Written by Steven Tibbitts
Iran is currently embarked on a campaign to extend both its territorial control and its ideological influence across the Middle East. Historically, post-1979 Iranian expansionism has roots in the ideology of the Islamic Revolution, nuances in official Iranian interpretation of Shia Islam, and Iranian security concerns.
In 1979, massive protests overthrew the corrupt and highly repressive regime of American ally Reza Pehlevi Shah. Demonstrators rallied around the call of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an exiled cleric who assumed power after the Shah fled the country (Nasr 2016). Khomeini set about creating a government centered on a political interpretation of Shia Islam that promoted spreading the revolution abroad (New York Times 1988; PBS Frontline 2018; Vatanka 2018, 2). Khomeini pictured the Islamic Revolution encompassing the Middle East, and Iran’s first revolutionary president Bani-Sadr declared that the only way to defend the revolution was to export it (New York Times 1988; Central Intelligence Agency 1980, 5).
Much of this was influenced by Khomeini’s interpretation of Shia Islam, whose members represent 10-15% of the global Muslim population. This branch emphasizes the story of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad who was killed in battle with Sunni forces (Nasr 2016; PBS Frontline 2018). As a result, some branches of political Shia Islam have placed strong focus on the idea of fighting against a corrupt majority (such as the Sunni states of the Middle East or the West) and being willing to become a martyr for the faith (Nasr 2016; PBS Frontline 2018). Shia Islam grants higher authority to its leaders than Sunni Islam, which means that Shia leaders enjoy intense respect and obedience from their followers (Nasr 2016). Khomeini brought this tradition into politics by advancing the concept of Wilayat al-faqih, which places a Shia leader in charge of a country with supreme religious and political authority (Bazzi 2010; Nasr 2016; PBS Frontline 2018).
With this control, Khomeini organized Iranian propaganda calls for revolution in Saudi Arabia and Iraq; as a result, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded in order to quell fears of a revolution among his own Shia population (PBS Frontline 2018; Central Intelligence Agency 1980, 7; Vatanka 2018, 2-3). Within two years, Iran forced Iraqi forces back to the border, but Ayatollah Khomeini insisted on protracting the conflict by pushing into Iraq itself, though ultimately this yielded no gains for the country (PBS Frontline 2018). This was an example of how a war to address Iranian security problems evolved into a platform for Iranian nationalism and expansionism.
Lebanon and Pakistan also became early battlegrounds for influence (Nasr 2016; PBS Frontline 2018; Vatanka 2018, 2-3). Recognizing Lebanon’s strategic location, Iran sponsored like-minded militias and terrorist groups in Lebanon, most notably Hezbollah, in order to gain power within the country (Nasr 2016). Hezbollah helped drive U.S. forces out of Beirut and launched multiple guerilla and terror campaigns against Israel (Bergman 2018). Hezbollah still receives extensive financial support from Iran and continues to both target Israel and fight in the Syrian conflict on Iran’s behalf (Ahronheim 2017; PBS Frontline 2018; Vatanka 2018, 7).
Security concerns play a prominent role in the expansion. Iran borders unstable Pakistan and Afghanistan and faces Sunni-dominated countries to the west (Hadian 2003). There is also a perceived threat from foreign influence; for example, in 1953 the C.I.A. overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq, installing the Shah’s brutal regime (Deghan and Norton-Taylor 2013). The United States sold weapons to both sides during the Iran-Iraq conflict, and the world ignored Iraq’s use of chemical weapons therein (Hadian 2003; PBS Frontline 2018). However, while legitimate security concerns affect Iranian interventionism, much of the expansion is arguably due to the ideological views of the Islamic Republic.
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Dehghan, Saeed Kamali and Richard Norton-Taylor. 2013. “CIA admits role in 1953 Iranian coup.” The Guardian, August 19. Accessed September 14, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/19/cia-admits-role-1953-iranian-coup
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