Iran is reshaping its role as a regional leader in the Middle East.
In February, the Islamic Republic celebrated the 38th year of the revolution. Soon after the Iranian Revolution succeeded in 1979, the new regime had two missions: providing support for oppressed populations — especially Shia minorities — in the Middle East and the world and purifying the system from unwanted elements loyal to the shah, the West and the Soviet Union.
To mobilize the masses, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, presented his message through a bricolage — with the goal of mobilizing accepted structures for new purposes under the Islamic regime. As Ray Takeyh points out, a majority of post-revolution Iranians accepted the idea that “religion and traditional values should play a greater role” in political and social order. By crafting a message that rang true to popular claims, Khomeini was able to present an appealing idealism around the dream of a Shia Iran taking its rightful place as a Middle Eastern power — and, tagging along behind the dream, the future goal of exporting the Islamist revolution to other nations.
Like many far-right-leaning revolutionary leaders, Khomeini’s idealism manifested itself in two tasks: “internal cleansing” and “external expansion.” Whereas the former aims at refashioning a society, the latter’s goal is territorial expansion and/or establishing an ethnic/religious-based hegemonic power. Within the Islamic Republic, the regime’s paramilitary organization — the Basij — is mainly responsible for carrying out the first mission, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) — especially its Quds Force — is responsible for fulfilling the second.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran had five goals to achieve, as stated by its current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: the revolution, formation of the Islamic system, formation of the Islamic state, formation of the Islamic nation and formation of the Islamic civilization. Iran’s revolutionary elites, including General Aziz Jafari (the general commander of the IRGC), believe that the regime is in transition from phase three (the Islamic state) to phase four (the Islamic nation).
Exporting the Revolution
With the goals of establishing ideological and cultural strengths to expand geographically, the Islamic Republic has relied on radical and militia groups of various kinds. Shia groups especially saw the Shia leadership in Tehran as a positive movement toward resolving their frustrations with their respective governments.
It is toward this goal of fostering ideological roots that the IRGC’s Office of Liberation Movements was formed, and in 1980 the IRGC stated that: “Our Islamic Revolution initiated a renaissance … The leader of the Revolution, Imam Khomeini, called on all oppressed masses to form a global party … This Revolution is the continuation of the prophets’ paths … May we celebrate justice across the world soon.” The Islamic Republic’s transmission of the revolution is based on two strategies: destabilizing geographical neighbors, such as assisting Shia groups to revolt against Saddam Hussain in Iraq, and projecting power, like training militia and radical groups in Bosnia, or training resistance forces in Syria and Iraq.
Syria remains an important strategic asset for Tehran. Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, a Syrian branch of the Basij force has been formed to counter Sunni opposition groups, and Syrian troops have received training from the Quds Force. IRGC elites believe that Syria can be pinpointed as the new resistance front for opposition to the United States and its allies. In 2015, Tehran added Yemen to its battlefield, where the regime’s hardliners firmly believe plays a key role in the second return of the Mahdi — the Shia savior and the 12th Imam.
A cultural revolution, as is historically typical in a revolutionary movement, soon followed the totalitarian ideology of Khomeini’s idealism. Academic institutions were first purged (all university campuses were closed between 1981-1984), and then restructured to foster revolutionary and Islamic values.
Believing in Shia Iranians, whose sacrifice and martyrdom facilitated the second return of the Mahdi, Khomeini initiated cultural programs to purify not only the educational system, but also every arena of Iranian cultural engagement — even sports — to remove any oppositional element of the Islamic training and influence on the hearts and minds of the people.
In December 1984, Khomeini ordered the establishment of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution. The SCCR is a dominantly conservative organization operating out of the religious city of Qom. Most members of the organization were appointed by Khamenei, and the group’s decisions can be overruled only by Iran’s supreme leader. Some of its main responsibilities are: to expand the influence of Islamic culture in all arenas of Iranian society, with the goal to transcend the nation’s general culture; to purify all educational and cultural centers from Western influence and negative materialism; to preserve Islamic and national heritage; and to advocate for the cultural legacy and impact of the Islamic Revolution and strengthen its cultural influence on the rest of the world, especially in Islamic nations.
In a statement issued on its 31st anniversary, the council announced: “Since the emergence of the Islamic Revolution to its victory, and consolidation of the sacred system of the Islamic Republic, ‘culture’ has been the core of the uprising of the great nation of Iran against the dictatorship. … There is no doubt that today’s war is amongst cultures. … It is in such critical times that the Council as the cultural headquarters of the state should show its critical role. … and build strong dams to block the ‘influence’ of enemy.”
