Professor Akbarzadeh is deputy director of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. Research on this topic was funded by the Qatar National Research Fund (NPRP grant 6-028-5-006). The statements made herein are solely the responsibility of the author. The author wishes to thank Fatemeh Nejati and Dara Conduit for their role in researching this paper.
President Hassan Rouhani came to office in 2014 with a popular mandate to relieve Iran's international isolation. His electoral campaign focused on ending the crippling sanctions Iran has suffered due to the ongoing dispute over its nuclear program. Rouhani promised to make "moderation" the centerpiece of his government, but breaking out of isolation has proven to be much more difficult than the reform-inclined Rouhani government expected. The Arab upheaval has morphed into sectarian warfare, championed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ("Daesh" in Arabic and Persian). This conflict has presented Iran with a most unwanted problem. From its inception, Iran has projected itself as a champion of the whole Muslim community. It has stayed clear of sectarian disputes with its Sunni neighbors and presented its disagreements with Saudi Arabia, for example, in terms of global Muslim interests. It highlighted the failure of U.S.-friendly Arab leaders to protect the Palestinians as the cardinal charge against them. Their Sunni affiliation was not the issue. However, the bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria, with spot fires in other states, has forced Iran to engage with the sectarian issue. Events of the past few years have made it impossible for Iran to ignore the schism. This complicates President Rouhani's task: his promised mantra of "prudence and hope" (tadbir va omid) has effectively been sidelined in the context of forming a Daesh policy. Iran is forced into relying on its Shia allies to respond to the threat posed by Daesh, making Iran a reluctant Shia power in the region.
Rouhani's challenge is compounded by the growing assertiveness of his domestic critics who see the rise of Daesh as evidence of an international conspiracy to undermine and ultimately destroy the Islamic Republic. Pressure from within and the rapidly diminishing external options have restricted Rouhani's room to maneuver and resulted in a set of policy choices that reinforce the cliché that Iran is a Shia state. This paper offers a review of key milestones in Iran's response to the sectarian conflict, giving special attention to the dominant political discourse in Iran. The narrative of a Western conspiracy against Iran working in tandem with pro-Western Arab governments, most notably key regional rival Saudi Arabia, put debilitating limits on the public debate. Some observers, often former ambassadors to the Arab world, have made comments that deviate from the preset narrative of a master conspiracy against Iran. Online publications inclined to the reformist camp have published pieces that link the rise of Daesh to the absence of representative government. The reformist agenda is clear: Political openness, public accountability and political inclusion deprive extremism of oxygen. Democracy is the antidote. But this alternative view is overshadowed by deep-seated suspicion of the West and concern with the shrinking appeal of the Islamic Republic in the Arab street.
In December 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan famously warned of a Shia "crescent" emerging in the region, connecting Hizbullah in Lebanon to the rising Shia power in Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran.1 King Abdullah named Syria as part of this grouping, suggesting the emergence of a continuous crescent. The idea received only scorn in Iran, but it resonated throughout the predominantly Sunni Arab world, leading to Iran's growing isolation in the region. Iran denied having a sectarian bent in its policies, but the impression in the Arab world was very different and the subsequent escalation of conflict in Syria and Iraq made it even harder for Iranian policy makers to avoid reinforcing the sectarian interpretation of its foreign policy. Iran felt it necessary to bolster its long-time regional ally in Syria and subsequently the central government in Baghdad and the (Sunni) Kurdish fighters against the seemingly unstoppable Daesh. Initially, Iran was reluctant to admit its involvement, inadvertently feeding the rumors of a Shia conspiracy. Reports of Iran's involvement in the conflict continued to accumulate.
