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What motivates Iran to fight in Syria?

Syria was never Shiite, so why does Iran fight in Syria with such ferocity?

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

What does Iran want by being so politically active and making its population pay such a dear price? The population, like others in the Muslim world, suffers from poverty and disease, despite the countries massive oil industry. Iran is planning to bolster its power and influence, seeking to confirm its readiness to fight in Syria , propagating conspiracy in Iraq and spoiling its relations with Saudi Arabia and other neighbors. It also applies pressure on the West at times and eases pressure at other times. What does Iran want out of all of this?

It is easy to answer the question: what did Britain want from India? It took interest in India as an investment which gave English politicians and businessmen abundant income. This enabled them to enjoy an aristocratic lifestyle. By understanding their reasons for occupying India, we can understand the reasond behind their occupation of South Yemen, their interest in the Gulf sheikhdoms and Egypt.

Based on the same logic we can explain the foolish reason behind Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. He saw Kuwait as a source of money as it has enormous oil reserves. He saw it as a means to solve all the economic problems caused by Iraq’s eight year war with Iran.

Turning to Egypt, why did Gamal Abdel Nasser send his army to Yemen in an adventure that went awry? There was no clear benefit to the Yemen campaign, it seems it was simply about feeding Nasser’s ego. He wanted to lead the Arab nation into conflict for his own personal glory. There was no economic gain or strategic influence for Egypt in the mountains of Yemen.

The case of Syria

I use the example as a reference when answering the question: Why is Syria so important to Iran? The answer is not based on old imperialist economic calculations; there is no economic gain for Iran in Syria nor in Lebanon, nor in Yemen.

Australian researcher Roger Shanahan focused on the Sayeda Zeinab Shrine as a reason for the attention of Iranian Shiites on Syria, in an article published by the Carnegie Center a few weeks ago. He asked: What does Syria mean to the Shiite of the region? He was unable to provide a better answer than saying Syria is a strategic extension of Iran’s influence in the region. He also added that “It is as well necessary to ensure the supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon , being the most powerful manifestations of the Islamic revolution.”

Real reasons

However, those reasons are purely political , and they do not justify the high cost borne by the Iranian economy, and Iran’s extreme support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It also does not justify the intervention of Iran in Yemen . Iraq alone provides an economic incentive to motivate Iran to be involved in the country. Involvement in Iraq provides huge gains for some of the men in power in Tehran.

Nevertheless it is certain that is not honest or sustainable money that is gained in Iraq. Iraq is rife with corruption and injustice, an obscene price paid by the Iraqi people, resulting in poverty, ignorance and a tremendous deterioration in the simplest of services.

Does Iran seek to open markets for its products and companies? Yes it does, like the Soviet Union and his neighboring Communist countries. But even if this is the case, to justify it economically they do not need to establish militia parties such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran does not have to finance and arm ideological movements such as the Houthis in Yemen. In addition to that, weapons smuggling into Nigeria does not serve the policy of opening markets. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for instance, are opening markets in Middle East countries without the need to form militias.

Seeking to spread Shiism

What if Iran is seeking to spread Shiism in the region and the Islamic world? This is a fact , and Iran is ready to bear the consequences. Iran knows that this resulted in anger in many countries, with protests ranging from Malaysia to Morocco. It is possible to justify the reason as being the duty of any ideological state. They don’t need to establish militias and secret networks for that. Saudi Arabia spends money on a lot of schools and mosques around the world openly and clearly. Egypt and its Azhar Mosque do the same, but without the need to establish militias.

What motivates Iran and stimulates its appetite for domination? One opinion is that it was Iran’s consistent purpose since the Shah’s time, who once wanted to be the Gulf’s policeman. However, Iran in its current state is pragmatic; domination according to the colonial era idea of the concept has become an obsolete idea.

Syria was never Shiite, so why does Iran fight in Syria with such ferocity? It is fighting to defend the system of minority dictatorship that can only prevail by force

Jamal Kashoggi

Times have changed and the Gulf is no longer in need of a policeman after the American cop entered the scene. It is better for the Iranians to practice the Turkish model, encouraging business and not domination. Iran has a skilled labor force looking for jobs and factories looking for markets.

I found some answers in what Dr. Juma Hamad al-Essa wrote in his book Time of Strife: Shiites against Sunnis, Sunnis against Shiites.” From what I understood, radicalism drives Iran’s ayatollahs. They have a dream of building an Islamic state in preparation to receive the Mahdi, the 12th Imam who they expect to return at the end of times, a concept in Iranian Shiite Islam. Iranian ayatollahs want to facilitate his mission of unifying the Muslim world and preventing injustice.

When Sunni Fundamentalism became active, an example being the Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, the dispute was centered on ideology and not sectarianism. However, when Shiite fundamentalism was activated, the dispute was defined within the parameters of sectarianism: it was about Sunni vs. Shiite and vice versa.

The problem with Iranian, or Shiite, fundamentalism is that it occurred outside the borders of Iran, where the majority of the public is different. Other countries’ weaknesses tempted Iran into believing it was her time to lift the perceived oppression of the region’s Shiites.

Why is Iran involved?

There are points of contact for the Shiite fundamentalism in the entire Islamic world outside of Iran. Even in Iraq , which some people assume is a Shiite bloc, there is a Shiite majority but if the Kurds are ruled out, it is not enough to make it a Shiite country . Logic, reason and history dictate that secularism is best for Iraq. This will preserve the rights of Shiites and Sunnis. But if someone insisted on a different approach, it will cause the partition of Iraq and that is what is happening today.

Syria was never Shiite, so why does Iran fight in Syria with such ferocity? It is fighting to defend the system of minority dictatorship that can only prevail by force. It is a non - sustainable cause, unless radicalist Iranians believe that they can convince the majority of the Syrian Sunni population to become Shiite.

The dream of transforming Syria into a Shiite country is one of the most important sectarian causes for Iran’s involvement. Tehran is dealing with Syria as it is in Iran’s backyard in terms of distance. Iran is trying desperately to defend Bashar al-Assad and his regime and it is involved in the fighting, sending experts and volunteers to the country.

Even the argument of confronting extremist groups in Syria is compelling. Those become the problem of the Sunni majority in Syria before they can be considered as a problem for the Shiites.

We, as Muslims - Sunni and Shiite – have enough problems and challenges. We all suffer underdevelopment, ignorance, disease, intolerance and tyranny. We are all in underdeveloped third world countries.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on March 15, 2014.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.