For Iran’s ayatollahs, money and propaganda can’t buy love
I was told an anecdote about Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps agents who were trying to convert an impoverished and remote Syrian community to Tehran’s brand of Shiism. The villagers agreed, on condition that the IRGC provided them with funding and a bus to convey their children to school several miles away. They then renounced Shiism, seized the school bus and the cash, beat up the agents and threw them out. I can’t confirm this story’s veracity, but it’s a telling allegory for how Iran’s use of money and theological propaganda in the cause of regional dominance is fated to end in failure.
We often make the mistake of focusing only on Iran’s paramilitary and terrorist activities, but Tehran’s aggressive expansionism is also manifested in diverse forms of so-called “soft power” — relentless media propaganda, economic monopolies, criminal networks, and aid dependency. These activities are underpinned by the export of Khomeinist theology, aspiring to establish populations ideologically subservient to the ayatollahs.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s militant “Wilayat Al-Faqih” doctrine bears zero resemblance to traditional Shiism, which preaches avoidance of politics and asserts that nobody can claim legitimate leadership after the disappearance of the divinely inspired Imams. The IRGC teaches its recruits that there is no difference between the supreme leader, the Prophet and the Imams, and that consequently the supreme leader has a divine responsibility to “spread Islam to other countries and regions of the world.”
A report published in Foreign Policy last week investigated the means by which Iran seeks to convert Syrians to its Khomeinist ideology, in a nation where Shiism is almost entirely absent. Hafez Assad maintained cordial relations with the ayatollahs, but kept them out of Syrian territory. His son Bashar’s catastrophic and genocidal tenure has allowed for a massive expansion of Iran’s theological activities.
Syrian paramilitaries report being promised doubled salaries if they convert to Shiism. One recruit relates how he converted “with 20 other men because all of us need money. If I am Shiite I will be paid 200,000 Syrian pounds. I really need the money because of my father’s treatment. I don’t care about religion.”
The investigation found how Iranian militias in Deir Ezzor organize weekly activities for children, including teachings about the Shiite imams. According to one local activist: “All the fun and games are a ruse to indoctrinate the minds of the children and their parents, to lure them to convert.” Theological institutions, shrines and centers for militia recruitment have also been widely established. Meanwhile, wholesale efforts at demographic engineering by Tehran and Assad include resettling the extended families of foreign militias in areas depopulated of their Sunni inhabitants.
During the 1990s Bosnian war, Iran sought to repeat its 1980s successes in establishing Hezbollah in Lebanon by engineering the “Hezbollah-ization of the Balkans.” Along with sending militants and Quds Force personnel to the Balkans, Sunni Bosnian and Kosovan fighters were brought to Iran to undergo ideological training.
Iran has built mosques and cultural centers throughout Africa with the aim of inculcating its theology. However, several governments took action after it was discovered that these institutions were fronts for paramilitary, terrorist and espionage activities. There were recent arrests in Ethiopia linked to Quds Force plots to attack UAE, US and Israeli embassies in Addis Ababa and other African states.
Iran was one of the few states that maintained close diplomatic ties with the Bashir regime in Sudan. I witnessed efforts in Khartoum to set up ideological centers among a population with no historical grounding in Shia Islam. Sudan was an important staging-post for smuggling weapons to Iran-backed militants in Palestine and various African insurgencies.
We can thus see that such ideological efforts are never primarily about Shiite evangelism, but rather creating a fertile environment for Iran to stage terrorist attacks and dominate vulnerable regions.
Everywhere that Iran has sought to exert its propaganda and soft power, these efforts have ultimately met with resentment and rejection...
Western capitals such as London and Paris have witnessed a similar surge in the establishment of Iran-affiliated “cultural” institutions for indoctrinating diaspora Muslims, along with increasingly visible religious processions and festivals. Yet assassination plots against overseas dissidents, terrorist plots and the stockpiling of explosives all demonstrate that when pro-Wilayat Al-Faqih institutions appear, Quds Force’s terrorism is never far behind.
In the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala there has been a long-running ideological confrontation between the traditional “quietist” clergy under Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s leadership, and institutions sponsored by Iran to propagate Wilayat Al-Faqih. For several years Iran was aggressively seeking to impose Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashimi Shahroudi as Sistani’s successor, until Shahroudi inconveniently died. If Iran does ultimately succeed in dictating Sistani’s successor, this would have decisive consequences for worldwide Shiism.
Iraqi Shiites recall the 1980s war with Iran and Tehran’s more recent efforts to dominate their nation, hence the innate hostility many Iraqis feel toward their neighbor. In huge protests that shook the Shiite south in recent years, Iraqi demonstrators repeatedly attacked the headquarters of Iran-backed paramilitaries who they blame for their miserable plight.
Lebanon is often presented as the textbook for successful implementation of Iran’s soft-power strategy, given how the Shiite clergy and the Hezbollah infrastructure have become closely intermeshed. Yet even here such ambitions are falling apart, with many clerics and intellectuals increasingly outspoken against Iran’s pro-Tehran agenda, and the barriers of fear crumbling among ordinary Shiites who now realize that their leaders bear responsibility for their nation’s impending demise.
Researchers often find Iranians to be among the least religious people in the region, such is their disenchantment at how religion has been exploited by their corrupt leaders. In one 2020 survey, only 32 percent of Iranians identified themselves as Shiite Muslims; about 50 percent were recorded as atheist, agnostic, humanist, spiritual, or other. Small minorities were recorded as Sunni, Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish and Bahai — indicating that the regime has a lot of evangelical work to perform at home, before it goes overseas.
Tehran’s mutant Khomeinist ideology has had a catastrophic impact in states with some of the oldest and richest cultures in the region — Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Diversity and cultural florescence have been supplanted with a black, monolithic culture of death. We Muslims all worship the same God and revere the same Prophet, yet Iran’s theological propaganda has fueled unnecessary and dangerous Sunni-Shiite tensions.
Everywhere that Iran has sought to exert its propaganda and soft power, these efforts have ultimately met with resentment and rejection — like the Syrian community who took their school bus then threw the Khomeinist agents out, the Iraqi Shiite protesters who burnt down the offices of Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Bosnian fighters who accepted Iran’s money and weapons then politely put the Quds Force agents back on planes to Tehran. The ayatollahs are everywhere discovering that money, missiles and community centers can’t buy loyalty and love.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.