Getting the Facts Straight About Iran

Image by Ali Khamenei website

Critics of Iran

Thus far, the Trump administration has adopted a harsher stance towards Iran than the Obama Administration. In a recent press statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated the common statement that “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror”. More recently in Astana, the agreement between Russia, Turkey, and Iran to create de-escalation areas in Syria met fierce criticism from the armed Syrian opposition because, according to them, Iran is a criminal entity fuelling sectarian tensions in the region. Both criticisms commonly inform Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric against Iran. While there is no doubt that Iran is an authoritarian state with very poor human rights records and a highly restricted form of democracy, I argue that the two aforementioned criticisms need to be challenged as they do not offer an accurate representation of Iran’s actions and ideology in the Middle East.

Iran as a sponsor of Terrorism

First, the statement that Iran remains “a leading sponsor of terror” (sometimes it is even considered as the leading sponsor of terror) is problematic because the main destabilising terrorist organizations in the world today are ISIS and Al Qaeda (and, to a lesser extent, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab in Africa). All these organisations are extremist Sunni armed groups. Iran, as a Shia nation is constantly criticised for anti-Sunni sectarianism. In fact the reality is more complex.

Iran and Hezbollah (Iran’s Lebanese Shia proxy) are currently involved in Syria and Iraq. They spend significant resources fighting Sunni extremists in both countries, and Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have lost top commanders in the fight against Sunni jihadi organizations. The irony is that as well as being criticised for fighting Sunni extremists, Iran has also been accused of supporting them as well. Iran supports Hamas but despite the Palestinian group’s involvement in acts of terror, it does not support a global jihad against the West as Al Qaeda and ISIS do. This support leads to the assessment of a second kind of criticism.

Iran as a sectarian entity

The idea that Iran fuels sectarianism is not supported by evidence and, on the contrary, the ideology of the Iranian government tends towards pan-Islamism and a Shia-Sunni unity. Freedom of speech in Iran is policed to nurture Islamic unity (wahid) and many Shia clerics were (some still are) imprisoned. Some of them, such as Grand Ayatollah Ya’sub al-Din Rastgari have been imprisoned for holding theological views which would upset Sunnis. By way of contrast, anti-Shia propaganda in Saudi Arabia is accepted by the authorities. Iran went as far as releasing a documentary portraying in a positive light the life of Sunni communities in Iran.

At a political and military level, Iran is the staunchest sponsor of Palestinian activism (Palestinians are Sunnis) and gives strong support to Hamas, a radical Sunni organisation. Iran’s pan-Islamism therefore opens the door to political and ideological alliances with Sunnis; Iran’s Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has translated part of the works of Sayyed Qutb, a radical Sunni Islamist, into Persian. Even in their fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda, Iran intends to avoid alienating Sunnis by calling the members of these groups “takfiri” (those who are excommunicated) instead of “Sunni terrorists” or “Sunni extremists”. At the same time, Iran has been very restrained in using its power and influence to defend the rights of oppressed Shia minorities in the Middle East.

Iran and policy making

Iranian political influence in the Middle East undoubtedly represents a challenge. It is important, however, not to distort the facts about the Islamic Republic. Besides the intrinsic value of intellectual integrity and scientific enquiry, a misunderstanding of Iranian ideology and foreign policy can lead to unrealistic strategies in the region. One example of such a questionable regional strategy is the longstanding American and European political alignment with Saudi Arabia which, contrary to Iran, continues to support elements of the Salafist ideology favoured by ISIS. Furthermore, the constant demonization of Iran reinforces the grip of conservative authoritarian forces over Iranian society as they portray the West as unfair, untrustworthy and, ultimately, having policies inimical to the interests of the Iranian people. Western ignorance about Iranian culture and politics could, therefore, alienate the majority of Iranian people (both secular and religious) who have demonstrated in the past that they do not support those in power.

If we are willing to criticise Iran in an effective way it is important to criticise it based on empirical evidence, not based on blind ideology and a distorted representation of reality which serves particular interests.

Image courtesy of Ali Khamenei website

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About Nicolas Pirsoul

Nicolas Pirsoul is a doctoral candidate in politics & international relations at the University of Auckland. His research interests include issues around identity politics, indigenous recognition, deliberative democracy, Islamic and Middle Eastern politics.

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