North Africa, West Asia

Sectarianism and Iran’s foreign policy

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, toasted in the west as a rational thinker disinclined to give in to bombastic rhetoric, has also resorted to Iranophobia.

Shahram Akbarzadeh
13 February 2015
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in talks on Iran's nuclear program at the UN.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in talks on Iran's nuclear program at the UN. Nancy Siesel/Demotix.All rights res.Iran’s foreign policy is stuck between a rock and a hard place. President Rouhani has been trying to break out of the impasse by finding a solution to the protracted nuclear dispute. But this goal has proven ambitious. The deadline of P5+1 talks with Iran, which involves the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France plus Germany, has already been extended to 31 March 2015. It is difficult to see if there has been progress, and more importantly, if the progress made will be sufficient to placate both parties: Iran and the international community. However, the elusive deal over Iran’s nuclear program and the removal of international sanctions is not the only challenge to policy makers in Iran.

Much to President Rouhani’s dismay, Iran has been dragged into a regional crisis that is undermining its appeal in the Arab world and sapping its diplomatic energy.  The sectarian war that has engulfed Syria and Iraq is chipping at Iran’s ideological foundations and pushing it into a corner. Iran does not wish to be seen as a Shi’a state in the Arab world. It insists on its Islamic identity. However, the turn of events has forced it to act as a Shi’a state and come to the aid of other Shi’a players in the region, thereby vindicating its critics who have been warning of Iran’s expansionist plans on the back of Shi’a communities in the Arab world. This image is exactly what Iranian policy makers have been keen to avoid.

From its inception in the wake of the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has projected itself as the champion of the Muslim masses against the arrogance and overweening policies of ‘the West’.

The political leadership in Iran embarked on an elaborate state-building project and invested as much attention and energy in Iran’s external image as its internal institutions. At the time, no other topic was more galvanizing for the Muslim world than the plight of the Palestinians and Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. Iran duly made the liberation of Jerusalem from Israeli occupation its top priority. That policy objective put Iran on a collision course with the United States and many pro-US governments in the Arab world. But it proved very popular in the Arab streets and won Iran kudos and respect among ordinary Muslims who were disappointed with the universal failure of Arab leaders and the international community to address the Palestinian plight.

The Islamic Republic of Iran was keen to present its policies in ideological terms, portraying itself on the side of good against evil. The depiction of the United States as the Great Satan, a term coined by the founder of the Islamic regime, evoked the imagery of a Manichean conflict. Official Iranian literature on international affairs made repeated reference to the absence of justice in the international system. The United Nations and other international organizations were dismissed as instruments of power and tools of western domination. The alternative, the Iranian leaders argued, was to bring principles of justice and respect into the international system, values which they argued were engrained in Islam.

The depiction of international affairs as the battleground for ideological combat has been the standard perspective. Even Iran’s famous reformist President Mohammad Khatami, credited for trying to bring Iran into the international fold, operated in that familiar ideological framework. His celebrated proposal for a ‘dialogue between civilizations’ was grounded in the argument that the west had acted arrogantly towards the Muslim world, and other third-world countries, and true dialogue could only take place in the context of equality and respect between interlocutors. Such a paradigm shift alone would bring justice to international relations. And to that end, Khatami was proposing to reconstruct international affairs in line with Islamic values.

At the onset of the Arab Spring, Iran felt vindicated. It took heart from the fall of pro-western Arab regimes. The demise of President Hosni Mubarak was hailed in Iran as a testimony to the significance Iran’s 1979 revolution as the role model for other Muslim states to follow. The Iranian leadership had its own name for the Arab Spring: the Islamic Awakening. But history did not follow the course Iran had charted. The descent of the region into sectarian conflict presented Iran with an unexpected challenge, one that the Iranian leadership was ill-prepared to meet.

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as Daesh in Arabic and Persian based on its Arabic acronym, threatened the viability of the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s long-time regional ally. The Iranian leadership have made it clear that they would not allow President Assad to fall. The Iran-Syria nexus has been a central tenet of Iran’s geostrategic plans since the early 1980s. Their common enmity towards Israel, their shared support for Hizbullah in Lebanon, and their antipathy towards the United States and pro-US governments in the Arab world has forged a strong alliance between the two states for more than three decades. Iran utilized all means at its disposal to ward off the possibility of Assad’s demise. This included supplying Syria with military hardware and personnel. Hizbullah units have moved into Syrian territory to combat anti-Assad forces, with Iranian consent.

While Iran’s commitment to the secular Assad regime is based on geostrategic calculations, it is viewed in the Sunni-dominated Arab world as exclusively religious. Daesh presents itself as fighting Shi’a kafirs in Syria and subsequently in Iraq. This has become the dominant discourse, repeated by many religious scholars in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Sheikhdoms. The spillover of the conflict into Iraq has reinforced the sectarian image. Iraq is a Shi’a majority state, with strong links between its post-Saddam leadership and Iran. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, now replaced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi both see Iran as Iraq’s key partner in the region. It was significant that PM al-Abadi’s first trip abroad, following his appointment in September 2014, was to Iran.

Iran’s military commitment to the fight against Daesh in Iraq is not a secret. General Qasem Soleimani, a high ranking commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards has been officially photographed for the Iranian press with Kurdish fighters in Iraq. The Iranian government has declared its full support for the Iraqi government and has entered into a de facto partnership with the United States in the fight on Daesh. This ironic turn of events has led to speculations of a major realignment in the region as the United States and Iran appear to work towards rapprochement.

But this is not the kind of image that the Iranian leadership wishes to project in the Arab world. Conceding to sectarian warfare, with the prospects of joining forces with the Great Satan threatens to undo the projection of Iran as the champion of the Muslim down-trodden (mosta’fezan). It is therefore not surprising that the Supreme Leader has unequivocally declared Daesh and al-Qaeda as US-constructs:

They [the United States and Israel] have created al-Qaeda and Daesh to sow seeds of discord [among the Shi’a and Sunni Muslims] and oppose the Islamic Republic [of Iran].  (Tnews. October 13, 2014)

This claim is widely repeated in Iran. Daesh’s restraint from attacking Israel is seen as evidence that they are in cahoots. The dominant discourse in Iran continues to present the United States as the master puppeteer, bent on Iran’s destruction. This ideologically-driven framework is pervasive, making it extremely difficult for Rouhani’s government officials to operate outside it. Accusations of Iranophobia have become common-place in the debate of international affairs. Even Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, toasted in the west as a rational thinker disinclined to give in to bombastic rhetoric, has resorted to it. Addressing a university gathering in Tehran in December 2014, he promised the audience that the ‘Iranophobia project’ will not succeed in isolating Iran.

The worsening sectarian conflict in the region has challenged Iran’s image as the champion of the whole Muslim community and generated added pressure for the Iranian leadership to re-state Iran’s opposition to the United States and Israel. The instinct to reaffirm its Islamic revolutionary identity could prove a new stumbling block in the current nuclear talks.

This piece was made possible by NPRP grant # 6-028-5-006 from the Qatar National Research Fund (a member of Qatar Foundation).  The statements made here are solely the responsibility of the author.

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