It was not Persian but Shi’ism that crystallised the unity of the modern State. And it was for this reason that the ousting of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic were able to base themselves on a tradition that is well rooted in national identity

This article was published in Oasis 13. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:06

The political identity of modern Islam was formed during the sixteenth century when the heads of the Turkish tribe of the Safavids made Shi’ite Islam the official religion of Persia, fostering, at the price of forced conversions, the unification of the numerous ethnic groups of Persia around this sect of Islam in opposition to the Sunni Ottoman Empire. It was not, therefore, the Persian language but Shi’ism which crystallised the unity of the modern Iranian state, and within territorial frontiers which remained generally stable and based upon the Iranian plateau.

From 1923 onwards the contemporary Iran of the Pahlavi dynasty sought to create a new identity and cohesion around ancient Iran and Persian culture. The Pahlavi dynasty placed Shi’ite Islam at the margins and saw it as the principal supporter of a past that was by now finished, even though for over a century the clergy had played a central role in the political and social aspirations of Iran. In assigning to Shi’ite Islam a central and exclusive role, the Islamic revolution of 1979 thus placed itself in an ancient political and religious tradition and one that was well rooted in the Iranian national identity.

The visibility of the Shi’ite clergy at the summit of power, however much it was curious, did not constitute a totally new reality for the countries of the region, which had always seen Persia as a Shi’ite country, indeed the only Shi’ite State in the Muslim world. In the West, political Islam seemed, in contrary fashion, to be a new political fact, a little known geopolitical dynamic, with worrying methods and objectives. The fears that countries of the Islamic world had as regards the Iran of Khomeini did not relate so much to its traditional Shi’ite character as to its new ‘republican’ dynamic and to the interaction of these two factors.

The exportation of the Iranian Islamic revolution was thus opposed simultaneously or alternatively to the Sunni establishment that dominated the Muslim world and the despotic regimes of the Islamic world. It was in this context, which was at one and the same time both political and religious, that the relations between minority and marginal Shi’ite Iran and States or communities with Sunni majorities developed. The political ambitions of the new Iranian Islamic Republic mixed Islam and republicanism in an international context connected with oil and thus with the great industrial powers, beginning with the United States of America.

Despite appearances, Shi’ism is far from being the only or the principal component of the domestic or foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to such an extent, by choice or compulsion, that the impact of the Shi’ite factor has often changed since the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Shi’ite clergy took power in Iran. The foreign policy of Iran works at three levels (the national, the Islamic and the international) which can overlap but which also have distinct and at times contradictory dynamics. To try to understand the regional policy of Iran by taking into consideration only the Islamic aspect would run the risk of concealing the nationalistic factors or the demands of the new, globalised, middle classes.


The Limits of the Islamist Ambitions of Revolutionary Iran

The fall of the imperial regime in February 1979 was an authentic overall revolution, at one at the same time political, cultural, economic and social in character, and it had lasting effects. The national and international political dimensions (opposition to American policy, republican ideas) were classic, but the Shi’ite dimension, which was not very much known about, overturned the analyses of the time. Most of the world’s States did not take this new religious factor seriously and saw it as irrational, or, in contrary fashion, gave it excessive weight. Almost all of the great powers thus thought that the invasion of Iran by the ‘secular and rational’ government of Saddam Hussein in September 1980 would lead to the fall of the new Iranian Shi’ite regime within a few weeks.

The desire to export the Islamic revolution in the region is well known; this was a phenomenon common to every revolution. In addition, the new Shi’ite regime included Islamist political groups whose militants had for a long time frequented third-world revolutionary organisations during their long exile. Control of power by the clergy fostered a strengthening in the mass media and politics of the religious dimension of the new republic, with the creation of numerous semi-state Islamic institutions and foundations which multiplied cultural, political and social relations with Shi’ite communities outside Iran but also with Sunni communities.

