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Faith with trust issues. Why Iran is struggling to consolidate the Islamic world against Israel

Initiating the war against Israel, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad found themselves fighting the enemy one-on-one. Even their closest allies haven’t offered the Palestinian groups much backing: despite Iran's best efforts, most Middle Eastern countries support anti-Israeli rhetoric in word only, and some even continue on a course of rapprochement with Israel. Arab states, which are mostly governed by Sunnis, aren't in a rush to rally under the banner of Shia Persians, especially since they’ve recently been strengthening trade relations with Israel. Iran has to bank on individual Shia groups, supplying some with finance and weapons, which further exacerbates the distrust of Arab governments.

  • The great Islamic schism: Shia vs. Sunni

  • The victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran

  • Iraq: from supporting Iran to invading it

  • “Little Satan”: relations with Israel

  • A host of groups supported by Iran

  • Anti-Israel rhetoric in a vacuum


The great Islamic schism: Shia vs. Sunni

Returning to Iran after years of exile in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini drove through the streets of Tehran, to the cheering of crowds carrying signs: “The Imam is back.” Khomeini, whose intention was to lead the revolution and destroy the monarchy, knew better than anyone that he was no imam but showed no resistance. It might also have been very flattering to be compared to the man whose advent the Shia had been anticipating for over 1,000 years. Khomeini had set an extremely ambitious task: to build a state in which all power would belong to the Shia clergy – an unprecedented accomplishment if he were to succeed. Indeed, the Shia had long been on the margins of the Islamic world.

Seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by supporters of Ruhollah Khomeini, November 4, 1979
Seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by supporters of Ruhollah Khomeini, November 4, 1979

The signs of an impending split of the Islamic community into two branches, Shia and Sunni, emerged shortly after Prophet Muhammad’s demise. The majority of the community then advocated that anyone who has a good knowledge of the Quran and Prophet Muhammad’s traditions and practices (sunnah) and enjoys fellow believers’ respect could become a Muslim leader. However, there was a vocal minority among Muslims who insisted that the Prophet’s position was to be inherited by his son-in-law Ali, and Ali's descendants should rule the Islamic world until the end of time.

Ali's supporters were called the Shia, and their opponents came to be known as the Sunnis. Eventually, the Sunnis got the upper hand. But the Shia never disappeared and continued to honor Ali's descendants as living representatives of the prophet, sinless and omniscient imams. This continued until 874, when the eleventh Shia Imam, Hasan al-Askari, died in the city of Samarra (now Iraqi territory). Most likely, he was poisoned by the order of the Abbasids – the rulers of the then-united Islamic empire, who saw in al-Askari a dangerous competitor.

The deceased was believed to have left no progeny, but his representatives were quick to declare that the eleventh Imam had a son and heir Muhammad, the twelfth Imam, born and bred in secrecy from the world. His representatives also announced to the Shia that the boy – still a child at the time of Hassan al-Askari's death – had entered a mystical state called occultation, from which he would give instructions to the Shia through these representatives. A few decades later, the last of these representatives, on the eve of his own death, declared that the Twelfth Imam would cease communicating with people but would surely reveal himself to save humanity when evil prevailed in the world and tyrants persecuted believers with impunity.

Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra
Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra

The Shia have lived in small communities under Sunni rule for centuries, usually settling close to the tombs of their imams. Even in Iran (then Persia), they were a minority until the 16th century and only became the majority after the ruling Safavid dynasty forcibly converted the Persian population to Shiism. But even then, power in Iran remained in the hands of secular rulers, authoritarian at times, and as time went on, they drifted further and further away from Shia ideals, increasingly resembling the evil “tyrants” whom the Twelfth Imam must defeat.

The victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran

It was as this mythical redeemer, the imam who had come to expel tyrants and return people to Islam, that the Tehran crowd greeted Ayatollah Khomeini. After the revolution emerged victorious, the press and official government statements often referred to him as an imam – which he wasn’t. According to the Ayatollah himself, he was rather the representative of the hidden Imam, his deputy among the people; still, he never objected to being called “Imam,” which is the greatest of Shia titles.

