In virtually all Muslim-majority countries, Islamic movements (like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) strongly appeal to groups and segments of society that oppose the established political order. Most of the regimes in the region are authoritarian and “pro-Western” in the eyes of their citizens, and Islamists offer an appealing alternative. In an effort to assuage these concerns, some of these regimes have taken steps toward “Islamization.”
Iran was no exception to this trend until 1979, when something phenomenal happened that forever separated the country from the rest of the region: an Islamic uprising to the secular monarchy successfully seized and kept political power. For the first time in recent history, the chasm between politics and the religious establishment was closed off in Iran. An ayatollah—the highest Shiite cleric—became the most powerful man in the country, and Iran was forever changed.
Nearly four decades later, the Islamic Republic finds itself opposed by a considerable segment of its own population, precisely because it has used religion for political purposes. In the past, Iranians used the rhetoric of Islam to protest the political authority of the secular, pro-Western Shah. Today, many of these same individuals are appealing to “secular” and even “Western” principles to criticize the Islamic Republic’s political dominance. Anything that has the slightest association with “Islam” is a point of suspicion for many Iranians.
Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why many in Iran are instinctively suspicious of the Arab uprising in Syria, which has increasingly been influenced by Islamic themes. Harboring disdain for how Islam has been used to co-opt political power in Iran, Iranians have found it hard to sympathize with the shaggy-bearded men who shout “Allahu Akbar” in Syria. Unfamiliarity with the nuances of Syrian culture, language, and history has magnified this suspicion for many Iranians. Indeed, there is never a shortage of Iranians on social media patronizingly giving advice to others about not committing the “same mistake of an Islamic revolution.”
Partly for this reason, Iranians have little sympathy for opposition groups across the Arab world, especially in Syria itself. Indeed, Iranians have been notably silent when it comes to their government’s destructive interference in the country. While Iranians never miss an opportunity to vocally express disapproval with their government (as in the recent hijab protests), the country’s foreign policy in Syria (and elsewhere) appears to be an exception. In some ways, this silence borders on complicity. Even when Iranians do express disdain over their government’s actions in Syria, they do so in a largely private capacity, and for economic reasons, rather than a concern for human rights.
Indeed, there are several reasons why average Iranians have chosen to ignore the Syrian crisis, and the government is exploiting every single one to its effective benefit. To better understand this, it is important to understand how various constituencies within Iran, including those on opposing sides of the political spectrum, are equally unmotivated to serve as a voice for the defenseless people of Syria.
Those who support the Iranian government are the obvious place to start. Iranians who have bought into the state’s official political narrative have little reason to question the government’s policies, inside or outside the country. During the Green Movement of 2009, and the state’s ensuing brutal crackdown on protestors, the government’s official narrative was at clear odds with the reality unfolding on the streets of Tehran. Pro-government Iranians, of course, unquestioningly bought into the fictional reality being portrayed on state television. For precisely that same reason, these individuals have also digested the government’s biased account of the Syrian war today. The reality of the Syrian crisis lies entirely outside the bubble of their daily lives, and is viewed as an obscure war in a “distant land.” Why, then, should they bother questioning the “noble” motivations of their beloved “Islamic” government?
Archetypal Iranian nationalists, who oppose the government on nationalistic grounds, typically identify themselves with the Persian Empire’s “glorious” pre-Islamic days. A sense of Persian pride permeates their cultural and political attitudes, which are often tainted by anti-Arab xenophobia. For the current miseries afflicting Iran, they blame the Muslim and Arab invasion of Persia, some fourteen hundreds years ago. Unsurprisingly, they often disdain anything that smells like Islam or sounds Arabic.
This phenomenon has clearly not gone unnoticed by the Iranian government. To appease Iranian nationalists, the state’s official narrative has accordingly shifted over the past few years and played right into their hostility towards Islam. The message is, “you already know how horrible an Islamic government is, you have learned that the hard way; the Syrian opposition is even more radically Islamist than the Iranian revolutionaries of 1979.”
