In the post-Obama era, leading American politicians are again playing up the threat emanating from Iran. During James Mattis’s confirmation hearing for secretary of defense, Sen. John McCain warned that Iran continues to “remake the region in its image from Syria, to Iraq, to Yemen.” Mattis, who supports the Iran nuclear deal, has described Iran as “a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem” and “the single-most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” The hyperbole on Iran is complemented by silence on Saudi Arabia’s role in promoting global Salafi-inspired terrorism.
Although Iranian hard-liners relish this aggrandizement by the Washington establishment, a closer look at Iran’s activities in the Mideast reveals that it is hardly the military or ideological giant it is made out to be, and not only because its military spending is dwarfed by that of its neighbors. Any assumption that the region’s Shiite communities are subservient to Tehran, and cooperating with it to further Iran’s power, involves a grave misreading of Mideast history and politics.
The Iranian Revolution was matched by Shiite unrest in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in 1979 and the continuing rise in prominence of the Lebanese Amal and Hezbollah movements. Iran explored the idea of exporting its revolution by establishing the Office of Islamic Liberation Movements (OILM) in 1981. Overseen by Ayatollah Montazeri, who at the time was the closest confidant of Ayatollah-Ali Khomeini, it fell completely under the umbrella of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps but over time transitioned into a department of the Foreign Ministry.
During the 1980s, the OILM was allied closely with Saudi students of Ayatollah Shirazi, an Iranian-born cleric who ran a religious seminary in Kuwait. It was here that Saudi Shiite activists would form the Shiraziyyun movement and advocate for greater Shiite autonomy in the country. Long ignored by Mideast scholars, this movement was brought to the West’s attention in Toby Matthiesen’s 2014 book The Other Saudis. It was during this period that the kingdom began to view its Shiites as an Iranian fifth column, just as their Ottoman predecessors had viewed the Gulf Shiites with suspicion as possible agents of the Safavid dynasty.
In Lebanon, Shiite resistance movements predated the Islamic Republic altogether. The Amal (hope) movement was founded in 1974 by the Iranian cleric Musa al-Sadr. Rather than promulgate a revolutionary ideology, he mainly focused on raising Lebanon’s Shiite community out of their crippling poverty under the rule of Maronite and Sunni elites. His vision for Iran and Lebanon diverged greatly from Ayatollah Khomeini’s. Historian Andrew Scott Cooper’s recent biography of the shah, The Fall of Heaven, even made the provocative claim that this may have led to Sadr’s demise in Libya just before the revolution. Despite a split between Hezbollah and Amal, Musa al-Sadr remains an ideological father of both movements. Thus, it is a common misconception dually perpetuated by Tehran and Washington that Hezbollah is a fruit of the Islamic Republic. This myth serves Tehran’s desire to take credit for Shiite empowerment and jihad against Israel, while in Washington it makes for a simple scapegoat for the problems endemic to Lebanon’s system of confessional politics.
The OILM initially had strong ambitions to foment regional revolution until 1987, when it was restrained by Khomeini in favor of political pragmatism. Iran was engrossed in a brutal war with Iraq and learned the consequences of adopting a radical foreign policy as every Arab nation except Syria sided with Saddam Hussein. The OILM’s leadership, including Montazeri, was tainted by revelations of their direct involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal by soliciting the release of American hostages from Hezbollah on behalf of Washington. Ultimately, the Islamic Republic chose survival over an entropic revolutionary policy.
Today, Iran is complicit in serious crimes committed by Syria’s Assad regime. But to interpret Iran’s actions in Syria as an aggressive expansion of power is misguided. Rather, Iran is trying to maintain its place in the region as well as contribute its share to an old alliance formed when Saddam was using chemical weapons against Iran. In Yemen, the Houthi rebels may welcome the patronage of Iran in the form of material support, but to paint believers in the Zaidi Shiite a faith — a different sect from the one practiced in Iran — as subservient to the Supreme Leader is incorrect, a point the U.S. intelligence community is well aware of.
The same rings true for Iran-sponsored Hashd and Sadrist militias in Iraq that remain checked by the Iraqi Army and Najaf’s leading cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Although he holds no political position, al-Sistani is a marja-e taqlid — a religious figure worthy of emulation — which is the highest rank attainable within the informal world of Shiite seminaries. Khamenei also claims this title but enjoys less doctrinal authority. For his part, al-Sistani tacitly rejected the export of an Iranian-style Islamic Revolution and strongly supports a parliamentary democracy.
Current Shiite activists in Saudi Arabia maintain only symbolic relations with Iran, and most adhere to the edicts of Sistani rather than Khamenei. Even the Shiraziyyun rejected Khomeini’s concept of the “guardianship of the jurist” and therefore the essence of the Islamic Republic. The single exception to this trend — the Hezbollah al-Hijaz — is now defunct. The Saudi Shiites have taken every opportunity to display their loyalty to the Kingdom. During the Gulf War, Saddam urged them to rise up in the Eastern Province, but this was rejected even before it was obvious that Iraq would lose. Even the radical Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr displayed that he was not a pawn of Iranian ambitions when in a speech he implored God to destroy the Assad regime in contradiction with the position of Iran. Meanwhile, Shiite dissent in Saudi Arabia has shifted almost entirely to a human rights discourse.
In contrast with the largely forgotten Shiites of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon’s Hezbollah has strategic ties to Tehran. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for an Islamic Republic in Lebanon throughout the 1980s. South Beirut remains saturated with symbols of Iranian influence, from murals of Khamenei to new construction that resembles a postcard from Tehran.
However, to depict present-day Hezbollah as a puppet of Iran or even a revolutionary movement is inaccurate. Ever since Hezbollah adopted a policy of infitah, or openness, it has become entrenched in Lebanese politics and even buried the hatchet with the Amal Movement led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. Today, Hezbollah serves as an extension of Iranian foreign policy in exchange for military support as long as that policy does not conflict with its domestic goals. Hezbollah is reliant on, but not beholden to, Iran.
Many segments of Lebanese society detest Hezbollah’s high-handed presence in Lebanese politics and its overshadowing of the Lebanese Armed Forces. The absence of a president in Lebanon from 2014-2016 until the pro-Hezbollah Michel Aoun was chosen in the 46th round of parliamentary elections is one such example of its influence. Nevertheless, large swaths of Lebanese society view Hezbollah as a savior rather than a puppet to a foreign state, and it enjoys support from many Lebanese Christians who argue that in its absence, much of the country would unravel into a failed state.
All in all, it is a dangerous mistake to give Tehran more credit than is due for the rise of Shiite movements across the region. It is only natural that these movements would gain prominence in Iraq and Lebanon because of demographic realities. Iran has also avoided stoking unrest in Saudi Arabia and proven unwilling to escalate hostilities in Yemen. Meanwhile, anti-Western terrorist groups, ranging from the Islamic State in Syria to Lashkar-e Taiba in Pakistan, are ideologically inspired by Gulf-funded madrasas. They have their ranks swelled by Gulf-born recruits, and in some cases receive state sponsorship for their terrorism from so-called Gulf allies.
Exaggerating the military or ideological power of Iran may serve the goal of pushing the United States to take military action against Iran. But a singular focus on Iran — while deliberately ignoring the role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and their spread of Salafism — will neither provide stability for the Middle East nor further any of Washington’s other interests in the region.
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