Demonstrators burn U.S. flags during a rally in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 4, 2015, on the 36th anniversary of its seizure by students. Vahid Salemi  (AP)

By Track Persia

February 19, 2019

Marking the 40th  anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah and established a theocratic Shi’i regime brings to light how Iran used Shi’ism in forging its foreign policy.

Iran’s ambition of becoming a regional power is not only implemented through the use of the country ’s geopolitical location and strategic opportunities but also through a sectarian Shi’i religious ideology. Shi’ism has been a major driver in Iran’s behaviours, regionally and globally.

The establishment of the Shi’i Crescent ideal is the core of Iran’s geopolitics and foreign policymaking. Iran uses it to compete the Sunni powers in the Middle East and North Africa. The Shi’i Crescent ideal enables Iran to increase its regional presence, counting on its religious and cultural ties. Iran’s IRGC is taking the responsibility of exporting this revolutionary ideal via the Shi’i populations of the Shi’i Crescent region to stretch Iran’s influence through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

After the fall of Saddam regime in Iraq by the US-led invasion in 2003, Iran has had an extensive influence in Iraq. As a result, Iran has been able to enhance its influence in Lebanon and Syria because these countries have become within Iran’s easy reach. If the Shi’i Crescent is fully implemented, Iran will further its influence on all political and economic issues in the Middle East and North Africa and it will have a power advantage at multiple levels.

Iran has supported the Assad regime in Syria using Shi’i proxy militias to ensure its hegemony in the region.  As a result, Iran has opened more channels with its Lebanese ally Hezbollah which Iran uses as a tool to influence Lebanon. Hezbollah, Iran’s most significant operational tool regionally and globally, is sponsored by the Quds Force, the external wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Increasing its leverage in Lebanon and in Syria will also enable Iran to intervene in the Israel-Arab conflict, given Lebanon and Syria are within easy reach of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine.

In other regional countries of significant Shi’i communities, such as Iraq and Yemen, Iran opts for sponsoring Shi’i militias there, such Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen, in a bid to enhance its operational capabilities.

Alliances based on sectarianism has been one of the Iranian functional basis of its regional foreign policy. Through the Shi’i connection, Iran has managed to establish close ties with regional countries which have significant Shi’i communities.

In Iraq, after having been successful in establishing a strong alliance with successive post-invasion Shi’i-led governments, Iran played a major role in ousting the US control there. This, in turn, has made Iran the champion of influence in this country.

As in Syria, Iran’s alliance with the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, an Alawite Shi’i, has enabled Assad to stay in power. The Quds Brigade of the IRGC is particularly active in projecting the Iranian influence in the region, including supporting Assad’s regime in Syria. Therefore, the IRGC appears as a significant bearer of Iran’s foreign policy in the region.

The same is true in Yemen, where Tehran is supporting the Houthis, Zaydi Shia, to control Yemen and to overthrow the country’s legitimate government and later in battling the Saudi-led Arab alliance.

The Iranian interference in Lebanon since the Israeli invasion of the country in 1982 has given Iran the chance to establish contact with the country’s Shi’i community. Iran has expanded its influence there ever since. Iran’s sectarian alliance with the Lebanese Hezbollah is more observable than any other foreign groups. It is reflected in Lebanon’s sectarian politics which is controlled by Hezbollah.

Persianism or Iranism also has shaped Iran’s foreign policy for many decades and it has not stopped with the establishment of Iran’s Islamic Republic in 1979. It can be reflected in how the Iranian state interprets the country’s history to enhance power. After the success of the Islamic Revolution, all  Iranian leaders, from Khomeini to Khamenei and Rouhani projected Iran nationalism as an integral part of the country’s sovereignty. They emphasised nationalism by glorifying all elements relating to Persia, including language, Shiism, ethnicity, culture and history. Nationalism is specifically employed by the Iranian regime when Iran is under an external threat in order to create a confrontational approach against this threat. Nationalism is utilised, despite Iran is considered a multi-ethnic country and there are various ethnic communities live in the country. Nonetheless, Iran employs nationalism in its foreign policy by focusing on a specific aspect of nationalism depending on the country/region it is targeted. For example, Iran utilises language to facilitate relations with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, while in approaching the Shi’i communities in the Arab world, the regime utilises Shi’ism feature.

The anti-Americanism is at the heart of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.  It is also perceived as it refers to the West in general. Anti-Zionism is another significant ideology that the regime in Iran has created to enhance its revolutionary status. Consequently, the Palestinian cause is targeted by the regime to maintain this ideology on the pretext of supporting the ‘oppressed against the neo-colonialists’.

Supporting the Palestinians, who are majority Arabs and Sunni Muslims, seems it is an opportunity for the Iranian regime to avert allegations that it is sectarian. Iran wants to projects itself it is defending the Palestinian cause on behalf of all Muslims.

However, Iran’s support of the common Islamic and Arab cause does not seem it has met Iran’s aspirations, given Iran’s identification with the Shia and its supports to Shi’i military groups to suppress Sunni Muslims in some countries such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Besides, being ethnically, linguistically and theologically distinct from the rest of the region, has turned Iran’s relations with its neighbours cold or even tense. Iran’s interferences in its neighbouring countries affairs and its export of the Islamic Revolution to them have exacerbated Iran’s tense relations with these countries.

Iran’s economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by the re-imposition of the US sanctions last year, insufficient military capability and mistrusted foreign policy seems to have hindered the Iranian geopolitics.

Pursuing the nuclear development programme which is believed to be for military purposes, especially the regime kept its true nature ambiguous and does not ratify the additional protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Rejecting to fully provide access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, has increasingly alarmed world powers, in particular, the US, about the nature of Iranian nuclear programme. These have in turn challenged the US and made Iran on the US radar for prospective military action. The regime’s take on world powers’ criticism is that the latter want to prevent Iran from developing advanced technologies which have been monopolized by a few countries in the region. However, when the regime perceives there is not a foreign threat against Iran, it plays a pragmatism card instead.

To overcome this dilemma, the Iranian regime has established strong relations with Russia and China, which Iran shares with them strategic visions. Nonetheless, Iran has not been successful in convincing these allies, in particular, Russia, to directly engage in Iran’s agenda in the countries affected by conflicts apart from Syria. For example, Russia seems to have different approaches to the conflicts in Yemen and Afghanistan.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.