Is Iran a threat to Shiism?

Abdallah Ghomi , Thursday 5 Apr 2012

In firmly siding with the Syrian regime in its brutal onslaught to remain in power, Iran has reversed the tide of sympathy with Shiism that resulted from Hizbullah's 2006 war with Israel

The Sunni-Shia schism is the oldest and most well-known division within Islam. Among all Islamic countries, Iran is the only Shia state and should be in the best position to further the Shia cause. Though it has done this with some success, Iran may be about to inflict serious damage to Shiism by supporting the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

The historical-academic resolution of the Sunni-Shia Divide

In 1960, Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltut, then Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Islamic Institute and the undisputed supreme Sunni authority of the time, issued a fatwa recognising both Twelver Shiism and Zaidism as conforming to the necessary fundamental pillars of Islam. The fatwa, the culmination of 12 years of research, finds that the differences of the Twelvers and Zaidis are within the limits already allowed in the four existing Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

This fatwa was on a scholarly level, and was intended to be the foundation on which the healing of the Sunni-Shia divide would filter down to the masses. This ruling, involving as it did the major Sunni and Shia authorities of the time, put an end, academically, to the Sunni-Shia schism that dated back to almost immediately after the Prophet’s death, as a result of a dispute over his succession. Formally and academically, the schism was over. Sadly, not everyone got the message.

The date of the fatwa is important, as it is significant that such a ruling was issued during a period of hostility between Egypt, the heart of the Sunni world , and Iran, the only Shia state. Such an accomplishment would be impossible today. Religion was much less subordinated to state policy than it is now, and money and politics did not hold as much sway as they currently do. The promise of Islamic unity has proven elusive since that time, and much of the sectarian distrust and hostility has returned. Beginning in the mid-1970's various players have exploited sectarian divisions for their own financial and political gains.

The exploitation of the Sunni-Shia divide by money and politics

One of the results of the 1973 war with Israel was the OPEC oil embargo, which caused skyrocketing oil prices. The surging price of oil dramatically increased the wealth and power of Saudi Arabia, giving it the means to promote Wahhabism, its own version of Salafi Islam. Wahhabism has been regarded since its inception as marginal, but has been generally tolerated as long as it didn't overstep its limits. It has historically been repressed whenever it was viewed as extending its boundaries. With Saudi Arabia's new financial power, Wahhabism has gained great influence and authority. The rise of Wahabbism threatens any possibility of Islamic unity because of its strict fundamentalism and intolerance of other interpretations of Islam, particularly its tenet that all Shias are unbelievers, not conforming to the essentials of Islam.

In the late 1970s, Iran stated its intent to export its Islamic Revolution. It was obvious that Shiism would be exported along with the political revolution, and Iran has in fact succeeded in spreading Shiism to some degree. It therefore became easier for those opposed, for theological or political reasons, to an expansion of the Iranian revolution to invoke sectarian differences as a political tool. Money and politics thus entered into Islam and deepened the divide between Sunnis and Shias.

Popular sympathy for Shias

Against this background, sympathy for Shias and Shiism grew as a result of Hizbullah’s success, primarily due to Iran's backing, during the 12 July war with Israel in 2006. Iran's defiant stance towards the US and unrelenting stance regarding Israel was a source of pride for many Muslims, who were frustrated with what they regarded as their own governments’ capitulation to the West and their humiliation and impotence regarding Israeli actions.

Though public opinion held that actions like Iran's in the Israel-Hizbullah war could not be faulted, this popularity for Iran and Shiism was unwelcome to many Arab regimes.

The Saudi Arabian government was concerned about the impact of an increasing sympathy for Shia actions would have on its own voiceless and repressed Shia minority, who are second class citizens in a fundamentalist regime that regards them as infidels. If the Shia minority, who happen to be concentrated in the oil rich eastern region of Saudi Arabia, were to feel empowered by Iran’s strength, they could pose a major threat to the Saudi regime, especially if a serious secession movement developed. The Shia might also pose a threat if, as suspected, they felt more allegiance to Iran than to their own country, and should Iran want to use them for its own ends. There is a generally felt sentiment throughout the Sunni Middle East that Shia minorities in Sunni states are Iran's fifth column.