The Ayatollah claimed to be the representative of the Hidden Imam – his deputy among the people

The deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was also a ShiaShia but no theologian: he wasn’t versed in the intricacies of Shia doctrine and was hardly the epitome of Islamic virtue, with his love of luxury, expensive wines, and a beautiful wife dressed in revealing European outfits.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife Soraya
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife Soraya

The ousted monarch was replaced by the Guardian Council, an assembly of sage theologians who, in the imam's absence, are supposed to govern the Shia community based on a thorough knowledge of the sacred texts. Even the Iranian president and government are subordinate to the Guardians. They all bear the title ayatollah, which translates as “the reflection of God,” and appoint new members of the Council from among renowned theologians to replace those who die or become incapable of productive work due to old age.

The Council's main purpose is to prepare the world for the advent of the Twelfth Imam and hasten his emergence from occultation, thus bringing the triumph of Shia Islam closer. You got that right: an entire state in the 21st century is headed by a group of elderly theologians elected by no one and aiming to bring back from some mystical state a man who last made himself known over 1,000 years ago (and even then through intermediaries). To that end, the Islamic Republic of Iran won't stop short of anything.

In transforming Iran from a monarchy to a theocratic state, Ayatollah Khomeini deliberately called it an Islamic, rather than a Shiite, Republic. He openly expected other Muslim nations to take a leaf out of the Iranian handbook: overthrow secular rulers, introduce Sharia law, and turn to Islam as the foundation of the national ideology. But his hopes came to naught. First, the majority of the Islamic world – about 85% of the world’s Muslims – profess Sunni Islam. Many of them hardly view Iranian Shia, with their belief in the Hidden Imam and veneration of Ali and his descendants almost on a par with the Prophet Muhammad, as Muslims at all – let alone role models. The Shia themselves are quite heterogeneous too. Apart from those who believe in the Hidden Twelfth Imam (the Twelvers), there are the Ismailis, for whom the dynasty of Imams was never interrupted, the Zaydis, who deny the infallibility and omniscience of the Imams, and several other Shia branches even further removed from the Twelvers.

Second, in response to the revolution in Iran, some Arab countries significantly reduced pressure on Islamist groups operating in their territories and even allowed them to nominate candidates in municipal and parliamentary elections. Arab leaders then thought it easier to placate their Islamist rivals with not-so-dangerous concessions than live in fear of an uprising. Their strategy paid off: after the Iranian revolution, the Islamic world hardly saw any coups staged by local Islamists – except neighboring Iraq.

Iraq: from supporting Iran to invading it

Along with Bahrain, Azerbaijan, and Iran, Iraq is one of the few Shia-majority countries. The Iraqi Shia had a hard time under the rule of the Sunni Saddam Hussein, who would arrest and even execute popular Shia leaders who dared say a word against the central authorities. Inspired by the example of their Iranian fellow believers, Iraqi Shia tried to revolt but sustained quick defeat by the Iraqi army and intelligence services. To be on the safe side, Hussein also decided to invade Iran, under the formal pretext of seeking to establish control over a disputed border territory.

Iranian army positions during the Iran-Iraq War
Iranian army positions during the Iran-Iraq War

Interestingly, Saddam Hussein had been Khomeini's long-standing ally in staging the Iranian Revolution: expelled from his homeland, the Ayatollah had found refuge in Iraq, and Iraqi intelligence services had contributed to his plans for the uprising. Hussein hated and feared the Shah of Iran, and was therefore willing to help anyone capable of challenging him. After the revolution, however, the enemy of his enemy was no longer his friend: the former allies clashed in a long bloody war.

In almost eight years of bloodshed that claimed an estimated one million lives, neither side gained new territories and none of the opposing regimes fell. However, the Iranian authorities learned a very important lesson: it’s futile to hope that Muslims in other countries will stand up against tyrants, let alone depose them. A universal Islamic revolution would require much greater Iranian involvement. It was then that Tehran began to build a network of proxies: regional armies that answer to the Iranian authorities instead of the governments of the states where they operate.

After a pointless war with Iraq, Iran began building a regional network of proxies

The first such army appeared earlier, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. In the 1980s, Iranian military advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite branch of the Iranian armed forces directly subordinate to the Supreme Ayatollah, were secretly sent to Lebanon. Lebanon was going through a civil war that had split the country along denominational lines. The Iranians traveled to Lebanon to support their fellow believers. A few years later, a group of Shiites trained and armed by Tehran became one of Lebanon's most capable forces, earning the name of Hezbollah – “the Party of Allah.” Led by Shia theologians who fully share the revolutionary ideas of Iran's Guardian Council, Hezbollah receives money and weapons from Iran.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Hezbollah as a single centralized organization was established as an army of resistance to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which began in 1982. The Israelis occupied part of the neighboring state's territory in response to frequent sorties by Lebanon-based Palestinian fighters.

