The eschatological elements of the Iranian regime’s ideology might provide clues on Tehran’s long term plans in the Middle East.

By Mauro Lubrano

The last years have witnessed the increase of Iran’s regional influence, along with the compelling rise of several Shia militias spearheaded by Iran’s Lebanese bright star, Hezbollah. Yet, the vast majority of the analyses prompted by these events have, not surprisingly, failed to interpret them within the context provided by Shia Islamist ideology. By including such context in the equation, this article will explore heuristic alternatives for analyses.

From the Islamic Revolution to the Shia Reawakening

From the onset of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian regime has sought to export its model. The objective was to fuel further revolutionary movements that could lead to the liberation of “oppressed” Shias across Muslim countries. Among the groups that have enjoyed Iran’s support to a greater extent, the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah has risen to what can most likely be considered the most powerful non-state actor as well as a resounding example of the model Iran wishes to export.

Based on the image of Hezbollah, the network of militias that Tehran has been patiently building and nurturing for decades in order to export the Islamic revolution and lead to a Shia renaissance has recently started to bear the desired fruits across the Middle East. In this regard, the outbreak of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni following the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the power vacuum left by the departure of the US troops in 2011, and the outbreak of the Arab Spring represented game changers for Iran’s regional policy. Prior to these events, Iran’s efforts had been channeled mainly – albeit not exclusively – towards Hezbollah and Lebanon. Occasionally, connections with groups in countries such as – among others – Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, and Argentina emerged.

In view of the geopolitical consequences the above-mentioned events brought about, Iran has now broadened its spectrum of activities across the Middle East. The decisive intervention in Syria alongside the Assad regime and the more recent involvement in the Yemeni conflict in support of the Houthi rebels against the recognized governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia represent the most tangible examples of Tehran’s upgraded regional policies. The Quds Force – the special forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – are active on multiple fronts in the Arab world in order to expand what Ali Akbar Velayati – one of Khamenei’s top advisors – called, in November 2017, the Iran-led resistance zone, which now comprises Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. Tehran’s expansionism has surely raised many concerns across the Middle East and beyond. Significantly, the worries about Iran’s achievements have even led to a paradoxical anti-Iranian alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, supported by the current US administration. The year 2018 might see these tensions increase to a higher level. After all, Trump’s aggressive anti-Iranian posture, Mohammad bin Salmam’s policies in Saudi Arabia, and Israel’s discomfort for a stronger Hezbollah – which implies a stronger Iranian presence on its northern border – might lead to more serious confrontations between these powers and Iran and its proxies.

Beyond political realism: Shia Islamism

It would be easy to analyze Iran’s growing regional power and its consequences solely from a realist perspective. After all, what Iran has been pursuing is not too different from what rising powers do when they attempt to change the status quo and gain a more favorable position on the international chessboard. Regional conflicts – such as the Syrian Civil War, the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, and the civil war in Iraq – have given Iran the chance to shift the regional balance of power in their favor, thus challenging other regional aspiring or de facto hegemonic powers, like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

However, taking such a realist and materialistic perspective would neglect a more profound motivation behind Iran’s – and, more generally, Shias’ – expansionist ambitions. Understanding such motives is paramount to fully grasping the rationale beyond Tehran’s foreign policy. After all, as Steven Childs argued, “understanding human terrain exhibited in historical and cultural attributes offers strategic thinkers a critical but often neglected tool.”

Shia Islamism and eschatological beliefs as a key to understanding Iran’s foreign policy

As it has been argued, comprehending Iranian foreign policy without having a clear understanding of the ideology that inflames it might potentially result in strategic miscalculations. In turn, grasping such an ideology must include discussing Shia Islam, Shia Islamism, and how they came to be. Understanding that much more comprehensive discussions would be necessary to fully comprehend these issues, a brief overview would nevertheless prove useful.

