At a time of unprecedented popular unrest in key Arab states of the Middle East, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in a February 21, 2011 speech that two simple remedies are required to solve the problems that afflict the contemporary Islamic World. According to Khamenei, “unity among Muslim [states]” and “the weakening of America” are the two necessary steps that all Muslims must take to secure a “bright” future for the umma or the worldwide Muslim Nation.1
These twin messages-unity of the Muslim Nation and struggle against the United States to repel its influence in Muslim lands-have formed the core of the Islamic Republic’s outreach to Muslims globally. On its surface, this overall message is simple and straightforward, and Iranian officials have continuously repeated it ever since the 1979 revolution. But the very simplicity of this message is one reason why the Islamic Republic’s public diplomacy has failed to gain much traction in the larger Muslim world. Among other things, by making the ideal of Islamic unity fundamentally inseparable from anti-Americanism and the struggle against the West, Iran’s message has been a non-starter for a long list of Muslim countries that have vested interests in maintaining friendly relations with the United States. Far more significantly, despite years of promoting intra-Islamic unity, Tehran’s international outreach has failed to make any significant progress in bridging the important theological and culturally-rooted differences that continue to divide Muslims along sectarian lines. Indeed, because of its inherently political nature, Iran’s cross-sectarian outreach has actually exacerbated these differences.
The meager attendance at the pan-Islamist venue where Khamenei delivered his remarks on February 21st was a revealing sign of the general failure of Iran’s outreach to Sunni Muslims. He spoke at a gathering in Tehran of Shia and Sunni clergy who attended the 24th annual International Islamic Unity Conference. Not a single prominent Sunni cleric was present among the reported 200 delegates from 57 countries who attended the conference.
While the geopolitical realities and rivalries of the greater Middle East hugely complicate Iran’s efforts to bridge the religious differences among the various branches of Islam, the Islamic Republic’s pan-Islamist message faces equally steep hurdles at home. The case of Iran’s own deeply aggrieved Sunni minority illustrates the effects of genuine sectarian differences and is itself a telling case study of how lack of progress toward intra-Islamic reconciliation is experienced within individual Muslim-majority states. These domestic shortcomings, however, have not stopped the Iranian regime from considering the present upheaval in the Arab world as an opportune moment to propagate more intensely the idea of Islamic unity and the kind of leadership and facilitation the Islamic Republic claims it can provide in a transformative period that Tehran has dubbed an “Islamic Awakening.”2
An Outwardly Simple Message
On February 11, 2011-a date that some Iranians celebrate as “Revolution Day” to commemorate the 1979 fall of the Shah’s regime-a mid-ranking Shia cleric went to the podium as the Friday prayer leader in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj and proclaimed that Iran’s Sunnis “have no sanctuary other than in the arms of Ayatollah Khamenei.”3This pronouncement by the cleric, Hojjat-ol Eslam Seyyed Abol-Hassan Navab, was not a spontaneous act of admiration for Iran’s supreme leader. Instead, it was a calculated declaration directed at the residents of a Kurdish and Sunni-majority town that is part of a larger campaign by the Islamic Republic to tackle rising sectarian tensions head-on. Indeed, the cleric Navab himself has made a career as an instrument of the regime’s cross-sectarian outreach: presently the head of the University of Religions and Denominations, an institution dedicated to religious education, Navab is a former head of the International Affairs section of Iran’s Islamic Propaganda Organization and used to focus on working in Arab countries.4
The Islamic Republic’s ruling political elites-whether they are men of the cloth or uniformed commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-have a deep-rooted fear that sectarian conflict will break out inside Iran’s own borders. These worries have grown especially in recent times, as Sunni-Shia divisions have often been a key sustainer of conflict in a variety of places ranging from Yemen to Lebanon and Bahrain to Pakistan. To ward off creeping sectarianism, the Islamic Republic has in recent years redoubled its broad-based information campaign aimed at promoting its message of Islamic unity and its purportedly anti-sectarian agenda to Sunni Muslims both at home and abroad.
