However, the sectarian element in Iranian foreign policy has increased over the last decade. Those events and the conflicts they ignited— particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—have sharply divided the interests of Iran and its neighbors. With its allies threatened in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Iran has doubled down on its pro-Shia strategy as a way of protecting its regional interests and investments. In , as part of their bitter feud, Iran and Saudi Arabia exchanged public accusations of sectarianism that reached as far as mainstream media outlets in the United States.
That gesture rings hollow given the accusatory tone of the piece. They are not organic, but rather the by-products of a misguided effort by Saudi Arabia and its Western allies to isolate Iran and curb its influence. Not according to Zarif. The blame is entirely one-sided. The September op-ed followed another that the Iranian foreign minister wrote months earlier in January. Zarif thus begins a similar broadside against the Saudi regime. He lists several reasons why Saudi Arabia is harming regional security. The January op-ed appeared at a flashpoint in Iranian-Saudi relations.
Eight days earlier, the Saudi government had executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a senior Saudi Shia cleric and political activist, along with forty-six other prisoners mostly Sunni radicals. During the demonstration, a group of hardliners stormed the embassy and set it on fire. The fallout for Iran was quick. The incident was an embarrassment for Iran. The government scrambled to stem the blowback by claiming the attack had been the action of rogue elements and arresting some of the individuals involved.
We [Saudi Arabia] are not the country designated a state sponsor of terrorism; Iran is. We are not the nation under international sanctions for supporting terrorism; Iran is. We are not the nation whose officials are on terrorism [watch] lists; Iran is. While Iran claims its top foreign policy priority is friendship, its behavior shows the opposite is true.
Those comments should not be seen simply through the lens of Saudi-Iranian tensions. Rather, Middle Eastern officials widely share this perspective of Iran as a sectarian and expansionist actor in the region. The revolution introduced a radical form of Shia Islamism and anti-monarchical views to Iranian politics. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in particular bankrolled much of his war effort.
He governed the most populous Shia country in the Arab world, which houses the most important Shia centers of learning and pilgrimage. So when he was toppled in , and Shia parties began to gain political power in Iraq, fears of expanding Iranian sectarian influence and regional ambitions skyrocketed in neighboring Gulf states. Shia-Sunni tensions could reemerge, which could destabilize Persian Gulf states that have sizable Shia minority populations, such as Saudi Arabia.
From the perspectives of many Arab states and Turkey, if not that of the general observer, recent history has borne out the sectarian conflict that Abdullah warned would occur. They see Shia-dominated, post-Baathist Iraq as the genesis of what has become a series of sectarian-driven conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as well as in the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
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Iran is blamed for all of the turmoil. The scope of Iranian activity in Yemen is murkier and more disputed, 18 but Iran does little to hide its support to the Zaidi Shia Houthis and their Ansar Allah movement. The first level is state-to-state policy, which in most cases is managed by the elected government in Tehran. Iran is famously closer to India than its Muslim neighbor Pakistan, and Tehran has long favored largely Christian Armenia in its ongoing disputes with largely Shia Azerbaijan.
A smattering of al-Qaeda operatives and their families have lived in Iran on and off since the U. The first wave, including family members of Osama bin Laden, arrived in Iran having fled U. They were put in detention by Iranian authorities and held on ambiguous legal grounds. Iran is also referred to with racial and anti-Shia sectarian epithets. There appears to be some form of ongoing interaction between Iran and al-Qaeda.
Aside from those captives, other al-Qaeda operatives appear to have been allowed to come to Iran and live relatively freely. As recently as July , the U. Department of the Treasury sanctioned several operatives believed to be living in Iran for actively supporting terrorist operations across the region, including in Syria. Although Iran and al-Qaeda are at war in Syria and in Yemen, the two seem to have developed a mutually beneficial relationship, at least concerning the activities and presence of al-Qaeda members operating from Iran. Department of the Treasury believes that Iran has struck a bargain with the jihadist organization, allowing it a small presence in return for no al-Qaeda—sponsored terrorism or recruitment within its borders.
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Whatever the case may be, it speaks to an uncomfortable political arrangement. Why does the Islamic Republic pursue relationships that are hard to square with its religious beliefs? Rather, Iranian foreign policy, like that of most states, is based on a number of factors.
When religion does come into play, it usually intersects with more paramount national security and strategic interests. Revolutionaries used a popular slogan—neither East nor West—to assert their desire for Iran to strike a politically and ideologically independent path. Khomeinists also had a strong pan-Islamic agenda. After the revolution, Khomeinists emerged as the dominant faction.
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Aside from the supreme leader, other governmental institutions were created after the revolution to take on the everyday tasks of building and enforcing policy. The SNSC is said to officially sign off on major foreign policy and strategic decisions—whether they are initially generated by the government or the IRGC—before they are put into action. As Khomeini asserted in , the war was not against Iran, but against the Islam that Iran promoted:. The superpowers are intent on opposing Islam at present.
The other puppet regimes would do likewise. Is it Iran that threatens them or is it Islam? If they call on the Arabs to unite, it is a call to unity against Islam.
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They consider Islam to be against their interests. If they find the opportunity and if you do not pay attention Islam will be uprooted. The best defense, in their estimation, was a good offense. We have no recourse but to mobilize all of the faithful forces of the Islamic Revolution, and with the mobilization of forces in every region, we must strike fear into the hearts of our enemies so that the idea of invasion and the destruction of our Islamic Revolution will exit from their minds.
If our revolution does not have an internationalistic and aggressive worldview the enemies of Islam will once again enslave us culturally and politically. It was under the rubric of exporting the revolution that Iran pursued partnerships with a range of nonstate actors.
A similar effort led to the organization of non-Iranian Shia groups that, unlike the Palestinians, not only accepted Iranian support but also adopted Khomeinist ideology as their own. Over time, these relationships became vital strategic investments that paid dividends for Iran. Although the Islamic Republic is a distinctly Shia enterprise, Khomeini discouraged overt Shia sectarianism. Instead, he emphasized pan-Islamism and regularly made appeals to Sunnis on the basis of Islamic unity.
In a declaration, Khomeini asserted:.
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He adopted pan-Islamic causes, and made the Palestinian issue paramount, to show that his movement and the interests of the Islamic Republic had common cause with the wider Muslim world. Liberation of beloved Jerusalem is an important issue to us. Support to the Palestinians trumped any latent pro-Shia, sectarian inclinations. Ardent support for the Palestinians, however, did not translate into much support from Sunnis for Khomeini or his cause. Sunnis were not alone in their lack of receptivity.
Iranian revolutionaries including both clerical leaders and early members of the IRGC had established informal networks in Lebanon and among the Iraqi Shia before the revolution. They were able to utilize their preexisting connections with Arab Shia activists and, with state backing, transform those relationships into the formation of pro-Iranian client organizations.
These efforts benefited from the social and political dislocation caused by regional conflicts.
In the case of Hezbollah, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon provided a turning point for Shia domestic politics. Iran had less success elsewhere. Ties to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups became a strategic asset for Iran after the war with Iraq.
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