The encroachment of Iran’s velayat-e faqih raises tensions
Beirut - Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Arab states have become ill at ease with the Iranian clerical regime’s proclamation of velayat-e faqih, a theological doctrine requiring the submission of Shias worldwide to the religious and political guidance of Iran’s supreme religious leader.
A formulation that has come to closely resemble Middle Age European popeism, velayat-e faqih has furnished Iran with an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to export and expand Iranian influence, under the pretext of supporting the dispossessed, liberating the Palestinian territories and what Tehran sees as resisting Western impositions.
Anxiety and suspicion among Arab states towards emerging Shia Iranian power has stemmed from the fact that Arab society is a sectarian mix, and the fear that Shias’ allegiance to velayat-e faqih could undermine national cohesion and political fabric of many Arab states.
During the past 35 years, Arab- Iranian relations have been fraught with tension. The toll of strained relations has been devastating. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people. In the past five years, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and millions displaced as an indirect consequence of this ongoing conflict.
The fight has been raging on through various proxies and asymmetric conflicts in multi-sectarian countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
Rising sectarian tensions have fuelled the drive among many Arab Shias to pay allegiance to velayat-e faqih and others to forge political and military alliances with Iran. Countering Pan-Shiism, Sunni radicalism has gathered momentum and a support base in the Middle East, culminating in the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
This emergent regional paradigm has placed the fate of many Arab republics in jeopardy: Iraq, Syria and Yemen have become battlegrounds between sectarian rivals, while in Lebanon, the state has been paralysed as a result of a sectarian-charged stalemate.
Iranian protests against the execution in Saudi Arabia of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr illustrate the potential for the doctrine of velayat-e faqih to undermine the authority of nation states in the Middle East.
The prominence of such protests among pro-Iranian Shia groups in Arab states further reflects the political irreconcilability between nation state-based sovereign relations and sectarian irredentism, articulated respectively in the Shias’ doctrine of velayat-e faqih and Salafist-claimed Islamic caliphate.
Velayat-e faqih has helped consolidate Iranian regional power and that of the ayatollahs in particular at the expense of Arab states. The sectarian homogeneity of Iran and the heterogeneity of Arab states have helped Iran in this endeavour. At the same time, the shift in allegiance of a large number of Arab Shias towards velayat-e faqih has been attributed to increasing sectarian rifts brought about by the weakening of Arab states.
Saudi Arabia’s swift decision to terminate diplomatic ties with Iran, following attacks against its embassy in Tehran, reflects deep concern towards the unfolding implication of velayat-e faqih in compromising its own sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Sectarian irredentism presents an unprecedented existential threat to every multi-sectarian Arab state. Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the Arab League, accused Iran of carrying out “provocative acts” while UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan has complained that Iran is intentionally inciting sectarian strife.
“Iran doesn’t have qualms and doesn’t hesitate to use the sectarian card as a way to dominate the region and interfere in the internal affairs of Arab countries through issuing threats and support for extremist groups,” he said.
An emergency meeting of the Arab League in December saw the organisation throw its support behind Saudi Arabia and condemn Iranian meddling in Arab affairs.
Evidently, Iranian-Arab relations are in a state of turmoil, defined by proxy battles fought on various countries’ fronts. However, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz ruled out direct military confrontation with Iran.
Tehran, in turn, extended an official apology to Saudi Arabia through the United Nations and took measures to arrest a number of suspects blamed for setting the Saudi consulate ablaze.
The potential victory of Iranian reformists bidding to win February parliamentary elections and establish closer ties with the West and more amicable relations with Arab states provide further room for cautious optimism.
Nonetheless, it remains inconceivable for Iran to develop a foreign policy towards the Arab world that does not embed velayat-e faqih in its outlook.
After promoting itself as the protector of the Shia community worldwide, Iran has ensured a prominent role and a critical stake in regional stability, a position that it will not readily abandon willingly. In a way, Iran has imposed itself as an actor in the future of every multi-sectarian Arab state.
Meanwhile, the Arab world has yet to master the art of building inclusive state institutions to manage religious and cultural diversity. Till then, the legitimacy of Arab states’ claims to sovereignty will continue to be vulnerable to external manipulation and to the appeal of sectarian irredentism.