According to Robert Fisk in June 2013, Iran was poised to send 4,000 Revolutionary Guards to Syria to bolster Bashar al-Assad's regime against armed rebels.2 While this report remained unconfirmed, President Rouhani held a telephone conference with Assad and endorsed his decision to surrender Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. Rouhani argued that this surrender would disable the U.S. propaganda machine and avoid a military strike by the West. Assad's government was accused of firing chemical weapons indiscriminately at Ghouta in the Damascus countryside. President Rouhani was reported to have argued that the Syrian crisis needed a political solution, while restating Iran's commitment to the Assad regime.3 Nonetheless, reports of military aid from Iran to Syria seemed to contradict Rouhani's claim. In February 2014, Reuters reported that Syria was receiving increased military assistance from Iran to boost the Assad regime's capacity to collect intelligence and train fresh recruits.4
Reports of Iran's military involvement in the sectarian conflict continued to accumulate. In June 2014, The Guardian published a report on the presence of Commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. Soleimani is the head of the Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), credited for working closely with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria. According to The Guardian, Soleimani's presence in Iraq indicated how seriously Iran viewed the worsening crisis.5 It is important to note that Soleimani could only be involved with the direct knowledge and approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who retains the position of commander-in-chief. Amid reports of Iran's involvement, officials continued to insist on the fiction that no Iranian military advisers were present in Iraq or Syria.6 Commander Soleimani's presence in Iraq was only conceded after Iraqi TV reported on his visit to Iraq.7 An Iranian media report appeared under the self-congratulatory title, "Without Iran, Kurdistan Would Have Been Lost; Commander Stopped Daesh Advance on Erbil with 70 Fighters."8
By the end of 2014, Iran had stopped all pretences and was happy to report on its military assistance to Iraq and Syria. In January 2015, Israel carried out an air strike in Quneitra, Syria, targeting Hezbollah fighters engaged with anti-Assad forces. This resulted in the death of an Iranian IRGC commander who appeared to be coordinating Hezbollah operations in Syria.9 While Israel claimed ignorance of Commander Allahabadi's presence among its Hezbollah targets, Iran reported on the deliberate killing of its commander and promised a swift response against Israel and the United States.10
The fall of Mosul to Daesh in June 2014 sent shock waves through the region and made the United States very uneasy about the unexpected turn in the fight against Bashar Al-Assad. The subsequent scramble to form an international coalition that included a number of Arab states as well as France, Britain and the United States was met with scorn in Iran. The Supreme Leader dismissed U.S. efforts as a smokescreen.11 According to this view, the United States is secretly happy for Daesh to undermine the central government in Baghdad. This was seen as another example of U.S. intervention in the domestic affairs of the Middle East.12
TERROR AS A U.S. CONSPIRACY
In the dominant Iranian discourse, the United States and its Arab allies bear the blame for the rise of Daesh's terrorism and sectarian bloodshed. From this point of view, the emergence of Daesh is part of a broader policy to contain Iran. This perspective is in line with the early rhetoric of the Islamic revolution and its Manichean view: the West is poised to snuff out the light of the Iranian revolution. Not surprisingly, this perspective is most systematically advocated by the conservative members of the leadership, those close to the office of the Supreme Leader. This good-versus-evil trope is their dominant paradigm. In a public address in 2014 to commemorate the Shia festival of Qadir marking the appointment of Ali as the successor to Prophet Muhammad, Khamenei left no room for doubt about who is responsible for the crisis in Iraq and Syria:
They [the United States and Israel] created al-Qaeda and Daesh to sow seeds of discord among Muslims and oppose the Islamic Republic, but now they also suffer the consequences.13
Other Iranian leaders in the conservative camp have echoed this assertion. According to a Basij commander, the U.S. efforts to establish an international coalition against Daesh is merely a smokescreen intended to hide the Israeli-led agenda to divide Shia from Sunni and undermine their opposition to Israel.14
This perspective also finds its way into much of the academic literature produced at Iranian universities. An early indication of this perspective was provided by Farzad Poorsaied, a board member of the Strategic Studies Centre, who argued in 2007 that the growing terrorist attacks on Shia targets in Iraq were indicative of a congruence of interests among the United States, Arab countries and terrorist organizations.15 The Iranian Strategic Studies Quarterly has published other papers along these lines. In one, Faramarz Taqilo argued that "intensifying the sectarian war and Arab/Iran dichotomy is part of the U.S. strategy against Iran."16 In 2010, the same journal published a paper pointing to pro-U.S. Arab leaders as instigators of instability in Iraq due to their fear of its expanding influence. The author did not shy away from naming Saudi Arabia as the main patron of violent extremists in Iraq in order to destabilize the country and contain Iran's influence.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia receives special attention in publications on geopolitics. A team of authors in 2014 added a new dimension. They moved away from the simplistic view that puts the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia in the same camp and introduced an element of autonomy for the Saudi leadership. Barzin Zarqami et al. argued that Saudi Arabia is lobbying the United States against Iran in order to ensure Washington's continued engagement in the region. By presenting Iran as an expansionist state and an instigator of regional instability, they argued, Saudi Arabia seeks "to prioritize the security agenda for the United States and shift the focus away from the urgency of domestic reform."17 In other words, if the United States is preoccupied with Iran, it will not be pressing Saudis to reform their system.
