It is a given fact that the home and cradle of the Shiite Marjaia (religious leadership) is in Iraq, firstly in Baghdad and then Najaf, as it has been for centuries. By contrast, the Iranian city of Qom only emerged as a religious center for Shiites in the first quarter of the 20th century, and did not emerge as a Shiite Marjaia until after the 1979 Iranian revolution when the mullahs seized power in Tehran.
In other words, throughout history, Arab clerics, not Persians, were the Marjaia of the Shiites. After the 1979 revolution, the new theocratic regime embraced Shiites worldwide, particularly those that were geographically close. It included an article in the Iranian Constitution, which stipulated that Iran shall defend “the vulnerable.” This term is synonymous with Shiites, and is in fact another example of the regime manipulating and exploiting aspects of Shiite doctrine to appeal to Shiite Arabs while serving its own interests.
Iran has sought, through its so-called Umm Al-Qura theory, which posits Iran as the “true” religious, spiritual and political center for all Muslims, to make Qom, rather than Makkah, the capital of the Islamic world. Reality suggests that it has failed to do so. In addition, it has worked to make Qom, rather than Najaf, the global capital of Shiism. Iran was successful in wooing some Arab Shiite clerics, with Tehran providing significant support for Arabic language religious seminary education in the small city. Iran offered scholarships to many young Shiites, thus recruiting them to serve as its agents and sleeper cells across the Arab world.
Through adopting this approach, Iran was able to export its theocratic Velayat Al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) ideology and its strong nationalist Persian version to Shiites throughout the Arab world.
It has become apparent to the Iranian regime that it cannot achieve its primary expansionist objective solely by focusing on Qom and promoting it as the new global Islamic center. Tehran is now convinced that it can only attain its goal through simultaneously marginalizing and weakening the pan-Arab Shiite Marjaia across the region.
Among the Shiite figures who have been targeted and marginalized in Iraq and Lebanon are Sadeq Al-Hassani, Ahmed Al-Waeli, Abu Al-Qasim Al-Khoei, Mahmoud Al-Sarkhi, Mohammad Al-Hosseini and Seyed Ali Al-Amin.
When will the Arab Shiites deceived by Iran’s slick propaganda realize the truth?
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Iranian attempts to shift the Shiite Marjaia from Iraq to Iran and to Persianize the sect also resulted in Tehran seizing the Khoms (money tithed by Shiites) and Nazr (compensatory payments) paid by pious Arab Shiites to spend on political and sectarian agendas in the region.
Iran has recruited, trained and deployed Shiites in their own homelands across the region to serve as proxies and to act against national interests.
In this context, there is an urgent need for Shiite clerics worldwide to issue decrees criminalizing Iran’s expropriation and misuse of Khoms and Nazr or any other religious revenue streams. These funds should be spent on the poor and needy among Shiite communities rather than on bullets or bombs to serve Iran’s expansionist plans.
After pointing out all the mentioned facts, one might wonder: Can Iran solely be blamed? Speaking impartially and neutrally, I believe that it would be inaccurate to claim this. Sadly, some of us have, directly or indirectly, contributed to pushing Shiites toward the Iranian regime.
When we conflate Iran with Shiism or vice versa, this is a terrible mistake, and it serves the regime’s false claims. Not all Shiites follow Khamenei or believe in Velayat Al-Faqih. Nor do they adopt the extremist Twelver version of Shiism, which successive Iranian rulers, since the Safavid dynasty, have added to Shiism over the past five centuries. The theocratic regime that seized power in 1979 revived and entrenched this extremist version and worked to propagate it.
Logic and common sense compel us to reject any suggestion that Arab Shiites will naturally be affiliated with or sympathetic to Iran’s regime. Indeed, as we have seen in recent years, many Shiites are strongly patriotic and loyal to their homelands and are aware of the lethal danger emanating from Tehran.
It is of paramount importance that Shiites in the Arab Gulf states find suitable “clerics” (Marjias of Taqlid) in their own homelands, who they can potentially follow and trust especially regarding their Khoms and Nazr. This will shut down an important pathway for Iran to infiltrate Arab Gulf societies. These Shiites should also be informed of the terrible predicament facing Arabs and other non-Persian ethnic minorities in Ahwaz, Azerbaijan and other areas.
To conclude, the Iranian regime’s alleged support for and defense of Shiites in the region simply serves its expansionist political project to strengthen control over the region.
When will the Arab Shiites deceived by Iran’s slick propaganda realize the truth? More importantly, when will Arab Shiites reclaim the Shiite sect and liberate it from the malign extremist clutches of Iran’s regime?
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is an expert in Iranian affairs. He received his Ph.D. from Leiden University in 2014. He is the founder and chairman of Rasanah: International Institute for Iranian Studies.