In the West people generally think of the Islamic world as very ideological, and indeed it is, but the world is complex and realpolitik plays a dominant role in the Muslim sphere just as it does everywhere else. This is very much the case in the Iran-Syria relationship, the US-Iran relationship and US-Saudi relationship. The first two may be changing; the last is unlikely to change. But any movement or lack of it in these relationships will occur for reasons of realpolitik rather than for ideological or religious reasons.
The Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, whose image was constantly on television and newspapers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, went into exile from Iran in 1964. He could not live under the authoritarian Shah who was attempting a kind of autocratic modernisation as a vassal of the United States. That was never going to work and it is likely that very few ever believed it would.
Khomeini chose the city of Najaf in Iraq as his home in exile and he lived there from 1964 to 1978. Najaf is a Shia holy city second only after Mecca as a pilgrimage destination. Politically, Iraq was Ba’athist and not sympathetic to Shia Islam, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqis are Shia.
Ba’athism represented an attempt at modernisation and development and had some grounding in the political culture of the region. It was based on a mixture of socialist ideas and pan-Arab nationalism, its theoretical objective being a united Arab state. The only other place where the Ba’athists achieved power was in Syria, but the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists fell out in 1966 following a political upheaval in Syria. In Iraq the ruling Ba’athist party was dominated by Sunni Muslims, who favoured their own group over the Shias who in turn looked towards Iran for religious succour. In Syria, on the other hand, the Ba’athists were dominated by members of the Alawite sect, which was critical of Sunni Islam.
Iranians are not Arabs, whereas the Iraqi Shias are Mesopotamian Arabs and while well disposed towards Iran did not wish to become Iranian clients. They were always anxious to re-establish religious autonomy and the religious status of Najaf, which they did in 2003 following the collapse of Ba’athism in Iraq. At one point during the dissolution of Iraq it looked as if Iran was well placed to extend its borders to the west. Ethnic differences between Shias would have been one of the factors weighing against that development.
In Iraq Saddam made life difficult for Khomeini and the Iranian mullah decided to leave Najaf in 1978. Syria was an obvious choice because the Ba’athists there hated Saddam and it was close to Iran. In the end Khomeini chose France, returning to Iran in triumph when the Shah was overthrown.
The new Islamic republic in Iran was certainly ideological in its utterances at that time but nevertheless became a strategic ally of Ba’athist Syria, which was led by the Assads who, though clients of the Russians, resembled the Shah in their authoritarian style of government. Syria welcomed the alliance and was the only Arab country to condemn Saadam’s invasion of Iran. The Assads belong to the Alawite minority, which is close to Shia thinking, on the fundamental division between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
When the Shia Hizbullah militia was established in 1982 in Lebanon following the Israeli invasion it became an Iranian client and looked positively on Iran’s Syrian ally. Over a thousand exhausted Hezbollah soldiers are now fighting for Assad in Syria and their efforts have done much to buoy up his regime.
In 1997 Iran had attempted to pull back from Hizbullah, but when in 2002 the US included Iran in its axis of evil category that development ceased. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office in 2005, support for Hizbullah and Syria was increased.
The recent “Arab Spring” caused diplomatic stretching in Tehran which denounced the revolt in Syria but supported those in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. On the face of it that looks like a contradiction. In that period Iran moved closer to the Muslim Brotherhood and distanced itself even further from US ally Saudi Arabia, which condemns the Brotherhood and supported the coup against Morsi. The Gulf states are reported to have given twelve billion dollars to the Egyptian military as a thank you for overthrowing the Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia itself has been angered by the US refusal to denounce the Brotherhood. The possibility of a more general realignment in the region has left the Saudis, whose interests are conservative, quite worried and not least by what the US might do.
Iran, it seems, does not feel secure relying on its friendship with a crumbling Syrian regime, nor does it enjoy the experience of economic decline which has followed from UN-approved sanctions. The election of Rohani, who seeks to normalise relations with the Gulf states and the US, can be seen as a reaction within Iran to the possibility of further isolation.
In case the new direction is not clear his foreign minister tweeted a happy new year message to Jews around the world. Iran also indirectly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, so it seems the writing is on the wall for the Assad in terms of the thinking in Tehran. Hizbullah may also want out. They are supporting the proposed peace conference and this in turn may reflect the change in Tehran’s thinking. Asaad’s days may be numbered but Iran will not want a pro- Sunni replacement.
See “Is Iran for Turning”, Ali Mohtadi. Le Monde Diplomatique 04/10/2013