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Iran can still turn losses into victories if it abandons blatant sectarianism

People stage a protest against visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Beirut on October 06, 2021 in Beirut, Lebanon. [Houssam Shbaro - Anadolu Agency]
People stage a protest against visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Beirut on October 06, 2021 in Beirut, Lebanon. [Houssam Shbaro - Anadolu Agency]

The Arab and Islamic world, with its Sunni majority, did not look at the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran through a sectarian lens. Ayatollah Khomeini was seen as a leader standing up against the oppression of the Shah, Western domination and Israeli influence. Despite the bitterness of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran's complicity in the siege and war on Iraq, and its negative contribution to the sectarianism therein, the regime managed to be popular in the Arab and Islamic world, especially after the July 2006 war when Hezbollah pushed Israel out of Southern Lebanon, with no sectarian implications.

That popularity has now declined, and may even have faded altogether, as a result of the sectarian policies that Iran still pursues. The elections in Lebanon and Iraq revealed the extent of anger towards Tehran, even among the Shia citizens and their allies. Iran's policies in the region, among Sunnis and Shia alike, expose a mentality of domination and sectarianism, with little thought for the concept of a single and united Ummah. Iran operated in Lebanon with no regard for the idea of a united homeland that decides who leads the Christians and who leads the Sunnis. It allied itself with Michel Aoun at the expense of his opponents, such as the Lebanese Forces party, and contributed to the destruction of the Hariri leadership, from the assassination of the father, as international investigations revealed, to the siege of Saad Hariri and the creation of rival Sunni blocs.

The Shia Hezbollah bullied the Sunnis and overstepped the Hariri family. It is rare to find a Sunni in Lebanon who is not angry at Hezbollah. Such sectarian policies played a role in turning a number of angry Sunnis towards Daesh and similar movements in a desire for revenge and a search for lost dignity and honour.

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Despite Saad Hariri's calls for a boycott of the election, anger turned into a vote against Hezbollah. In Sunni areas, the party and its allies declined, and candidates from the Youth of Change party and Hezbollah's opponents won.

There remains a sectarian smell in the party's alliances against the Sunnis, as it tolerates an alliance with General Aoun to the point of pardoning senior Israeli agents who were involved in shedding Lebanese blood through spy networks or the remnants of the South Lebanon Army. This tolerance becomes strictness with the Sunnis in dealing with security issues, such as in the case of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Assir who was sentenced to 20 years of hard labour by a Lebanese military court last year.

People stage a protest against visit of Iranian Foreign Minister  Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Beirut on October 06, 2021 in Beirut, Lebanon. [Houssam Shbaro - Anadolu Agency]

People stage a protest against visit of Iranian Foreign Minister
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Beirut on October 06, 2021 in Beirut, Lebanon. [Houssam Shbaro – Anadolu Agency]

Iran and Hezbollah have paid the price for mistakes made in Lebanon, not with the Sunnis, but with the whole country in general. Hezbollah has regarded Lebanon in the same way as it has regarded Syria, Iraq and Yemen: as a battleground, not as an independent state with its own culture and personality.

In Iraq, the defeat was harsher and clearer than in Lebanon, because the mistakes were greater. Iran treated Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as its partner, and let him deal with many issues, including Iraq and Yemen. His representative, Muhammad Kawtharani, decided with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders Qassem Soleimani and his successor Esmail Qaani the fate of Iraqi politicians. Like any absolute authority, it has led to absolute corruption. Kawtharani's brother, the businessman Adnan, turned his political and security influence in Iraq into commercial interests, and opened a two-way path to buy influence, with those wanting a position to share and those already in a position with whom he would partner. Furthermore, Iran established drugs and arms smuggling networks that rely on Lebanese hashish and Syrian captagon.

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Iran did not deal with its allies in Iraq as it dealt with Nasrallah; it was a superior-subordinate relationship. It dealt with Iraq's Sunnis by means of an ongoing sectarian war. Sunni leaders, most notably Sheikh Khamis Al-Khanjar, leader of the largest Sunni bloc known as the Sovereignty Alliance, tried to turn a new page with the Shia leaders affiliated with Iran in order to build a national partnership based on simple concessions from the Popular Mobilisation Forces. This included the return of displaced citizens and the release of prisoners and those unjustly sentenced to death, but it did not work. Sunni children, women and the elderly are still living in camps for internally displaced persons in their own country, while Hezbollah militias occupy — yes, occupy — their towns, and the best of their young people are still in prison. Al-Khanjar has been placed on the US sanctions list.

In last October's election, he and Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani allied themselves with the Sadrist movement. Iran did not treat this alliance with respect, and saw it as a threat to the Shia, even though it includes the largest Shia bloc, as if patriotism and dealing with the logic of the political majority rather than sectarianism goes against Tehran's doctrine. This is despite the fact that Al-Khanjar and Muqtada Al-Sadr are the only Iraqi politicians who have a clear position on normalisation, and the US accused them of supporting the Iraqi resistance. If Iran dealt with the logic of partnership and political alliance, it would not find any better than them, but its logic is based on subordination and annexation.

Iran was defeated in Lebanon and Iraq, and if elections had been held in Syria and Yemen, its proxies would have been defeated there as well. It still has an opportunity to turn its losses into victories, if it decides to act according to the logic of neighbouring areas, partnership, nation and homeland. However, if it prefers sectarianism over all else, it will lose even those who remain within its own sect.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 19 May 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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