The word Shi’ism means “party” or “fraction” in Arabic and it used to refer to those who followed Ali in the dispute regarding the succession of the Prophet Muhammad after his death in 632 AD. Yet, the event that made the split irreconcilable occurred in 680 AD, as Ali’s son, Hussein, was slaughtered at the Battle of Karbala along with his followers by the forces loyal to Yazid I, who had been recently chosen as the new Caliph of the Umma (the Muslim community). This event, which is known as Ashura, is commemorated every year on the tenth day of the month Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar). Ever since, the massacre of Karbala has marked the beliefs of Shia Muslims, characterizing them with a profound sense of injustice, suffering, and martyrdom. These sentiments were reinforced, as the Imams that followed Imam Hussein as leaders of Shia Muslims were allegedly assassinated as a result of Sunni conspiracies and, more generally, as Shias were persecuted across all Muslim territories. As a consequence of these assassinations, Shia Muslims believe that the twelfth of these Imams – Muhammad ibn al-Hasan – went into occultation due to the fear of being himself assassinated. According to Shia eschatological beliefs, this Hidden Imam will eventually return and lead Shia Muslims to the establishment of a perfect and just Islamic State.

Before moving on, it is necessary to point out that this is the belief of Twelver (Imamiyyah) Shia Islam, the branch the Iranian regime belongs to and the one its foreign policy identifies with. Other branches – among which the most important are the Fiver (Zaidi) and the Sevener (Ismaili) – are characterized by beliefs that vary to different extents.

Despite it being a fundamental component of Shia Islamism, this apocalyptic belief has historically been characterized by a passive approach. That is to say, Shia Muslims never felt compelled to do anything to hasten the return of the Hidden Imam. Instead, they patiently waited for him to reappear. However, this changed drastically as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. His ideological reinterpretation made him reach the conclusion that the establishment of an Islamic State (nota bene, this is not a reference to the Sunni organization led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) was indispensable in order to prepare the Umma for the return of the Hidden Imam and to hasten this process in the first place. Establishing such an Islamic State required exporting the Islamic Revolution, which, in turn, required vanguard movements to pave the way.

After all, it has been discussed how Iran relies on networks of proxies to advance its interest abroad. Yet, to ascribe these collaborations solely to practical reasons or national interests would be erroneous. Beyond this surface, there are deeper ideological roots that link Shia militias to the Iranian regime. These roots originate from the doctrine of the Guardianship of the Jurist (wilayat al-faqih). In a nutshell, this doctrine dictates that, while waiting for the return of the Hidden Imam, (Shia) Muslims have to be led by the most learned of the jurists (faqih). By abiding to this doctrine, Shia militias agree to place themselves under the authority of the Supreme Ayatollah of Iran. Despite there being occasional minor disputes or shifts in the interpretation of this doctrine, “there is virtually no major step taken (…) which is not coordinated with Iran”, as highlighted in a working paper of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.

As it is usually the case of apocalyptic beliefs, Shia eschatology is a complicated matter, one that is not easy to fully grasp at first sight. However, the important notion here is that some hadiths (reports on the words and actions of the Prophet that constitute one of main sources of Islamic law) describe five signs that will occur before the return of the Hidden Imam. The first two of them are respectively the appearance of the Sufyani (a tyrant who is also the Mahdi’s nemesis) and that of Al-Yamani (a figure supposed to guide the people prior to the arrival of the Mahdi). Thereafter, the last three signs will be a loud cry in the sky, the assassination of Nafse Zakeyyah (an alleged descendant of Imam Hussein) and the sinking of the Sufyani army into the earth.

Shia Islamists believe signs of the Apocalypse are currently being revealed

As Shia Islamists are now actively attempting to hasten the arrival of the Hidden Imam, they are constantly looking out for the signs of the apocalypse. Significantly, some of the events occurred in the last years could be – and indeed have been – interpreted as those signs: the appearances of the Sufyani – a pre-messianic figure that will emerge in Syria (Sham) pretending to be a good Muslim while in fact proving to be cruel and merciless, slaughtering children and women – and Al-Yamani – another pre-messianic figure that will arise from Yemen carrying a white flag (according to one hadith) and will be the closest figure to that of the Hidden Imam.

