‘Iran the Protector’

Iran executes more people than any country except China. Many victims are Ahwazi Arabs or from other minorities. Many are political dissidents. And many, of course, are Shia Muslims.

This was published at al-Araby al-Jadeed/ the New Arab.

I recently gave a talk in a radical bookshop in Scotland. The talk was about my and Leila al-Shami’s “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, a book which aims to amplify grassroots Syrian revolutionary voices and perspectives. My talk was of course critical of the Iranian and Russian interventions to rescue the Assad regime.

During the question and answer session afterwards, a young man declared: “You’ve spoken against Iran. You’ve made a good case. But the fact remains, Iran is the protector of Shia Muslims throughout the region.”

In reply I asked him to consider the Syrian town of al-Qusayr at two different moments: summer 2006 and summer 2013.

During the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled south Lebanon and south Beirut – the Hizbullah heartlands where Israeli strikes were fiercest – and sought refuge inside Syria. Syrians welcomed them into their homes, schools and mosques. Several thousand were sheltered in Qusayr, a Sunni agricultural town between Homs and the Lebanese border.

It made no difference that most of these refugees were Shia Muslims. They were just Muslims, and Arabs, and they were paying the price of a resistance war against Israeli occupation and assault. That’s how they were seen.

Their political leadership was also widely admired. The kind of people who would resist the pressure to pin up posters of Hafez or Bashaar al-Assad might still raise Hassan Nasrallah’s picture. During the 2006 war, very many Syrians of all backgrounds donated money to the refugees and to Hizbullah itself. The famous actress Mai Skaf was one such benefactor.

How quickly things changed. By 2012 Mai Skaf was embroiled in an online war with Hizbullah. “I collected 100,000 liras for our Lebanese brethren who fled the July 2006 war to Syria,” she posted on Facebook, “bought them TV sets and satellite dishes to follow what was happening in their countries, and bought their children shoes and pajamas. Now I am telling Hassan Nasrallah that I regret doing that and I want him to either withdraw his thugs from Syria or give me back my money.”

Which brings us to the second moment for comparison: summer 2013. Throughout May, hundreds of Hizbullah fighters led a devastating assault on Qusayr. Because they were local men defending their homes, the Free Syrian Army were able to resist the onslaught for weeks, but were finally defeated. A Shia flag was then hung over the town’s main Sunni mosque, a signal of sectarian conquest. Shortly afterwards the regime burnt the Homs Land Registry, and Alawi and Shia families were invited to occupy homes abandoned by the families of Qusayr.

So a militia designed to resist foreign occupation became an occupier itself. The supposed assistant of the oppressed became the fighting arm of the oppressor. In Shia symbology, Hizbullah, rather than defending Hussain, was serving Yazeed.

The backlash hit fast. Qusayr fell on June 5th. On June 11th 60 Shia, most civilians, were massacred at Hatla in Deir al-Zor.

Why did Hizbullah intervene against the Syrian revolution? Various excuses were offered up: to protect the Lebanese borders, or to protect the shrine of the Prophet’s grandaughter Zainab outside Damascus. None of them explained Hizbullah’s participation in battles as far afield as Hama or Aleppo. Why would Nasrallah choose to infuriate Lebanese Sunnis, to make Lebanese Shia targets of sectarian revenge attacks, to deplete and downgrade his anti-Zionist fighting force?

From a Lebanese perspective, it makes no sense. And as a community, the Lebanese Shia could have taken a very different line. In 2012, for instance, the respected Shia leader Sayyed Hani Fahs called on Lebanese Shia to “support the Arab uprisings… particularly the Syrian [one] which will triumph, God willing… Among the [factors] that guarantee a [good] future for us in Lebanon is for Syria to be stable, free, and ruled by a democratic, pluralist and modern state.”

But still Hizbullah steered its constituency away from revolutionary solidarity and into a deadly embrace with the Assad regime. Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, who led Hizbullah between 1989 and 1991, blamed Iran: “I was secretary general of the party,” he said, “and I know that the decision is Iranian, and the alternative would have been a confrontation with the Iranians. I know that the Lebanese in Hizbullah, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah more than anyone, are not convinced about this war. … Iran and Hizbullah bear responsibility for every Syrian killed, every tree felled, and every house destroyed.”

Iranian counter-revolutionary policy not only uses Arab Shia as cannon fodder, but bears huge responsibilty too for the anti-Shia backlash on the Syrian battlefield and in regional public opinion. The Iranian state, therefore, is not a protector of Arab Shia but a threat to their security and wellbeing.

Likewise in Iraq, where before the 2003 invasion and occupation a third of marriages were cross-sect Sunni Shia. Today, after the civil war’s ethnic cleansing, and with ISIS facing not a unified Iraqi army but a collection of Iran-backed Shia militias, it’s hard to see how the country’s sectarian relations can ever be healed. The Iranian state’s undue influence on Iraq’s military and political life has helped strangle both communal coexistence and the possibility of democracy. And Iranian officials openly boast their imperialism. “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution,” Ali Reza Zakani, an MP close to Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, said last year (he was referring to Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad).

Of course, more players than just Iran are responsible for Iraq’s dysfunction. The United States must be blamed for the occupation, and the Saddam Hussain regime which fanned sectarianism to divide and rule, specifically to put down the 1991 southern uprising. Sectarian TV channels from the Gulf don’t help. And historically, the British and French states did their fair share of damage (and sectarian engineering) during the post-Ottoman carve-up.

None of these states protected people. And this is because they are states.

The young man who spoke up for Iran wasn’t a Shia Muslim. He was a Catholic, he said, who’d grown up in the Gulf. And he was also a leftist.