A recent fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khamenei is commonly enlisted in Iran’s Sunni outreach. On October 2, 2010, Khamenei in reply to a questioner ruled that “insulting the symbols of the Sunni brothers, including the Prophet Muhammad’s wife [Aisha], is forbidden. This includes the women of all prophets and especially the holy Prophet Muhammad.”5 The ruling was in reaction to the common Shiite practice of denouncing Sunni Islam’s first three Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) and their families, whom the Shiites do not consider the rightful heirs to the Prophet Muhammad. The fatwa was swiftly publicized by Iran’s state-controlled and pro-regime media as ground-breaking. It was also praised as a ruling that generated much excitement and appreciation among Sunni scholars worldwide.6
The World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought-which was established in the early 1990s on the order of Khamenei as the main agency to promote pan-Islamic reconciliation-was quick to publicize what it claimed to be widespread praise among Sunni Arabs for the supreme leader’s fatwa. The forum, which is known in short as the “Taghrib,” reported in particular that Shaykh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the head of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, welcomed the supreme leader’s fatwa as “prudent” and “timely” and hailed it as a decision that “would help ram the door shut to fitna [division among Muslims].”7 To convey the impression that the fatwa’s impact reached well beyond mainstream Sunni religious corners, the case was also made that even vehemently anti-Shia voices had been persuaded to see the light after the supreme leader’s ruling. Omar Bakri Muhammad, the renowned Salafist cleric and someone otherwise linked to anti-Shia takfiri ideology, said on Al Jazeera television that his views on the
Shia had been transformed because of Khamenei’s ruling.8
As a matter of principle, though not always in practice, the ruling elite in Tehran has been committed to the cause of Islamic unity ever since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Indeed, Iranian officials routinely claim that the “unification of the ranks of Muslims against the enemies of Islam….has been one of the most important goals of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”9 In recent years, however, the Islamic Republic’s efforts to extend its message of Islamic solidarity have increased markedly.10 In 2008-a year that was officially declared as the “Year of Islamic Unity” in Iran-the organizers of the annual Islamic unity conference in Tehran published a charter and a set of guiding principles that outline the spirit of Islamic cooperation to which Tehran aspires. The document goes into specific detail about ways to avoid fitna and to bring an end to sectarian divisions in the Muslim Nation. For example, it urges Muslims from different sects to avoid “name-calling tafsiq and declaring each other as unbelievers takfir” and further adds that “ascribing innovation bidah to other Muslims must be avoided.”11
There are enormous divergences between the nine main principles of pan-Islamic unity proposed in the document and the actual religious realities within Iran today. For example, two of the stipulated guidelines in the document awkwardly put the record of the Iranian regime in the spotlight. First, one of the document’s points says that “Government organizations must avoid imposing a particular madhhab [Muslim school of law] on their populace” and that governments should accord followers of “certified Islamic madhhabs….all rights of citizenship.” Second, the document encourages religious scholars to “strive to foster moderation and tolerance through the implementation of any and all educational methods available.”12 On both of these principles, Tehran’s record does not match its sloganeering and claims about Islamic unity.
The Case of Sunnis in Iran
In a sermon on February 18, 2011, one of Iran’s most prominent Sunni clerics called upon government authorities in Tehran to actually implement their own rhetoric on religious equality and Muslim unity within the country itself. Maulana Abdulhamid Esmail-Zehi, who is the Friday prayer leader in Zahedan, the capital of the Sunni-majority Sistan and Baluchistan province, further stated that “Without religious equality the province cannot rid itself of Sunni discontent.” If there is one Sunni population that Tehran’s outreach must win over to ensure that religious sectarianism does not lead to politically disastrous consequences for the Islamic Republic itself it is Iran’s own estimated seven million-strong Sunni minority located in Iranian Baluchistan, Kurdestan and elsewhere.