ISLAM IN FOREIGN POLICY
Iran has repeatedly argued that its foreign policy is informed by Islamic principles of justice, respect and equality, a revolutionary reading of Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, set the framework: "Iran will not treat other states unjustly and will not tolerate being treated unjustly. We work on the basis of mutual respect."18 In its early days, the vernacular of policy makers borrowed heavily from leftist literature characterizing the United States as an imperialist power bent on world domination. Iran rejected international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as instruments of power. The international system, Iranian leaders argued, was dominated by the United States and other Western powers to protect their position and perpetuate the systemic imbalance between the global rich and the global poor. This perspective has continued to form Iranian foreign-policy thinking. In a 2008 address, Supreme Leader Khamenei presented Iran as a challenger to this divide:
It had become conventional for some states to use technology, science, weaponry and trickery to dominate and subjugate other states. The world was divided between the powerful and the powerless. The rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran challenged this false and unjust division.19
This ideological approach was a familiar critique of global inequality, sometimes dubbed the north-south divide, favored by leading states in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Iran found an ideological home in NAM, formally joining the organization in 1979 and using the NAM platform to advocate its position. Its August 2012 hosting of a NAM convention was a much-coveted occasion, an opportunity for firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to restate Iran's anti-imperialist revolutionary credentials. In the official perspective, the NAM convention in Tehran delivered a clear message to the United States: its unjust attempts to impose its will on Iran would not succeed.20
Despite the obvious overlaps with Third Worldism, Iran has been adamant to emphasize that its position is drawn from Islam, with the Muslim world as its intended audience. In the formative phase of the Islamic Republic, no other issue galvanized Muslim opinion more than the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the plight of the Palestinians. It was no surprise, therefore, that liberating Jerusalem emerged as a central tenet of its foreign policy. Ayatollah Khomenini famously linked that objective to the defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iran's eight-year war with Iraq: the "path to Jerusalem is through Karbala."21 This was a significant statement, as it emphasized Iran's long-term commitment to the Palestinian cause and presented Iraq and its Arab allies as stumbling blocs to the liberation of Jerusalem. This approach was aimed at gaining the support of the Arab street, where disillusionment with the Arab governments' failure to effect change in the Arab/Israeli stalemate ran high. The adverse consequence of this foreign-policy objective was widespread apprehension among Iran's neighbors. Fears of Iranian expansionism colored regional relations, made worse as Iran developed ties with Hezbollah and Hamas.
Iran's anti-Israel rhetoric won it some kudos in the Muslim world, where Tehran was keen to burnish its revolutionary credentials. Anti-Israel sentiments have been institutionalized through the celebration of Quds (Jerusalem in Arabic and Persian) solidarity day as a show of unity with the Palestinians, and the extremely negative terminology used to refer to the state of Israel. The use of terms such as the Zionist entity, the occupying regime and more recently the regime of child-killers (following the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza and the loss of over 2,000 civilian lives) has ensured that the official Iranian position remains as uncompromising as possible. This hard-line approach clearly has important implications for the way Iran wishes to be seen in the eyes of the Muslim masses. Not surprisingly, all Iranian presidents have adhered to this line, with President Ahmadinejad using extremely inflammatory language.
