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Iranian Identity Warfare: The Making of the Shia Brotherhood

Although the 1979 Islamic Revolution was an Iranian phenomenon, its effects immediately transcended Iran’s borders. In March 1979, the Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr-led Shia revolt spread over most of Iraq. Shortly after that, in 1982, Hezbollah emerged in Lebanon to form the first cornerstone of the Iran-backed “Shia brotherhood.” That brotherhood soon grew with the emergence of Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq (circa 2005), Hezbollah’s ascent to power in Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel, and the rise of Shia militias in Syria (2011) and Yemen (2014).

Regarding the formation and influence of these Shia organizations, Western observers have simplified them as local clients of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran’s primary instrument of hard power abroad. This characterization is an oversimplification. While the IRGC’s presence across the region is undeniable, the group is not omnipresent; nor is it the only factor in evaluating the regional militias’ behavior. In an attempt to garner influence abroad, Iran has employed socio-cultural factors, focusing on its domestic Shia character, to influence Shia communities across the Middle East. This mechanism that can be characterized as a uniquely Iranian form of “identity warfare.”

Shia Solidarity

Since the “Islamic Revolution” of 1979, the Islamic Republic has been eager to portray itself as a faithful guardian of the Islamic community, or “ummah” (Ummat-e Islami/امت اسلامی). Simply put, Iran yearns to unify different Muslim nations under their religious identity against a loose coalition of perceived anti-Shia or anti-Muslim forces it has described as “Global Arrogance” (Estekbar-e Jahani/استکبار جهانی).

In this context, Iran has chosen the target of their identity warfare based on historical, geographical, linguistic, and religious attachments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. All of the communities it has targeted (1) are Shia believers, (2) are either Arabic or Farsi (Dari) speaking, (3) write with the Perso-Arabic script, and (4) were once part of the territories controlled by the Persian empire or enjoyed strong socio-cultural ties with it.

Additionally, Iran has established various cultural institutions to serve as institutions of identity warfare. In 1979, shortly after the new government took over, the “Board of Trustees for non-Iranian seminary students” (شورای سرپرستی طلاب غیر ایرانی) was founded in the city of Qom to provide foreign students with scholarships and other supplements to “facilitate” their conversion to the Twelver Shi’a branch of Islam. To magnify the board’s efficiency and also turn it into a more structural organization, Ayatollah Khomeini issued an order reorganizing it as a more extensive and advanced institute under the new name of the “Global Center for Islamic Sciences.”

These efforts at foreign outreach continued after Khomeini died in 1989. In 1999, Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued the decree merging all previous Shia proselytization organizations into the Al-Mustafa International University (MIU), effectively forming a super-organization as the new base of Iran identity warfare. In parallel to extending Shi’ism abroad, the new institution was also tasked with promoting the Persian language among Shias worldwide.

Iran’s efforts in this regard have enjoyed remarkable success. Today, the MIU runs 50 journals in foreign languages and controls 31 educational institutions, 24 of which are located outside of Iran. In addition, MIU has established an online school with more than 20,000 students from 132 nationalities enrolled in various programs. As of this writing, more than 40,000 graduates from MIU have returned to their countries to continue their “religious mission.” In addition to benefiting Iran’s identity warfare, some of the MIU’s students have assisted Iran’s war machine in more traditional ways. According to Alireza Arafi, the former chairman of the MIU, many MIU graduates currently serve in IRGC-backed Fatemiyoun and Zainebiyon brigades in Syria in support of the Bashar Al-Assad regime. In 2020, the United States imposed sanctions on MIU, alleging that the institution functioned as a “recruitment platform” for Iran’s intelligence collection and operations.

Islamic Republic and other Shia Denominations  

As the headquarters of Iran’s identity warfare program, the MIU focuses on three main agendas. First, facilitating theology studies for other Shia communities in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Second, converting non-Muslims and Sunnis to Twelver Shi’ism. Third, influencing the markedly different “Fiver,” the Zaydis Shia Houthis in Yemen.

The latter is a fascinating case study of Iranian influence abroad. Unlike the Shias of Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistanwho are mostly “Imamiyyah” or “Twelver” Shia and agree with Iranian clerics on most points of religious doctrine–the Shias of northern Yemen are Zaidiyyah, or “Fiver” Shias, and their theology has significant differences from the Twelvers. From its onset, the Islamic Republic has sought to correct this through mass socio-cultural campaigns in Yemen to spread Imamiyyah theology among the Yemeni Zaidiyyah. In this vein, Iran has offered many Zaidiyyah clerics sponsorships to study at MIU, and has further established multiple “Hussainiya” (Shia congregation halls) across Yemen. Iranian cultural institutes have also distributed thousands of Twelver books and other Iranian cultural products among Yemenis. As a result of Iran’s proselytization campaign, today many Yemenis hold Twelver religious ceremonies such as Dua Kumayl and Ashura.

Despite the theological difference between Imamiyyah and Zaidiyyah Shias across the Middle East, their countries have one thing in common: the lack of a strong “national identity” distinct from a religious or ethnic identity. Most Shia communities in the Middle East–particularly those outside of Iran–were in newly independent countries at the mid-point of the 20th century. Many have also suffered from ethnic-based civil wars, which sometimes affected their coexistence with neighbors of differing faiths. Additionally, the structural body of the nation-states in these countries has been shaken by foreign invasions, resulting in bloody rivalry among local actors–and thus providing a rife environment for foreign actors to expand their influence.

