The Shia Factor in Iran's Foreign Policy

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Dr. Kayhan Barzegar
14 November 2008


From considering the political developments after the 2003 Iraqi invasion, this paper investigates the role of the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy conduct. With coming to power of the Shia factions in Iraq and its implications in the region, the Shia factor is becoming a significant element in shaping Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Some assessments tend to agree that the revival of Shiite factions and their conflict with Sunnis will shape the future of Middle East politics; Iran has a key role in this respect.(1) Some tend to discuss that the current potential in Shia factions is to create a coalition in a more temporary capacity and that, when the Iraqi Crisis settles down, Iranian and the Shia factions’ relations will loosen.(2) Lastly, some other focus on Iran’s intentions and aims in empowering an ideological coalition of friendly Shia factions in the region, a policy that is called by some Arab leaderships as a supposed Shia crescent. (3)

How does the Shia factor influence Iran’s foreign policy conduct toward the region? What are the aims of Iran and the Shia factions in establishing close relationships in the region and especially in Iraq? What are the roots of the new rivalry between Shia and Sunni factions in the region? Answering these questions, I first investigate the ignificance of the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy. I then argue that close relations between Iran and the Shia factions are based on pragmatic aims and for securing both Iran’s national interests as well as the factual interests of Shia groups. Lastly, I discuss that the emergence of a new Shia-Sunni rivalry in the region as a result of Iraq’s new political development and an attempt by Shia factions to institute their new status in Iraqi domestic politics as well as relations with states in the region, rather than a rivalry stemming from Iran’s policy in building a Shia crescent.

Iran and Shia Factor

For two reasons, the Shia factor was not properly employed as an opportunity and instrument of conducting Iran’s foreign policy before the 2003 Iraqi crisis: 1) the secular nature of the Shah’s regime and foreign Policy conduct 2) the suppressive policies of Arab regimes especially Saddam Hussein toward the Shia Factions. Because of its secular nature, the Shah’s regime had no desire in appreciating or employing the decisive role of ideology and religion in boosting Iran’s foreign policy capacities. Meanwhile, the regime rarely followed a policy of engaging Iran intensely with the Arab world’s political affairs such as Arab-Israeli wars and peace process since it conceived those issues to be out of Iran’s national interests.

This standpoint prevented Iran in benefiting from the advantageous role of the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy conduct. Some experts tend to agree, however, that the Shah’s regime at certain points took advantage of the Shia factor in the 1970s, especially in Lebanon through Imam Musa al-Sadr’s Shia movement, and in Iraq by indirectly supporting the Dawa Party.(4) Yet again, if Iran in the past took the slightest advantage of the Shia factor in regulating its foreign policy, it was mostly focused on supporting the certain groups and political factions that were opposing the regimes or groups that primarily supported radical Arab nationalism i.e. those regimes in Iraq and Lebanon that had, by that time, unfriendly political positions toward Iran.(5)

The advent of the 1979 Islamic revolution was a turning point for empowering the place of the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy regulation. The Islamic revolution indeed emboldened the Shias to express their factual identity and to show their existence to other entities. However, the suppressive policies adopted by Arab regimes and especially the Baathist regime in Iraq were major impediments to take advantage of the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy. Since the Islamic revolution served to intensify the ideological differences, the fundamentalists of the Islamic Republic, with their own brand of Shia Islam, came into conflict either with the regions’ conservative Sunni Islam i.e. in the Persian Gulf or Arab secular nationalist in the Saddam’s Iraq.

Because of its ideological and revolutionary philosophy, the Islamic Republic, especially in the days of the revolution, attempted to change the region’s political status quo by means in which it perceived itself at the time. The driving force for Iran’s new endeavor was the Shia factions who were kept for a long time out of their own countries’ politics by Sunni governing elites who essentially considered the Islamic revolution as a more Shia revolution. Subsequently, any attempts by Shia factions in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iraq to establish a close friendship with Iran were suppressed. The worst suppression occurred in Iraq and by the Saddam Baathist regime. Given the long backgrounds of cultural-societal connectedness, the Islamic Republic tried to establish close relationships with Iraqi Shia factions. However, its attempts ended with more imposing restrictions on Shia factions’ activities by the Bathsist regime. The Saddam regime called the Shias elements of expanding Iran's influence.