The Syrian war, for example, is sometimes (when necessary) framed in jingoistic, rather than “religious,” terms by Iranian leaders. For example, prominent figures like Major General Qasem Soleimani (who was once an obscure military commander but is now a “national hero” in the eyes of many Iranians for his role in the Syrian war), will justify Iranian action in Syria on the basis of things like “national Interest” and “strategic benefits.” Those who dare question Iran’s aggressive foreign policy are simply deemed “enemies of Iranians,” as opposed to the classic label “enemies of Islam.” As cynical as this sounds, this tactic has resonated well with nationalists.
Outside of Iran, some Iranian opposition media outlets also toe the same line. The message they broadcast is, “let’s face it, the Iranian government is admittedly an awful regime, but helping Bashar Al-Assad smash another Islamic revolution is one of the best things it’s ever done.” It is interesting to note that while they seemingly abhor the “mullahs’ regime” in Iran, these outlets implicitly glorify the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its regional expansionism.
In the beginning, devotees of the Green Movement, which included almost the entire reformist camp, were openly sympathetic to the Arab Spring. They even boasted that their 2009 movement was a source of inspiration for the Arab youth. At the time, news of the toppling of Arab dictators, one after another, was met with a sense of awe (and perhaps even a touch of envy) by Iranian reformists.
However, for reasons that include a narrow victory in the 2013 presidential election (which brought the reformists to power), that sympathy did not last.
Reformists in Iran tend to blame all political “misdeeds” in the country on religious hardliners. While this leads them to criticize the government when these hardliners are in power, the reformists become government apologists when they seize power. This is why they have been particularly silent, if not supportive, of Iranian action in Syria.
Iran’s aggressive actions in Syria have not changed or stopped since Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013. Pushing for “reform” on this matter was never on President Rouhani’s priority list. Indeed, Iran has continued to intervene in the Syrian conflict at an alarming rate. In fact, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has even gained rock-star-like popularity amongst Iranians in the process—in part for his active role in the Iran nuclear deal, in part for “positively changing” Iran’s image in the world, and in part for blaming the Syrian war on “Wahhabism” and positioning Iran as a “savior.”
The new administration skillfully capitalized on the popularity of this rhetoric to further Iran’s expansionist policies. Many inside the country were evidently convinced that the reformist government “had it right” when it came to foreign affairs. They had, after all, elected a “liberal,” “sensible, and “moderate” man to replace the previous hardline administration of Ahmadinejad.
If the government today were run by a so-called hardliner, perhaps the reformists would have been more sensitive to Syrian bloodshed, and things today would look very different.
The global left has, by and large, been hopelessly confused over the Syrian war. Whenever Russia and the United States appear to be on opposite sides of a conflict, a “Russophile complex”—baggage carried over from the Cold War era—kicks in and obstructs many leftists’ ability to recognize the need to oppose both U.S. military force and various non-Western elements. The Iranian left is no exception in this regard. Their “anti-West sentiments” have become so myopic that any concern for the actual oppressed people of Syria is secondary. Although the Syrian people are being brutally crushed, devastated, and dehumanized by Russia and Iran, Iranian leftists rarely if ever speak out against this.
In one crucial sense, the Iranian left has perhaps been even more disappointing than the global left. At least in principle, we can understand the almost hyper-focused concern of, say, an American leftist, on the rampant interference of her own government in Syria. But an Iranian leftist who voices absolutely no concern about her government’s militarism in Syria, and instead exclusively focuses on “Western” imperialism, has truly missed the mark.
As the Iranian government is increasingly becoming a force of regional imperialism, and openly boasting about controlling four Arab capital cities, the absence of genuine resistance from the Iranian left to this militaristic craze is nothing short of gloomy and discouraging. Indeed, this all suggests that Iran has no authentic leftist circles, but only copycats who pretend to be part of a global left movement.