The Islamic Revolution beyond Iran 

The Islamic Revolution expansion attempts to influence Shia communities across the Middle East, starting with Iran’s neighbors and reaching the Mediterranean shores. One example of these conditions can be seen in Afghanistan. Although Shia Afghans lived in Afghanistan in relative peace for hundreds of years, the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979 broke the country’s fragile ethnic coexistence. It led to the militarization of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. As their need for military assistance grew, Shia Afghans increasingly sought foreign aid, which neighboring Iran was happy to provide in exchange for political influence. In this context, in 1987, various Afghan Shia groups, populated mainly by Hazara (Persian speaking) ethnic groups, formed the Eight Shia Faction in Tehran(گروه هشتگانه تهران), also known as the Tehran Eight. In 1989 the Tehran Eight expanded itself by founding the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, or Hezb-e Wahdat Islami Afghanistan (حزب وحدت اسلامی افغانستان). To this day, Hezb-e Wahdat remains a solid and loyal ally to Iran. When civil war erupted in Syria in 2012, the party’s members, including Alireza Tavasoli, the late commander of Fatemiyoun Brigade, traveled to Syria to fight for the pro-Assad coalition at Tehran’s request.

Similarly, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon gave the pretext for Iran to deploy thousands of militiamen to Lebanon, which helped the formation of Hezbollah as the strongest Iran-backed Shia Militia in the region.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to similar consequences; the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum that led to the resurgence of ethnic-religious conflicts in the country, giving Iran an exceptional opportunity to expand its influence over Iraq via pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias and political parties. From its inception, the Islamic Republic has seen the Shia communities in Iraq as a natural ally. As a result, many Shia activists, fearing Saddam’s brutalities, took refuge in Iran. Eventually, two Iran-based Iraqi Shia organizations, the Islamic Dawa Party and the Islamic Action Organization, founded the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), dreaming of establishing an “Islamic Government” in Iraq.

As a result of Iran’s hospitality, during the Iran-Iraq war, the military wing of ISCI, the Badr Brigades, sided with Iran and fought against Iraq. The pro-Iran Iraqi Shia groups were so persistent in their alliance with Iran that more than seven thousand Iraqi fighters were killed or injured fighting by Iran’s side during the Iran-Iraq war. Although supporting Iran during the time of war was very costly for Iraqi Shia militias, the experience that Iraqi Shia groups gained from their contribution to the war and their political activities became invaluable after the fall of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime. When Saddam’s regime collapsed, they took advantage of the chaos to return to Iraq and employ what they learned in Iran to expand their presence in the Iraqi political spectrum.

The Downsides to “Identity Warfare”

Despite the many achievements of Iran’s identity warfare policies, the Shia brotherhood faces some backlash. The growth of a distinct Shia identity among non-Iranian Shia Muslims has become worrying to many Shia groups. For instance, since 2019, many Shia Iraqis have protested against Iran’s growing intervention in Iraq’s domestic affairs. In several incidents, the protestors stormed Iran’s consulate in Karbala and headquarters of Iranian-backed parties and factions. Because these protests are isolated incidents, is not reasonably possible to measure what percentage of Iraqi Shias share the same feeling against Iran, but as these protests are relatively new, we can consider them a notable change from a few years ago, when Iraqi national identity was apparently weaker among the country’s Shia population.

Iran’s major religious institution, Qom Seminary, also faces challenges from Iraq’s “Najaf Seminary.” The traditional rivalry between the two cities escalated when on September 13, 2020, the office of Ayatollah Sistani, the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf, released a statement and asked the United Nations to supervise the Iraqi parliament election to ensure its transparency and independence. Ayatollah Sistani’s statement immediately prompted Iranian outrage, to the extent that Hossein Shariatmadari, Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative at the conservative-leaning Kayhan newspaper, wrote in an op-ed column that Sistani’s suggestion “undermined Iraq’s independence.” Shariatmadari also claimed that Sistani’s call “belittled the status of Shiite clerics.” Shariatmadri later apologized for his commentary, but the significance of a close confidant of Ayatollah Khamenei blasting Ayatollah Sistani, who is revered in Iraq, remains strong.

Another potential challenge to Iran’s effort to encourage Shia identity abroad has been the risk of inciting a backlash among Iranian non-Shia minorities at home. Reports indicate that around 10% of Iran’s population are Sunni Muslims. Therefore, Iran’s insistence on playing the role of leader of the Shia world has the potential to alienate its own minorities. On this issue, one should remember that the country still suffers from unhealed wounds in recent history, ranging from the 1979 uprising among Iranian Sunni Kurds and the 2002 Baluchistan insurgency. Even today, the Islamic Republic cannot completely end armed resistance in those two regions of the country.

Overall, it is safe to assume that Iranian identity warfare campaigns up to the present have helped Iran to advance its foreign policy abroad and confront external threats. For instance, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran felt threatened by the U.S. military presence on its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan–and in the ensuing years, it used its Shia militias to ensure Baghdad would never be a station from which the U.S. could launch military strikes against Iran. Similarly, Hezbollah has been challenging Israel, Iran’s principal regional rival, stockpiling vast quantities of missiles and other armaments for use in a future conflict. However, Iran’s identity warfare is not cost-free, since Iran’s Shi’ism has already caused concerns among Iranian Sunnis – to the extent that Iranian Salafi terrorists such as the “Jaish ul-Adl” organization in Baluchistan highlighted Iran’s support of Assad as one of the motivations that drove them to take up arms against Iran. As a weapon, Iranian identity warfare has been an effective sword but is increasingly double-edged.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Arman Mahmoudian is a lecturer of Russian and Middle Eastern Studies and a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics and International affairs at the University of South Florida (USF). He is also a research associate at the USF Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies, where he focuses on Iran’s regional policy and Shia militias in the Middle East. Arman has appeared on Al-Jazeera and the BBC and has been published by Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy, London School of Economics Middle East Center, Atlantic Council, Middle East Eye, Politics Today, New Arab, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and Trends Research and Advisory. Follow Arman on Twitter@MahmoudianArman.

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