Iran vs ISIS, stubborn imperial designs

The conflict of radical Shi'a-Sunni forces is fuelled by unyielding absolutisms that oppose the world's leading trends over the past century.

Hazem Saghieh
29 December 2014

For many years, talk of Iran's greedy ambitions in the Gulf region has been a staple theme of political discourse. Some of the chatter is a hangover from the period before the revolution of 1979. In the early period of his regin, Iran's Shah harboured the delusion that he could replace Britain in the Gulf when the Suez calamity of 1956 accelerated the withdrawal of the old colonial power. The Shah sought to activate his grandiose dreams of regional hegemony when he sent forces to occupy three small islands: Greater and Lesser Tunbs, and Abu Musa.

These were meagre gains, and the Shah’s relationship with the United States - the newly dominant external power - was to keep his imperial objectives in check. At the time, some observers regarded the policy of the Shahenshah ("king of kings") as purely strategic with no other dimensions (cultural, economic, or demographic). Some among America’s critics even called the Iranian ruler's expansionary course “sub-imperialism”, undertaken essentially on behalf of Washington.

The same argument, regardless of how accurate it was then, is not applicable to the regime founded by Ayatollah Khomeini. It operates on a very different scale; it is driven forward by an ideology that encompasses both heaven and earth, offering absolute certainty to those seeking salvation untainted by doubt; and it has shown itself capable of winning influence and adherents far afield (Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza).

Iran’s Khomeinists chose this approach early on in their rule. They eliminated leading figures of the revolution's initial breakthrough such as Mehdi Bazargan, Ebrahim Yazdi, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, and Abdol-Hassan Bani-Sadr. Each of these men came in one way or another to realise that the combination of aggrandising ambition and epic fantasy was no longer compatible with the contemporary world.

After all, the disappearance of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires in the wake of the 1914-18 war taught a lesson to powerful states: the only way to survive was to trim their territories and enter the modern world in the form of nation-states. It's true that the Russians resisted that reality by reproducing the Tsarist empire in communist form, but after long the demise of communism - and against much greater odds - it seems they are still seeking to oppose the world's main dynamics.

So too is the unyielding, radical Shi'a core of Iran's regime. Yet its survival today, and ability to get its way (over defending its ally in Damascus, or the emerging dialogue with the United States) is also becoming bound up with an equally absolutist ideology among radical Arab Sunnis. The rise of ISIS, whose aim is to restore the transnational “caliphate” abolished by Kemal Ataturk nearly a century ago, is an expression of this latter phenomenon. ISIS's pursuit of its objective entailed both clashes with most traditional Sunni forces and the snubbing of those local and national causes - such as Palestine and most recently the Syrian revolution itself - which for long had preoccupied Arab (and especially Sunni) public opinion.

The nadir of ideology

ISIS's origins can in part be traced back to the failure of earlier projects seeking to unite the Arabs. The tragic climax of those failures came in 1990 when the Sunni Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein expanded - imperially - into Kuwait in complete disregard for traditional Arab reality and its borders. Saddam in addition threatened western interests, embracing the deranged belief that he could replace the then dying Soviet Union while turning the superpowers' long cold war into a hot war from which he could emerge the triumphant hero of the Arabs.

In this larger scheme of history, it can be said that Tsarism and Stalinism gave birth to Putinism; Shahenshahism to Khomeinism; and Saddamism to ISIS. The difference betwen the first process and the other two, however, is significant. In the Russian case, the hegemonic drive receded after losing its ideological (communist) component; in the Sh'ia and Sunni cases, this ideological ingredient became maximalised.

Today, it is obvious that Iran, in its core statehood, has immeasurably better odds than ISIS. Tehran is bargaining with the world using real cards, including its ability to stand alongside the same world powers which are fighting ISIS; by comparison, the cards wielded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organisation (the 9/11 legacy, beheadings, extermination of minorities) are reactive and negative. Each side, however, in its own way is trying to halt the dominant trends in the world since 1918. 

The ability of such counter-forces, Russian as well as radical Shi'a and Sunni, to gather some support must be recognised. Disenfranchisement in the modern world contributes to stubborn resistance which can be given shape by a precursory ideological lexicon rife with victimisation, self-righteousness, dreams of glory, and constructed "authenticity". The history of the larger Middle East is a rich source of inspiration for those willing to march forward to total nihilism and self-annihilation.

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