The Islamic Republic identifies culture as the core of its ideological system and perceives a soft war against its cultural values as more serious than conventional war. “Culture is the foundation of a nation,” Khomeini indicated, “the core of its identity. The bedrock of a nation’s independence.” To transcend the life of Iranians, the current supreme leader instructed the establishment of two centers: the Cultural Engineering Council (est. 2007) and Center for the Islamic-Iranian Model of Progress (est. 2011).
Cultural Engineering of the Nation
The Secretariat of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution published a document referred to as the “cultural engineering map of the country” in 2013, which serves as the cultural policy blueprint of the regime. Khamenei defines cultural engineering as “redesigning, reforming, purification and transcending of affairs and relations of cultural, social, political, and economic systems of the country” in a way that reflects native Islamic-Iranian values.
This process aims to create or radically alter a system of beliefs, core ideas, values, customs and behavioral patterns related to different layers of culture: national (Shia-Iranian), general and professional (teachers, merchants, clergy, politicians, etc.). According to this document, in addition to domestic entities, any institution within Iran’s jurisdiction according to international law is subject to compliance with this cultural program. In addition to geographical territory, this process covers the cyberspace, which is under the control and authority of the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s cultural engineering map is even more ambitious, targeting the following segments:
1. Citizens of the Islamic Republic
2. State’s institutions and organizations
3. Farsi-speaking communities
4. The Islamic world
5. Regional countries with strong common cultural, historical and political ties
6. Countries with close political, cultural and economic ties with the Islamic Republic
7. Governments and groups that plan organized economic, cultural and political activities directing the Islamic Republic’s interests
8. Regional and international organizations
9. The international community
To achieve its goals, this map identifies 10 priorities, including Islamic Iranian and revolutionary identity centered on a culture of sacrifice, martyrdom and loyalty to the institution of Velayat-e Faghih (Supreme Rule of the Jurist), Islamic-Iranian family patterns and the Islamic-Iranian way of life.
In addition, other important areas targeted by the map are art, soft power and developing a discourse for advocating a new Islamic civilization spreading awareness of Islamic principles and confronting hegemonic forces that may arise to contend with this plan.
Ayatollah Khamenei believes Western civilization, and Europe in particular, is facing “cultural decay” and it is time to confront its hegemonic influence. While meeting with experts and the leadership cadre of the Center for the Islamic-Iranian Model of Progress, he argued that designing a lifestyle pattern based on Islamic-Iranian values is a rich, long-term project that cannot be achieved without developing a proper discourse to engage all walks of life and social arenas. Identifying the new Islamic civilization as the final product of the revolution, Khamenei emphasized that the Islamic-Iranian way of life is an epilogue to that civilization.
Building an Islamic Civilization
To identify the importance of youth education, Khamenei has said that to achieve the new Islamic civilization “we must foster a revolutionary generation that is brave, educated, faithful, innovative, pioneering, zealous and self-aware.”
Mosques in Iran are not merely places of worship, in Khamenei’s perspective; that is only their secondary role. They are places for resistance and bases for cultivating and developing cultural activities, cultural guidance and cultural insights. Disappointed in Islamic politicians, Khamenei’s hope these days rests on intellectuals and clergymen.
The Islamic Republic’s new regional order — based on a phantom formation of civilization — will escalate the sectarian conflicts that began in 2006. Domestically, the regime’s Shia expansionism will result in more human rights violations, especially against religious and ethnic minorities.
In recent years, the new Islamic civilization objectives have entered academic and public debates and discourse. In an academic debate on the state media (on the Zavieh show), Ghassem Pour Hassan, a philosophy professor of Allameh University, contended that “the Islamic civilization is a reality, meaning it has within itself philosophy, rationality, science, a social system and a way of life.” Specifically, Pour Hassan identified the peak of civilization’s formation, according to Hegel, is the formation of the state.
“Civilization is a lived experience — it belongs to a nation, a land, in a specific geography and history. The main component of a civilization is rationality,” says Pour Hassan, defining civilization as accumulation of superior rationality, as superior knowledge and science, as a superior society, as a kind of state formation that formulates a superior power.
Iranian culture, Pour Hassan goes on to discuss, must find distinct ways of answering questions. Iran cannot imitate Western civilization, as it cannot answer the unique problems of Iranian civilization conclusively. In addition, he claims that failures in some economic, political and social areas are due to Iran’s imitation of the Western model. Rather, Iranians need a new form of civilization, although this does not necessary imply that it must confront the West. Iran’s goal for the rebirth or reconstruction of Islamic civilization is, according to Pour Hassan, by no means abstract, but rather a concrete reality. Iran is actively moving toward an organized complexity, with its own understanding of lifestyle and salvation.
