Friday, February 09, 2007

In Defence of Iran

Many people will have seen the excerpt from an al-Jazeera discussion programme in which Iraqi MP Mish’an al-Jabouri and Iraqi journalist Sadeq Musawi threaten and scream at each other. The occasion is Saddam Hussain’s execution, and the cleavage is sectarian (al-Jabouri is Sunni and Musawi is Shia). Al-Jabouri calls on the audience to read the fatiha for the soul of the ‘martyred president.’ When Musawi objects and points out that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, al-Jabouri says he will do ‘unimaginable things’ to Musawi, and calls him an Iranian, a Persian, and a Persian shoe. After Musawi has walked off, al-Jabouri demonstrates what looks to me like mental illness. He tells us that his own brother and brother-in-law were killed by Saddam, but that he nevertheless considers the martyr president to be the master of Iraq, and specifically the master of Musawi and Musawi’s parents. He regrets that Saddam was killed by “the same people who killed our master Umar and our master Abu Bakr.” Then he seems to remember that Abu Bakr wasn’t killed, and says “Sorry. The people who hate Abu Bakr and all the companions of the Prophet.”

I found al-Jabouri’s ranting tragic to watch. For people like him, sectarian hatred supercedes even family loyalty. And as far as he is concerned, anyone who disagrees with Baathist tyranny or Sunni dominance of Iraq is not Iraqi and not Arab, but Persian.

As the American campaign against Iran intensifies, there is a corresponding chorus of paranoid voices in the Arab world howling about Persian imperialism and Shia infiltration. The chorus includes pro-American ‘liberals’ and anti-American Baathists and Wahhabi fundamentalists. The interests these Arabs ultimately serve are neither liberal nor anti-American.

Some Arabs wonder why Iran is involved in the Arab Levant. I see nothing particularly sinister in this engagement. Iran is an important regional power. If it is engaged in the area, so are America, Israel and France, and to a lesser extent Russia and Turkey. I would go so far as to say that Iran is a lot less ‘foreign’ than these other interventionists. And I greatly admire Iran for providing political, financial and military help to resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon. It’s not as if Hamas and Hizbullah turned down Arab aid in favour of the Iranians. Arab states have not only failed to help, they have actively conspired against the resistance and against the democratically elected government of occupied Palestine.

Some Arabs worry that Iran has become a regional superpower after the fall of the Iraqi Baath and the Afghan Taliban. But surely Iran can’t be blamed if it has become stronger as a result of American wars against erstwhile American clients. Although Iran had suffered horribly at the hands of Saddam Hussain, it didn’t help America to invade Iraq. The Saudis, however, provided land and airspace for the American campaign. True, Iran has relationships with some of the Iraqi Shia militia, just as the Saudis have relationships with Sunni militia, but some of the most important Shia militia – such as Sadr’s Mahdi Army – are Iraqi and Arab nationalists who oppose Iranian influence. The Iranian leadership more than Arab leaderships has called on Iraqis to avoid sectarian warfare, and has more to lose from Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq than the Sunni Arab client regimes.

Most absurdly, Yusuf Qaradawi, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian newspaper columnists have recently fulminated against supposed Shia-Iranian efforts to convert Sunnis to ‘the Shia heresy’ in Sunni-majority countries. There are two responses to this. The first is that there is absolutely no evidence that it is happening. In his Ashura speech in Beirut Hassan Nasrallah addressed this issue, calling on the Saudis to establish an investigation into such allegations. The second response is that, even if Shia were trying to convince Sunnis that their brand of belief is best, so what? What’s wrong with theological debate, so long as it doesn’t become coercion? Anyway, is it not obvious (and regrettable) that the best organised and funded Islamic evangelists in the world are Wahhabis?

What else is there for Arabs to fear from Iran? Some condemn Iran as a tyranny. It would be overly optimistic to call the Islamic Republic a democracy, but it is certainly more democratic than any Arab state. There are real, if controlled, elections, in which real issues are debated. There is a vibrant, if besieged, press and student movement. The hijab is imposed on Iranian women (many of them wear it slipping off the back of their heads), but Saudi women are forced to wear niqab, and are forbidden from driving. Iran makes wonderful films. Iranian high streets are full of bookshops, and the bookshops stock titles on Buddhism, yoga, contemporary European philosophy, quantum physics, Russian literature. The most popular language for internet blogs after English is Farsi. I wish the Arab world was more like Iran.

I don’t pretend that Iran doesn’t have serious problems. When I visited I was surprised by just how many people complain about the government. Not only young, Westernised English speakers. I can speak guidebook Farsi, and even working-class and middle-aged people would quickly express to me their hatred of the regime. But I took some heart from the fact that people would shout their opinions in Farsi in the middle of crowded teahouses. In no Arab country would people have so little fear.

