Iran’s ambitions guided by nationalism and sectarianism | World Defense

Iran’s ambitions guided by nationalism and sectarianism


Oct 17, 2019
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Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: u/mohalsulami
Iran consists of a mosaic of races, religions and sects, which significantly impacts its domestic and foreign policies, especially under the current regime.
The strong ultranationalistic inclinations that were the hallmark of the Pahlavi dynasty, with the shah seeking to expand influence and dominate power in the Arab region, are also characteristics of the current theocratic regime in Tehran. During the shah’s period, Iran annexed three Emirati islands.
Although Iran adopted a theocratic ruling structure following the 1979 revolution, the Iranian regime’s brutality and expansionist project have remained the same, with successive regimes repeatedly invoking geography and history as justification for their colonialist ambitions in the region.
In this aspect, the nationalistic dimension is clearly demonstrated in the Islamic Republic’s regular references to restoring the borders of the Persian Sasanian Empire, which Arab and Islamic conquests toppled in the seventh century. Due to the fact that Iran’s imperialist ambition rests largely on ethnonationalism, the lack of any significant ethnically Persian populations in the rest of the Middle East is a big problem. The Iranian regime’s media has tried to overcome this handicap by asserting that large territories of the Arab Middle East, including Yemen, were once part of the Persian Empire and so they are Persian — a claim that makes as much sense as suggesting that those nations once occupied by the Roman Empire are Italian. Iran’s regime even deploys archaeologists to search historical sites in the region to recover relics from the Persian imperial period to help shape public opinion, boost nationalistic sentiments and win support for the regime’s regional expansionism. The regime is well aware of the power of nationalistic rhetoric in shaping Iranian identity, and it has proven to be very skilled in exploiting this to its advantage.
This is also why Iranian politicians and military commanders appear regularly in media campaigns glorifying the military’s regional adventurism in order to convince the public that interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are not an opportunity for Iran to interfere in the internal affairs of these countries, but a means of protecting Iranian national security and demonstrating the country’s national strength. This ultranationalistic rhetoric addresses the Persian mindset in a direct and transparent way.
In addition, the Iranian regime promotes the idea of “the ubiquitous enemy” targeting the country, through focusing constantly on the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War and continuously reminding the public of the supposed treachery of the country’s Arab neighbors. The regime promotes the idea that the best way to defend the country is not merely through protecting Iran’s geographic boundaries, but by destroying this “danger” at its source. Everyone in the region is now familiar with hearing Iranian officials insisting that, through (supposedly) defending Syria, Iran is actually defending Iran and its borders.
For Iran, the “Arab other” is a longstanding and familiar caricature that plays a prominent role in the country’s cultural, political, religious and historical life. The Arab other acts as a threatening figure, uniting Iranians and shaping their ultranationalistic sense of self-identity. Through the use of this offensive negative stereotype of “Arabness,” Iranian politics, culture and media routinely present Arabs as violent, uncivilized and barbaric — the exact opposite of the attributes of nobility and sophistication that the same politicians and media ascribe to Iranians; feeding into a centuries-old supremacist world view in which Persians are innately superior beings. In this context, these racist stereotypes are used as justification for the regime’s expansionism, with the “anti-imperialist resistance” regime ironically mirroring the 19th-century Orientalist and imperialist rhetoric of superior white Europeans bringing culture to “uncivilized savages.”
Some evidence of this can be seen in the grotesque caricatures of Arabs depicted on banners used by members of the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij militia during demonstrations in front of Gulf embassies in Tehran, especially the Saudi Arabian embassy, before ties between the two nations were severed. This constituted a gross insult and violent cultural attack on Arabs.
Some clerics, such as Mohammed Taghi Rahbar, the temporary Friday prayer leader in Esfahan, chanted racist anti-Arab slogans, particularly targeting Saudi Arabia. Another example of this is seen in an infamous poem entitled “Renounce Pilgrimage,” written by the ultranationalistic Persian poet Mostafa Badkoobei. In it, he attacks Saudi Arabia and the Two Holy Mosques, claiming that God does not exist in “the Arabs’ Kaaba” and stating that, “if you are a human, don’t perform pilgrimage.” This is not only an apparent effort to promote hostility toward the Arab language and culture, but a remarkable insult from the nominally Islamic Republic of Iran, with the Kaaba sanctified by both Shiites and Sunnis.
It is worth noting that this racist poet recited another poem entitled, “The God of Arabs,” at a state-controlled cultural institution in the city of Hamadan in western Iran, in which he blasphemed about God in the presence of Iranian officials, attacking Arabs and Islam. Again, this is all the more remarkable given Iran’s nominal claim to being an Islamic Republic based on the Holy Qur’an, whose original language is Arabic and which was handed down to Prophet Muhammad, an Arab, in Makkah.
Having demonstrated the ultranationalistic aspect of the Iranian regime’s behavior, we now turn to the sectarian dimension in the Iranian regime’s foreign policy.
Prior to the 1979 revolution, while Iran was a predominantly Shiite state, there was no sectarian dimension in its domestic or foreign policy, with its politics shaped primarily by nationalistic rather than religious motivations. However, the revolution resulted in hard-liner clerics taking power and sectarianism subsequently became the other key hallmark of the Iranian regime.
The ‘Arab other’ is a longstanding and familiar caricature that plays a prominent role in the country’s cultural, political, religious and historical life.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
As has been made clear above, the expansionist ambitions of the Iranian regime have not changed; however, the pretext has, with nationalistic regional colonialism being replaced by sectarian colonialism, with Iran’s empire-building rebranded as “exporting the Islamic revolution.” This is not, of course, driven by any genuine desire to help Shiites, “export Islam” or “defend the oppressed around the world,” as the regime implausibly claims, but is simply a way to provide a pious cloak for expansionism and to brainwash Shiites into fighting for Iran’s imperialist domination.
This objective is so central to the regime’s existence that it is enshrined in Article 154 of the Iranian Constitution. Under this article, Iran gives itself legitimacy to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations regionally and globally. The article makes it clear that the primary objective is not, as it is claimed, to defend Shiite minorities or serve the Shiite sect, but to exploit them to advance the Iranian leadership’s expansionist ambitions in the region.
As all the above points make clear, Iran’s regime has woven a toxic tapestry of ultranationalistic rhetoric and sectarian extremism to create a brutal expansionist theocratic state that threatens to destabilize the entire region.

Iran’s ambitions guided by nationalism and sectarianism