Since 2003, there has been an upsurge in anti-regime violence in Iranian-controlled Baluchistan in particular. The majority of this violence has been perpetrated by a Sunni terrorist group calling itself Jundollah, or the “Army of God.” Despite the arrest and execution of the Jundollah’s top leader Abdul Malek Rigi in 2010, the group has retained its ability to carry out deadly assaults against Iranian government targets, the last of which took place in December 2010, when some forty people were killed in twin suicide bombings. While banditry and armed clashes have been ongoing in Baluchistan dating back to the 1960s and even earlier, Iranian observers of ethnic Baluch affairs have warned that the contemporary nature of militancy in the restive province has been looking increasingly similar to the modus operandi of jihadist groups that operate in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moreover, they claim that the sectarian religious justification behind the armed attacks in Iran is becoming ever-more pronounced.13
To counter sectarianism and neutralize Baluch militancy, the Iranian security forces, including the IRGC’s top brass, have for a number of years touted the importance of working closely with local tribal and Sunni religious leaders. However, the personal story of Zahedan’s Sunni leader Maulana Abdulhamid, makes it plainly clear that the challenges Tehran faces are not limited simply to Iranian Sunnis who opt for a violent path. Despite the fact that Maulana Abdulhamid has always condemned the attacks of Jundollah, two of his sons-in-law were arrested in October 2010 on suspicion of being in contact with foreign intelligence services, according to Iran’s Fars News agency. The arrests were apparently linked to the Iranian government’s efforts to force the senior Sunni cleric to emend his ways. Previously, Maulana Abdulhamid had complained about the enormous pressures he was under from Tehran because of his opposition to the central government’s insistence on organizing and regulating curricula for Sunni religious students at about sixty seminaries located in Iranian-controlled Baluchistan.14 Accordingly, Abdulhamid urged the Shia-dominated ruling elite in Tehran to stop attempting to control Sunni religious affairs and to enact policies that accord with the principles of religious freedom and equality that the regime professes. “If the [Iranian] constitution is implemented [by the regime in Tehran] about the religious rights of the Sunnis,” he said, “then a lot of the [Sunni] complaints and anxieties will be solved.”15 In effect, what Maulana Abdulhamid requested was no different and nothing more than what the Iranian Taghrib claims it is committed to securing for all Muslims in Iran-namely, that “Government organizations must avoid imposing a particular madhhab [Muslim school of law] on their populace.”
It might be argued that Sunni Baluch are experiencing increased state pressure and scrutiny because of the escalating levels of violence in the southeast of the country. But in fact, other Sunni populations located elsewhere in Iran have also been targeted by security forces. For example, in early March 2011, additional security forces were deployed to the towns of Mashhad and Taybad in the northeastern province of Khorasan Razavi after several local Sunni preachers were arrested and amid fears of a popular backlash against the regime.16 Maulana Mohammad Fazeli, Taybad’s Sunni imam, had earlier been suspended from preaching, and his arrest represented a clear escalation by the regime. Local Sunni seminarians were reportedly also contemplating a boycott of any dealings with the authorities until other arrested Sunni clergy were released. Even the mainstream Shia Iranian society was captivated by events in Taybad, as news of the security services’ deployment circulated through reporting and video clips on Persian-language websites.
The same official heavy-handedness and apprehension toward Sunni political activity is also evident in Iranian Kurdestan. In early March 2011, for example, there were reports of a number of arrests of ethnic Kurds in the towns of Saqqez and Baneh. The detainees were charged among other things for insulting Shia religious figures. Meanwhile, Tehran on a number of occasions has claimed to have intercepted radical Sunni literature and arrested “Wahhabi terrorists” purported to have been involved in armed attacks in Iran’s northwestern region.17 In recent years, Iranian authorities have reportedly also periodically confiscated so-called “deviant Wahhabi” literature in southern regions of the country where Iran’s Sunni Arab population mainly resides.18
Iranian authorities have at no stage produced any specific examples of the alleged “Wahhabi literature”-a phrase meant to describe the radical and vehemently anti-Shia religious material that Tehran claims is funded by the oil-rich Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf. This incomplete picture has led to speculation among Sunni activists and Iran-watchers alike that the seizures are actually targeting Sunni religious material that is not necessarily takfiri or anti-Shia in nature. If this is correct, then it demonstrates the heightened level of anxiety found in the ranks of the Iranian regime about even mainstream Sunni religious activity. It also highlights the gap between rhetoric and practice in the Islamic Republic over the issue of vahdat, or Islamic unity.