The key conflict in the area is between the ruling class, which is both a money class and a client to imperialism, and the ordinary, impoverished people, who now have more information about the links between their rulers and Zionist and imperialist forces. The rulers of the region and of the world don’t want this conflict to be revealed in the light of day, so they seek to mask it by sectarian and ethnic conflicts. The classic divide and rule strategy. So Abdullah of Jordan, that shining hero of Islam, warns of the Shia crescent. Mubarak of Egypt, the gallant knight of Arabism, points out darkly that Arab Shia are always more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. Tony Blair recently referred to an ‘arc of moderation.’ Meaning, I suppose, the moderate anal rape tactics of the Egyptian police, and the moderate public beheadings in Saudi Arabia. It’s a shame to see so many Arabs, for reasons of sectarian prejudice, siding despite themselves with Blair and the Arab puppets. Some liberal Arabs who claim to be in favour of peace and moderation, dazzled by Western media, are falling into the same trap.


Philip I said...


You have an advantage over many bloggers and comentators in that you have visited Iran. People tend to demonise that which they do not understand and fear.

What you describe well and sensitively is a nation but not its power structure or in which direction its leaders are taking it. I am sure you have a lot to say about that. I cannot speak for others but what I observe is a regime that has taken the country from one extreme (the Shah)to the opposite extreme (theocracy). That is not my problem as a reasonably open-minded Syrian.

I care about the wellbeing and future of my country and region though. What I see and fear is foreign help (any foreign help)that comes with too high a pricetag. Some of us may be prepared to pay the price but others may not. I value the diversity and traditions of our nation and fear uncompromising ideologies, theocracy and despotism.

Iran may not be actively and overtly exporting its theocracy to syria but our regime is importing some of it to appease Iran and tightening its grip on power with Iran's help. You could certainly argue that this is a typical superpower-client relationship that our regime has nurtured by choice and we cannot blame Iran for it. the US-saudi, US-Egyptian and US-Jordanian relationships can be characterised in the same way. True, but this does not stop me fearing and arguing against Iran's growing influence over our internal politics, financial situation and cultural development.

Fares said...

Remembering Hariri

Qunfuz, I admire your defense for Iran but you fail again to grasp the big picture which Philip has described perfectly. You think it is a shia-sunni conflict but it is not.

It is about who controls what. Syria is fucked either way if Iran or Israel/US controls it. Bottom line, Iran does not care if ordinary Syrians or Lebanese or palestinians or Iraqis lived well. They care about their regional cards and that does not include the prosperity and well being of its people.

You get carried away hearing about resistance, I wonder how old you are and if you were following the political events in the 80s and it is so obvious to see history repeat itself and Arabs getting scewed once again, this time the fight vehicle changed from national to Islamic. One failed and another will definitely follow.

Religion should not be invloved in wars, that is what the older civilization did (each carrying its God during wars). God does not choose which people to like to help, people are created equal.

qunfuz said...

Fares - No, I don't think it's a sunni-shia conflict. Please read my posting again. I'm saying that the sunni-shia thing is an illusion created to take our minds off the reall conflict. And with respect, I don't need your lectures about religion in politics, or about how God doesn't favour one group over another. I am in no way an Islamist (as earlier posts will show you), nor a particularly religious person. As for my own background, my father is a Sunni Muslim, my mother is a Christian, and I have plenty of Alawi friends. Neither am I particularly romantic about anything that calls itself resistance. However, I recognise that Hamas won democratic elections in Palestine, that Hizbullah represents a wide constituency in Lebanon, that theocratic Iran is more politically developed than Arab states. A democrat (like you?) must recognise that Islamist politics is important in the area. Not all these people can be dismissed as thugs. Your posts suggest that the Saudis are 'moderates' because they oppose Syria and Iran and are pro-American. But Saudi Arabia is far more backward and tyrannical in its imposition of 'sharia' than Iran.
Emperor Philip - You're right I talk about Iran as a nation rather than as a regime. The regime is more plural than regimes in Arab countries, so anything I say will be a generalisation. I clarly disagree with any form of Basij (religious police) interference in people's private lives, and with the suppression of dissent that undoubtedly takes place. There is lots of evidence of corruption and economic mismanagement. It's certainly a shame that right-wing Islamists were able (helped by the Iraqi-Gulf-West attack against them) to take control of the wide-based popular revolution. It seems that many or most Iranians assumed that Khomeini would take a back seat once the revolution had succeeeded. The general direction, it seems to me, in Iran is however towards reform. Despite Ahmedinejad and other setbacks.

Please tell me how exactly the Syrian regime is importing theocracy. Not a rhetorical question. I really want to know what you mean. I'm not in Syria at the moment. I know the country is Islamising, but that seems to me a phenomenon led by the people, in line with the 'revival' across the region. Egyptians like Amr Khaled seem to have much more to do with it than the mullahs of Qom.