The subsequent Iran-Iraq war changed the sentiment of friendship between Iran and the Iraqi Shias due to the war being propagated by the Baathist regime as a war between two states in line with the Persian and Arab nationalistic identities. Iran’s endeavors to employ the Shia factor experienced ups and downs during the 1980s and 1990s. Although, it is believed that by employing the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy, Tehran had advanced an idealist-ideological foreign policy in the region, one should argue that, except a few months after the revolution, pragmatic aims have always derived Iran’s foreign policy during this period. Some assessments tend to agree that in action, a rational, pragmatic and accommodating policy prevailed in Iran’s relations toward the region.(6 ) As mentioned by one analyst, “Various indications show that Tehran’s foreign policy from the beginning was mainly regulated and reacted to the threats posed from the region and international arena in presenting the Islamic Republic as a new regional and international threat.”(7)

Iran and the Shia Factions: Strategic Coalition

The installation of a Shia-dominated government in Iraq following the 2003 Iraqi crisis, however, has been a turning point in empowering the place of the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy. Under the new circumstances, the Shias, who were “the forgotten Muslims”8, suddenly entered the regional power equations as a determining force. The new change has influenced the political developments in the entire Middle East. The new development has enhanced Iran’s relations with Shia factions for the first time both at the level of the masses and the states. With changing the traditional power structure, which was based on the rule of Sunni minority, the Shia factions have found it momentous to establish close relations with friendly states and nations in the region such as Iran thereby withdrawing from their traditional marginalization.

Iran’s close relationships with Shia factions in the region are aimed at building a strategic linkage for establishing security as well as creating economic–cultural opportunities. In Iraq, one aspect of establishing this strategic linkage is the installation of a new generation of friendly elites at the level of states, who have no backgrounds or feeling of enmity toward Iran. Another is the creation of Iran-Iraq’s coalition to cooperate for shaping new political-security arrangements in the Persian Gulf with inclusion of all littoral states. Similarly, advancing relations at the level of states for the first time can provide the grounds for developing Iran-Iraq’s mutual economic activities in the region.

The logic of this strategic linkage through the Iraqi Shias is based on the fact that the future power games in the Middle East will be more based on securing states' economic and security roles. Iran’s role in the region would hence depend upon the degree of strategic relationship with Shia political allies in the region, its support these factions’ role within the states’ political structure and building political camps. In the long run, no doubt, the Shia factions are only able to sustain their activities within the frame of states and through public support. Iran’s relations with Shia factions, therefore, should transgress its short term security factional relations and be directed at the state-oriented strategic level.(9)

Based on the strategic linkage, the Shia factor could be a base of creating opportunity in Iran’s foreign policy at the national, regional and international levels. At the national level, the Shias’ presence as the ruling power is an appropriate ground for bolstering bilateral economic, political and security cooperation. Since the new Shia government in Iraq has the executive power, unlike the past, the two countries can expand cooperation in such domains as mutual trade, cultural and social activities, media relations, religious tourism, academic and scientific exchanges, expansion of ties among religious seminaries, implementation of joint research projects. This close cooperation would play an important role in the re-engineering of cultural interactions and could lead both states away from past mutual distrust. The absence of interaction in the past has been costly for both nation-states.

At the regional level, the Shias’ empowerment in Iraq plays an imperative role in balancing Iran’s relations with other Shia factions in the region. Before a close relation with the Iraqi Shias, Iran had less presence and influence in the region’s politics. The objective of Iran’s foreign policy in the last four years has been in accordance with geopolitical and cultural-religious realities. The key to this strategic friendship between Iran and Iraq is a legacy of centuries of historical, cultural and religious connectedness. Regionally, Iraq has a special place in Iran’s national interests and calculations. Beyond the existing historical-cultural commonalities, the two countries have a long way to go for establishing economic and political cooperation in the region.

At an international level, bolstering the role of the Shias in the new Iraq and its effects on Iraq’s international relations will provide many opportunities for Iran’s foreign policy. It also provides some grounds for resolving some strategic challenges between Iran and the United States. One significant aspects of the National Intelligence Estimate report released recently is Iran’s “cost-benefit” attitude to achieve its security, status and prestige in the region.10 This finding shows that Iran’s main driving force in the region is establishing security and creating economic opportunities.