“Little Satan”: relations with Israel

Before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Jewish state and the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran had a fairly close, if unofficial, relationship. After the Shah was dethroned, Ruhollah Khomeini overturned his decision to recognize the state of Israel. Israel was officially declared a Middle Eastern outpost of alien Western colonialism, an enemy of Islam nicknamed “little Satan» (“greater Satan” being the United States, and the Soviet Union being referred to as “lesser Satan”), but tacit cooperation between the two countries continued for a few more years. Israel backed Iran in the war against Iraq, secretly supplying the Iranians with weapons and intelligence, training their military specialists, and even bombing an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad after several unsuccessful attempts by Iranian pilots.

In other words, despite loud claims to destroy Israel, the revolutionary authorities of Iran successfully cooperated with it. The cooperation went on even after Israel invaded Lebanon. However, the invasion gave the Iranian government what they’d been looking for: Israel's intervention saw a lot of pushback from Sunnis and Shia alike – and even some Christians. So Tehran concluded that the hatred for Israel could become the cement that would consolidate the Islamic world around Iran. Its anti-Israeli rhetoric grew increasingly more radical and bloodthirsty, with Tehran jumping at every opportunity to remind of the need to take Jerusalem away from the Jews and return it to the Muslims.

Tehran concluded that the hatred for Israel could become the cement that would consolidate the Islamic world around Iran

Interestingly, harsher anti-Israeli rhetoric was not followed by a definitive severance of relations with the Jewish state. For several more years, Iran received the weapons for the war against Iraq directly from Israel or using Israel as an intermediary. Cooperation ceased only after details of underhanded agreements between Iran, the U.S., and Israel leaked to the press in late 1986. Reports on Iran's cooperation with two “Satans” at once caused a stir in the Islamic world, forcing Tehran to align its actual foreign policy with its declarations.

Another major blow to Iran was the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. Arafat, whom Tehran had welcomed as a dear guest and extolled as Israel's archenemy, suddenly made peace with the Jewish state and recognized its right to exist. A global, or at least regional, Islamic revolution à la iranienne was obviously failing. Something had to be done.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat, September 13, 1993. Washington, D.C.
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat, September 13, 1993. Washington, D.C.

After Oslo, Iran minimized cooperation with Arafat and other Palestinian politicians who recognized Israel. Instead, Tehran switched to supporting the uncompromising anti-Israel groups: Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement. The Palestinians were more difficult to handle than the Lebanese: since none of them were Shia, they weren’t in a rush to join a revolution aimed at bringing back an imam in whose existence they didn’t believe in the first place. But the Iranians still got them to do it. Dogmatic differences could have become insurmountable, had there been someone else willing to supply the intransigent Palestinians with weapons, pay them hundreds of millions of dollars, and build elaborate clandestine routes to transfer the money and the weapons. But there was no one but Iran.

Indeed, Middle Eastern states paid lip service to the Palestinians, mostly denying Israel’s right to existence. But they rarely, if ever, went beyond declarations or funding for humanitarian programs. These states have long been embedded in the global economy and were not at all eager to fall under sanctions or lose lucrative trade ties with Europe and the U.S., which would not forgive their eastern partners for flirting with terrorist organizations.

While vigorously denying Israel's right to exist, Middle Eastern states were careful not to fall under sanctions

But Iran is a whole other story. Its theologian rulers truly believe they’ve been given a divine mandate, that the Almighty himself brought them to power, and his divine hand will deliver them of any problems. As a result, they took Hamas and Islamic Jihad under their wing without regard to economic or political repercussions. Iran and these two groups go way back. Trained in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon and supplied with arms and money from Tehran, their fighters became Iran's vanguard in the Palestinian territories after Oslo. That said, the vanguard had a mind of its own.

A host of groups supported by Iran

Apart from Hezbollah’s Shia Twelvers and Sunni Palestinians from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Iran has several other key allies in the Middle East. First and foremost is Syria, led by the Alawite Bashar al-Assad. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder and first ruler of the Islamic Republic of Iran, viewed the Alawites almost like pagans, looking down on their lack of food prohibitions, pre-Islamic belief in reincarnation, and many other aspects of their creed. Meanwhile, the Alawites, who have ruled Syria since Hafez al-Assad’s coup in the 1970s, consider their branch of Islam to be an offshoot of Shiism.