Philip I said...


Thank you for your reasoned response and keeping an open mind. I'm not out to score points and I take anything that the Reform Party of Syria or Israeli papers publish about Syria with a huge pinch of salt. This story may contain outright lies and gross exaggerations but I would say there is no smoke without fire:

See also these links:

What I draw from the above stories is a suspicion that our regime is encouraging in a carefully managed sort of way the spread of Hizbullah-style social services and through them Shia beliefs and values in order to appease the Mullahs in Iran. There are elements in the Iranian regime that believe (and justifiably so) that Syria takes too much and gives too little. When you think about it, you have to ask what is Iran getting out of the relationship? what is the payback for Iranian soft loans, cheap oil and military technology transfers? Our regime needs to ensure that the alliance with Iran is not opposed or resented by the Syrian population. So allowing Iranian "charities" to target the poorer communities (which tend to be more vulnerable to indoctrination) helps to turn potential Sunni fundamentalism into potential Shia fundamentalism, which is the lesser evil in the eyes of Alawites. This has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with politics, money and self preservation.

qunfuz said...

Philip I - What is Iran getting out of the relationship? Syria is of utmost political importance to Iran. Of course, Iran has relationships with more important states – Russia, China and India – but Syria is its only wholehearted ally among Muslim and regional states. In addition, Syria presents itself as Arabist, so the alliance breaches the wall of Arab hostility to Iran. Then, Syria is not part of the American set-up in the area, and it's important for Iran to support any alternative to American power. More specifically, through alliances with Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, Iran is seen to be connected with a key 'Muslim' issue – the struggle with Israel. This is of crucial ideological importance for sectors of the Iranian population and leadership and greatly helps Iran's image among Muslim populations further afield. Indeed the extent of Iran's popularity with far-flung Muslim populations is one deterrent to American or Israeli attack. If angry Indonesian Muslims, for instance, are likely to attack American interests in the aftermath of an attack on Iran, America may think twice. At least that's what Iran calculates.

On the popular level, Iranians love Syria. The religious visit Syria for the shrines, the 'liberal' for the chance to walk in the streets without hijab. Syria is the only country it's easy for Iranians to visit.

I've looked at the websites you recommend. Firstly, the al-ahram story has nothing to say about Syria. It reports on the anti-Iranian paranoia of some Sunni Arabs that I've already talked about. It notes that the power balance in the region is shifting to favour the Shia. This is true, and I believe natural. They've been oppressed for a long time, and in Iraq the Shia are the majority.

The Iran Defence site describes Sunnis converting to Shiism for personal reasons – because they admire the actions of Shia groups in the world, specifically Hizbullah – but does not connect these coversions to Iranian or Syrian government activity. It may be that some Sunnis are converting (I can think of other reasons why they may wish to do so, which I may post about one day), but I'm sure it must be a tiny minority. I know plenty of Syrian Sunnis who love Nasrallah and Hizbullah, but none of them are thinking of converting.

Then the website of Farid Ghadri's US-based Reform Party. You are right to doubt this source, which has previously made all kinds of improbable claims. The claims here seem no more credible to me. I'll deal with some of them. I am no military expert so I can't comment on the level of cooperation between the Syrian and Iranian armies, except to say that close cooperation between military allies seems logical and unsurprising. There is, after all, close cooperation between Egypt and its American sponsor, between Israel and America, and so on. There is also nothing wrong with opening centres to teach Farsi in Syria. In Damascus there is a British Council, a Goethe Institute, an Alliance Francaise, all teaching languages in order to promote business and cultural relations between Syrians and these countries. The most serious accusation is that Iran is providing villages with healthcare and financial rewards in return for conversions to Shiism. Without being given names of villages where this is happening and visiting the villages myself I can't comment with absolute certainty. However, this does not seem at all credible. Syrians just don't work like that. Their religious and sectarian identities are much more important to them than cash rewards, and offering such incentives to conversion seems like a recipe for a rapid and violent sectarian backlash. Then on to some really silly claims, which need no more examination than just to repeat them. The Reform Party says that Arabic media is banned in Syria but Iranian TV is available in every home. Anyone who's been in Syria knows that satellite TV may still be officially banned, but that tens of Arabic (and Iranian and Polish and French…) channels are available in Syrian homes. Of course, the website is not aimed at Syrians but at people in Washington. Then the claim that letting lots of Iranians visit Sitt Zainab's shrine is "quite possibly a cover for the presence of Islamic Revolutionary Guards." Silly. The more foreign pilgrims, the greater the influx of cash into the country. And Syria has a military alliance with Iran, so it doesn’t need a cover for allowing Revolutionary Guards to visit. Finally, the site reports Sunni clerics (no names) saying "they would have to stand by Israel in a conflict just to protect their religion." Does anyone who knows Syria believe this? It shows us which lobby inspires the Reform Party – we already knew that of course.

