Iran’s Regional Power Rooted in Shia Ties

TEHRAN – As Barack Obama’s national security team assesses the challenge of Iran’s role in the Middle East, it confronts a paradox: Iran is seen as having ambitions of regional hegemony, but it lacks the military power normally associated with such a role.

That paradox is explained by the fact that Iran’s position in the Middle East depends to a significant degree on its cultural, spiritual, and political ties with other Shia populations and movements in the region. That characteristic of Iranian foreign policy, which Iranian officials and think-tank specialists emphasized in interviews with this writer, poses some unique problems for the United States in opposing Iranian influence in the region.

The pivotal development in the new Iranian position in the region has been the emergence of Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated regime.

Hamid Reza Dehghani, director of the Center for Persian Gulf and Middle East Studies at the foreign ministry’s think-tank, left no doubt in an interview that the transformation of Iraq from mortal enemy of the Islamic Republic of Iran to a friendly state represents an epochal shift in Iran’s security position in the region.

"For the past 400 years, we’ve had problems with our western neighbors," said Dehghani, "mostly from the Ottoman empire and from the Iraqi regime after independence." The climax of that historical security problem was the eight-year war against Iran launched by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1980.

The U.S. removal of the Hussein regime in 2003 changed all that. But what has turned that opportunity into a more permanent Iranian advantage is what Dehghani calls Iran’s "soft power" in Iraq – its cultural, religious, and economic relations – especially with Iraqi Shias.

He cites the close connections between the Iranian and Iraqi Shia spiritual communities: the top Shia cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is an Iranian; Iraqi Shia scholars study in Iran’s main spiritual center, Qom; and hundreds of thousands of Iranians have made pilgrimages to the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala since 2003.

Relations between Iranian and Iraqi Shia have also had a political-military dimension, of course. The present close relationship between Iran and Iraq "was not a project inaugurated by a few politicians," he said, "but is the outcome of long-standing relations with the country."

Dehghani was referring obliquely to the history of Iranian support for Shia opponents of the Hussein regime, both before and during the Iran-Iraq war. That support has now paid off in the form of an Iraqi government in which the Shia majority in the country controls state power. Iranian-trained political parties and armed formations that still maintain close cooperation with Iran have influential positions in the regime.

Ali Akbar Rezaei, the foreign ministry’s top official on the United States, also emphasized the importance of Iran’s "soft power" in the region, based on its ties of affinity, as the real basis for its new position of influence.

"We have a natural influence in the region," said Rezaei. "Although there are borders, peoples in the region go back and forth, and enjoy cultural and economic relations." Rezaei emphasized the heavy traffic across Iran’s borders with Iraq and Afghanistan and the implications for intensive trade relations with Iran’s neighbors as essential to that "natural influence."

A paper on the "Shia Factor" in Iran’s regional policy, published last month by the Center for Strategic Research, a think-tank that serves Iran’s Expediency Council, acknowledges that Iran is now cultivating Shia allies, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, in pursuit of its national security objectives in the region. The author, Dr. Kayhan Barzegar, an international relations specialist at Islamic Azad University in Tehran, argues that Iran’s close relations with the Shia in the region are aimed at "building a strategic linkage for establishing security."

The main strategic advantages of Iran’s relationships with Shia movements, Barzegar writes, is the "installation of a new generation of friendly elites at the level of states, who have no backgrounds or feeling of enmity toward Iran." The Shia government in Iraq, according to the author, was the "turning point" in putting the "Shia factor" at the center of Iran’s foreign policy.

But Iran’s Shia diplomacy in the region also extends to Shia movements that either hold quasi-state power, like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, or that have remained shut out of political power completely, as is the case in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

In those countries, a transnational network of Shia political activists inspired by the Iranian revolution and schooled in Shia seminaries in Iraq and Iran has mobilized large-scale Shia support for Shia empowerment.

Iran has provided large-scale military assistance to Hezbollah, including thousands of rockets capable of hitting Israel. Those rockets were well known to be part of the Iranian deterrent to an Israeli attack against Iran, which was a major reason Israel launched its invasion of Lebanon in 2006, with U.S. support.

An adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he not be identified, observes that the conventional Western portrayal of Hezbollah as an instrument of Iranian power misses the role of shared Shia spirituality in the Iran-Hezbollah nexus. "Hezbollah is not just a group of Western-style commandos," he said.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has been able to mobilize the support of Lebanese Shia population, according to the adviser, because he possesses the two main sources of power in Shia communities: spiritual and Islamic legal power.

Although it is never mentioned in Western coverage, Nasrallah studied theology in Najaf during Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s – well before the Islamic revolution in Iran. And when he was about to rise to a senior military leadership position, he interrupted his career to return to his theological studies at the holy city of Qom in Iran.

In a striking historical parallel, Iraq’s charismatic nationalist Shia political-military leader, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, interrupted his career last year at what appeared to be a critical moment to take up intensive theological studies at Qom.

Another case of Iranian "natural influence" through Shia ties, which officials did not bring up, is Bahrain. The Iranian revolution has also inspired activism in the Shia community there, which represents two-thirds of the population but has been denied political power by Sunni rulers.

One hundred thousand Shia, as much as one-third of the entire Shia population of the country, turned out for a protest rally over the February 2006 bombing of a Shia shrine in Iraq. Shia demonstrators there have displayed pictures of both Iranian and Hezbollah leaders, and the government of Bahrain cites the pro-Iranian fervor of its Shia population as evidence of Iranian subversion.

Iranian officials view Iran’s "natural influence" in the region, based on geography and relations with fellow Shia, as much more fundamental and durable than the influence the U.S. seeks through its troop presence. As a result, they argue, U.S. policy cannot avoid contributing to greater Iranian influence in the longer run, regardless of whether it increases or decreases troops in the region.

"Whatever the U.S. does in the region," said the foreign ministry’s Rezaei, "will be in our interest: if the U.S. withdraws troops from Iraq, we will win; if they want to stay, we are also the winner."

The same dynamic applies in Afghanistan and to the rest of the region as well, according to Rezaei. "Even if they provoke other countries against us," he said, "we are the winner."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.