Dilemma of Sectarianism in Iran’s Foreign Policy


ByBasim Rashid

If we say that Iran as a distinguished country in the region has a role in current conflicts in the Middle East, it should not be considered as creating terror. Iran’s role is rooted in its continuous and effective support for its allies in current conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Because of this role, Iran is on the path to continuous confrontation with most of its neighbors, on top of which is Saudi Arabia.
This confrontation goes beyond politics or strategy, and is mainly of “sectarian nature.” That is because Iran and all its allies are Shia, and all together they are fighting Sunni forces supported by Sunni countries. Probably these relationships have deepened the crisis in the region, giving it a kind of sectarian dimension. This has intensified political conflicts between Iran and most of its Sunni neighboring countries. Throughout history, Iran’s foreign policy was always on a realistic path, mainly focusing on securing strategic interests of its establishment. But in recent years after the toppling of Saddam Hossein’s regime in Iraq, we have been witnessing the considerable growth of identity-seeking features in Iran’s foreign policy, in such a way that due to Iran’s support for its Shia allies throughout the region, sectarian behaviors have strongly manifested themselves in this country’s foreign policy.

» Is Iran an Effective Sectarian Player?
There is no doubt that Iran’s approach in the Middle East—especially with respect to this country’s engagement in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—has a sectarian nature. Moreover, Iran’s allies in these conflicts—i.e. Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militia groups—are certainly not Sunni. They either have the same Iranian Shia beliefs, and see Iran as their own leader, or believe in other sects of Shia Islam such as Alawites in Syria or Zaidis in Yemen.
Such relationships between Iran and its Shia allies with different tendencies give Iran’s foreign policy a sectarian nature. Now the question is: Is Iran’s foreign policy mainly based on sectarian interests, or is this policy more complicated than it seems to be?

» To answer this question, some essential points must be made:
First: Iran’s foreign policy is formulated at two different levels under Iranian leader’s supervision. These two sets are different from each other in form and content. The first part of Iran’s foreign policy is formulated in relation with various countries. Elected government of Tehran is basically in charge of this part. The second part is in relation with mercenaries of other countries. IRGC manages and oversees this part, which is beyond government’s powers.
Second: Iran’s foreign policy often seem contradictory. Even though Iran tries to maintain “Islamic regime” and always claims negating Americanism and Zionism, its foreign policy shows a different picture– other than the one which tries to export the revolution to the world.
Iran has stable and fruitful relationship with some non-Islamic countries. For example, Iran’s close relationship with India is well-known, while Iran does not have such relationships with Pakistan—its Islamic neighbor. Moreover, in the continuous conflict which exists between Christian Armenia and Islamic Azerbaijan, Iran is taking Armenia’s side. Also, expanding the relationship with atheist countries such as China, North Korea, and Venezuela does not seem to be a problem for military and non-military leaders of Iran.
Third: There is a dubious relationship between Iran and Al-Qaeda terrorist group. According to published documents of the U.S. Treasury in 2016, Iran has allowed some members of this group to freely live Iran, but details of this relationship are not disclosed yet.
Both sides take part in the current war in Syria and Yemen, but it seems that the relationship between Iran and Al-Qaeda has reached a level of mutual benefits, which allows some members of this group to live in Iran and operate from there. Iran uses this as a part of its influence– sometimes exploiting it against the U.S. or against its neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Iran might keep these people in exchange for Al-Qaeda not carrying out any operations on its soil and within its borders, or might have taken them as hostages to be used in future.
All in all, it can be said that most of Iran’s foreign relationships do not have ideological or religious aspects, but are based upon different factors to secure its economic and strategic interests. To these, one should add Iran’s real tendencies—those tendencies which lead into signing arms deals with the U.S. and Israel during the Gulf war, maintaining a limited relationship with Al-Qaeda, and having strategic cooperation with Russia.

