May 20, 2018 | Memo

Iran: The Shi’ite Imperial Power

FDD Research

Read the full research piece here.


The sectarian wars in Iraq and Syria have fundamentally changed the Islamic Republic. They have become arenas for a new militant Shi’ite solidarity that has crossed the Arab-Persian divide: Iranian-led, non-Iranian militias, thousands strong, now fight in foreign lands. Not that long ago an academic consensus on the Islamic Republic told us that the mullahs could no longer generate the kind of religious allegiance to send Iranians, let alone non-Iranian Shi’ites, into combat far from home. If the Islamic Revolution was not completely out of gas, it certainly had lost its mojo. The idea that Iran was becoming a revolutionary Shi’ite imperial power would have seemed far-fetched.

The Islamic Republic now resembles the Soviet Union of 1979: a police state, incapable of reforming itself while drowning in corruption, expanding abroad to protect the nation and its “faith.” But unlike the USSR, which in the end just had Marx’s and Lenin’s desiccated shibboleths to sustain an empire, the Islamic Republic has a still vibrant Shi’ite identity. It is the only idea, mixed with revolutionary intent, that the mullahs and their praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, can lock onto that can motivate the faithful and undermine critics who stopped believing in the cleric-constructed Islamic state.

An excerpt from the essay follows:

“In Washington’s continuing tug-of-war with the mullahs, the Iranian people have remained an untapped resource. When the Green Movement first took to the streets, Iranian youths, who had misinterpreted Obama’s Cairo speech, called out to the young president. Playing with his name in Persian, they hoped he was u ba ma—“he is with us.” He was not.

It is hard to imagine Donald Trump taking the bully pulpit or using sanctions on behalf of these people. Supporting democracy among Muslims is not his thing. But events make a presidency. As the Islamic Republic’s Shi’ite imperialism continues to advance, an American containment strategy may well develop. Cracking Shi’ite fraternity in Arab lands will not be easy since Shi’ite-hating Sunnis are all around. Inside Iran, however, this fraternity is far from rock-solid. The appeal of democracy is stronger.”

Read the full research piece here

This essay originally appeared in Rise of the Revisionists: Russia, China and Iran, edited by Gary J. Schmitt (AEI Press, 2018).

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD, and follow the work of FDD’s Iran Project @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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