Iran’s Sway Undermined by Sunni-Shiite Split

Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran tried to cast itself as the leader of the entire Muslim world, and not just of its own minority Shiite sect.

Fanning hostility to the American “Great Satan” and to the “Little Satan” of Israel has been a core part of that strategy—which, for a while, did win Iran and its Shiite proxies the admiration of millions of Sunnis.

But now, as Iran negotiated Tuesday’s historic deal with the U.S. and other world powers that would curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for eased international sanctions, it operated in a radically altered environment. Today’s Islamic Republic stands isolated outside the Shiite-dominated areas, its regional standing undermined by four years of upheaval that split the Middle East along deepening sectarian lines.

In fact, many Sunnis in the region have come to see Iran as the biggest of all the satans, spooked by the rising clout of Tehran and its Shiite allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. That hostility is felt far beyond the sectarian zealots of Islamic State, who consider the destruction of the Shiites even more important than combating the West.

In a recent opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 8% of Jordanians and 17% of Turks held a favorable view of Iran, down from 49% and 53% respectively in 2006. Iran’s favorable rating was 5% among the Sunnis of Lebanon—exactly the same as among the citizens of its archenemy Israel. Even among Palestinians, whose cause Tehran has championed for decades, 57% hold negative views of Iran versus 34% with a favorable opinion.

“They are not seen by the Arab world as a revolutionary Muslim power. They are seen as a Shiite power,” said Nicholas Burns, professor of international relations at Harvard who served as chief U.S. nuclear negotiator with Iran. “The Iranians are in danger of overplaying their hand here, and they have united the moderate Arabs against them.”

In a way, that change in perceptions is a strategic victory for Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival for regional influence. Riyadh’s way of offsetting Iran’s attempts to export the Islamic Revolution has always been to maintain that Iran, by virtue of being Shiite, can only speak on behalf of a small minority of Muslims. The recent triumphalist statements of Iranian officials about Tehran’s unprecedented influence in Baghdad, Beirut or San’a have only played into Saudi hands.

“Saudi Arabia has an interest in depicting Iran in a sectarian light because, if it succeeds, it effectively marginalizes Iran for 90% of the Muslim world,” said Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. “And, at times, the Iranian rhetoric has done nothing but exacerbate fears in the Sunni world while associating Iran and its symbols with one sect.”

The inherent conflict between Iran’s nature as a Shiite theocracy in an overwhelmingly Sunni region and its pan-Islamic aspirations was present ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in 1979.

The Islamic Republic’s new constitution defined the Twelver sect of Shiite Islam as the country’s official religion. It gave supreme leadership over Muslims to a cleric—currently Mr. Khomeini’s successor Ali Khamenei—“pending the occultation” of the 12th Shiite imam who disappeared in the ninth century.

The same constitution said Iran must strive for the political, economic and cultural unity of the entire Muslim world. As part of that outreach, Mr. Khomeini curbed the Shiite sectarian rhetoric that Sunnis saw as offensive and became the standard-bearer of the Palestinian cause, with the annual Jerusalem Day calling for the destruction of Israel becoming one of Iran’s main public celebrations.

While using the Shiite minorities to assert power in Lebanon and to destabilize Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Iran was also highly pragmatic. In the conflict between its neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, Tehran tilted toward Christian Armenia rather than backing Azerbaijan, a fellow Shiite-majority nation governed by a secularist regime friendly to Israel.

“You cannot reduce Iran’s motives to simply sectarianism,” said Mansour Farhang, who served as revolutionary Iran’s first ambassador to the United Nations and now teaches international relations at Bennington College in Vermont. “Sectarianism as an ideology is a tool at the service of power. It can always be sacrificed if power-oriented objectives need to be reached.”

In this quest beyond its Shiite roots, revolutionary Iran has always tried to build bonds with Sunni political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots.

Mr. Khamenei, for one, has personally translated into Persian the writings of the Brotherhood’s seminal ideologue, Sayyid Qutb. Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was a client of Iran’s since the 1990s, as was overwhelmingly Sunni Sudan.

All these alliances, however, began to crumble in the wake of the Arab Spring. Hamas’s relationship with Iran was made unsustainable by Iran’s involvement against Sunni rebels—many of them belonging to the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—in the Syrian war. Even Sudan, the one-time conduit for Iranian weapons to Hamas and a major recipient of Iranian military aid, switched sides and backed Saudi Arabia in this year’s war against pro-Iranian Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Iran still seeks to be a leader, to have an influence that spans wider than the Shiites,” said Seyed Ali Fadlullah, one of the most senior Shiite clerics in Lebanon. “But the question is—is it achievable? It has certainly become more difficult for Iran to dominate the Muslim sphere in the way that it had imagined and desired.”

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