On August 6, 2007, when U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice met with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak he gave her this tip: she shouldn’t neglect the “Shi’ite banana” or Shi’ite Crescent, extending from Iran through Syria, to Hezbollah and Hamas. It seems that the phrase “Shi’ite banana” is Barak’s original creation. He used it in a speech delivered where he said that Syrian president Bashar Asad is “a proxy of Iran in this Shi’ite banana that they are trying to create from Tehran through Baghdad, to Damascus to the south end of part of Lebanon.”
So how does this compare to the “Shi’ite Crescent?’ The Shi’ite Crescent is a contentious notion of an emerging alliance of Shi’ite political forces in the Middle East, backed by a resurgent Iran, with the specific aim of countering the Sunni Arab, US-backed states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan. The Shi’ite Crescent is the phrase used by King Abdullah of Jordan back in December 2004, when he accused Iran of seeking to dominate Iraq and the region. The Iranian press and some Arab papers promptly whacked the king for summoning forth the sectarian genie, and he retreated: “My statements on the Shiite crescent were blown out of proportion by some in Iran and interpreted to the contrary of my intentions.”
But by that time, the foreign policy punditocracy had latched on to it. In October 2005, the Middle East Policy Council (originally the American Arab Affairs Council) held a conference on Capitol Hill entitled “A Shia Crescent: What Fallout for the U.S.?” In June 2006, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York held a big symposium on “The Emerging Shia Crescent.” And could the New York Times be far behind? Of course not; the next month it ran a map showing the “Shi’ite Crescent” as a belt running from Lebanon to eastern Saudi Arabia. From the beginning, the “Shiite crescent” resonated among the Bush-bashers, since it had this overtone: you invaded Iraq, and now look what you’ve done?
The Bush Administration never used it, instead preferring to warn us about the threat of “the Caliphate,” understood as the Qaeda plan for global domination. On the maps accompanying the “Long War” briefings by generals, this didn’t look so much like a crescent as a giant blob. It took some time for the Administration to discover that dissing the caliphate didn’t go down well with Sunni’s, since they regard the classical caliphate (under the first four “rightly-guided” caliphs) as THE GOLDEN AGE OF ISLAM history. That’s probably why you haven’t heard too many Administration warnings about “the Caliphate” lately. (Oddly, though, Barack Obama picked it up, explaining that our enemies are “seeking to create a repressive caliphate in the Muslim world.”)
Both of these phrases are one part reality and two parts hype. They have an important element of truth to them: Iran does manipulate Shi’ites elsewhere, and al Qaeda does dream about a Global Caliphate. But then they extrapolate that element to the point where it actually blunts understanding. The threat posed by Iran isn’t that it’s going to unleash a Shi’ite chain reaction, which is hard to do, but that it could set off a chain reaction. (Russia and China should be our biggest concern).. And the real danger posed by al Qaeda isn’t the possible establishment of a unified caliphate–no such thing has existed in well over a millennium–but its possible seizure of turf in a failed state, from which it might plot another 9/11 or something even worse. These are urgent and immediate threats!