Iran has developed a revolutionary Islamic point of reference for its foreign policy. The response to Daesh is kept within this framework. However, given the sectarian nature of the conflict, Iran's narrative has come under obvious strain, and this is a concern for the Iranian leadership. Iranian policy makers are aware of the risks involved in entering the sectarian conflict on Daesh's terms. According to Seyed Baqer Saeidnezhad, Iran's revolutionary Islamic ideology has been its greatest soft-power tool, but the rise of sectarianism is presenting Iran more and more as a Shia power and undermining its appeal and its legitimacy as an Islamic state.22 This assessment maintains widespread currency in Iran. Iran's national interests, argues Mohammad Taqi Hosseini, are best served by avoiding sectarian wars and insisting on the unity of the Muslim umma.23 This message was delivered forcefully by the Supreme Leader to Iranian pilgrims on their way to Mecca in 2014:
Unity and brotherly relations among Muslims is a religious principle for us …. Islamic unity is a key slogan for the Islamic Republic of Iran, that means no enmity among the Muslim umma and mutual support on important global issues. Building a wall between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the Muslim world is a trick by the enemies of Muslim unity.24
The reality of the fast-evolving conflict in Syria and Iraq, however, has imposed a different agenda on Iran. The Iranian leadership is effectively forced into a Shia corner. As with Syria, Iran cannot afford to let Iraq fall to Daesh or disintegrate along ethnic and sectarian lines. Bolstering the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is an important strategy to avert those risks. As a consequence, while Iran purports to represent the interests of the Muslim umma, its close relationships with the government in Baghdad as well as with Shia militia groups tend to substantiate accusations that Iran is the lynchpin of the Shia Crescent. The matter is made worse when Iranian authorities habitually refer to the Shia community in Iraq as brothers and Iran's natural partners. Iran welcomed the fatwa by Ayatollah Ali Husayni Sistani (the highest religious authority for Shia in Iraq, a marjae taqlid) for mass mobilization against Daesh on June 13, 2014, and proclaimed its readiness to assist.25 Even President Rouhani, generally known for his delicate approach to difficult issues, took a categorical position: "The great nation of Iran will not hesitate to act in defense of the holy places of Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samara." 26 These are Shia holy sites, closely tied to the Shia narrative of sacrifice and resistance against injustice. Karbala is the site of the formative battle of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third imam of the Shia, killed in combat against Yezid, the usurper of power, in 680 AD. Other sites named in Rouhani's bold statement are the burial sites of other Shia imams.