» Exporting Revolution and Emergence of Iranian Mercenaries
Since the establishment of the Jurist Leadership’s regime after the “Revolution” in 1979, the idea of exporting revolution was in Khomeini’s mind—especially because one of the main reasons for revolution was the idea of not accepting foreign intervention in domestic affairs of the country.
By addressing all Muslims in years after the revolution, Khomeini always tried to gather all Muslims from different sects under the banner of “Islamic state”. Nevertheless, such calls did not have extensive resonance in Islamic countries in the Middle East, Asia, or the Pacific Ocean.
In the war between Fatah Movement and Israel, Islamic Iran took the side of Fatah—which was an obvious example of matching ideas of Iranian revolution on others. But following Yasser Arafat’s support for Iraq in Iran-Iraq war, Iran to back its support for Palestinian national authorities. Support for Palestine later continued through Iran’s Shia mercenaries inside Palestine, which was more of a sectarian nature than Islamic support for the Palestine problem. The situation in Lebanon also followed suit. Iran was able to create a strong arm called Hezbollah in this country and fully supported it in its war against Israel.
Iran’s experience in forming Islamic political establishment was successful, but this idea was not attractive for Arab countries or Sunni countries in other political regions. Khomeini himself was severely criticized by other Shia communities, because this ideology was in contrast with typical role of the clergy in Shia communities, giving the clergy supervisory authorities over public policies and decision-making under the Jurist Leadership. This caused the idea of exporting revolution to have limited impact.
Following the failure of the idea of exporting revolution, Iran could not establish official relationships with countries in alignment with its sectarian ideas—with the exception of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria that had similar tendencies. But Iran’s action in most of other regions was formed through mercenaries affiliated with groups inside those countries – i.e. through Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, and Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq. The advantage Iran gained through this approach was that through these mercenaries, it could intensify actions against these countries at the official level, without its becoming obvious that Iran is behind them.

» Iran’s Sectarian Policies and Arab Spring
Arab Spring more revealed Iran’s sectarian action in the region, which caused such an approach. Arab Spring, in fact, showed Iran’s contradictory behaviors, as well as deepened the sectarian idea in this country’s foreign policy.
As soon as demonstrations started in some Arab Spring countries, Iran immediately welcomed them and said protesters’ demands in squares and streets of these countries were legitimate, and the citizens’ voice and rights would inevitably be noticed.
But Iran supported demonstrations in Bahrain more than any other countries, and that was more for sectarian reasons. These demonstrations were particularly of interest to Iranian officials. They even asked ruling Sunni dynasty in Bahrain—i.e. House of Khalifa— to respect the citizens’ will. Such remarks fueled the Gulf countries’ concerns over Iran’s possible role in provoking Bahrain’s demonstrations.
Iran always emphasized that its policies were not sectarian because some of Iran’s friends are Sunni countries. But this did not calm down Gulf countries. Following the military intervention of Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, Bahraini officials could arrest some activists affiliated with IRGC. These people had a hand in latest demonstrations in Bahrain.
But when revolutionary movements reached Bashar Assad in Syria, Iran’s obvious support for Arab Spring completely changed direction. The very Iran that supported demonstrations in Bahrain now condemned them as “foreign threat to create instability in Syria.”
This behavior of Iran can be interpreted from two perspectives. First is the nature of strategic interests between Iran and Syria—given the fact that Syria is the only ally of Iran in the region. More importantly, Syria is Iran’s strategic axis against Israel and the U.S. What is more, Syria is one of the significant members of Iranian Axis of Resistance.
The second point is completely sectarian. Iran believes that if Assad’s regime collapses, its replacement will inevitably be either an ally of the U.S.—Iran’s biggest enemy—or an ally to Sunni Gulf countries. Under such conditions, Iran must stand beside Assad to support Shia community in Syria.
With such an argument and logic, Assad continued the war, while supported by Iran. These supports were not just financial. Iran opened the door for Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militia groups, and Shia Afghani and Pakistani mercenaries to stand by Assad and fight against Sunni groups that were against Assad.
On the other hand, in sectarian strategic policies, Iran has always accused Sunni countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and called them Takfiri. Of course, by these accusations, Iran damages its opponent’s image to gain legitimacy for itself. This approach can be seen in Iraq and Syria. Iran always emphasizes that “they are not real Sunni”, thus making its own behavior in the region justifiable, based on this interpretation.

» At the end, some significant arguments in analyzing Iran’s sectarian behavior in the region will be pointed out:
Orientation in Iran’s foreign policy is based on identity and religious beliefs. But this factor is not the only criterion in regulating Iran’s foreign policy. This aspect is more obvious in regulating relationship with non-governmental effective groups and organizations than in official relationships between Iran and other countries.
Iran’s approach in Syria can be considered as the most obvious example of Iran’s sectarian behavior because Iran has taken many measures to facilitate the entrance of its Shia mercenary supporters into Syria to maintain Assad’s regime in power.
Iran’s sectarian approach and the general sectarian framework of the region are inseparable. Iran uses this factor, and always justifies its own sectarian behavior as if it is a reaction to what Iran calls as “Sunni radicalism supported by the neighboring countries.”

Basim Rashid
Basim Rashid
Researcher specializing in regional affairs