Iran, Shiites' protector - sometimes
Iran sees itself as a key defender of Shiites in other countries, but only when strategically helpful.
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.Â
Iran condemned the Cairo killings and âany act of extremism and violence which contradicts Islam,â and called upon âthe sensible and revolutionary Egyptian nation, through its prudent leaders [to] exercise vigilance vis-Ă -vis plots to foment discord among various schools of Islam.â
A prominent Shiite cleric in Iranâs religious center of Qom went further, speaking about an âanti-Shia project in Egypt [which has] caused the intensification of sectarian [violence], emergence of crimes and legalization of bloodshed.â
But even though Iran has stepped up the rhetoric, it has done little else â evidence that the Islamic Republicâs willingness and ability to intervene on behalf of embattled fellow Shiites dependsÂ moreÂ on strategicÂ than religiousÂ calculations, analysts say.
The Cairo killings come amid an escalation of sectarian tensions between the two main denominations all over, especially in Syria.Â That divide presents a dilemma for Iran, which has always presented its 1979 Islamic revolution as a pan-Islamic modelÂ for Sunnis and Shiites alike.Â
For example, although Iranâs Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is officially referred to as the âLeader of the Worldâs Shia," in a 2008 speech he says, âEven 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.â
Playing into Western hands
âIranâs response to this massacre in Egypt is quite typical of how it has approached sectarian division,â says Roxane Farmanfarmaian, who teaches politics and international relations at Cambridge University in Britain.
âIran 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,â says Ms. Farmanfarmaian. âIt will support Shia when itâs geopolitically important and useful, but it has to have that extra dimension before it supports ShiaÂ per se.â
Mr. Morsi has condemned the killing of Shiites as a âheinous crime.â And the countryâs leading Sunni religious establishment, Al-Azhar, said the killings were against Islam and urged the âharshest punishment.â ButÂ Morsi â the Muslim Brotherhood president who will mark one year as Egyptâs first democratically elected president onÂ June 30Â âÂ 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.Â Iranâs critics accuse it of deepeningÂ thoseÂ divisions with its support of the Syrian government, even though fellow SyriaÂ allies Russia and ChinaÂ have no pro-Shiite agenda.Â
Speaking in April, Khamenei sought toÂ minimizeÂ the split. He said that the Assad regime is not Shiite (althoughÂ its Alawite roots are a Shiite sect), nor are its opponents Sunni, even though âWestern propaganda and dependent regional mediaâ try to depict it that way.
Yet even the fighters themselves haveÂ increasinglyÂ described theirÂ battle as a sectarian fight. As Iran and Hezbollah (with Russia) have enabled Assadâs 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.
Iranian leaders have long recognized that specific talkÂ from themÂ about defending Islamâs minority Shiites does not go over well with majority Sunnis,Â and adds stress toÂ religious faultlines that date back 14 centuries.Â
And in apparent recognition of the new risks of sectarian hatred spiraling out of control, Iranâs 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 Iranâs Supreme National Security Council.
The pragmatism in Iran's selective support of fellow Shiites can be found in Bahrain, theÂ tiny Persian Gulf sheikhdom where ShiitesÂ beganÂ pro-democracy protests inÂ early 2011. IranÂ 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 âis not going to go out on a limb for ShiaÂ per se, itâs going to go out on a limb for unity,â says Farmanfarmaian. âWhen it comes down to being âShia vs. political expediency,â as in the case of Bahrain, [Iran] certainly sees no reason to show up on those beaches and get into a war.â
In March 2011, Khamenei said: âDo not make [Bahrain ] a Sunni and Shia issue; this would be the biggest favor âŚ for the enemies of the Islamic nationâŚ. There exists no Sunni-Shia conflict.â
Then last February, Khamenei explained the result: âThe rulers of Bahrain claimed that Iran is involved in the events of Bahrain. This is a lie. No, we are not involved,â he said. âIf we had interfered, the conditions would have been different in Bahrain.â