Egypt, likewise, did not welcome the new popularity of Hizbullah and Iran, fearing the inevitable comparison between what its citizens saw as bold action by Iranian-backed Hizbullah and their own regime’s perceived humiliating capitulation to American-Israeli policies. Hizbullah's popularity in Egypt had reached a level where publicly displayed pictures of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, were commonplace. Such a display had possibly not been seen on such a scale since Nasser’s time. In reaction, Egypt officially accused Hizbullah of instigating the 12 July war. The government-employed mosque imams who deliver Friday sermons were directed to denounce Shiism, which in some cases led to clashes with worshipers. People were angry that the government had denounced Hizbullah while the fighting was still going on, which they viewed as undermining a just cause.

Such tensions between people and their governments are common in the Middle East, but for the most part the masses have grumbled under their breaths while the rulers rule unchallenged. Then oddly, someone set himself on fire, and gave people courage.

The Arab Spring

It was to be in Tunisia where the people managed to break through the barrier of fear, ousting a repressive regime and setting an example to other Arab countries. This was soon followed by revolutions in Egypt and Yemen, and uprisings in Syria and Bahrain.

For the most part, Tehran welcomed these revolutions and declared them to be a direct effect of its own revolution, or inspired by it. Nevertheless Iran supported, and continues to support, the existing Syrian regime and its absurd claim to legitimacy, even though events and causes of popular discontent were the same in Syria as in all the revolutions that Iran had blessed and declared genuine. It seems disingenuous for Tehran to embrace the cause of oppressed people everywhere while ignoring the plight of the Syrian people.

A common thread of grievances ran through the countries affected by the Arab Spring. One family rule existed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A de facto presidency for life existed in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. A programme was underway aiming at having the son as successor in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The economy was controlled by the members of the ruling family and their close circles in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Forged elections existed in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia. In Libya, elections were irrelevant as the Libyan dictator claimed he held no official position from which he could be removed. All of the above-named countries were brutal police states where all resources were allocated to the regime’s survival, with no regard for human rights. A final element common to all Arab Spring countries was a foreign policy subordinate to the ruler’s personal interest and survival, rather than the country’s benefit.

In Syria, these same grievances are present, and regime inheritance is already established. In a cartoonish mockery of democratic process, the country’s constitution was amended unanimously by parliament to allow the son, Bashar Al-Assad, to succeed his father despite being too young under prior law. It took parliament only a few short hours to amend the constitution, reducing the minimum age for presidential eligibility to 34 years, which all too conveniently was Bashar’s exact age. This blatant abuse of power should not be tolerated in any society, nor should it be ignored by apologists of the Syrian regime.

Given the above, it is increasingly uncomfortable for Iran to back such a regime while declaring all the other revolutions to be genuine and warranted. Iran, especially as a religiously-based state, is constitutionally and morally bound to oppose Syria's abusive regime, but hypocritically it is supporting Al-Assad for purely political gains, ignoring any religious-based, ideological or moral considerations. The Syrian government's official position, supported by Iran, that they are not opposed to the Syrian peoples’ legitimate right to demonstrate, but are opposed to foreign and local infiltrators, is simply not credible.

That these so-called infiltrators were indiscriminately shelled from air and sea, and whole neighborhoods were razed to the ground, infants killed, and children captured, tortured to death, and their mutilated bodies dumped where they could serve as examples to any parent who would resist the regime, gives lie to the Syrian government's farcical claims that it is fighting foreign terrorists. The world, despite all evidence to the contrary, was supposed to believe the Syrian regime’s absurd version of events against all evidence and proof to the contrary.

Perhaps Russia and China can afford to support the Syrian regime, at least for a time. Great powers operate under different rules. But Iran, Hizbullah and therefore Shiism cannot afford that luxury. Rightly or wrongly any position taken by Iran, with Hizbullah in tow, is viewed inevitably in the public mind as that of Shiism itself. Where Shiism once gained sympathy as a result of Hizbullah's Iranian-backed success in the 12 July war against Israel, that feeling of good will has now been lost and is turning into hostility.