Given the history of attacks on Shia places of worship in Iraq, the Iranian leadership took the Daesh threat seriously. In addition to a range of high-level commitments, such as sending General Qasem Soleimani to provide strategic leadership, noted above, it rested on its tradition of revolutionary mass mobilization. Supreme Leader Khamenei advised Iranians to go on a mass pilgrimage to Shia holy sites in Iraq to commemorate the slaying of Imam Hussein and protect Shia shrines. Government authorities were instructed to facilitate this pilgrimage.27 Hamid Reza Taraqi, a leading member of the conservative Islamic Coalition party extolled the Supreme Leader's strategy:
The crimes committed by the takfiris [a nickname for Daesh] have created an atmosphere of violence against the Shia and pure Islam, prompting a response by all the Shia from across the world .… This is a show of love, solidarity and sacrifice for the Shia [in Iraq] .… The presence of millions of Shia in Karbala to commemorate Imam Hussein is testimony to the purity of Shia Islam and the commitment of the Islamic revolution [in 1979] to Islam …. Today the West should bow to the cultural might of the Islamic Republic of Iran and admit that no other regime, except the Islamic Republic and the Shia nations in the region, has such cultural might.28
For the Iranian leadership, there is no line of separation between Shia and Islam. The Twelver Shia version of Islam, which believes in the sanctity of the Prophet's bloodline from Ali's descendants to the hidden Twelfth Imam, is regarded as the only true and pure Islam. This is the conventional wisdom in Iran; all other variations of Islam are seen as false and corrupt. The Sunni version, the demographically dominant sect, is particularly singled out. This partly reflects the early history of perceived Shia suffering as a minority sect and partly the fact that Iran's contemporary regional rivals adhere to Sunni Islam. The Iranian leadership has been quick to emphasize the ideological connection of Daesh and the Sunnis. For example, Ali Mosavi Khalkhali wrote:
Sunnis are not alien to the extreme ideas of Daesh. Sunnis don't regard Daesh as negating their beliefs, but taking them too far to the extreme. That is why we don't see any Arab and Sunni country condemn the inhuman behaviour of Daesh in Iraq and Syria; at best they have remained silent.29
The predominance of this view among the Iranian leadership and the rejection of Sunni powers as behind-the-scenes Daesh allies, steers Iran's foreign policy in a direction reminiscent of the early days following the 1979 revolution.
In Iran's worldview, the principal belief that informs its strategic thinking is the notion of the Islamic Republic as a vanguard of Islamic revolution, surrounded by powers conspiring in its demise. This worldview, harkening back to the early days of the revolution, is reinforced by anti-Shia rhetoric and Daesh's behavior, particularly its assumed support from Arab states. Responding to Daesh, therefore, is not simply an ideological challenge; it is closely tied to state security. According to the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, if Iran does not stand up to Daesh in Iraq and Syria today, it will be fighting Daesh inside its borders tomorrow.30 Ali Shamkhani made this comment at the funeral of an Iranian commander killed in action against Daesh in Samara.31 The fight is seen as imperative for national defense.
This strategic perspective imposes obvious limitations on the way Iran can engage with regional powers. Not surprisingly, relations with its Arab neighbors have suffered a major setback. President Rouhani and his team operate within this framework and do not stray too far from the core assumptions of the regime. Even Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, credited with bringing professionalism and an adherence to diplomatic protocols to Iran's international behavior, has advocated this worldview. Addressing a university gathering in Tehran, Zarif promised that Iran will not succumb to the international "campaign of Iranophobia."32
This concept has gained currency in foreign-policy circles and is evoked repeatedly to de-legitimize international pressure on Iran. That pressure was essentially concerned with Iran's nuclear program, but the Iranian leadership sees the rise of Daesh and accusations of Iranian expansionism as evidence of an Iranophobic trend that is gaining momentum. Iran sees Saudi Arabia and Israel as key players pushing Iranophobia, while the attitude towards the United States varies slightly between reformists and conservatives. The Foreign Ministry is inclined to see the United States as susceptible to Iranophobic lobbying and views the U.S. response to Daesh and Iran as largely influenced by Iran's regional rivals. Highlighting tensions, Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdullahian claimed that Tehran has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia to refrain from accusing Iran of "occupying Syria." Saudi Arabia, he continued, is pursuing an Iranophobic agenda on the international stage and fanning the fires of sectarianism in the region.33
