Part One of this series on Iran swept across centuries of Persian history. Now the ayatollahs are in charge of the country, and they employ Shia Islam to advance their goals. What sets them - and their religion - apart from the rest of the Islamic world, and what does that mean for the United States?
For Persia, everything changed in 636 AD. at the Battle of Qadisiya. Four days of fighting saw the Sassanid Persian Empire routed entirely from Iraq. In their place came the Islamic armies of the Arabian Peninsula, driven with zeal for their newly birthed faith and utterly bent on conquest. Persia itself fell a scant 15 years later, and over the following centuries the Persian religion - Zoroastrianism - was purged. In its place came Islam, the religion of complete submission to God.
In the 15th century, a Persian king of the Safavid dynasty converted his country to Shia Islam, the perpetual minority despised by the Sunni majority. It was an act of quintessential Iranian resistance: acceptance of the conqueror’s ways while making it their own.
The modern Persian mind is shaped by this religion, which seems uniquely fitted to Iran. Shia Islam is an intensely sorrowful religion. Its origins are in the Twelver story, the first betrayal in Islamic history. Shi’ites (the ‘Party of Ali’) claim that Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law and first convert to Islam, was denied his place as Muhammad's true successor. When Ali and his followers were murdered, his family fled to Iraq, where his line continued. His descendant Mohammed, whom Shi’ites call the eleventh caliph, took refuge underneath the Great Mosque in Kufa, Iraq. Shi’ites hold that he will emerge as the twelfth caliph, or Mahdi, to usher in the Day of Judgment.
There is an old proverb among the Arabs: “more touching than the tears of the Shi’ites.” It speaks volumes. Iraq is a sacred region to the Shi’ites, who make pilgrimages to the site of Ali’s grave in Karbala, where he was slain in battle against the Sunni Umayyad caliph. Shi’ites still recount that battle as the showdown between good and evil, justice falling to the blades of tyranny, and pilgrims often lament that they weren’t alive to fight alongside Ali’s pitiful forces.
The Battle of Karbala is recounted during the Day of Ashura, a holy day celebrated by Sunnis and mourned by Shi’ites. It’s telling that until the ayatollahs banned it, many Iranians commemorated Ashura with flagellation and self-cutting. They play no music, and men and women dress in mourning garb as they go weeping through the streets.
Iranians wrap their faith and history tightly together, and create a compelling narrative. Doubtless, to many Persians, the many invasions and foreign tyrants they’ve endured are but the backdrop to the unforgivable betrayal which killed Ali. The Mahdi story leaves open the hope for rebirth, when a Shi’ite will emerge to bring justice into a bleak and bitter world. It weaves well with Iran’s resurgent sense of nationalism. There’s even a missile named for the Day of Ashura.
That sentiment is reinforced by a conservative and unusually politically active clergy. Unlike in most Muslim countries, the Iranian mullahs (trained priests and theologians) are financially independent of the government, which is one reason they were able to rebel against the Pahlavi regime in 1979. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader, a secularized Iran re-embraced its religion and much of its soul. Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, has continued to build on that ethno-religious story of a reemerging Iran, led to glory by an enigmatic priesthood of shrewd statesmen.
Middle Eastern religious and ethnic maps always occupy a relevant stratum in geopolitics. Iran is a Shi’ite Persian nation in a sea of Sunni Arab petro-states. Modern Iran may have strategic interests revolving around security and growth, but its leaders inevitably look through an ancient Islamic diplomatic lens - and not just because they’re clergy.
When the leaders in Tehran scan their maps, they surely see enemies in every direction. Chief among these is Saudi Arabia, their sworn enemy. There’s a biblical cast to this rivalry: the ancient cradle of Persia vs. the harsh Arab homeland, site of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. They have their respective puppets; Saudi Arabia, which effectively succeeded the Ottoman Turks as Sunni caliphs, is often the leader of Arab international groups, whereas Iran leads the ragtag collection of scattered Shi’ite states. The Saudi alliance with the United States only further rankles the Persians. They are competitors in oil production, constantly jockeying for political advantage with other countries in the region. The civil war in Yemen is effectively a Saudi-Iranian proxy war.
Iran is also an active supporter of Bashar al-Assad, the besieged Syrian dictator. Al-Assad is an Alawite (from Alawi, fellow followers of Ali) supported by the Lebanese terrorist faction Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy. Thus Iran has compelling reasons to oppose the Free Syrian Army and its American backer, and nudges it in the direction of Russia, al-Assad’s puppet master.
Iraq, the rapidly dissolving state established in 2005 after the West deposed Saddam Hussein, is the scene of unexpected opportunity for Iran. After a bloody and destructive war in the 1980s, Iran had little reason to like Saddam; his successors are far weaker, however, and present the Ayatollah with the chance to expand his grip on the region. Controlling Iraq and its many holy sites would provide Shi’ites with an immeasurable moral victory, and would grant access to local oil deposits – potentially shift the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favor.
It is critical that the United States prevents Iran from solidifying its grip on the central Middle East. That may start with undoing al-Assad in Syria, which itself involves resolving the Syrian Civil War and destroying the Islamic State - no simple feat. But should Russia maintain its Syrian puppet and develop greater influence in the Levant, it would offer Iran more reason to cozy up to Moscow in order to threaten the Israeli-Saudi-American defense belt which effectively deterred Tehran for decades.
If we can’t accomplish this, be prepared to see long decades of oppression under the 1979 banner. There’s a new Persian dynasty in town; we might call them the Khomeinids.
Follow this author on Twitter: @tasciovanus
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