If one frequents online Shia chats, one will soon notice that there have been lively debates online as to who represents the Sufyani and Al-Yamani. In different times, different historical figures have been identified with the former or the latter. If such debates take place openly on the Internet among “less learned” believers, similar theological discussions could take place at the leadership levels behind the scenes, among learned jurists and scholars. Among the events that have recently attracted Shia Islamists’ attention with respect to their apocalyptic belief, there are two that stand out: the rise of the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the emergence of the Houthi group, Ansar Allah, in Yemen. Indeed, despite the fact that the Islamic State as a group originated from Iraq, its establishment in Syria, combined with the barbarity with which it has associated itself, has led some to identify its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with the Sufyani. Previously, others have identified the Sufyani with Salman Al Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia, or other figures. Simultaneously, many have interpreted the emergence of Ansar Allah in Yemen as a sign of the appearance of Al-Yamani, identified with the group leader, Abdul Malik al Houthi. On top of that, the banner of Ansar Allah is a white flag that recitesAllah is Greater, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.

Practical consequences for the analyst

Without any doubt, it would be easy to discard such considerations, branding them as non-influential in the decision-making process of any rational political actor. Yet, the possibility that Shia Islamists – whether exponents of a militia like Hezbollah or officials of the Iranian regime – could accept these beliefs as true must be acknowledged. From this perspective, their interpretations of reality as well as the actions they undertake based on such interpretations are perfectly rational in their own minds when weighed against their beliefs. As such, the analysts who concern themselves with the developments of Iran’s foreign policies and the activities of its affiliated militias must take these aspects in consideration in order to avoid analytical errors.

This does in no way imply that policies should be based solely on the analyses of the ideological traits. For analyses to be comprehensive, they must consider all the relevant aspects that contribute to the “power” of the subject that is being studied. That is to say, classic analyses of resources, capabilities, and – more generally – hard power can prove most useful in determining what the concerned (non)state actor(s) is (are) capable of doing. On the other hand, thorough investigations of cultural and ideological aspects provide insights as to the end goals and how that hard power has to be employed in order to achieve those goals at a strategic and a tactical level.

In the case of Iran, Hezbollah, and the other Shia militias currently operating within Tehran’s network – among them it is worth mentioning Saraya al-Khorasani, a formidable Iraqi militia whose logo is an exact replica of that of the IRGC – considering the apocalyptic belief inherent in Shia Islamist ideology constitutes a key-factor in grasping the rationale behind the Islamic Republic’s moves. In this regard, what the Ayatollahs might be pursuing right now is not a mere redefinition of influence and of the balance of power that would make Iran the regional hegemonic state – understood in the classic or neo-realist interpretations of international relations. Instead, the Ayatollahs could be pursuing a long game that will lead them to further export the Islamic revolution model in order to establish the conditions that will make the return of the Hidden Imam a reality they will witness in their lifetime. The interpretation of contemporary developments – as the ones discussed above – from this eschatological perspective reinforces these convictions about the Shia reawakening.

Two final considerations need to be made. First, even the most dogmatic ideologues must occasionally confront harsh realities and employ some level of flexibility in order to bend facts to their interpretation or their will. As a concrete example, one could argue that the Yemeni Ansar Allah is a Shia Zaidi (Fiver) group, a different sect from the Imamiyyah Iranian Shi’ism. Yet, cooperation between groups of different ideologies is not a novelty, nor is it the fact that such collaborations might lead to an ideological shift in one of the involved parties – the Chechens separatists becoming a jihadist movement stand as a striking instance in this regard. Secondly, the considerations regarding Shia Islamism that were discussed in this piece pertain to extremist interpretations of Islam and those who embrace it (a minority). It goes without saying that most of Shia Muslims do not embrace the views ascribed here to Shia Islamists and the ongoing protests in Iran might well prove this point.

Beyond pure realism, learning the ideological traits and eschatological beliefs held by the Iranian regime reveals additional clues about its potential long-term plans. These elements should not be neglected when analyzing Iran’s foreign policy and anticipating its moves. Just like in chess, understanding a player’s grand strategy is key to implementing the most efficient response.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of TFA’s Editorial Board.

Cover Picture: Khomeini Ayatollah’s poster on the outside walls of the former US embassy in Tehran, 2007, © Kamyar Adl / flickr