The recent descent of the region into sectarian warfare has limited the scope of activity for those who would typically challenge conservative interpretations of Islamic power in Iran. Perhaps the most explicit and daring articulation of dissent was by Mostafa Tajzadeh, who linked the rise of Daesh to the absence of democracy and a lack of legitimate avenues for political expression.34 Others have been less categorical, but still critical, of the record of Shia intolerance of other sects. This has only served to alienate Sunni Muslims. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a longstanding member of the clerical elite and more recently allied with the reformist camp, argued that Shia condemnation of the Sunnis has paved the way for the rise of Daesh. Rafsanjani, in an act of political daring, warned against "Shia extremism."35 He was rebuked by the conservative daily Keyhan for subscribing to the Saudi narrative of sectarianism in Iraq and mocked for his efforts to normalize Iran-Saudi relations when in office (1989-97).36 Nonetheless, calls for moderation and warnings against stoking the fires of sectarianism have become a key message of those in the reformist camp. Mir Mahmoud Mousavi, former ambassador to India and Pakistan, for example, lamented how frequently those in power express ill-informed opinions that alienate minority groups. He went on to say that Daesh and other extremist groups find oxygen in an atmosphere of ignorance and intolerance.37
The crisis in Iraq was a hot topic in the Iranian media in 2014. The growing international unease with Al-Maliki's government in addressing Iraq's slide into anarchy appeared to be contagious, as Iranian commentators hinted at the failure of Al-Maliki to form a truly representative government. In August 2014, the reformist-inclined online journal Iranian Diplomacy published a paper laying the blame squarely at Al-Maliki's feet. The author argued that even Ayatollah Sistani (the highest Shia authority in Iraq) was no longer supporting Al-Maliki because he had driven an exclusivist policy that favored only his supporters, fanning the flames of sectarianism.38 This assessment was echoed by Iran's former ambassador to Lebanon, who warned other countries to learn from the failings of Al-Maliki and work towards inclusive governments.39 Mohammad Ali Sobhani asked rhetorically, could Daesh have grown so fast in Iraq if Al-Maliki had incorporated the Sunni community into his government and established national solidarity?
The recurrent theme in reformist commentary was democracy and inclusive government as the antidote to Daesh. In a passionate piece, Sadeq Ziba Kalam argued that Iran cannot allow Daesh to take root because Daesh stands against all human rights, ethnic-minority rights, women's rights, and freedom of expression and thought. "This is a battle between democracy and dictatorship," he said.40 This argument reverberated among the Iranian intelligentsia. A former ambassador to Syria, for example, argued in the reformist-inclined online publication Tabnak that Daesh's ideology is inherently intolerant and exclusivist, sharing a conceptual foundation with dictatorial regimes.41 Casting the crisis in these terms obviously alluded to the reformist agenda in Iran. The unspoken but obvious inference was that intolerance of dissent and suppression of freedom led to a crisis of confidence and ultimately civil war.
With growing unease about Al-Maliki's leadership, his handover of power to newly appointed Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi was welcomed widely in Tehran as an important step forward. For those broadly inclined with the reformist agenda, this was a necessary move. Al-Abadi was expected to regain the confidence of the Sunni population and form a government of national reconciliation. This was even tacitly endorsed by Supreme Leader Khamenei, who welcomed Prime Minister Al-Abadi on his first official visit abroad and urged him to mend the Shia-Sunni rift in Iraq.42 The reformist camp gained heart from this shift, hoping that a change of tack in Iraq could have future reverberations in Iran.
President Rouhani's task of bringing Iran out of isolation has encountered a difficult challenge. The threat to Iran's regional allies, Syria and Iraq, has forced Iran to take action to protect its strategic reach. In Tehran's assessment, Iran's geostrategic sphere of influence would seriously shrink if Bashar Al-Assad fell to Sunni (potentially pro-Western) rebels, and if Iraq were broken up along sectarian and ethnic lines. Iraq's territorial integrity and the continued rule of the Assad regime are integral to Iran's fortunes in the region. Rouhani's team cannot avoid these urgent matters, even if it has no direct control over the fast-moving crisis. Events beyond Iran's borders and actions by some Iranian players have created a difficult environment for Rouhani and his team. The involvement of Quds Commander Soleimani in the fight against Daesh, for example, did not require presidential endorsement. The IRGC is directly answerable to the supreme leader, not the president, and has enjoyed significant autonomy to pursue its own agenda on matters it perceives as impinging on Iran's national security. The actions of the IRGC, however, reflect on the country as a whole, ensuring that the Iranian diplomatic corps has had a difficult task, first denying and then justifying the presence of Iranian military personnel in the Syrian and Iraqi theaters of war.
Iran does not wish to be seen as a Shia state, but finds it difficult to stay true to its vision of a united Islamic umma. Daesh has set a sectarian agenda for Iran which the authorities seem unable to circumvent. In responding to the Daesh threat, Iran has relied on its established partnership with the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and Shia militia groups, while coordinating Hezbollah operations in Syria. In that sense, Iran has become a reluctant Shia power in the region. Only the alliance with the Sunni Kurds defies the sectarian logic, but it is largely overlooked in the Arab world, due to the non-Arab lineage of the Kurds. From the perspective of Arab capitals, Iran has doubled its push to drive a sectarian wedge between Arabs, a notion that harks back to the early years of Islam and conflict between Arabs and Iranians. The conflation of the Shia sect and Iran is proving difficult for Tehran to shake.
Iran's woes have been exacerbated by Shia clerics' frequent depiction of Shia Islam as pure and authentic. Iranian commentaries reject the extremism of Daesh and use the term takfiri as a scornful reminder of Daesh labeling of other Muslims as kafir. At the same time, the predominant view points to the ideological connection between Daesh and Sunni Islam (especially Wahhabism). Sunni Islam is delegitimized and belittled as imperfect and a sectarian deviation. This exclusivist approach is a mirror image of other religious-exclusivist claims to the truth. Iranian leaders use Islam and Shia interchangeably and reinforce the message that other sects in Islam are false and illegitimate.
In this harsh regional environment, Rouhani's agenda of running a government of moderation and wisdom has come under severe strain from forces outside his control. Iran's deep involvement in the sectarian conflict has served the hardliners' Manichean position depicting Iran's regional rivals working in concert with the United States and Israel against the Islamic Republic of Iran. This dominant narrative imposes serious limitations on Rouhani's efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's international isolation. Complaints of pervasive "Iranophobia" by Foreign Minister Zarif is a symptom of how the ideological narrative permeates Iran's engagement with the outside world. This unfavorable international environment makes the objective of normalizing Iran's standing in the international community harder to achieve.
1 Robin Wright and Peter Baker, "Iraq, Jordan See Threat to Election from Iran," Washington Post, December 8, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43980-2004Dec7.html.
2 Robert Fisk, "Iran to Send 4,000 Troops to Aid President Assad Forces in Syria," Independent, June 16, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-to-send-4000-troops-to-aid-president-assad-forces-in-syria-8660358.html.
3 "Rouhani Said to Assad: We Will Do Our Best to Help Syrian People," BBC Persian, November 28, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/11/131128_l45_iram_syria_assad_rouhani.shtml.
4 "Iran Boosts Military Support in Syria to Bolster Assad," Reuters, February 21, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/21/us-syria-crisis-iran-idUSBREA1K09U20140221.
5 "Qassem Suleimani: Commander of Quds Force, Puppeteer of the Middle East," The Guardian, June 17, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/16/qassim-suleimani-iraq-iran-syria.
6 Al-Alam, July 6, 2014, http://fa.alalam.ir/news/1608645.
7 "Iranian Commander Confirms Quds Force Chief Was in Iraq," Reuters, September 24, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/24/iraq-crisis-iran-soleimani-idUSL6N0RP3T020140924.
8 "Without Iran, ISIL Would Have Taken Control of Kurdistan / Commander Suleimani Stopped ISIL Entering Irbil with 70 Soldiers," Tansim News, September 24, 2014, http://www.tasnimnews.com/Home/Single/508313.
9 "Martyr of Commander Allahdadi in Islamic Resistance Territory," Sepah, January 19, 2015, http://www.sepahnews.com/shownews.Aspx?ID=696c1731-07ee-414d-aa8e-9e9c32b4aaf1.
11 IRNA, October 13, 2014, http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/81347455/.
12Tasnim News, February 16, 2015, http://www.tasnimnews.com/Home/Single/656556.
13Tasnim News, October 13, 2014, http://tnews.ir/news/2DFD31724384.html.
14 Iran Student News Agency, October 15, 2014, http://bit.ly/1CHweRT.
15 Farzad Poorsaied, "New Terrorism and Iran's National Interests," Faslname Mutale'at Rahbordi [Strategic Studies Quarterly] vol. 9, no. 34 (2007): 837, http://www.ensani.ir/fa/content/120682/default.aspx.
16 Faramarz Taqilo, "Shia-Sunni Gap in Political Islam and the Consequences for Iran," Faslname Mutale'at Rahbordi [Strategic Studies Quarterly] vol. 10, no. 37 (2008): 531, http://quarterly.risstudies.org/article_949_144.html.
17 Barzin Zarqami et al., "Shia Geopolitics or Shia Crescent," Pazhoheshhaye Goghrafiyaye Ensani [Human Geography Research] vol. 46, no. 1 (2014): 212, http://jhgr.ut.ac.ir/article_50600_6871.html.
18 Cited in Abdollah Moradi, Borhan, June 7, 2014, http://borhan.ir/NSite/FullStory/News/?Id=7261.
19 Office of the Leader, March 20, 2008, http://www.leader.ir/langs/fa/index.php?p=bayanat&id=3744.
20 IRIB World Service, August 23, 2012, http://bit.ly/1L0nYRB.
21 Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). 93.
22 Seyed Baqer Seyednejad, "Salafism in Iraq and Its Impact on Iran," Faslname Mutale'at Rahbordi [Strategic Studies Quarterly] vol. 13, no. 47 (2010), 117, http://fa.journals.sid.ir/ViewPaper.aspx?ID=126307.
23 Mohammad Taqi Hosseini, "Changing Role of Iran and the Future Challenges," Faslname Siyasat Khareji [Foreign Policy Quarterly], no. 87 (2008): 879, http://fp.ipisjournals.ir/article_9678_1640.html.
25 Ettelaat, June 13, 2014, http://bit.ly/1L3KRXt.
26 "Iran will Do Everything to Protect Iraq Shrines: Hassan Rouhani," Tribune, June 18, 2014, http://tribune.com.pk/story/723618/iran-will-do-everything-to-protect-iraq-shrines-hassan-rouhani/.
27Kayhan, December 2, 2014, http://bit.ly/1CHhZwk.
28 ISNA, December 13, 2014, http://bit.ly/1QrPDBU.
29 Iranian Diplomacy, August 1, 2014, http://bit.ly/1FVU0Kf.
30Fars News, December 29, 2014, http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13931008000241.
31Mashregh News, December 31, 2014, http://bit.ly/1B9tpO1.
32 Ministry for Foreign Affairs (December 2, 2014), http://mfa.ir/?siteid=1&fkeyid=&siteid=148&pageid=176&newsview=317011.
33 Ministry for Foreign Affairs (November 20, 2014), http://mfa.ir/index.aspx?fkeyid=&siteid=1&pageid=128&newsview=315713.
34 Published on the reformist site Kalame (October 12, 2014), http://www.kaleme.com/1393/07/20/klm-200131/.
35 Tabnak, November 9, 2014, http://bit.ly/1HsGG52.
36Kayhan, November 11, 2014, http://bit.ly/1JuQmyd.
37 "ISIL Roots in Ignorance, Dictatorship and Discrimination," Kaleme, September 13, 2014, http://www.kaleme.com/1393/06/22/klm-197555/.
38 Iranian Diplomacy, August 23, 2014, http://bit.ly/1S8pjKh.
39 Khabar Online, November 5, 2014, http://khabaronline.ir/detail/383551.
40Shafaqna, October 16, 2014, http://bit.ly/1Gwp1ZV.
41 Hussein Sheikhul, "Islam in Tabnak," October 23, 2014, http://bit.ly/1g7MkPW.
42 Website of the Supreme Leader, October 21, 2014, http://www.leader.ir/langs/fa/index.php?p=contentShow&id=12508.