Philip I said...


You provide a good explanation as to why Iran sees Syria as a valuable ally and provides material and strategic support to our regime. Thank you for that.

As you say, there is nothing wrong with opening cultural centres but my concern was not about such centres per se or people converting to Shiism as a result of financial inducement. Such people are simply cynical, their loyalty cannot be relied on and they cannot be indoctrinated.

I would be quite alarmed if the there was any truth in the rumours that Iran was providing social support networks (e.g. financial help and health and educational grants) in a low-key but purposeful manner to poor and vulnerable people, without expecting them to convert to Shiism. This would be the most effective way to indoctrinate and ensure strong loyalty to Iran in the long term. The beneficiaries can then be accelarated through army, intelligence and party ranks. I imagine the CIA and Mossad would use similar techniques if they had support at the highest levels in government.

Any party that feels the need to indoctrinate young people through such things as "Shabibet al thawra and Tala'eh al hizb"..etc, can also in principle conspire with foreign powers to stay in control.

No doubt my nationalism and natural suspicion of despotic regimes colour my judgement. let's hope I am wrong.

qunfuz said...

“Scholars and sheikhs: conversions to Shi’ism in Syria individual cases” (translation by

On February 25, Al, the online version of Al Jazeera TV, reported that: “Syrian religious scholars denied the news about the spread of [efforts to] convert [people] to Shi’ism in the country and considered the [news] to be “rumors” promoted by some out of ignorance and to be part of the American pressures. Other scholars talked about the fact that this was linked to the building by Iranian donors of shrines in the northeastern region of the country. The director of the Islamic Studies Center and Syrian MP Dr. Muhammad Habash, said that what was being circulated about the issue was groundless.

“He believed that “Saudi Sheikh Salman Al-Awded who said that about Syria, based his talk on doubts and illusions”. He said that the situation in Syria was different from Saudi Arabia. He added that: “Let them show us one case which proves that people were paid to convert from one sect to the other”. He continued that people converted from the Sunni sect to the Shi’i sect and vice versa everywhere, and considered these cases to be individual cases which were present in all the societies.

“Worshippers and sheikhs quoted the scholar, Wehbe Al-Zuheili, as saying after the Friday prayer in a mosque in Damascus a few weeks ago that there were cases of Shi’ization in one of the towns in the Raqqa governorate northeast of Damascus, and [he] asked the worshippers to make sure of that. We were unable to contact Al-Zuheili, but the general supervisor of the Ghuraba Al-Sham media institution…, Sheikh Mahmoud Kul Aghasi, said to Al that Al-Zuheili’s position was “investigative and was confirmed the following week”.

“Aghasi added that the story started from Al-Raqqa where an Iranian institution built two shrines for the Companion [of the Prophet] Ammar Bin Yasser and follower Awais Al-Qarni (God bless them), as well as a cultural bureau and a tapes library. He indicated that some people in that area were influenced by the building pattern and the ideology and found common grounds with those who are responsible for them. He assured however that they never changed their sect, and if they did “there are very few of them”. He believed that some exaggerated the entire issue…

“For his part, the former assistant to the Syrian minister of endowments, Dr. Abdul Razzak Al-Muanness, said he heard a lot of “talk” regarding Shi’ization in Syria in newspapers, satellite channels and websites. He checked the veracity of these claims by conducting tours and visits in many Syrian regions and didn’t find any proof for the spread of Shi’ization. The dean of the Islamic Studies College in Damascus, Abdullah Nizam, said that talks about Shi’ization in Syria were “lies” and said to Al that he called upon all those who raised this issue to provide proof for the fact that someone converted to Shi’ism or was asked to convert to Shi’ism in exchange for money…

“Aghasi believed it was the right of any group to promote what it believes in… but in correct and clear ways. He said that the Shi’is have been declaring their creed for years via books, publications, and recordings and wondered why this issue was raised in these “difficult circumstances” that the region was going through. He concluded by saying that foreign sides connected with the American administration were interested in talking about a Shi’i spread as part of an Iranian path.

“Al-Muanness believed that such allegations were not innocent and were the result of the American occupation of Iraq, and an attempt to weaken the domestic communities of its neighboring states by spreading sectarian strife, in order to undermine peacefulness and cooperation with Iran. For his part, Nizam said that this issue was raised because of the “critical circumstances that the nation is going through, following the victory achieved by the Lebanese resistance over the Israeli army”. He added that what he called “media mouthpieces” and some scholars “fell in the American-Israeli trap and launched a campaign to arouse the common people and the sectarian conflicts among the Muslims.” - Al Jazeera, QatarClick here for source

I found this at Syriacomment