Iran aimed at occupying a primary role, if not indeed the dominating role, in the umma, the community of believers as a whole. The unity of Islam was one of the leitmotifs of Iranian speeches and ambitions, but this approach soon clashed with the dual resistance of the Sunnis and the Arab Shi’ite communities who rejected both Iranian domination and the doctrine of the velayat-e faqih, according to which power should have been in the hands of the Iranian leadership and not in the hands of local ayatollahs. The more the support of Iran as the only and ancient Shi’ite State was accepted and appreciated by Shi’ites who lived outside Iran, the more its overly direct interference in the religious and political lives of neighbouring countries was contested. The monarchies and the other Arab regimes, which were often of a despotic character, were often much concerned about the exploitation of Shi’ism and Islam by the Iranian state, which at that time was triumphant. The danger represented by the Sunni networks from which al-Qaeda later emerged was at the time neglected or used as a counterweight to Iranian influence.


The Network of ‘Shirazis

As Laurence Louër has demonstrated in an exemplary way, the Shi’ite Arabs did not wait for Ayatollah Khomeini to affirm their wish for recognition by the Sunni majority. Starting in the 1920s, the Iraqi Shi’ite ‘ulamâ’ Najaf, and in particular Mohammad al-Shîrâzî (1926-2001), upheld innovative ideas and policies, above all against British occupation and influence, which found a major echo in all the Arab Shi’ite communities of the Persian Gulf, and in particular in Kuwait, Bahrain and northern Arabia. After 1979 the Shirazists appreciated Iranian support for their demands, and to such an extent that with the repression of Saddam Hussein a large number of Arab Shi’ite ‘ulamâ’ left Najaf for Qom. But the hegemonic aspirations of the Iranian big brother and ideological divergences about the power of Iranian leadership soon prevailed, if not over Iranian influence at least over Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

The turbulence or aspirations that have recurrently afflicted Shi’ites in the Arab world or Shi’ites in Afghanistan (Hazara) and Pakistan have primarily local origins and have been supported or organised more by an ancient network of Shirazists than by the large number of Iranian agents who were sent in to foster the victory of Revolutionary Islam under the protection of Imam Khomeini. The revolt of the Shi’ites in Bahrain in 1981 was one of the rare operations engaged in by Iran abroad. Led by radical militants who were not particularly linked to the Shirazist networks, this revolt was suffocated in bloodshed. The failure of this badly organised and useless revolt caused a firm and lasting rejection of any direct Iranian intervention by the Shi’ites of this island, which had been colonised by Iran before being conquered by the Sunni tribe of Khalifa in the eighteenth century, and had been independent since 1971.

The invasion of the Lebanon by Israel in 1982 bestowed a new dimension on the very ancient relations between Iran and the Lebanese Shi’ites. Until that moment the Islamic Republic had not made the struggle against Zionism and support for the Palestinians a priority. It is certainly the case that Yasser Arafat was the first ‘Head of State’ to make a visit to Iran after the fall of the Shah but he was not invited to do so and Khomeini himself refused to receive this secular Arab leader. The Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel were, despite this, completely integrated into the slogans and ambitions brandished by revolutionary Iran, but without any real practical consequences. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was used by Shi’ite Iran above all as a ‘passport’ to be admitted to the Muslim world which was 90% Sunni, for whom the Palestinian cause and hostility to Israel were a symbol of consensus.

At the beginning of the revolution the radical Iranian Islamist movements, supported by Ayatollah Husayn-Ali Montazeri, who was at that time Khomeini’s designated successor, were animated by Mohammad Montazeri, the son of this ayatollah, and then by Mehdi Hashemi, who was connected to the Guardians of the Revolution (Pasdaran). This organisation, which championed the Islamic revolution in the Muslim world, engaged in a limited action of support for the Shirzist movements until the invasion of the Lebanon provided an opportunity to attempt to take command of the struggle against Israel when certain Sunni Arab countries took part in the peace process following the Camp David agreements (1978). This was, for that matter, a way of opening a second front in the war between Iraq and Iran. This military and ideological priority as regards Israel, involving close cooperation with the new Hezbollah party, was supported by Khomeini but on the condition that ‘the road to Jerusalem passes by way of Kerbala.’ In other words that the defence of national territory against Iraqi aggression should not become of secondary importance. In 1986 the pragmatists, supported by Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani, the strongman of the Islamic regime, ended the activities of the Hashemi group which was becoming too important. Mehdi Hashemi was executed in 1987 and a short while afterwards Ayatollah Montazeri was removed from Iranian political life.

