Iran wants to expand its regional influence with the help of its Shiite allies. But denominational ties are weakening: the reason to take a look at the Iranian-Arab relationship.

The recent wave of protests in Iran has shown the leadership how far it has moved from parts of the population. “In order to distract from the obvious economic and political failures at home, the Islamic Republic presents itself as a lawyer for the Arab cause and is more Arab than the Arabs themselves,” according to an analysis by the magazine “Foreign Policy” in January this year. An example of this is the “Al Quds Day”, which was launched by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and is directed against the Israeli presence in East Jerusalem, particularly the terrain around the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Iran also showed solidarity after US President Donald Trump’s  deal of the century”, presented the plan for Israeli-Palestinian unification. In response, the Quds units of the Revolutionary Guards issued a text calling for resistance to the plan and praising the Palestinians that they would “stand-alone” against the plan. And Ayatollah Mohammad Movahedi-Kermani, the clergyman responsible for the Friday prayers in Tehran, described the agreement as “treason and scandal of the century”. Apart from verbal and symbolic expressions of solidarity, Iran tries to gain or expand dominant influence through alliances with mostly Shiite militias and sections of the population in neighboring countries. At the same time, many Iranians also feel the cultural closeness to their Arab brothers.annual pilgrimages to the Shiite shrines in Iraq, in which countless Iranians take part ( see article picture )

Iran Hassan Rohani President 08/02/2013 (Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images)Demonstrated for Jerusalem as an Arab city: President Hassan Rohani at “Quds” Day in Tehran, 2013

Nationalism overlaps denominational connections

However, the Iranian claim to leadership is increasingly being questioned among the Shiite population of neighboring Arab countries. The protests in Lebanon, which were originally directed against domestic political grievances, soon turned against the influence that Iran has had on Lebanese politics through Hezbollah. This criticism was soon taken up by many of the Shiites taking part in the demonstrations, who, like the Sunnis, did without religious symbols and instead waved the Lebanese national flag. This was a clear sign that denominational motives are losing their persuasive power in parts of the Arab world. It is replaced by a commitment to a united state beyond religious divisions.

In fact, many Arabs now have a pronounced national consciousness, says Iranian Rebecca Sauer, who teaches at Heidelberg University. “You can see that, for example, in the fact that many Shiites in the Arab world see themselves primarily as Arabs, who feel committed to their respective country and not to Iran. Accordingly, foreign policy alliances are based less on denominational considerations than on power politics.”

Book of the Kings of Abu l-Qasem-e Ferdousi (Imago Images / Kharbine-Tapabor)Illustration from the “Book of Kings” by the poet Firdausi, who described the time before the Arab conquest in the 10th century

“Two hundred years of silence”

Historically, the relationship between Iran and Arab conquerors has been complex. The historian Morteza Ravandi in his 1974 social history of Iran recalls the brutality of the new men. This is condensed into the disturbing image of the iron ring that they closed around the neck of Iranian farmers and then entered the number of war debts and taxes that they still owed their new master. On the other hand, the British historian Michael Axworthy states: “For the most part, the (Arab) conquest was not associated with mass murder, forced conversion, and ethnic cleansing … In general, the Arabs let the (Persian) landowners, farmers and traders continue their acquisitions as before.”

The Arab conquest of the mid-seventh century wiped out the ancient Persian institutions of the monarchy and the Zoroastrian religion, but not the Persian language. Despite “two hundred years of silence”, the title of a book by the historian Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub from 1951, Persian, including many loan words from Arabic, survived. It has “changed remarkably little since the 11th century,” writes Axworthy.

The thesis of a consistent antagonism between Arabs and Persians cannot be maintained anyway, says Rebecca Sauer, who teaches Islamic Studies at Heidelberg University. There were certainly tensions. “This is how Persians and Arabs led a famous controversy over the so-called ‘shu’ubiya’ during the Abbassid period. The basis for this is found in the Koran verses 49: 13 Tribes created so that they could get to know each other, should one take this “getting to know each other” literally? Many Persian debaters doubted it, referring to their centuries-old culture, while the Arabs declared that their religion, Islam, stood for a renewal of morality and intellectual life. “

Customs from the eleventh century

But in addition to these tensions, ambivalences, and transitions have always been shown. “The situation was mainly characterized by shades of gray,” says Rebecca Sauer. For example, the poet Abu l-Qasem-e Firdausi, who was born in the 10th century, in his “Book of Kings” had already attacked the willingness of parts of the Iranian elite towards the conquerors. “They set the minbar at the same height as the throne / And call their children Omar and Osman. Then our hard work ends in ruin / from there a long descent begins.”

The verses accuse the political opportunism of their time. At the same time, they provide a moral picture of the times ahead. “Over the centuries, both cultures – that of the Persians and that of the Arabs – have come together. One can speak of this from around the 13th century,” says Sauer. This intermingling took place only on an ideological but also on an administrative level. “So the conquerors took over the old administrative apparatus of the Sassanid Empire, and not only its structures but also its personnel.”

Sohrab Sepehri (public domain)Multicultural identity: the poet Sohrab Sepehri

“Anti-Arab reflex”

Around 1,300 years later, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last Shah, tried to establish a secular version of the Iranian monarchy. It was replaced by the system of the supremacy of the spiritual leader established by Ayatollah Khomenei after the 1979 revolution, which for many Iranians is now as ripe for disappearance as the Shah regime was then. The protests in Iran also reflect the multicultural self-confidence of many Iranians, says cultural scientist Hamid Dabashi, who is in exile in the United States. In an article for the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, he recalls the multicultural history of Iran. He quotes his compatriot, the poet Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980). In a poem, he pointed out the variety of possible origins: “

In this protest, Dabashi complains, there is also an anti-Arab reflex that he criticizes with reference to his own biography. So he had an Arabic first name and an Indian last name. This means as much as “bilingual”. The reservations about everything Arabic went back to Iranian intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Everything that appeared to them as Iranian backwardness led them back to Islam, Islam to the Arabs, and the Arabs to fanaticism and stupidity.”

Picture gallery Iran KW37 wedding (Tasnim)Iranian wedding in the sense of spiritual guidance at the tomb of the “unknown martyr”

However, many young Iranians speak out against the Arab influence in their country. So they reject weddings according to Arab tradition. Instead, they opt for an old Persian style wedding. However, the country’s moral guards do not want to accept this practice: in August last year, they prohibited non-religious weddings. Since then, ceremonies that do not recite from the Koran have been banned.


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