Therefore, thought Khomeini, Syria could be used as a springboard for the spread of the Islamic revolution across the Arab world. Iran unequivocally supported the Syrian government when it brutally crushed an Islamist uprising in the early 1980s, killing rebels and civilians alike by indiscriminate bombing.

Hafez al-Assad on the Golan front
Hafez al-Assad on the Golan front

While Tehran was partial to the Syrian insurgents’ demands to abandon the secular model of the state, it refused to support Islamists who rebelled against a Shia leader – even a nominal one. The failed Syrian uprising was staged by a movement called the Muslim Brotherhood; its members also founded Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That is, Iran opposes Muslim Brotherhood followers in Syria but supports them in Palestine, displaying double standards with a strong potential for conflict.

Iran opposes Muslim Brotherhood followers in Syria but supports them in Palestine

After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Hamas ceased its presence in Damascus and declared full support for the opposition, with Sunni groups at its core. In response, Iran, which had offered full support to Bashar al-Assad, abruptly cut funding to its Palestinian partners. Hamas representatives were even forced to seek new sponsors and curtail social programs in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas was by then the sole authority.

Tehran soon cut funding to Islamic Jihad as well. The leaders of Islamic Jihad, who'd maintained good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran in the early years of the Syrian civil war, were punished for their reluctance to support another of Tehran's allies, the Yemeni Houthis.

The Houthis are a common name for members of Ansar Allah, an organization founded by opposition Yemeni politician Hussein al-Houthi. The group brings together Yemeni Zaydis – the Shia branch that does not believe in the Hidden Imam or the divine nature of any imam in the first place. They took up arms first against the Yemeni government and then against an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that sided with the official authorities. Islamic Jihad didn’t dare to openly support the Shia in their war against the Sunni alliance and was left without Iranian money in 2015.

Ansar Allah militants in Yemen
Ansar Allah militants in Yemen

The funding intended for Islamic Jihad was reallocated to another Palestinian group, Sabireen (The Movement of the Patient Ones in Support for Palestine), which included former members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who converted to Shiism under Iranian influence. With barely over a few hundred active members, Sabireen is a very small group. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have waged war against it, keeping it illegal in the Gaza Strip in recent years and thus making it invisible. Even the Iranian money diverted from Sunni groups didn’t help it gain any noticeable popularity among Palestinians.

By 2016, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad had resumed relations with Tehran, and the money flow continued. The experiment of breaking free from Iranian control while securing a comparable level of funding elsewhere failed.

By 2016, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad had resumed relations with Tehran, and the money flow continued

Anti-Israel rhetoric in a vacuum

Iran’s open support for any Shia group or organization that chooses to confront Sunnis makes it an unreliable and dangerous partner in the eyes of many Middle Eastern rulers. Saudi authorities mistrust Tehran as the kingdom's most oil-rich Eastern Province is a Shia-majority region, which is unlikely to side with its Sunni government should there be an open conflict with Iran.

In Bahrain, where a Sunni king and mostly Sunni government rule over an overwhelmingly Shia population, the situation is even more precarious, Even in Iraq – a Shia-majority country with a Shia-majority government – over 80% of the population doesn't view Iran as a reliable partner, and Shiite political parties often take overtly anti-Iranian positions and warn against confusion between religious and ethnic identities.

Mistrust of Iran, its continued support for outright terrorists, and its apparent penchant for destabilization (because stability is counterproductive for revolutions) makes Middle Eastern leaders generally unresponsive to Tehran's anti-Israel rhetoric – despite them sharing the sentiment. So Iran is once again resorting to its long-standing practice of double standards. While generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are promising Hamas all possible support in their war against Israel, politicians are exercising more restraint.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who flew to an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Saudi Riyadh, made no calls for the destruction of Israel, limiting himself to proposals to recognize the IDF as a terrorist organization and curb economic cooperation with the Jewish state. But even those suggestions didn’t make it into the outcome document.

Ebrahim Raisi
Ebrahim Raisi

As before, Tehran has to rely on financially dependent groups and organizations to spread the fire of the Islamic revolution across the region. This approach hasn't gotten them far: Hezbollah has limited itself to shelling northern Israel and individual military facilities, deciding against a large-scale invasion. Assad's army hasn't gone beyond firing individual rockets, and nor did the Houthis, who decided to strike Israel from a prudent distance of nearly two thousand kilometers.

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