The national and strategic interests of Iran thus prevailed over Islamist interests and strategy but this ‘realpolitik’ did not mean that the Islamic Republic abandoned all ambition in this sphere. Iran understood that it was not possible as a Shi’ite country to exercise a strong international influence in the Muslim world, and even less to acquire a dominant position. This return to reality and to a certain moderation allowed Tehran to host in 1997 the meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, even though total diffidence continued between the Shi’ite Iranian State, with its 75 million inhabitants (of who 10%-15% were Sunnis), and its neighbours. The anti-Israeli speeches of Mahmud Ahmadinejad gave the Iranian President an incontestable popularity in the ‘Arab streets’ but this did not compensate for the fact that Iran had gone back to being only the protector of Shi’ite communities and no longer their sole reference point. This new power relationship strengthened from 2003 onwards with the fall of the Sunni Iraqi State and the emergence in Baghdad of a new Shi’ite Arab State. Reference was then made to a ‘Shi’ite crescent,’ something that corresponds to reality, but one cannot say that Iran is its animator or even less its beneficiary.

It is banal to say that Iran is an emerging country. This evident fact is not so much the result of the policy of the Islamic Republic, which has isolated the country, as the outcome of a global historical development that also concerns the other countries of the region, which acquired greater independence after the end of the Cold War. These societies of the Muslim world have also witnessed the rise of a middle class and of new generations educated in national universities and open to globalisation. In this context, Shi’ite communities for long marginalised or dominated by Sunnis have become stronger and been made autonomous. Iran has played a decisive role in the establishment of these Shi’ite groups by providing them with an – at times excessive – example of ‘opposition’ to political or cultural ‘oppression’ and providing asylum to foreign Shi’ite leaders forced into exile. However it would be mistaken to see in these movements only the ‘hand of Iran.’ Islamist militants, supported by the Qods section of the Guardians of the Revolution are present and do not lose an opportunity to demonstrate, but their action should also be located in the priorities of Iranian national interest.


The Only Real Success

Despite its ambitions and its revolutionary dreams, Iran has not managed to take the reins of the Shi’ite world. Paradoxically it is the United States of America – the official enemy of the Islamic Republic – that expelled the Sunni Taleban from Afghanistan in 2001 and gave power to the Shi’ite majority of Iraq in 2003. For the Sunni world, the creation of this new Shi’ite State with Baghdad as its capital was a shock: the King of Jordan referred to a ‘Shi’ite crescent’ which extends from the Lebanon to the Indus. This phrase generated a very strong reaction but, in reality, it perhaps reflects the end of, or at the least the weakening of, Iranian authority over the Shi’ite world.

The capital of Shi’ism has once again become Najaf, in Iraq, and is no longer Qom, which owed its development, starting in the 1930s, to the anti-Shi’ite repression which took place in newly independent Iraq, and subsequently to the financial support of the Republic. By now theology students from the whole of the Arab world and even Iranians go in large numbers to the rediscovered cradle of Shi’ism which conserves its traditions and in particular the tradition of the marja‘, spiritual leaders in the form of various ayatollahs, such as Ali Sistani, who refuse to recognise the superiority of the Leader chosen in Tehran by the Iranians. The theological and political dispute about the marja‘iyya (the ultimate theological reference point) locates the Islamic Republic of Iran at the margins of the Shi’ite world. Tehran uses all possible means to conserve its military, social, economic, religious and political influence in Iraq but by now the emergent Shi’ite power has become Iraq.