Rooted in German tradition and literature, Pour Hassan’s definition of civilization is centered on the concept of Bildungsroman — coordination and unification of an individual’s identity within the broader society. In Shia-Iranian context, the new Islamic civilization is built when Iranian self is unified in a world of Shiism. This Shia-Iranian-centered civilization formation leads into the heart of an argument proposed by Mousa Najafi.
Najafi, a university professor and head of the Islamic Culture, Civilization & Revolution Department at the Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, in his book The Superior Civilization defines the new Islamic civilization and contrasts it against modernity and its main tenets — liberal democracy, globalization and secularism. He argues that the revolution of 1979 connects the early Islamic civilization (8th–10th centuries, aka Islamic Renaissance) to the ultimate Islamic civilization, which will be built by the Mahdi, the 12th Shia Imam.
Najafi argues that a religion-based political system such as the Islamic Republic cannot endure in the absence of a civilization that supports it. The regime’s ideology stresses vitalism over material interests. Distinguishing between Western civilization and the new Islamic civilization, Najafi notes that, for the West, the cultural goal is to reach the absolute and utmost degree of liberty possible and, when this goal is achieved, the progress stops. But for Islamic civilization, the goal is for an individual to transcend to a God-like figure and, since this goal is out of reach, progress never ends.
In other words, these Islamic Republic intellectuals believe that the concept of civilization is embedded in Shia doctrine and it will manifest itself in the global government of Mahdi. Thus, they reject the possibility of a civilization formed under Sunni Islam or one formed in countries either without a prior history in creating a civilization or without civic participation, in an absence of democracy. The Islamic Republic is not itself a democracy, yet it is interesting how these scholars perceive Iran as a harbinger of a new Islamic civilization, where religious exclusivism and cultural censorship restrict dissent and oppress civil society.
Toward A New Regional Order
After World War II and through 1991, stability was internationally maintained by the balance of the two hegemonic powers in existence, the United States and the former Soviet Union. At the close of the Cold War, large segments of the world’s population have been left to their own defenses. As David Lake argues, regional conflicts generally stay regional and are responses to unique regional circumstances. Great powers, especially the US, are still able to intervene, but their support for local clients and conflict regulation assistance has decreased.
This power vacuum in the Middle East provided the Islamic Republic with a great opportunity to expand its support for Shia groups across the region. The rise of a Shia government to power in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein through a US-led invasion in 2003 resulted in a Shia awakening across the region, as Vali Nasr has proposed: The war in Iraq destabilized the ruling Sunni minority. Shias were suddenly empowered and, with the first Arab Shia government in history, a Shia revival began to spread quickly outward from Iraq. One could even say that the ongoing rise of sectarianism is a direct result of the revival of Shia growth, which is a direct result of the fall of the Hussein regime in Iraq.
Five years ago, Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman, in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, warned about the Islamic Republic’s intervention in its neighbors’ domestic affairs, as well as the support it was lending to militia groups. In March, Lawrence Haas, of American Foreign Policy Council, raised similar concerns about Iran’s new boldness. Earlier in February, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the former editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, proposed the formation of an Arab NATO to confront Iran’s influence.
The Islamic Republic’s vision of a new Islamic civilization is closer to a Volksgeist — “a set of customs and a lifestyle, a way of perceiving and behaving that is of value solely because it is their own,” as Isiah Berlin defines the term; a Shia Volksgeist, with core tenets based on Shia-Iranian values and lifestyle, an aesthetic ideology stripped of pragmatism.
What we might witness in the years to come is emergence of a Shia hegemonic power, the major beneficiaries of which, due to its ideological origin — nativism, monism and expansionism — are Iran’s local Shia clients, as well as those who seek to balance their powers by sending tribute to or making alliances with the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Republic’s new regional order — based on a phantom formation of civilization — will escalate the sectarian conflicts that began in 2006. Domestically, the regime’s Shia expansionism will result in more human rights violations, especially against religious and ethnic minorities.
What is unfolding in the Middle East is the rise of a regional order, with attributes similar in various ways to both World War II and the Cold War, but neither appeasement nor containment is a valid response. Is the US ready for this new regional order?
Unfortunately, President Barack Obama failed to develop a strategic doctrine for the Middle East prior to the Iran Nuclear Deal, despite warnings from Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. This failure to act resulted not only in Iran’s role expansion in the region, but it also initiated America’s more recent philosophical trend toward isolationism, as Thomas H. Henriksen has argued.
What is unfolding in the Middle East is the rise of a regional order, with attributes similar in various ways to both World War II and the Cold War, but neither appeasement nor containment is a valid response. Is the US ready for this new regional order? And what is the US response? These are the important questions for the new administration.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Leonid Andronov