Survival and religion: Iran’s winning hand in Middle East

Because of Iran’s fundamental importance to the vital Persian Gulf region and given the remarkable transformations sweeping the Arab world, including Iraq, one can see, that Tehran is interested in exploiting these developments to strengthen its position on its periphery. Iran’s ability to shape the outcome in Iraq and Syria will play a major role in determining how well Tehran is able to influence the wider political changes not only in Middle East and Persian Gulf region in particular, but also in the Caucasus and Central Asia in the Caspian Sea basin. For all of these reasons, what happens in Iraq, and what happens regarding Iranian influence on Shia, will inevitably influence Tehran’s policy regarding its neighborhood, and, potentially, will add certain nuances to Iran’s stance in Caspian Sea basin.

The year 2009 marked both the 30th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution and the most serious domestic crisis to strike the regime to date. The Green movement, led by Mir-Hussein Moussavi, Iranian prime minister from 1981 to 1989, attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. These supporters staged near-continuous demonstrations challenging the regime and the legitimacy of the 12 July 2009 re-election of President Ahmadinejad. Yet despite the scale and intensity of the demonstrations in 2009, by the 2013 Presidential elections the political Tehran not only survived into its fourth decade, it opened a window of hope for an easing of tension between Iran and the West.

Given that sanctions have had a devastating effect on Iranian lives and the economy, Ahmadinejad, who came to power claiming to be able to do more for Iran’s poorest people, was exposed as a failure. At the same time in his election campaign Hassan Rouhani pointed out that in the several years when he was chief nuclear negotiator the issue was not taken to the Security Council. Rouhani’s win became the clear message from the majority of the Iranian electorate that they prefer his more rational approach. Moreover, Hassan Rouhani, who promised to improve the economy while calling for moderate policies both at home and abroad, with his win of the office put Iran in focus on the more urgent issue - the self-destructive clash between Shias and Sunnis that is killing thousands in Syria and Iraq and threatens the entire Middle East region. This problem was created - in part - after U.S.’ hostility to Iran has created condition for Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in Persian Gulf to turn into an anti-Iranian alliance of Sunnis versus Shias.

While the rift between the two great Islamic denominations runs like a tectonic fault-line along what is known as the Shia Crescent,[1] starting in Lebanon in the north and curving through Syria and Iraq to the Gulf and to Iran and further East, this conflict is one which seems increasingly to be shaping the destiny of Middle East as thousands of devotees from both sides pour into Syria. These days al Qa’ida volunteers on the Sunni side and Hezbollah militants on the Shia, are joining what is fast becoming a transnational civil war between the two factions.

The division between the two factions is older and deeper even than the tensions between Protestants and Catholics, which troubled and divided Europe for centuries. While the two Christian denominations had a shared history for 1 500 years, by contrast the rift between the two biggest Muslim factions goes right back to the beginning of the emerging Islamic community in the early 7th century. Yet for much of the years the majority of Sunni and Shia Muslims have not routinely allowed their theological differences to create hostility and in many times and places the two fractions have co-existed peacefully.

Two major developments have triggered the escalation of tension between Sunni and Shia in recent years. The first was the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 when the rule of the pro-Western Shah was overthrown and replaced with a Shia theocracy, that left leaders outside Iran, both religious and secular, more divisive. The rift has been a consequence of the Iranian Islamic revolution that has identified Iran with militant Shia, and it entailed a religious radicalization of Sunni radicals that has been encouraged by Saudi Arabia both for religious reasons and for thwarting the growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq. And the rift is growing, because the mutual distrust is growing. Shias in the Persian Gulf are systematically perceived as an Iranian fifth column, partly based on the experiences of the 1980s, when Iran indeed use Shi- as in the Persian Gulf states to perpetrate terrorist attacks in order to destabilize Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Iran has also nurtured Sunni jihadists when it was convenient to do so, and it has also spent years cultivating Shia sectarianism. The Egyptian Sunni Islamist, Sayyid Qutb, “intellectual godfather” of modern Jihad and author of a “Milestones”, classic manifesto of the religious terrorist wing, was even put on an Iranian postage stamp. In its effort to dominate the region after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1990, Iran fostered staunch Shia radicals, first in Iraq and more recently in Syria. By doing this, Tehran gave up completely on an earlier attempt to make Shia acceptable to Sunni under the banner of joint resistance against the “forces of global arrogance”, that is, the United States, Israel, and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf.

