Tehran Blames Regional Sectarianism on US but Encourages it at Home

Subsequent reports have only added to potential concerns about the anti-Western nature of this alliance. For instance, the Jerusalem Post pointed out on Tuesday that Khamenei had utilized the Russian leader’s visit as an outlet for the continuation of his marked increase in rhetoric directed at the US and its allies.

Khamenei asserted that “the Americans have a long-term plot and are trying to dominate Syria and then the whole region.” He added, “This is a threat to all countries, especially Russia and Iran.”

The US has thus far maintained its policy calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad from the Syrian presidency as part of a political solution to that country’s civil war. In recent international security conferences held in Vienna, Iranian delegates categorically rejected this proposition, noting that they would not consider any alternative to their close ally, Assad.

Western policymakers have reportedly been looking to Russia to possibly soften its position in defense of Assad, even if Iran will not do so. Russian officials have intimated that they may be willing to help constrain Iran if a political compromise is reached, but they have also said they will not accept Assad’s removal as a precondition.

Putin’s visit to Tehran seems to signify the Iranian regime’s efforts to counteract Western courtship of a Russian compromise. Russia, meanwhile, has given no clear sign of rejecting these efforts. In fact, a previous Jerusalem Post report pointed out that Khamenei and Putin had agreed that the West must not “impose its will” on Syria.

The danger that an Iranian-Russia alliance poses to the West is increased by the fact that it also includes the existing Syrian regime and much of the Iraqi government. And it seems clear that Tehran is engaged in efforts to further stoke resentment of the West in those regions, too. It is accomplishing this both through its support for hardline Syrian militias and terrorist groups like Hezbollah in those countries civil wars, and through the spread of the aforementioned rhetoric.

Arab News reported on Tuesday that Khamenei had spoken to Iraqi President Fouad Massoum on the sidelines of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum Summit and had levied accusations against the US regarding its Iraq policy. Khamenei suggested that American policymakers “consider Iraq as their personal property” and are conspiring to increase sectarian divisions within the country.

But as Arab News pointed out, it is generally understood that Iran’s influence in Iraq has been one of the greatest, if not the greatest contributor to recent sectarian divisions. The rise of Iranian-affiliated Shiite militias has driven more and more Sunnis to see the Islamic State militant group as perhaps the only safe haven for Sunnis in the country, especially in light of the removal of most Sunnis from positions of power by former Iraqi Prime Minister and Iran ally Nouri al-Maliki.

Iran is widely recognized as using such sectarian divisions in service of its own ends and its region-wide propaganda. What’s more, these efforts are not limited to the Sunni-Shiite divide, but also include divisions between Iran’s Persian Shiite majority and a number of ethnic and religious minorities.

This topic was explored on Tuesday in an editorial published in the Eurasia Review. It explored the Iranian regime’s treatment of its ethnic Turkish minority in the context of recent protests by Azerbaijani Turks stemming from insulting portrayals in a children’s television program broadcast on Iranian state television. The article suggested that these portrayals and the resulting protests are among the most recent consequences of a longstanding effort by Iranian leaders to encourage perceptions of a single Iranian identity. This project relies on the marginalization of minority groups, especially when they assert a separate identity, which is viewed as a national security threat.

The editorial concluded by saying that the singular Shiite cultural identity is in decline, but the regime has only responded by stepping up its marginalization efforts and attempting to delegitimize cultural activists by portraying them as Israeli or American spies.

This trend has been highlighted repeatedly in recent weeks as Iranian authorities and especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have continued their crackdown on free expression and free association, apparently in response to expectations that Iran will open up to the wider world in the wake of the July 14 nuclear agreement. At least five Iranian journalists were arrested on November 2 and accused of being part of a vaguely-defined influence network with its source in the US.

Such arrests go hand-in-hand with Khamenei’s anti-Western rhetoric and direct attacks upon US identity or affiliation, as in the case of the recently confirmed conviction of Washington Post journalist and American-Iranian dual citizen Jason Rezaian.

An article published on Tuesday in Business Insider examined Rezaian’s case and compared it to that of Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was famously arrested and tortured in the wake of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement. Bahari claims that people like him and Rezaian tend to be arrested not on the basis of any perceived crimes but simply on the basis of what they represent.

In the case of both journalists, their Iranian citizenship combined with foreign connections and professional prominence allowed the IRGC to send a message to all other Iranians, especially those working for independent media. That message is that any difference with the regime’s positions and identity can make one a target for reprisal, from which almost no one is protected when working inside the country.

Persons observing Rezaian’s situation may be compelled to avoid establishing connections with Western entities for fear that they too will be marked as not fitting within the regime’s preferred identity. Meanwhile, those who already agree with hardline hatred of foreign identities can direct that hatred at targets chosen by the regime.

This aspect of Iran’s identity politics is clearly operating both domestically and internationally. In addition to expressing his anti-Western rhetoric to the likes of the Iraqi government, Supreme Leader Khamenei continues to rely on hatred of Israel to present Tehran as a defender of Muslim identity throughout the region. Toward that end, he encouraged Iranians in the West Bank to continue what he described as a new intifada against Israel on Wednesday.

Reuters quoted Khamenei as telling a gathering of Iran’s Basij civilian militia, “We will defend the movement of the Palestinian people with all of our existence, and in any way and as long as we can.” Such remarks closely follow upon Khamenei’s efforts to encourage Muslims around the world to help arm Palestinian groups and spread conflict from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank in the wake of the brief 2014 Summer War between Israel and Hamas.