Shiism has historically been and continues to be a school of the persecuted who have a duty to stand up to oppressors, an ideal also formalised by Iran, which makes the Iran-Hizbullah stance increasingly uncomfortable. Iran's constitution also contains an article stating its duty to support all oppressed people, but this principle is not being observed in the case of Syria. They are accused of having sent troops and military advisers to aid Syrian government forces. Similarly, Hizbullah has made an exception to its declared principles in the case of Syria. Hizbullah's stated position as a revolutionary force and its history of cultivating a discourse of resistance in the Arab world, which has helped to further the course of understanding between Sunnis and Shias, is nowhere on display in its current stance.

Iran's support for the Syrian regime

Why, then, does Iran continue to support the Syrian regime? Syria is an important strategic ally of Iran. Iran needs Syria as a conduit to maintain logistical support for Hizbullah, and also to maintain its influence in the region. If the current Syrian regime were to fall, Iran would not only lose its foothold in the Arab world through its allegiance with Syria, it would also lose the influence it has, through Hizbullah, on Israeli borders. Iran's presence in Lebanon via Hizbullah would make it an essential player in any future peace talks, where it could exert political influence to its own advantage.

Since Tehran seems to have passed the point of no return for any possibility of an understanding with any post-revolutionary factions within Syria, Iran’s position in backing the Syrian regime may be a result of having no other option. Tehran's attempted contact with the Syrian opposition abroad was judged to be insincere and its attempts at opening a dialogue with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, who would presumably have an important role in post-revolutionary Syria, were met by refusal.

Hizbullah's support for the Syrian regime

Hizbullah's support for Syria also springs from purely practical reasons of its own. Since Hizbullah is regarded as an extension of Iranian policy and presence, and based on Iran's support of Al-Assad, no future Syrian government is likely to continue allowing its land to be used as a conduit for the arms and supplies necessary for Hizbullah’s long term viability as a fighting force.

The security of Israel

Although a superficial analysis might lead to the impression that the potential withering of Hizbullah and the collapse of the current Syrian regime would seem to remove an enemy from Israel's border and increase its security, in practical terms Syria is, regardless of any declared position, the best guarantor of Israel’s northern border and its continued occupation of the Golan Heights. Should Syria descend into civil war, the security of Israel would be in jeopardy along with the rest of the region. The Israeli government is itself divided about Syria, understanding that limiting the influence of Hizbullah and Iran must be weighed against the dangers of a destabilised neighbour. A country in chaos on its borders would pose an obvious threat, and Israel would have no central authority that could be held accountable for any incursions.

The likelihood of civil war

Civil war in Syria is looking more and more likely, failing a military coup or the intervention of international forces. The government's overrunning of the opposition stronghold of Homs, among other cities and villages, and the ongoing mass killings and torture, show that the Syrian government is willing to stop at nothing, including civil war, in order to hold on to power.

Tehran may also find itself welcoming a Syrian civil war as the second-best alternative to Al-Assad remaining in power. Iran's influence in the region would be maintained if the current Syrian regime retains power, but short of that, the chaos arising from a civil war would still allow Iran to operate in the area and extend the life of its influence, even though with some difficulty. Should Syria fall, Iran's influence in the Arab world would be limited mostly to Iraq, where it has to vie for influence with Saudi Arabia in an ongoing ideological and political war by proxy.

Should civil war arise, it would be fair to assume that Iran would join forces with the Syrian army. This would be used as propaganda by anti-Shia Sunnis who would portray the war as a Shia bloc victimising Sunnis, which would revive hatred and distrust against Shias and stir up old prejudices. Iran would become even more of a pariah, regardless of the war's outcome. Shiism and Shias, inextricably linked to Iran, would suffer. Ironically, it may be Shia Iran that deals the hardest blow to Shiism.

The writer is head of the Centre for the Rapprochement of Islamic Sects.

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