The ongoing challenge for the American troop withdrawal from Iraq is the fear of a comprehensive civil war spreading throughout the entire region. Even before the war started, the main concerns were post-war Iraq, how to meet Iraq’s neighbours’ expectations and how to engage them. Focusing on the region’s geopolitical realities after the crisis, the Baker-Hamilton Plan was a momentous opportunity to address a major concern that was unfortunately missed by the Bush administration. Instead of isolating Iran, the Plan, focused on engaging Iran, its positive role and even addressing its security concerns. It is not too late to address this geopolitical aspect of the crisis.

Even with the inevitable American withdrawal, there is a need to work with Iran to preserve the already fractious and tenuous stability that will emerge in the post-withdrawal era. Iran undoubtedly wants a stabilized, united and prosperous Iraq. Spreading insecurity in Iraq would mean insecurity for Iran as well. On the Iranian side, there is great motivation to help the U.S. secure Iraq, while at the same time addressing Iran’s security concerns.

Iran and the New Shia-Sunni Power Equation

The current conflict between Shia and Sunni factions in the region is the result of ascendancy in the Shia factions’ role in the region following the rise to power of a Shia-dominated government in Iraq. Ignoring the Shias’ political demands in the region has planted a rift and potential sense of resentment within Shia-Sunni relations. Some analysts tend to discuss that this sense of hostility has been triggered by two elements: 1) Zarquawi and al-Qaeda attempts to plant sectarian violence by bombing the Shia sacred shrines in Samara; 2) The U.S. democratization policy and attempts to create participatory politics, which pushes Iraqis to look for new identities.(12)

However, what is happening today in the region is the result of the region’s struggle to change to a new order in which the Shia factions are taking control of their destinies. In other words, the revival of Shias in Iraq has changed the bases of power and politics in the Middle East in favor of Shia groups. Although the Shias, in Iraq and Bahrain have been a driving force for political-social movements and reform, it was only recently that the Shiite factions gained the power to assert themselves politically.

The rise to power of Shiites in Iraq has made the Sunni governing elites extremely concerned not only because of the Shiite populations’ demands for acquiring further political-social rights but also for a process that can eventually lead to the Sunnis’ removal from power. One manifestation of this concern is related to the debates about the emergence of a Shia crescent in the region. The concern was first warned by King Abdullah of Jordan in 2004 mentioning that a Shia crescent under Iran’s leading role was appearing in the region. Ever since, this concern has been frequently echoed by other Arab leaders including Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Saud al-Feisal. As Mubarak puts it, ''the Shias in the region are more loyal to Iran than their own countries."(13) Saud al-Feisal voiced Saudi Arabia’s concern about Iran's increased role in Iraq by saying that, “all Arab countries assisted Iraq to not be occupied by Iran (in the Iran-Iraq war) but now we are handing the whole country (Iraq) over to Iran without reason.”(14)

The Arab world’s concerns about the emergence of a supposed Shia crescent are based on some realities. First, any alliance between Iran and Shia factions in the region will imbalance the position of Sunni governing elites in governmental institutions. Some assessments even say the emergence of a Shia crescent is a fear tactic by Sunni autocrats to cement Washington’s political and financial supports for their regimes.(15) Second, such an alliance takes place in countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (Hezbollah) where the regimes are against the existing political status quo. Third, the establishment of such an alliance, which confronts the U.S. presence in the region, will question the legitimacy of the region's conservative regimes who have, in several stages, agreed the American troops’ presence in the region.(16) This is especially imperative in terms of influencing the Shia minorities in the Persian Gulf littoral states. In this context, undoubtedly, the creation of a democratic Shia government in Iraq will be a serious challenge to the Sunni regimes of the region. If indeed Iraq’s progressive constitution is fully implemented, for instance, instituting a participatory politics in the region would be a threat to the existing regional political-social regulations in the Persian Gulf region.