The Islamic Republic’s ruling elites are fixated on Wahhabism for good reason. For all its sloganeering about vahdat, much of the drive behind Tehran’s pan-Islamic outreach is first and foremost political, and it is undertaken with a view toward enhancing Iran’s geopolitical position. This occurs in the context of the Iranian regime’s ambitions to become the leader of the Islamic World, a goal hindered by the Persian and Shia characteristics of the Islamic Republic.19
Further, in the Iranian understanding of the realities of the Middle East and the Islamic World, no state is a greater challenger in undermining Tehran’s goals and delegitimizing its Islamic credentials than Saudi Arabia. Countering the House of Saud and the influence of the religious Wahhabi establishment that gives legitimacy to the monarchy’s rule have therefore become top priorities for Iranian foreign policy, and an abundance of Iranian official statements are at hand to demonstrate this.
First, the official Iranian narrative as evident in the material published by state-controlled media does not hold back in denouncing almost everything linked to Wahhabism. For instance, the Wahhabis, a broad term that includes the Saudi government and the clergy in Saudi Arabia, are said to be in an alliance with the “West and the Zionists.”20 Claims that Wahhabism is a foreign-made conspiracy against the Muslim Nation are not limited to fringe elements among the Iranian Shia clergy. Senior Shia figures regularly and strongly condemn all things Wahhabi and depict the sect as “contemptible” and deliberately “planted” in the midst of the umma by the West to create a rift among Muslims.21
For example, one of Iran’s most senior Shia figures, Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, branded Wahhabis as “heartless extremists” who give “Islam and Muslims a bad reputation” through the violent operations of jihadist groups that are carried out in Iraq and elsewhere.22 At their core, such denunciations by Iranian clergy are in fact a reaction to the anti-Shia positions of the Wahhabi establishment, which has included the issuing of anti-Shia fatwas or insulting Shia clergy such as Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. But Iranian anti-Wahhabism also clearly reflects the rivalries between Tehran and Riyadh as they seek to advance their competing interests among various Muslim populations in the Middle East and beyond.23
In fact, the gap between the Iranian Shia clerical hierarchy and that of the Wahhabi leadership is so great there are virtually no prominent examples of the two groups reaching out to each other since the Islamic Republic came to power in 1979. If the Iranian authorities have all but given up on their ideals of Islamic unity when it comes to Wahhabis, it is clearly due to the diametrical positions that Tehran and Riyadh hold regarding most regional political competitions, such as their support for opposing parties (e.g., Hamas versus Fatah among the Palestinians or Hezbollah versus the “March 14” movement in Lebanon). But the gap between the Shiite hierocracy and the Wahhabi leadership is due to fundamental differences of a religious nature between Shiism and Wahhabi teachings. The reality of this deep-seated religious antagonism, however, is often underestimated in the standard narrative that explains the Iranian-Saudi or Iranian-Arab rivalry in merely political terms.24
Today, the Wahhabi doctrine dominates the religious makeup of the Arabian Peninsula, and thus has effectively negated Tehran’s pan-Islamic outreach to the Arab states to its south. As a consequence, Iranian officials have focused their efforts to present Wahhabism as an aberration to the rest of the Sunni world and to maintain that genuine reconciliation with Sunnis is both desired and possible.
Shia clergy have therefore begun to speak more forcefully against some of the cultural and other idiosyncrasies in Shiite practices that might be off-putting to Sunnis, in the hope of streamlining the sect’s image and improving it in their eyes. This is in marked contrast to Tehran’s anti-Wahhabi message, which accentuates the differences between Wahhabism and the Iranian conception of mainstream Islam. For example, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri, the head of the Taghrib, has repeatedly urged the Shia faithful to refrain from “acts and superstitious beliefs” that damage other Muslims’ perceptions of the Shia and asked the Shiite ulema to stand at the forefront of this campaign. Such calls are not isolated or limited to the established clergy, but in fact reflect a larger trend in Shiite ritual practice that has grown particularly well among segments of the religiously-minded Iranian Shia youth.25
There can be little doubt that these Iranian efforts to present Shiism in a favorable light to Sunnis are spurred on by the important linkages and alliances that Tehran has formed with Islamist movements that are rooted in Sunnism such as Palestinian Hamas, elements of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey’s ruling AKP. Since the beginning of 2011, Tehran’s outreach has also been driven by the popular unrest that has swept through the Arab world on an unprecedented scale. Tehran views this unrest as an opportunity to work through its Sunni allies to further extend its influence among Sunni Arabs.
