There never seems to be a shortage of inane statements coming from the Iranian government about the war in Syria. Speaking to various press outlets on May 24, 2016, the Iranian Defense Minister, Hossein Dehghan, made a series of incredulous claims according to The Jerusalem Post, namely that the Syrian war is the “result of a deep, long-term plot hatched by Israel and the United States,” and that the so-called rebel forces fighting President Bashar Al-Assad are actually Zionist agents. He concluded by endorsing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) actions in Syria, claiming it has a “religious obligation” to kill Syrian rebels because they are “infidels and apostates,” according to the Arab-American newspaper Watan. Earlier this year, on February 6, absurd statements were also made by the commander of the IRGC himself, Mohammad Ali Jafari, who justified Iranian aggression in Syria on the grounds that it is “paving the way for the emergence of the occulted Imam Mahdi,” according to Masr Al-Arabia.
These remarks, though unpalatable, should hardly come as a shock given how brazen Iran’s positions on Syria have been since the onset of the conflict in 2011. Three years ago, in February 2013, for example, Mehdi Taeb, the head of the Iranian government’s think tank, Ammar Base, claimed that “Syria is a province of Iran” and must be protected at all costs, according to Al-Monitor.
The greatest irony is that these statements betray Iran’s official narrative regarding sectarianism in the region. On January 11 this year, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, reiterated the Iranian government’s belief that “the main threat to the region is the Takfiri and extremist ideologies, whose intellectual and financial origin and resources emanate from Saudi Arabia,” according to Press TV. It is hard to take this claim seriously, however, given recent statements made by figures like Dehghan and Jafari, not to mention the Iranian government’s mortifying support for the Assad regime, which nurtures sectarianism through much of its actions and policies.
What makes it even harder to take Zarif’s words on sectarianism and extremism at face value is that, just three days ago, on May 25, a senior advisor to Iranian General Qassem Soleimani reportedly said, according to Arabi 21, that Iran’s presence in Iraq serves the ultimate purpose of “spreading Shi’ism around the world” and “ensuring Iran remains the center of Shi’ism.”
When Iranian officials continue to make overtly sectarian remarks like these, claims that the intellectual roots of “extremism” are limited exclusively to Saudi Arabia are effectively meaningless. The Iranian government is undoubtedly just as guilty of fueling sectarian violence in the region and participating in the spread of what Zarif called “Takfiri and extremist ideologies.”
In fact, Iranian involvement in Syria is, at least in some ways, arguably worse than Saudi Arabia’s. In propping up the Assad regime, Iran is not merely inflaming sectarian fires, but also contributing more to the single largest cause of death and destruction in the country than any other political actor or group.
Finally, one has to seriously wonder what makes these various statements from Iranian officials wildly different from the ones groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS make; they both propagate conspiratorial narratives and coat their crimes in sectarian language. Iran’s citing of “religious purposes” to justify political support for the Assad regime, and referring to rebel forces in Syria as “infidels” in order to tacitly dehumanize, homogenize, and legitimize their deaths is a textbook example of sectarian incitement, and is no better than ISIS’s claim that all Shias are infidels and must be killed.
In a political environment that is already overwhelmed by sectarianism, Iran is, unfortunately, making sordid contributions with no signs of stopping anytime soon.