Ayatollah Khamenei’s Shia International looms large
After the fall of the last bastion of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Abu Kamal, close to Syria’s border with Iraq, a senior member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced the extremist group’s “total defeat” to the world.
Major-General Qassem Soleimani, chief commander of the IRGC’s al-Quds Force, which manages extraterritorial operations, sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Soleimani’s letter, he thanked “Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Afghan and Pakistani guardians of the shrine” who sacrificed their lives defending the “life and honour of Muslims.”
The nationalities mentioned were not random. They make up the bulk of Shia fighters under his command in Syria and Iraq. This writer’s survey of foreign Shia fighters killed in combat in Syria provides corroboration. I have identified, at the very least, 785 Afghans, 526 Iranians, 105 Iraqis, 1,201 Lebanese and 144 Pakistanis killed in the fighting since January 2012. In Iraq, I have totalled 2,393 Iraqi losses and 42 Iranian nationals killed since the rise of ISIS.
However, Tehran’s outreach is not limited to these nationalities.
There are no accurate statistics on the number of Shia worldwide, but as the second largest sect within Islam, Shia likely constitute between 10-13% of Muslims, or between 150 million-200 million people worldwide. In Lebanon and the Persian Gulf region, there is a much higher percentage of Shia.
Regardless of the size of the Shia community in Iran’s neighbourhood, Ayatollah Khamenei has grander designs than leading a minority within Islam. He has tried hard to depict himself as vali-ye amr-e Moslemin, or chief guardian of Muslims. In an attempt to take over leadership of the Muslim umma, or community of believers, he has chosen a bifurcated approach.
Khamenei, like his predecessor Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has tried to overcome the Shia/Sunni divide by identifying the United States and Israel as common enemies of all Muslims. According to this narrative, Sunni Arab leaders who pursue their national interests in cooperation with the United States and peaceful coexistence with Israel are traitors and lackeys of global arrogance.
The Islamic Republic is also aiming to export the revolution enshrined in its constitution. Article 154 of Iran’s Constitution obliges the state to support “the just struggles of the oppressed against the oppressors in every corner of the globe.” For all practical purposes, this means trying to control Shia communities in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and undermining the Sunnis.
Under Khamenei, the Islamic Republic is pursuing its goals in a more sophisticated fashion than in the early days of the 1979 revolution. Today, Tehran boasts a multifaceted approach tailored to social and political conditions in disparate countries.
In Lebanon, Tehran has successfully managed to create and nurture Hezbollah as the central political player and formidable military force. At the same time, Iran has attempted to keep Lebanese state institutions weak. The militia also constitutes Tehran’s first line of defence in conflicts with Israel and serves as a mercenary force in regional conflicts such as the civil war in Syria.
In Iraq, the Islamic Republic pursues a policy of supporting Shia control over the government, even as it undermines it by providing military and logistical support to Iraqi Shia militias that are not within Baghdad’s control. In doing so, Iraqi Shia will find themselves in a permanent state of dependency on Tehran.
In Afghanistan, by training the Fatemiyoun Division in Syria, Tehran is preparing for NATO’s possible disentanglement from Central Asia. The Shia Afghan division can be deployed to advance Tehran’s interests in Afghanistan and could help create a buffer zone between the Sunni-dominated centre and Iran’s vulnerable eastern borders.
In Bahrain, Tehran uses political means to take advantage of the crisis between the country’s Shia population and the Sunni rulers.
In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the Islamic Republic tries to entangle the house of Saud in a costly military conflict with the Houthis. It also keeps Saudi security forces preoccupied with internal security threats to the kingdom, in particular in the Eastern Province by inciting the local Shia population against Riyadh.
In Kuwait, where the Shia are an integrated part of the political power structure, the Islamic Republic tries hard, but unsuccessfully, to infiltrate the Shia community and simultaneously pursues a policy of driving a wedge between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The Islamic Republic’s multifaceted approach is paying off. This should make the Sunni rulers consider the social, political and economic conditions that propel some Arab Shia to Tehran for support.