Hamas and the AKP
Comparing Tehran’s relations with Hamas, the Turkish AKP, and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt (see following section) provides a useful way of assessing Iran’s past cross-sectarian outreach to Sunni Islamists and its current momentum, as well as Tehran’s grand ambitions for the future. Of all the Sunni Islamist groups with which Iran has connections, Tehran’s relationships with Hamas and the much smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad are the friendliest. In its Sunni-world outreach, Tehran likes to point to its support and close ties to these groups, which began in earnest in the early 1990s, as proof of its cross-sectarian religious credentials. However, these relations are overwhelmingly political in nature and expedient given the international isolation that the Islamic Republic and the radical Palestinian groups face. The relationship is largely driven by Iran’s geopolitical aims and the need for these Palestinian groups to find a resourceful patron and financial benefactor. While both sides of the relationship share a common anti-Israel and anti-United States stance, there is no sign that Iran has made any notable efforts through such partnerships to bridge Sunni-Shia theological differences.
A different set of enticements and pragmatic considerations have helped bring about the warmer relations between Iran and Turkey’s ruling AKP, even though Tehran avidly publicizes the role of Islam as the connecting factor.26 Most likely, the key driver behind closer ties since the AKP came to power in 2002 has been growing bilateral trade and other mutual economic benefits. Between 2000 and 2010, Tehran-Ankara trade increased ten-fold to $10 billion per year, and the stated aim is to grow this volume to $30 billion per year.27 Furthermore, as Turkey’s decades-long overtures to the European Union are seen in Ankara as unanswered, the AKP flaunts its approach to relations with Iran and other states in the Middle East as serving the country’s interests and turning Turkey into the principal power in its regional domain.
For the Iranian regime, improving economic and political ties with Turkey are touted primarily as evidence that Tehran cannot be isolated by international sanctions imposed on its nuclear activities.28 Still, while the wide-ranging utility of close ties with the nation-state of Turkey is clearly incomparable to the kind of limited means that the Hamas group can bring to the table, both sets of relations should nonetheless be recognized as being driven by primarily practical considerations and not sustained by adherence to any pan-Islamist dogma.
So far, any advance toward the ideal of Sunni-Shia unity has been, at best, rhetorical. One such example came in December 2010, when Recep Erdogan became the first Turkish prime minister to attend an Ashura ceremony in Istanbul. His address at the ceremony implored “Sunnis and Shia to put aside their differences and unite.”29 Erdogan’s message was likely aimed primarily at mollifying Shia (Alevi) and Sunni tensions that exist within the Turkish population. But the fact that Erdogan shared the podium with Ali Akbar Velayati, a former long-time Iranian foreign minister and top advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, suggests that a wider regional audience was also in mind.
Despite this and other symbolic gestures, and given mounting concerns among Western observers that enhanced AKP-Iran collaboration represents the emergence of an inherently anti-Western front, there are already lucid examples of growing Iranian anxieties about Ankara stealing Tehran’s thunder by becoming the de facto flag bearer of modern Islamism and pan-Islamic unity in the Middle East. A recent example that demonstrated the inherent but so far subtle competition unfolding between Tehran and Ankara for leadership in the region centered on the Iranian reaction to the outpouring of popular Arab support for the Turks following the May 31, 2010 Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound “Freedom Flotilla.” First, the Iranian officials welcomed the operation, and they applauded the Turkish government’s stance in the standoff with Israel that followed. However, from the early days in the affair it was apparent that the Iranian regime felt a degree of discomfort with the excitement the Turkish action had created among Arab populations. Iranian state-controlled media was quick to point out that Turkey was in fact “following in the footsteps of the Islamic Republic” in adopting its tough stance toward Israel-a statement that tells of Tehran’s fears about becoming a secondary anti-Israel actor in the region. Should this occur, Iranian inroads made among Arab populations in recent years would likely be eroded.
