indoctrination, programmes of Shia conversion, and offers scholarships for Syrian students to study in Iran.

Iran seeks to create a large Shiite Community in Syria in order to have a cause for which it can claim to exercise power and influence on their behalf. This growing Shia Community should be represented in a future government when a final political solution to the Syrian crisis is discussed, and Shiites get important positions within Syria’s public and military institutions. By doing so, Iran wants to secure long-term control and influence in Syria through supporters within the system (a similar approach used in Lebanon through Hezbollah), and less so by supporting President Bashar al-Asaad, who could refuse Iranian presence once he obtains favourable terms with other countries.

West Asia

While Syria is possibly Arab, Alawite and Secular; Iran is Islamic, Shia and deeply religious. Nevertheless, since the Civil War in Syria erupted in March 2011, Iran has been one of the key supporters of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and has maintained significant influence over the evolution of the conflict. Syria is usually called Iran’s ‘closest ally’, with ideological conflict between the Arab Nationalism Ideology of Syria’s secular ruling Ba’ath Party and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s pan-Islamist policy notwithstanding.

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