Yet, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the second big factor in the deterioration of Sunni-Shia relations. While the U.S. had backed Saddam Hussein, who led a Sunni elite, which governed Iraq’s Shia majority with a reign of state terror, in Iraq’s war with Iran throughout the 1980s, the invasion of 2003 and resulting election placed in power leaders from the Shia majority who have excluded the Sunni minority. The response with the IEDs (Improvised Explosives Device) and VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne IED) still kills thousands in Baghdad and elsewhere. In a nutshell, the Sunnis and Shias were competing in a zero-sum game for control over Iraqi political institutions. So long as Shias controlled the government, and Sunnis didn’t feel like they’re fairly represented, Sunnis has an audience for radical messages. Al Qa’ida jihadists have flooded into the country to join Sunni terrorists in attacking the Shia government. And now the polarized sectarian conflict has spilled over into Syria.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq has destroyed the main Sunni “fortification” against Iran, with two consequences: the solidifying of a de facto independent Kurdistan and the violent secession of a large Sunni populated area in Northern Iraq. Saudi Arabia, instead of allying itself with the mainstream Sunni organizations (like the Muslim Brothers), wants to crush them, while it supported for decades the very radicals that are now taking the lead in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. Thus Iran is the great beneficiary of the collapse of the dominant order built between 1918 and 1948, with a minimum engagement on the field. Yet, the situation is about to be changed with growing threat from resurgence of the conflict between Iraqi Shias and Iraqi Sunnis, that serves as a powerful recruiting tool for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and mobilization stimulus for the Shia militias that were not part of the Iraqi security forces, but were fighting the civil war in 2007.

The advance of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), which many somehow perceive as the only alternative to the Bashar al-Assad’s regime, serves as a sign of a catastrophic civil war among Sunni and Shia. As one can see, when sectarianism matters, it really matters. Conflicts in Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s, and in Iraq during the 2000s, highlight the sheer ferociousness that often accompanies sectarian clashes. These conflicts were defined by mass violence against civilians in which the belligerents employed tactics that were tremendously creative in their brutality. Such sectarian violence, when its breaks out, is extremely difficult to quell.

A spokesman for ISIS, Abu Mohamad al-Adnani, urged the group’s Sunni fighters to march toward the “filth-ridden” Karbala and “the city of polytheism” Najaf, where they would “settle their differences”[2] with Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That is a highly inflammatory statement, as Karbala is the focal point of the Shia faith, the place where its founding imam, Hussein, was killed by the troops of the original Sunni Caliphate at the start of the Sunni-Shia divide. This presents Iran with the biggest security and strategic challenge it has faced since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but also a golden opportunity.

Iran has invested considerable financial, political and military resources over the past decade to ensure Iraq emerged from U.S. war as a strategic partner for the Islamic Republic and a strong Shia-led state. The aforementioned Shia crescent - stretching from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria - was forged largely as a result of this effort. Such involvement of Iran would pose yet another security challenge for the Washington, as it raises the prospect of the U.S. and Iran fighting on the same side. The U.S. opposes Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but looks like it will side with Tehran by supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The fall of Baghdad would mean the tragic waste of American blood and treasure that went into the making of a new Iraq. For Iran, an ISIS triumph will put an end to the Shia- dominated political order in Iraq.

  • [1] Late in 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan coined a controversial phrase that still resonates powerfully in the Middle East: there was, he argued, a «Shia crescent» that went from Damascus to Tehran, passing through Baghdad, where a Shia-dominated government had taken power and was dictating a sectarian brand of politics thatwas radiating outwards from Iraq across the whole region.
  • [2] F. Fassihi, “Iran Deploys Forces to Fight al Qaeda-Inspired Militants in Iraq”, The Wall Street Journal, 12June 2014, from (last retrieved on 20 June 2014).
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