By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been quick at denouncing terrorist attacks targeting Paris, the Boston Marathon, or 9/11.
Nevertheless, Khamenei – who, as per his website, considers himself as the “Leader of Muslims” (both the Shiite and Sunni communities), did not issue any condemnation for the recent terror attacks carried out at a critical time and place; during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, near Prophet Mohammed’s mosque in the Saudi city of Medina on Monday. The terror attacks killed 4 police officers and seriously injured four other people.
In his latest speech following Eid al-Fitr prayers in Tehran, Khamenei pointed to the terrorist attacks in Turkey and Bangladesh, but not the ones in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian President, Hassan Rowhani, also appears to be following in the footsteps of Khamenei in this respect.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did post a tweet condemning this kind of terrorism but because his words seem to contradict Iran’s actual foreign policies, he was accused of hypocrisy. In addition, the other crucial issue is that, Zarif, who attempts to appeal to the West by projecting Iran as a diplomatic country for geopolitical and commercial reasons, does not hold the final say in Iran’s affairs and IRGC decisions.
The major Iranian state-owned media outlets, which seem to advocate Khamenei’s and IRGC positions on different issues, appear to be exploiting the terror attacks in a new pattern of sectarian rhetoric in order to buttress the government’s arguments that the Shiite are being targeted by the Sunnis and that Iran and IRGC are needed to keep Muslims safe.
For example, Press TV framed the attacks as Shiite being victims of Sunnis and used the word “Shiite” repeatedly in its news articles “since late 2014, Saudi Arabia has been witnessing a series of bombings and shootings claimed by ISIS militants and mostly targeting the country’s Shiite Muslims in the eastern part of the kingdom.
In January 2016, a bomber targeted a mosque in al-Ahsa, killing four people. Last October, armed terrorists opened fire on Shiite Muslims commemorating Ashura, the martyrdom anniversary of the third Shiite Imam, Imam Hussein, in the eastern Qatif region, killing five before he was shot dead by the police.”
Press TV adds: “Last June, four Shiite Muslims were killed while trying to prevent a bomber from entering al-Anoud mosque in Dammam city in eastern Saudi Arabia and close to Qatif.”
In addition, while the terror attacks in Saudi Arabia were on the front page of many nations’ newspapers, some of Iranian major newspapers and news outlets ignored them, some underreported while some attempted to exploit the attacks with the goal of fueling sectarianism in order to advance Iran’s ideological and regional hegemonic ambitions.
In addition, Iran’s state media outlets seem to project Iran as a safe nation in the region thanks to the IRGC, while they depict Saudi Arabia as being a country plagued with insecurity.
Terror to gain interests?
The IRGC’s role in supporting Shiite militias across the region (which further fuels sectarianism), and the IRGC’s backing of Bashar al-Assad, as well as Khamenei’s rhetoric against Saudi Arabia, seem to contradict Zarif’s latest nice collection of words.
It seems that any statement from the Iranian “moderates” is more likely aimed at a Western audience and falls into Iran’s larger political calculations of enhancing its global legitimacy and economic gains through the moderate camp, which projects the Islamic Republic as diplomatic, peacemaker, savior, rational and constructive state actor in the face of extremism in the region.
Khamenei previously delivered anti-Saudi statements in his speeches, warned Saudi Arabia of a “divine vengeance”, while some governmental media outlets blamed Saudi Arabia and called for reprisals and violent reactions from the Shiites against the Saudis. From Khamenei’s perspective, Saudi Arabia is a hurdle for the advancement of his ideological, geopolitical, and regional hegemonic ambitions.
Ideologically speaking, Khamenei views himself to be the divinely-mandated custodian and leader of all Muslims. Khamenei’s Shiite Philosophy, similar to that of Ayatollah Khomeini, dictates that Iran’s Supreme Leader is not only the paramount religious leader, but also the political leader of all Muslims regardless of whether they agree with this or not. The Islamic Republic has been attempting to export this Shiite philosophy to many nations including Saudi Arabia.
Militarily and geopolitically speaking, Khamenei and the senior cadre of IRGC believe that Saudi Arabia is the major barrier in face of Iran’s military expansion in the region and Iran’s expanding influence in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Iranian leaders’ strategy of exploiting “terrorism” to advance their geopolitical and ideological interests will lead to contradictions and excesses. On the one hand, Iranian leaders continue to project themselves as the champions in fighting terror, that Iran is the only country in the region battling terrorism, that Shiites are the only victims, and that IRGC is needed more than before.
On the other hand, this strategy will inevitably come into contradiction with the reality that the Islamic Republic continues to feed terrorism through its policies (in Syria, Iraq, Yemen), and that Iran’s political and media establishments capitalize on events to meticulously exploit sectarian sentiments in the region, and finally, that Khamenei simultaneously continues to project himself as the divinely-mandated custodian and leader of all Muslims (not just Shiite).
These contradictions would inevitably lead to excesses.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University.
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