But this is something that leftists, when they were internationalists, once understood: states are designed to protect the property, position and privilege of the various elites which run them, not to safeguard the interests of ordinary people. This means Iran is not the protector of the Shia, Saudi Arabia is not the protector of the Sunnis, and Israel is not the protector of the Jews. Need it be said that the Assad regime is the deadliest enemy of Alawis?

5 thoughts on “‘Iran the Protector’”

  1. “Of course, more players than just Iran are responsible for Iraq’s dysfunction. The United States must be blamed for the occupation,…” This sums the real essence of this so-called ‘critical perspective. How can Iran be put as the top culprit for Iraq’s sad state now? Iran-Iraq war, First Gulf War, Second Gulf War, … who initiated them, just like Iraqi state, the Islamic state of Iran were also used, manipulated by grand imperial plans led by the US global strategy. Who can deny this? Taking sides in this current fight is nothing but repeating the propaganda of the US neo-imperial propaganda. States and states, but one state, among others, is the hegemonic state, empire-state, with much more power and control over the rest. This is the result of the existing hierarchical structure of the global inter-state system. The world changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. But the US continues to employ the same neo-imperial hub-and-spokes system and the same instruments of divide and rule to achieve its political ends. Once upon a time, you could trace a country’s imperial reach by counting its colonies. In the current neo-imperial version, colonies have become military bases and theaters of war from which imperial interests can be projected and protected.

    1. I fear you have misunderstood me. I am not taking the side of one state against the other. The article was trying to say just that: I’m refusing to take any state’s side.
      And the reason I named Iran first when I came to Iraq is because I was writing an article about Iran. Then I also laid blame at the feet of the Americans and Saddam Hussain, and others. The US and Saddam Hussain are as guilty as Iran, sure. And of course the US and Iran have worked to gether on this. Currently the US is providing anti-ISIS air cover in Iraq for Iran-backed Shia militias as well as the Iraqi army. But I don’t agree with your simplistic idea of imperialism as a system entirely controlled by the United States. The world is more multipolar than that. Your vision also robs people in the countries we’re talking about of their agency – people at the grassroots as well as tyrants at the top. It’s absurd to think that Saddam was only an Americanpawn. Sometimes his own interests aligned with US imperial interests, sometimes they didn’t.

      1. Thank you for this explanation, but I think you’re basically repeating with different words the same point which I criticized in the first place — “The US and Saddam Hussain are as guilty as Iran”! My point is that the complicated structure of power relations over the Middle Eastern affairs, and in the world generally, are directly and intimately linked to the hierarchical power structure existing globally. And if you agree with this general premise on the global inter-state system, then it will be absurd to mention regional powers (let it be Iran or Iraq, or any other regional state) and the global hegemon at the same level. Throughout recent history, the oil-rich regions of the Middle East have played a key role in determining US foreign policy. In order to continue growing, the US-dominated world capitalist economy needs plenty of cheap and readily available oil. The Middle East supplied 22 per cent of U.S. oil imports, 36 per cent of OECD Europe’’s, 40 per cent of China’’s, 60 per cent of India’’s, and 80 per cent of Japan’’s and South Korea’’s in 2006. But this dimension cannot be reduced solely to matters of economic prosperity, even though it represents a part. Above all, the oil dimension in US foreign policy is a strategic one.The oil of the Middle East came to play a central role in the rise and continuation of the hegemonic position of the US. When a hegemonic power imposes its political and economic authority over a region, it does so in relation to its allies and its local protégés, so comes the shifting alliances with regional powers. Through its influence over the oil-rich regimes in the region, the US has consolidated its strategic presence in the Middle East, by effectively controlling the ‘‘global oil spigot’’. This seems also an effective way to ward off any competition for the top position in the global hierarchy as all its competitors are heavily dependent on this essential source, oil, coming from the Middle East. The politicization and concentration in the Middle East of the oil business went hand in glove with the region’s commercialization, privatization, and concentration in the same region of the global arms trade. From the early 1970s onwards, the Middle East becomes the world’’s chief importer of weaponry, taking the lead from South-East Asia. In this way, a good large amount of that oil income, petro-dollars, started to be put in spent on buying armaments and hence turned into weapon-dollars. Tensions in the region, wars and civil wars and interventions, create the necessary conditions for a type of dollar recycling based on arms trade. If history provides any reliable course-guide to the future, the present century will more and more be marked by further new wars for this still very significant but increasingly scarce natural resource in the region.

        1. No, I don’t agree with your notion of one global hegemon. I actually think it’s rather absurd. the US competes with other imperialists – Russia, China, Iran, etc… The US isn’t ‘in charge of’ countries like Saudi Arabia. This is a far too simplistic understanding of the world, and it isn;t at all accurate. The middle east isn’t ‘the global oil spigot’ in the same way it was – the US is self-sufficient, now we have fracking, etc. Even the 2003 Iraq inb=vasion was (famously) hubristic. In other words, Bush and friends dramatically overestimated US power and believed they could rearrange Iraq with impunity. Then they lost the war, economically anf politically. The American public and ruling class know this. Anyway, I won’t go on, except to repeat that your vision of ‘one empire’ is, I think, very inaccurate indeed. It also doesn’t help explain all the enormous ructions in the systems we’re seeing now, all the squabbling between people that are meant to be US allies, etc…

          1. Robin,
            I think this debate is going quite well. Even though I do not agree with your reading of the global system, I’ve found your views really interesting and thought-provoking. I propose we can continue this debate by writing longer articles in Pulse, on the global power structure(s), global hegemon (s), and the situation in the Middle East. I can also put this debate in the GlobalFaultlines, which I edited, https://globalfaultlines.wordpress.com/. I think there is a real need for such a debate, as you can see many different view points on specific regional conflicts are stemmed from different readings of the global situation. I’m sure once we started others join too.
            All the best

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