Iran and the Shiite solution

By Jin Liangxiang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 3, 2013
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The last decade has witnessed tremendous changes in the Middle East. Among this upheaval, Iran has, through alignment with the region's Shiite Muslims, established itself at the center of a sphere of influence covering Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the Shiite Middle East. As a new issue in the Middle East, Iran's religious geopolitical strategy should be accurately assessed so that its impact on the region may be properly understood.

Iran's encouragement for Shiite opposition groups in the Gulf monarchies and Ahmadinejad's harsh criticisms of Israel, in addition to the radical foreign policy of Iran during its revolutionary years have fuelled the fears of both the West and the Sunni Gulf monarchies. However, Iran's policy should not be interpreted as offensive. Iran's proactive posture actually translates as an overall defensive strategy.

The Iraq War of 2003 changed not only the domestic political order of the country but also the religious power structure of the region. As a consequence of the war, Iraq changed from a Sunni state into a Shiite one overnight. And the Shiites, who used to live in separate lands, were finally connected as an entity, from Iran to Iraq, to Syria and Lebanon.

This change, however, has not place the Shiites on an equal footing with the Sunnis. With a total population of approximately 120-130 million, Shiites still account for only one-tenth of the world's Muslim population and because of this will likely remain on the defensive for the foreseeable future.

The improvement of both Iran and the Shiites' geopolitical standing is the unexpected result of two anti-terrorism wars rather than a designed outcome. The foreign policy approach of Iraq's Shiite-led government may be the result of its religious identity and Iran's efforts to embrace it. But the main focus of Iran's diplomacy is to consolidate and protect its unexpected geopolitical gains.

The crisis in Syria arose, in part, due to the country's various internal conflicts, and partly due to the Western and Sunni Gulf monarchies' support for Syria's opposition forces. Iran's support for Bashar Assad is out of concern for the security of its own regime and nation. If the Assad regime collapses, Iran will lose its last strategic state ally, and could find itself the next target for external intervention.

Iran's support for the Shiite oppositions in the Gulf monarchies is destructive; but for Iran, it is also part of an overall defensive strategy. By supporting the oppositions of its opponents, Iran aims to check the capabilities of the Gulf monarchies to prevent them from intervening further in Shiite areas. To put it another way, Iran has successfully pushed its defensive front into the heart of its Sunni opponents.

Defensive and responsive as it is, Iran's religious geopolitical strategy has resulted in both positive and negative effects on the regional political and geopolitical situation.

Twenty-first century Middle East tensions can be attributed to many factors. The intervention of regional and extra-regional powers into some Middle East states is a prominent one. For historical reasons, most Middle East countries have not completed the task of nation-state building. As a result, their political structures are especially vulnerable in the face of external interventions. The collapse of regimes causes not only domestic disorder but also regional tension. Meanwhile, external interventions deprive the region's peoples of the right to determine their own affairs.

On a positive note, Iran's religious geopolitical strategy has impacted positively on regional political and security situations since in some cases it has negated external intervention. Iran's support for Bashar Assad's regime serves to counter external intervention into its domestic affairs; despite the fact that Iran's real intentions lie in protecting the geographical integrity of Shiites so as to balance the power of Sunnis.

Iran's support, together with the counter-intervention efforts of the international community, has created conditions in which the Syrian people can decide the fortunes of their own country. This is also why the type of humanitarian disaster which occurred in Libya after Muammur Qaddafi was toppled has not occurred in Syria.

On the negative side, Iran itself, through its religious geopolitical strategy, also meddles in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. It is true that Iran has offered political and economic assistance for Iraq, which is of great help in Iraq's political reconstruction process. However, Iran's policy to expand its influence in Iraq has nurtured a mainly Shiite government, which had hampered efforts to build a genuinely inclusive Iraqi nation state. For the same reason, Iran's policy toward Hezbollah has also hindered efforts to build a Lebanese nation state.

In addition, Iran's support also encouraged the Shiite oppositions in Sunni Gulf monarchies to continue their anti-government agendas during what Iran has dubbed the "Islamic awakening", known in the West as the "Arab Spring". This has led to continued turmoil in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, leaving the region in a precarious situation.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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