Sectarianism in Iran’s foreign policy


The story begins with the constitution of the Islamic Republic: according to Article 12,“the official religion of Iran is Islam of the Jafari 12 Imam sect and this article is inalterable in perpetuity.”

This article prescribing the Jafari sect as the center of gravity is the basis for Articles 115, 144, and 163 prohibiting the 9% to 20% of Iranians who are Sunni from having any high executive position in the Iranian government. Between 7 and 14 million Sunni Iranian citizens, as well as other minorities in Iran are thus automatically excluded from the presidency, military leadership, judiciary, and other positions of power.

This sectarianism is not only part of Iran’s domestic policy but it’s also reflected in Iran’s foreign policy. Iran’s foreign policy for its neighborhood is based on three main dimensions: the geopolitical, the geo-cultural and the geo-religious). Iran exploits all these dimensions to safeguard its security and the security of the ruling regime.

Shiisim has been a continuous influence on foreign policy in Iran’s contemporary history. Some analysts maintain that even the Shah’s regime, despite not pursuing an ideological foreign policy, utilized Shiism to expand its political influence in the region.

However, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent ascendance of the Shiite element in the power structure of the Middle East, promoting sectarian division through using Shiism has been elevated to a more central role in Iran’s foreign policy and regional strategy.

The logic behind reaching out to the Shiite minorities in the region is twofold: to guarantee the security of Iran and the ruling regime, and to boost Iran’s economic and cultural influence. The result is the lengthening of Iran’s reach through both hard and soft power elements.

According to the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, Kayhan Barzegar, playing the Shia card has helped counter the immediate security threats posed by the United States between 2003 and 2005. Meanwhile, Shia preeminence in Iraq transformed Iraq, a country that has historically been long perceived as a military threat, into a friendly state and bolstered Iran’s attempts to redefine political-security arrangements in the Gulf.

Therefore, Kayhan concludes, strengthening Iran’s Shia power can translate directly into an increased regional and international power, providing a powerful incentive for Iran to focus its foreign policy on its region.

Unfortunately, this sectarian strategy has worked in many countries in the region. Iran managed to strike a deal with the U.S. in Iraq and secure Nouri Al-Maliki as Prime Minister of Iraq. Tehran has also been able to rule Lebanon through its proxy, Hezbollah, which is calling the shots in the country. The Islamic Republic is a very important security player in Yemen as well; it can destabilize the whole country. It has similar power in Bahrain but through different tools.

The fact that a systemic emphasis on sectarian divisions forms one of the fundamental building blocks of Iran’s foreign policy is a threat for the whole region in terms of social harmony and security. It creates sectarian tensions, social divisions, and security threats.

Many experts miss an important point when analyzing the Iranian threat. They usually tend to measure Iran’s traditional hard power to evaluate whether Iran is becoming more dangerous or not.

Iran doesn’t need to use or even shore up its conventional military power to change the power balance in the region or to undermine the security of other countries.

While engaging regional countries, Iran usually depends on:

Sectarian minorities in that country who are linked to Iran ideologically, and/or politically. These minorities are mainly Shiite, Alawite, Nusayri ..etc

Groups influenced or in favor of the Iranian model for a revolution or as a religious regime, and who can serve Iranian interests in that country or, as Sunnis, give cover to Iran’s sectarianism (conservative Islamists, revolutionaries, or leftists).

Groups in need financial, political, or military support.

Iran mostly relies on its asymmetric capabilities to project power regionally. Proxies have the ability to destabilize the whole region from Lebanon to Iraq and from Turkey Yemen.

Regardless of how it may try to cover-up its sectarian tendencies by speaking about the unity of Muslims and defending the weak against the arrogance West and Israel, it will not be able to hide it. The Syrian case is a very shocking example. The Syrian crisis has revealed Iran’s true face too many people who were deceived throughout the long years.

Sectarian conflicts are surging in the Middle East due to Iranian policies. Sectarian massacres committed by Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias in Syria on sectarian basis throughout the previous two years are threatening to ignite the whole region.

Until now, Sunni Syrians showed tremendous and unexpected restraint against the massacres committed against them. However no one can guarantee till what time they can hold their reaction especially while the whole world is just watching.

Such Iranian policies are a grave danger to all regional countries. Iran thinks that foreign policy based on Shiism will enable it to have a voice in any coming agreement in Syria.

By doing this, Tehran shows no sensitivity or concern for the welfare or wellbeing of the civilian populations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Bahrain including that of the local Shia populations living in these countries, casually ignoring the destruction and the loss of life in these countries. Tehran appears to be ruthlessly pursuing its own interests to secure a seat at the table. Furthermore the Iranian regime is clearly following this short term policy at the cost of the long term prosperity and well-being of its own people, whether Sunni or Shia. This is especially so since Iran will not survive the repercussions of a region in chaos. Even if the failed states around it offer the Molla regime benefits in the short term, it won’t be long before the tables are turned.

By: Ali Hussein Bakeer

Turkish Weekly