While they may not comprise a large percentage of Iranian society, “hardline” Shias who oppose the Islamic Republic for not being “Shia enough” do exist. These “ultra-Shias,” so to speak, maintain that believers should steer clear of political power and state affairs. According to them, only after the reappearance of the last occulted Imam are Shias permitted to engage in politics (primarily to take practical action in the Imam’s aid). For this reason, the highly political form of Islam, championed by the Islamic Republic, is not their cup of tea.
Yet, when it comes to Syria, the ultra-Shias’ strong anti-Sunni sentiments have generated an ambivalence toward the war and prevents them from being vocal against Iran’s interference in Syria. For these segments of Iranian society, the Syrian crisis is painted as a “holy war against the Wahhabis,” who are the nemeses of hardline Shias. Shiite paramilitary forces from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Lebanon all participate in the Syrian war for the sake of “protecting Shia holy shrines,” with virtually no protest from hardline Shias living in Iran. In fact, when bodies of “martyrs” returned to Iran are buried during public ceremonies, hardline Shias actively participate in these events, which have a distinctly Shiite ambiance. Indeed, if even the quietist religious hardliners of Iran lend tacit support for the government’s actions in Syria, then it seems it would take nothing less than a truly fearless maverick to speak up against the “Shia Jihad” happening there.
Against the backdrop of these realities, only one question remains: Who in Iran is left to speak up against the war in Syria? The answer is that only a few idealistic human right activists (who have a feeble political constituency) have lent their voices in opposition to the war.
During the seven years of the Syrian catastrophe, these rare instances of objection to the conflict have come in the form of limited online campaigns and Twitter trends, launched by human rights activists. The SorrySyria and IranExit campaigns are two examples. Additionally, Iranian-led websites like WarReport have been covering the Syrian war and shedding light on Iran’s pernicious role in that country. Manjanigh, an Iranian leftist online magazine, has been publishing critical articles on Iran’s involvement in Syria. The Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi once publicly asked Syrians for forgiveness for Iran’s decisive role in their plight (though she was immediately attacked by many in Iran). Perhaps the most notable voice of opposition against the war in Syria is that of Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist figure. Shortly after his release from prison, he criticized Iran’s involvement in Syria during an interview (even though it was mainly on the grounds of “national interest” and not human rights).
Most recently, in April 2018, a small group of eight renowned political figures who are affiliated with the Council of Nationalist-Religious Activists of Iran wrote and signed a letter condemning Iran’s role in Syria. Among them were Mohammad Javad Akbarin and Reza Alijani, two outspoken activists who have been critical of Iran’s policy in Syria in Farsi media outlets, including in their own online journal, Mihan.
This is, unfortunately, where the list seems to end. The fact is that many Iranian political figures are aware of what is going on in Syria, but they simply see no reason why they should vocally oppose it. Doing so would have considerable political costs with little to no gain. It takes a political maverick—an iconoclast—to stand up against this silence.
While this reality is a bleak one, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. A younger generation of Iranians is slowly stepping onto the scene and is far more conscientious and driven. A considerable number of these younger Iranians do not subscribe to the classic dichotomy of either “hardliner” or “reformist.” They are unapologetically radical in their confrontation with the system. They may not know much about Syria (or Palestine or Iraq), but they know the Iranian government well enough to know that IRGC forces in Syria are far from angels. They have a healthy and deep-seated distrust of official state narratives, particularly from the reformist camp. Some choose to follow the Syrian war from independent sources on the Internet and are adopting a different mindset toward the Syrian cause. Indeed, this younger generation is a voice of empathy, concern, and humility.
There are no big names amongst this crowd, yet they are already starting to influence the political scene in Iran. Perhaps this generation will teach subsequent ones the truth about the Syrian war, and shoulder the responsibility for the Iranian government’s human rights catastrophe there. Even if this comes to pass, however, this will not change the fact that the current generation of Iranians have failed to fulfill this crucial role.