Saturday,22 July, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Saturday,22 July, 2017
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

What Iran hides behind Shiism

Iran’s ambitions extend beyond spreading Shiism to reviving the Persian Safavid empire, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

What Iran hides behind Shiism
What Iran hides behind Shiism

At the end of May, Iranian Defence Minister Hussein Dehghan said that after 2003, Iraq “became part of the Persian empire and will not return to the Arab fold, or be an Arab country again”.

Dehghan added in a threatening tone: “Arabs who live there must leave to the arid deserts they came from. Starting in Mosul and stretching to Basra, these are our lands and they must vacate them.”

The former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard threatened Arabs that the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq “will silence any voices leaning towards making Iraq orbit in an Arab milieu because it has now returned to its natural Persian environs”.

He concluded: “We have once again become a superpower as we were in the past, and everyone must understand this. We are the masters of the region in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and soon Bahrain.”

Dehghan, who is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who wields the highest political, military and religious authority in Iran, could no longer contain his feelings and expressed what is being said in the corridors of power in Tehran and Qom. He revealed the real strategy of Iran’s nationalist Persian scheme that Tehran has always triedto hide under the guise of Shiism.

The statements by the Iranian general are nothing new, but a continuation of what Ali Younesi, adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said 8 March 2015, when he too declared that Iran “has become an empire as it has been throughout history with its capital in modern day Baghdad. It is the epicentre of our civilisation, our culture and our identity today as it was in the past.” Younesi went beyond the borders of Iraq, saying: “All of the Middle East is Iranian; we will confront Islamic radicalism, calling others infidels, atheism, neo-Ottomans, Wahhabis, the West and Zionists.”

Younesi, who served as head of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and National Security until 2005, was pointing to Iran’s intention to restore the Persian empire that existed before Islam. It lasted for more than four centuries and fought the Islamic caliphate shortly before the empire’s demise. It controlled parts of Armenia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq, invaded the Levant and made Al-Madain its capital, then captured Jerusalem and Egypt. It was defeated by Roman Emperor Heraclius in Asia Minor who recovered Syria and Egypt, and was crushed in a battle near the ruins of Nineveh. Later, Muslim Arabs eradicated what was left of this declining empire.

This is only a sampling of statements by Iranian officials confirming the nationalist Persian imperialist intentions at the heart of Iran’s strategy, which clearly explain Iran’s expansionist ploys and the wars it fought, supported, triggered or tried to start in many parts of the Arab world, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Also, the sectarian armed militias it formed and shaped ideologically, encouraging them to commit war crimes, such as Lebanon’s Hizbullah and dozens of Iraqi sectarian militias.

Such statements and others lead to the conclusion that in reality the nationalist Persian factor supersedes religious doctrine in Iran’s scheme. Iranian officials want to conquer the world once again and take control of central and western Asia to revive an obsolete empire.

Iran has a long legacy of taking advantage of chaos and bad relations with its neighbours. It took advantage of the second Gulf War to control Iraq; created Hizbullah during the mayhem of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s; infiltrated Sudanese society during the rebellion in the south and secession in 2011. In Iraq, it created a politically, religiously and militarily corrupt ruling class and some 75 sectarian militia groups during the chaos of the US invasion of Iraq; it took advantage of the mayhem in Afghanistan and supported the Taliban and sent them weapons to fight government forces; supported Al-Qaeda leaders who are categorised as terrorist worldwide, and even hosts some of its leaders until today.

In Bahrain, it manipulated political disputes and transformed protests into all-out civil war; it used Houthis in Yemen and supplied them with weapons and pumped them with doctrinal ideology to ignite the war; it did the same in Syria when it supported a corrupt authoritarian sectarian regime that has destroyed the country and displaced its people.

Iran’s dream of rebuilding the Persian empire is more important than any other political goals or religious ideology that it uses as tools to reach its quest. It disguises its nationalist Persian desire with a Shia doctrinal façade to accomplish its scheme, which would never be accepted regionally or globally.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran began to export its revolution based on the desires and aspirations of Khomeini who held onto a long history of Arab-Persian conflict, a painful history for Persians. Iran did not make its main nationalist goal known possibly out of concern that changing the maps would impact its national identity and could be used against it. Some 55 per cent of Iranians are of non-Persian ancestry and the other 45 per cent are from other origins and heritage, which makes any redrawing of maps a domestic threat for Iran.

Iran focused on spotting troubled regimes; created Shia political parties and armed militia groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan; supported Sunni Islamist movements and parties under the pretext of supporting “resistance” against Israel (Hamas and Islamic Jihad), Iraqi Kurdistan (the National Union Party of Jalal Talabani), Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood), Sudan and Nigeria (Boko Haram), and Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey (Turkish Hizbullah and the PKK). And all this to achieve its surreptitious nationalist goal of reviving the Safavid Empire.

This Iranian nationalist ethnic expansionist policy left sectarian tensions in its wake, especially between Shias and Sunnis, which at times ignited into sectarian civil war in Lebanon and Iraq. It also contributed to spreading and expanding radical Islamist movements around the world, and created a great rivalry between Tehran and capitals in the region — especially Riyadh and Ankara, since they are both symbols of Sunni Islam in the region.

Iran’s ambitions also impacted Arab Gulf countries when it began supporting Shias there, creating fractures that never existed before with Sunnis, especially in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia where a Shia minority resides.

In the last decade, Iran has worked on spreading Shiism in several Arab countries and was supported by some regimes, such as the regime of Hafez Al-Assad in Syria followed by his son Bashar. It gave incentives to those who convert to Shiism, such as free healthcare and higher education in Iran, as well as substantial monthly wages by Syrian standards. There were also trade incentives and privileges to the financially able, and Husseinias (Shia places of worship) were built and Iran’s embassy and cultural attaches worked indiscreetly to spread Shiism over the past 20 years. Seven Iranian Shia channels began airing around the world to promote the Iranian scheme and hosting Shia preachers.

Iran’s influence in the region is not temporary. However, this agenda is faltering since the Syrian problem has not been resolved according to Iran’s desires. Iran’s Shia agenda did not make an impact on the masses either. In fact, after Iran’s direct interference in Syria especially, some Arab countries began monitoring Iran’s quest in order to curb or undermine it. The aversion of Arab masses grew against Iran, its policies, armed militias and branch sectarian militias.

What is aiding Iran to continue on its path, even if very slowly, is the silence in Washington about Tehran’s policies since the start of the Arab Spring, and Iran’s alliance with Russia. These two factors are unstable and dependent on the calculations of the two superpowers, which could mean Iran’s exit from the scene in the near or medium future.

The quest for an Iranian Persian empire is also governed by Iran’s domestic situation, multiple ethnicities there, and the risk of tipping that balance. Iran must also abide by international law, respect the sovereignty of states and remain within its precise regional role, and not act according to the whims of its Islamic jurists or Ayatollah or racist nationalists and Safavid rulers who believe the past could return with ease.

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