Arbaeen pilgrimage and Iran’s regional ambitions

During the first week of December 2016, millions of Shiite Muslims will gather in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala to mark Arbaeen

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On November 20, 2016, millions of Shiite Muslims will gather in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala to mark Arbaeen, a religious ritual that commemorates the end of the 40-day mourning period for the killing of Imam Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. According to official sources, Arbaeen attracted nearly 17 million pilgrims last year, the majority of whom were Iraqis with close to one Million Iranians participating in the event. Some pilgrims march the 80 Km distance from the city of Najaf to Karbala.

As Arbaeen continues to grow as the most important religious ceremony in the world and a show of force for the Shiite community, the Iranian regime has been trying to gradually take the control of this event and utilizing it for its domestic and regional goals, specifically to solidify its influence in Iraq and dominate the Shiite world.

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, and a group of clergymen affiliated to him, seized power in Iran. From the onset, Khomeini’s regime utilized all means possible to establish its brand of fundamentalism in Iran and export it throughout the Islamic world. In order to consolidate their Shiite base, the Iranian leaders view neighboring Iraq as their prime target due to its majority Shiite population and the fact that the shrines of six Shiite Imams are located in the country, including the most veneered amongst them all, the first Imam Ali and his son Hossein who are buried in the cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Following the US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shiite majority became the dominant political force in the country. This was a turning point for Iran who used its Iraqi proxies and allies to expand its influence in Iraq and dominate the country’s political and military apparatus.

Iran’s dominant position in Iraq and its expanding military involvement across the Middle East has revived the dream of an Iranian-led Shiite crescent that would lead the Islamic world. During the commemoration ceremony of Islamic Revolution in February 2014 in the city of Kerman, Ghassem Soleimani, the commander of Quds Force declared: “What is the Shiite Revival? Since Imam Ali was martyred 14 centuries ago, the reign of Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates and later, under the Ottomans, the Sunnis have been ruling the Islamic world and the Shiites had nowhere to express freely their faith.

The current Shiite Revival, under the Iranian leadership makes Iran the center of gravity in the region and provides Iran with security and power. We should remember that the Shiite crescent, is not only political, it is an economic power because most of the Middle East energy resources are located in Shiite regions, Iraq was liberated from American dominance after the fall of Saddam thanks to the Iraqi Shiites who relied on Iranian leadership.”

While Iran exerts political and military influence in Iraq, it lacks adequate influence in Iraq’s religious establishments, especially in the seminary of Najaf, the most important center of religious authority for the Shiites and the home to Grand Aytollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite spiritual leader in the world. Sistani and the vast majority of clerics at the Najaf Seminary refuse to recognize the religious authority of Tehran’s rulers and oppose the Velayat al-Faqih, which is the Iranian regime’s model of theocracy based on a jurisprudential interpretation of Islam. The Iraqi government and the law give Sistani the authority over Iraq’s Shiite shrines and his appointed custodians control the pilgrimage observances in Iraq’s shrine cities.
Meanwhile, Iran has been pursuing a long term strategy to expand its religious authority in Iraq in three ways. Firstly, by using financial and political leverages to ensure the primacy of clerics trained in the Iranian seminary of Qom and loyal to the Iranian ideology, over clerics trained in the relatively non-political tradition of the Najaf seminary. Secondly, by spending huge amounts of resources to reconstruct the Shiite shrines in Iraq and consequently, take control of their management in the long run. Thirdly, by taking control of the pilgrimage observances in Iraq’s shrine cities, notably the Arbaeen procession.

After the fall of Saddam, Iran created a new organization called “The Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines (HRHS)” to restore and develop Shiite shrines in Iraq and Syria and oversee Iranian pilgrimages to Iraq especially the Arbaeen procession. HRHS is under the Supreme Leader’s supervision and its current chief is Hassan Pollarak, a former Quds force commander. HRHS has spent billions of dollars to restore and expand the shrines in Iraq and is gaining more control over their management. It has also built several hospital and care centers for pilgrims and has acquired a large number of hotels and other facilities around the shrines.

The Revolutionary Guard-controlled HRHS works with several government organizations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Culture and the Islamic Guidance to monitor and coordinate the activities related to the Arbaeen pilgrimage. They encourage and incentivize the Iranians to participate in the pilgrimage, coordinate the activities of religious centers and Mosques involved in the pilgrimage tours to Iraq, monitor and facilitate the legal procedures and provide a wide range of financial and travel assistance to the pilgrims. The Iranian organizations work with their Iraqi counterparts to assist the pilgrims in Karbala and on the road between Najaf to Karbala. Hundreds of rest areas have been established to welcome the pilgrims and provide them with food and resting facilities.

By promoting and sponsoring the pilgrimage, the Iranian regime aims to attain several domestic and foreign policy goals. In Iran, it feeds the religious fervor among Iranians and presents the regime as the guardian of their faith, creating a connection between the regime and the population and boosting the regime’s legitimacy. Moreover, by monitoring and coordinating the activities of religious centers involved in the Arbaeen pilgrimage, the regime tightens its control over the religious activities of Iranians across the country. The pilgrimage is also a formidable recruiting tool for the Iranian regime and especially the Revolutionary Guards to find candidates that are ideologically loyal to the regime and ready to fill the ranks of security and military institutions.

Arbaeen also serves Iran’s regional policies. The Iranian leaders believe that their military and political influence in the region give them the stature to claim the leadership of the Shiite world and consequently take credit for the Arbaeen show of force. This helps Iran in the current rivalry with Saudi Arabia in the region and it is also used as a propaganda tool to undermine the Haj pilgrimage that is managed by the Saudis. Accordingly, the Iranian regime utilizes this show of force, its role as the leader of Shiite world and its regional influence as a leverage to project its power in Iran and solidify its domestic position.

Iran and its proxies’ increasing role in the Arbaeen pilgrimage and the management of shrines helps Iran enhance its religious authority within the Iraqi and other Shiite communities in the region. This religious authority is much needed to assist the Iranian political surrogates and proxy militias across the region.

In order to take control of the Arbaeen pilgrimage, Iran tries to turn it to a political event that reflects its anti-American and anti-Israeli narrative. During the pilgrimage and especially the march from Najaf to Karbal, the pilgrims from Iran or Shiites loyal to the Iranian regime carry signs and shout slogans in accordance to this narrative. The clerics and preachers who accompany the pilgrims try to present the event as an illustration of Shiite power in the Islamic world and part of the historic struggle to liberate the Islamic nation from the domination of ”Western crusaders”.

The Arbaeen pilgrimage provides Iran and the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force with a unique opportunity to recruit foreign Shiites who adhere to the Iranian cause. For several month prior to Arbaeen, the Iranian regime uses its vast network of Islamic centers around the world to find and enroll pilgrims and organizes tours to take them to Iraq. Al Mustafa University with its global network is one of Iran’s organizations abroad responsible for the organization of foreign pilgrims. For the past three years, Iran has been establishing enrollment centers in several European cities.

*Hassan Dai is an Iranian-American investigative journalist and political analyst specialized in the Iranian regime’s activities in the Middle East and pro-Iran activities in the West. He is the editor of Iranian American Forum.

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