Iran, Shiites' protector - sometimes

Iran sees itself as a key defender of Shiites in other countries, but only when strategically helpful. 

Vahid Salemi/AP
A Shiite cleric prays at the shrine of Saint Ali Akbar, in northern Tehran, Iran, Sunday, June 23. A divide between Shiites and Sunnis are now more virulent than ever in the Arab world because of Syria's civil war.

The savage beating to death this week of four Shiite Muslims by a Sunni mob in Egypt set off a predictable chain reaction in Iran, which has long cast itself as the protector of Shiites around the world. 

Iran condemned the Cairo killings and “any act of extremism and violence which contradicts Islam,” and called upon “the sensible and revolutionary Egyptian nation, through its prudent leaders [to] exercise vigilance vis-à-vis plots to foment discord among various schools of Islam.”

A prominent Shiite cleric in Iran’s religious center of Qom went further, speaking about an “anti-Shia project in Egypt [which has] caused the intensification of sectarian [violence], emergence of crimes and legalization of bloodshed.”

But even though Iran has stepped up the rhetoric, it has done little else – evidence that the Islamic Republic’s willingness and ability to intervene on behalf of embattled fellow Shiites depends more on strategic than religious calculations, analysts say.

The Cairo killings come amid an escalation of sectarian tensions between the two main denominations all over, especially in Syria. That divide presents a dilemma for Iran, which has always presented its 1979 Islamic revolution as a pan-Islamic model for Sunnis and Shiites alike. 

For example, although Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is officially referred to as the “Leader of the World’s Shia," in a 2008 speech he says, “Even those who were not Shia Muslims were attracted to the Islamic revolution. Millions of our Sunni brothers in Arab, African, and Asian countries were attracted to the Islamic revolution, and this [1979 revolution] was a blow to the enemies.”

Playing into Western hands

“Iran’s response to this massacre in Egypt is quite typical of how it has approached sectarian division,” says Roxane Farmanfarmaian, who teaches politics and international relations at Cambridge University in Britain.

“Iran has consistently stated that Muslims must act and stand together, and that any division or conflict between the Sunni and Shia only plays into Western hands that think of Islam as violent,” says Ms. Farmanfarmaian. “It will support Shia when it’s geopolitically important and useful, but it has to have that extra dimension before it supports Shia per se.”

Mr. Morsi has condemned the killing of Shiites as a “heinous crime.” And the country’s leading Sunni religious establishment, Al-Azhar, said the killings were against Islam and urged the “harshest punishment.” But Morsi – the Muslim Brotherhood president who will mark one year as Egypt’s first democratically elected president on June 30 – is also accused of giving free rein to fundamentalist Sunnis known as Salafists, who consider Shiites heretics.

Spilling over from the Syrian war

Many of the most troublesome sectarian tensions today are spilling over from the Syrian war, afflicting Lebanon and Iraq. Iran’s critics accuse it of deepening those divisions with its support of the Syrian government, even though fellow Syria allies Russia and China have no pro-Shiite agenda. 

Speaking in April, Khamenei sought to minimize the split. He said that the Assad regime is not Shiite (although its Alawite roots are a Shiite sect), nor are its opponents Sunni, even though “Western propaganda and dependent regional media” try to depict it that way.

Yet even the fighters themselves have increasingly described their battle as a sectarian fight. As Iran and Hezbollah (with Russia) have enabled Assad’s forces to make recent military gains, the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan (with the US and Europe) have bolstered support for the opposition.

New risks

Iranian leaders have long recognized that specific talk from them about defending Islam’s minority Shiites does not go over well with majority Sunnis, and adds stress to religious faultlines that date back 14 centuries. 

And in apparent recognition of the new risks of sectarian hatred spiraling out of control, Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rohani has stated that a top priority after he is sworn in will be mending relations with Saudi Arabia. He took similar conciliatory steps a decade ago as the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

The pragmatism in Iran's selective support of fellow Shiites can be found in Bahrain, the tiny Persian Gulf sheikhdom where Shiites began pro-democracy protests in early 2011. Iran did nothing to prevent Saudi Arabia from sending military forces to bolster the government as it crushed the protests.

Such signals from Tehran means Iran “is not going to go out on a limb for Shia per se, it’s going to go out on a limb for unity,” says Farmanfarmaian. “When it comes down to being ‘Shia vs. political expediency,’ as in the case of Bahrain, [Iran] certainly sees no reason to show up on those beaches and get into a war.”

In March 2011, Khamenei said: “Do not make [Bahrain ] a Sunni and Shia issue; this would be the biggest favor … for the enemies of the Islamic nation…. There exists no Sunni-Shia conflict.”

Then last February, Khamenei explained the result: “The rulers of Bahrain claimed that Iran is involved in the events of Bahrain. This is a lie. No, we are not involved,” he said. “If we had interfered, the conditions would have been different in Bahrain.”

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