However, despite all these new concerns raised by the Arab world, the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy is mostly acting in line with Iran’s pragmatic policies in establishing friendly relationships with states in the region. It mainly aims to tackle security concerns as well as creating economic-cultural pportunities. The role of the Shia factor in expanding Iran’s relations with the new Iraq is a good example. Because of the nature of opportunities and challenges, Iran has ultimately pursued a pragmatist foreign policy in Iraq. This is because of the range and involvement of the different layers of Iranian society as well as the nature of the political-security issues, which are affecting Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq. Since 2003, the involvement of various layers of Iranian society such as average Iranians traveling to the sacred cities, merchants for developing trade, intellectuals and executives elites in expressing their security concerns, etc., have greatly affected Iran’s Iraq policy. Meanwhile, the perils resulting from the immediate security threats such as the U.S. troop’s presence, civil war, sectarian violence, ethnic fragmentation, etc., from the new Iraq, have forced Iran to direct its foreign policy pragmatically and in line with its national interests.

In addition, Iran has vast economic interests in the new Iraq. Traditionally Iraq’s economic and political exchanges were oriented to the Arab world through Jordan in the west, Turkey in the north and the Soviet Bloc countries. In the new circumstances, orienting to the eastern areas and Iran as well due to the long borders and cultural-societal commonalities could play a major role for increasing economic and political exchanges thereby narrowing the gap with other regional nations. The more diverse exchanges with the neighboring countries further mutual interactions leading to an appropriate level of political-security relations. (17)

Yet, despite all the new opportunities, employing the Shia factor in Iran’s foreign policy conduct will bring about some challenges. The main challenge for Iran’s foreign policy is to create a balance between Iran’s foreign policy in the new Iraq on the one hand, and its' regional and international relations on the other. It is certainly in Iran’s interest to develop an alliance with Iraq for creating opportunities for Iran’s foreign policy. Yet, Iran's increased presence in Iraq will lead to some constraints in regulating its relations with the Arab world particularly with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This move, in fact, weakens Iran's current confidence-building policy towards the Arab world especially in the Persian Gulf. On the Shia side, similarly, the logic for establishing close relationships with Iran is mainly based on strategic interests and pragmatic policies. Shia factions in the region perceive Iran as a source of logistical and political support. Therefore, their attitude and response toward Iran will be in line with how to preserve their factional interests. A weak regional position for Iran is somehow equated to a weaker role for the Shia factions. Institutionalizing the Shias factions’ power in the region requires some alliances with the regional states and the establishment of a coalition of friendly governments in the region.

In Iraq, for instance, empowering and defining a new role for the Shia factions within Iraq and as a Shia state in the Arab world requires the support of a powerful regional state like Iran. In other words, demand by the Iraqi Shias for expanding ties and initiating new political, cultural, and economic interactions with Iran arises from the region’s political realities. Put differently, being encircled in a Sunni neighborhood, having less sympathetic neighboring states, and for balancing its domestic politics and regional relations, a Shiite government in Iraq would inevitably require Iran’s political support. Some assessments even go further and argue that the Shia factions in Iraq are temporarily looking for new allies. “Once Iraq gets settled down, they (Shias) are going to assert their state interests. But in their current struggle they need a regional ally.”(18)


I have argued that the Shia factor, since the 2003 Iraqi crisis and the establishment a Shia-dominated government in Iraq, has become a determining force in shaping Iran’s foreign policy toward the region. However, Iran’s policy to install the Shia factor is more pragmatic rather than ideological. I have also argued that Iran and the Shia factions’ aims in establishing a close relationship is mainly aimed at creating a strategic linkage in the region to tackle security threats and creating opportunities at the level of the masses and the states. The logic of a strategic linkage is based on the fact that, given the nature of politics in the Middle East region, the future games between states will be more based on securing domains of political role and economic zones. In this context, Shia factions in the region need Iran’s support and presence to balance their domestic politics as well as their relations with the Arab world while it is considered as a new Shia state. Lastly, I have debated that the new rivalry between the Shia and Sunni factions in the region is the result of the Iraqi transformation; it is also because of the latitude and role given to the Shia political groups following the removal of Iraq’s traditional Sunni-oriented order. In this respect, exaggerating on Iran’s intentions to build a Shia crescent is more based on the concerns that the Shia factor gives Iran a larger role in the region’s politics.