Indeed, as Tehran strives to create a viable region-wide Islamic front in which it can play a leading role, the AKP’s Turkey may become its greatest stumbling block. In the context of trans-national Islamist collaboration and ideology, the AKP thus far reflects many of the aspirations of the “mainstream,” modernizing, religiously conservative, non-Wahhabi Sunni world that Tehran also seeks to connect. As such, the AKP’s rise and the growing appeal of its model combining Islamism and nationalism present a new kind of competition for the Islamic Republic’s outreach.30
At the same time, the AKP leadership’s improving relations with Iran have given Tehran’s cross-sectarian agenda a much needed boost and new legitimacy among Sunnis. Seeking to build on this new momentum, Iran has looked at the Arab revolutions of the Winter of 2011 as a golden opportunity. Despite the abundant evidence showing that the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have largely been a reaction to socio-economic stagnation and political repression, Iran’s leaders have sought to portray them as part of a regional “Islamic Awakening.” In a prompt and sustained rhetorical blast, Tehran sought to lay claim to the Arab uprisings by casting them as modeled on the 1979 Iranian revolution and as fundamentally anti-Western, insofar as the Arab regimes that were toppled had benefited from the patronage of states in the West.
As the spill-over effect of Arab unrest has gripped new countries from Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain, Tehran has intensified its efforts to “Islamicize” the popular revolts. For example, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, stated that people in the region had woken up to the call of Islam and that “Iran would help any uprising in the region that was anti-Israeli and anti-American.” These sentiments were subsequently echoed repeatedly by other senior Iranian figures.
Iran and Arab Revolutions
In propagating its message of Islamic unity and anti-Western struggle, Iran has consistently sought to avoid issuing any statements that might be interpreted as sectarian or construed as favoring the Shia in the Middle East as this could be counterproductive to its larger agenda. However, this policy position has been severely tested since mid-March 2011 when the ruling Sunni Khalifa government of Bahrain, backed by the Saudi Arabian military, began a crackdown against mainly Shia protesters. Iranian discourse began to openly express sympathies along sectarian lines but without taking on a stridently anti-Sunni tone. However, Iran’s anti-Saudi and anti-Wahhabi message has remained as strong as ever, and Tehran has accused Riyadh of pursuing a bloody crackdown against the Bahraini Shia. Meanwhile, a top Iranian priority in this information operation has been to assert that the Saudi military’s deployment to Bahrain only began after Washington’s consent had been secured. This has been meant to underscore Iran’s larger claims that a Saudi-American axis operates throughout the region to defend the interests of extra-regional powers and at the expense of repressed local Muslim populations (mustadafin).31
From the moment the Tunisian Revolution toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, rejuvenated Iranian public relations efforts were set in motion aimed at reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt. Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the most influential Muslim Brother, was the focus and hailed as a praiseworthy revolutionary while the likes of Mohammad El Baradei and Omar Suleiman were repudiated as Western lackeys. Despite its initial enthusiasm for Qaradawi during the Egyptian Revolution, Tehran was soon taken aback by the Egyptian cleric’s position on the Bahraini protests. After Qaradawi purportedly urged a crackdown on the mainly Shia protesters in Bahrain, he was mildly denounced by Iranian officials for holding “discriminatory” viewpoints.32 The episode again highlighted that in its quest for maximum political gain from the unrest in the Arab world, Iranian officials have conveniently or perhaps out of heightened euphoria misjudged the strength of anti-Shia sentiments that exist even among personalities that Iran has touted as part of mainstream Sunnism.
In hoping, and perhaps even believing, that the Muslim Brotherhood might end up coming to power in Cairo after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Tehran evidently did not want to be slow in choosing a side and looked to the basic slogan of Islamic solidarity as its main vehicle for pushing its agenda in Cairo. Naturally, this pan-Islamist rhetoric was from the outset self-serving and aimed at enhancing Tehran’s geopolitical reach through association with the Arab world’s most significant country-and one that Iran had not had relations with since 1980. At the same time, it was notable that the Muslim Brothers have largely sought to disassociate themselves publicly from Tehran’s call for establishing an Islamic state in Egypt.