The only real success of the Islamist policy of Tehran has been to make Hezbollah a Lebanese Shi’ite political party of primary importance based upon an armed militia. This Shi’ite community has been used by Tehran both to play an active role in the Arab world with the help of Syria and to affirm its hostility towards Israel and Western countries, but it would be exaggerated to reduce Hezbollah to the level of a mere appendix of Iran. The growing autonomist impulse of the Shi’ite party, by now a part of the Lebanese government, seems to find confirmation despite the rearmament of its militia, its speeches in support of the Iranian regime, and its official trips. The power relationships have changed, Syria has mended its relations with the United States of America, Israel is not a strategic question, and the nuclear threat is sufficient to maintain – and even to increase – strong political and ideological pressure on Tel Aviv. According to some sources, Iran has decreased by 40% its financial help to Hezbollah, which will, whatever the case, remain a friend and ally of Iran.

In the Persian Gulf Iran is in opposition to the other power of the region, Saudi Arabia, which is surrounded by a large number of Sunni emirates and kingdoms which in reality depend upon it. The failure of the Iraqi invasions of Iran and Kuwait and the technical inability of the Iranian armed forces to project themselves beyond their own borders confirm that any attempt at a military operation or territorial occupation is impossible. Despite a hostility that is not new, a status quo has been imposed on these States. In contrary fashion, since the beginning of 2011 the mass movements of the Arab societies have changed the coordinates of the question and could modify the relations between Iran and the Arab Shi’ite communities of the region. These movements are spontaneous, local, and have no connection with Iran, which supports them at the level of principle but fears their political and social aspirations which demonstrate an emancipation and are moving in the same direction as new Iranian society, which is opposed to an Islamic regime which has been in power for over thirty years. The quietism and the realpolitik imposed on the Islamic Republic as regards the movements in Bahrain or the chronic agitation of the Shi’ites in north-west Arabia could, however, encounter limits if Wahhabite Saudi Arabia were to intervene too directly, thereby forcing Tehran to react, with the risk of upsetting the precarious calm of this ‘cold war’ between Sunni States and the Islamic Republic.

In the very unstable equilibrium that characterises the Middle East at the present time, Iran has to deal with the sanctions of UN on its nuclear capacity at a time when it is being hit by a grave economic crisis (the most exported products, other than oil, are dried fruit and carpets) and by the wearing down of a political class that has been in power for over thirty years. Internally, as is the case with the foreign Shi’ite communities of which it has been the historic protector, Iran has to face up to the aspirations of a new emerging society. The opposition between Sunnis and Shi’ites, and between Persians and Arabs, will remain ineluctable parameters of regional politics, but the new dynamic is perhaps more present in new Shi’ite societies searching for their own emancipation than in the exploitation of their religious identity by Iran.



Houchang Chehabi (ed.), Distant Relations. Iran and Lebanon in the last 500 Years (Tauris, London, 2006).

Jean-Pierre Digard, Bernard Hourcade et Yann Richard, L’Iran au XXe siècle. Entre nationalisme, Islam et mondialisation (Fayard, Paris, 2007).

Bernard Hourcade, Géopolitique de l’Iran (A. Colin, Paris, 2010).

Laurence Louër, Chiisme et politique au Moyen-Orient, Iran, Irak et monarchies du Golfe (Autrement, Paris, 2008).

Sabrina Mervin (ed.) Les mondes chiites et l’Iran (Karthala, Paris, 2007).

Yann Richard, L’Iran de 1800 à nos jours (Flammarion, Paris, 2009).


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Bernard Hourcade, “Thirty Years of (not always Achieved) Ambitions”, Oasis, year VII, n. 13, July 2011, pp. 39-43

Online version:
Text by Bernard Hourcade, “Thirty Years of (not always Achieved) Ambitions”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2011, URL: