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Debate: Iranian policy is radicalizing the Gulf’s Shi’ites | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Bahraini policeman extinguishes tyres burning during clashes with riot police following a protest in solidarity with jailed Bahraini women in the village of Jidhafs, west of Manama, on June 13, 2013. (AFP/Mohammed Al-Shaikh)

There can be no doubt that Iran’s expansionist regional ambitions are responsible for radicalizing the region’s Shi’ites. These ambitions—which strengthened Tehran following the collapse of the Shah’s regime—have led to a preponderance of radicalism among the Gulf’s Shi’ites. In fact, this has most often served as the major catalyst for Shi’ite radicalization, which in turn has had harmful consequences for the region’s Shi’ite communities.

In the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to visit Iran twice on journalistic assignments. Each visit took a number of weeks, during which I traveled to different Iranian cities and regions. Two Iraqi colleagues who had lived in Tehran for more than ten years helped me meet some Shi’ite leaders who were opposing the Saddam Hussein regime. Against this backdrop, I was taken to the headquarters of the “[Iraq] Liberation Movement” in Tehran, or, as I prefer to call it, “The Nest.”

The primary function of this office is to support Islamist movements in the region; the majority of these movements are Shi’a, although some are Sunni (most recently the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements). The Iranian aid to these movements does not just comprise a safe havens for their leadership who are wanted in their own countries, it also includes political support, financial assistance, the facilitation of military training, and even the provision of arms and equipment. In my view, this assistance serves to radicalize such movements and push them to follow the path of extremism. This has allowed Iran to keep the embers of its regional expansionist ambitions burning despite its inability to secure victory through the Iraq–Iran War.

The first genuine Shi’a political party in modern history was the Islamic Da’wa party, which was launched from Najaf in the middle of the last century. For approximately twenty years, the party pursued a policy of peaceful activism to the point that it responded to opposition to its establishment from the top Shi’ite marja and the hawza of Najaf by emphasizing that it was seeking to follow the [Islamic] approach of preventing vice and promoting virtue. At that point, the Islamic Da’wa party sought to highlight the fact that it was focusing on a moderate religious—rather than political—approach, and was even calling for the implementation of more moderate Husseini rituals, divesting these of their extremist manifestations.

However, following the Iranian revolution the Islamic Da’wa party was transformed into a violent organization which carried out a number of “commando” operations, including an attempt on the life of Iraq’s Tariq Aziz at Al-Mustansirriya University in Baghdad in 1980, an attempt to blow up the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1981, and attempting to assassinate Kuwaiti Emir Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah in Kuwait City in 1985. Following the outbreak of the Iraq–Iran War, the party stood with the Iranian cam, and fought in the armed conflict—alongside other Iraqi Shi’a groups—against the Baghdad regime’s forces. In addition to this, the Islamic Da’wa party also took the decision to adopt the theory of the velayat-e faqih (governance by a supreme Islamic jurist), recognize the authority of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and support the Iranian desire to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime. The group viewed viewed Saddam’s ouster as an important step in the plan to establish an all-encompassing, Shi’a Islamic state reaching as far as southern Lebanon. This, doubtlessly, remains an Iranian strategy that still exists today.

The Iranian revolutionary leadership led by Ayatollah Khomeini did not conceal their regional expansionist objectives; “exporting” the revolution served as a major slogan. This slogan was translated on the ground to comprehensive assistance—political, material and propaganda—for political Shi’a groups, particularly via “The Nest” in Tehran and Iranian foreign affairs missions abroad. These Shi’a regional groups, for their part, viewed their support of Iran as a religious duty and sought to do everything they could in this regard.

By reviewing the dates of the establishment of Shi’ite political groups in the Gulf region in particular and the Middle East as a whole, we can see that they were all formed following the Iranian revolution, with the exception of the Islamic Da’wa party. These groups were influenced by the ideology of the Iranian revolution and by direct assistance from the revolutionary leadership in Tehran. Indeed, a large number of these groups were formed inside Iran itself, while the majority of their leadership lived and were educated in Iran.

Following in the footsteps of the Islamic Da’wa party, a large number of these groups also publicly announced their support for the velayat-e faqih and Khomeini’s rule, most prominently Iraq’s Islamic Action Organization (1979), the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (1979), and the the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (1982). The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain’s first official conference was held in Tehran in 1980. In 1981, the Bahraini government accused the group of seeking to carry out a coup. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was established in Iran in late 1982 to serve as the umbrella organization for the Iraqi political Shi’a groups whose leadership had been forced to flee the country following the outbreak of war.

The Bahraini experience—in comparison with Kuwait—serves as a model for the consequences of Shi’a radicalism and the blind serving of Iran’s regional expansionist ambitions. Less than a year ago, one Bahraini opposition leader informed me that the extremism of some Shi’ite opposition figures and groups, their commitment to Tehran, and the establishment of an Islamic Republic model in these Gulf states, has only served to abort the burgeoning understanding that was growing between the popular movement and the central government. This resulted in entrenching a lack of understanding between the opposition and the government, even when the opposition’s major demands have been implemented.

In contrast, the commitment of the Shi’a groups in Kuwait to an approach of moderation has served to strengthen the position of the Shi’a community in recent years, particularly within the legislative and executive branches of power. Today, the Kuwaiti Shi’a groups are influential on the ground and in the decision-making process in Kuwait.

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.