Iran’s brisk support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its careful efforts to minimize any sectarian tensions, reflects the view from Tehran that the Middle East is genuinely at a historic crossroads and that Iran can become a major beneficiary of a likely regional power transformation so long as it remains watchful of its adversaries rendering it as a Persian or Shia power. Accordingly, pan-Islamic unity was emphasized, sectarian differences were downplayed, and Tehran pushed ahead with a basic strategy of linking Arab regimes under pressure at home to Washington and presenting American policies as essentially “anti-Islamic.” This basic anti-American message aimed at the wider Islamic world has been propagated by the Islamic Republic since 1979. Thus far, it has had limited traction with the majority of the governments in the Arab countries. This is largely because Washington remains a critical strategic partner for most states in the Middle East, but Tehran’s understanding is that its formula for regional renewal is a duality and that its weak cross-sectarian and pan-Islamist record and credentials would require that all-binding factor of anti-Americanism for the Iranian policy to move forward, at least amongst those Arab states experiencing turbulence and where power outcomes are still to be decided.
A State or a Cause?
The leaders of the Islamic Republic believe pan-Islamic and cross-sectarian outreach is an important vehicle for the extension of Iranian power in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic World. However, there is a glaring disparity between Iranian rhetoric on Islamic unity and its actions. Indeed, Tehran’s cross-sectarian record might be viewed in a considerably better light by the Sunni mainstream if the Iranian authorities would actually apply their own declared principles of religious freedom and equality at home and if the Iranian government could address the existing demands of local Sunni ulema with a more equitable policy.
While it is true that the social unrest and grievances of the Sunni majorities in Iranian Baluchistan and Kurdestan are, for the most part, rooted in poor socio-economic conditions, the undeniable reality is that the debate about how to solve these problems increasingly requires tackling discriminatory policies pursued by Tehran that many Sunnis complain favor the country’s Shia majority. In short, Tehran’s cross-sectarian hype remains unmatched by its deeds, and this is despite the regime’s clear awareness of the significance of this issue for societal stability in Iran and despite also the steps that authorities have taken-such as Ayatollah Khamenei’s 2010 fatwa against insults at Sunni sanctities. In this way, among others, the Iranian domestic reality is increasingly a liability for Tehran’s efforts to reach out to non-Iranian Sunnis and extend its influence and power internationally.
The general failure of Iran’s efforts at intra-Islamic reconciliation has helped draw increasing awareness in the region to the actual political drivers behind the Islamic Republic’s cross-sectarian outreach. While Iranian officials routinely make statements portraying Tehran as the defender of the Muslim Nation and the “Islamic cause,” critics in the Islamic world now habitually dismiss such overtures as diversions designed to conceal Tehran’s ultimate objectives of opportunistically expanding its power and advancing its interests. For example, while Tehran has vocally and operationally supported the Palestinian struggle by supporting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, its silence in the face of Russian or Chinese crackdowns against their respective Muslim populations in the North Caucasus or in Xinjiang makes clear that Tehran only acts in the name of Islam when it serves a pragmatic or geo-political ambition. When there is no such overlap, or when the priorities of the state surpass in importance the much-touted principles of pan-Islamic solidarity, Tehran opts for silence.
As Iran strives to acquire influence and shape the outcomes of the contemporary revolutionary unrest in the Arab world, it will not be the Tehran regime’s ideological appeal or its cross-sectarian credentials that will draw new clients to Iranian patronage. Rather, it will be Iran’s ability to serve as the material benefactor, much as it does now for Hezbollah or Hamas, for emerging political groups that are in need of an anchor at a time of great regional flux. In this context, the ongoing consequences of the Arab uprisings that might push existing or emerging political groupings into the arms of the Islamic Republic are far more important to the future of the region than Tehran’s hitherto dynamic, but now widely ill-regarded, pan-Islamist ideals.