Is Tehran aspiring to build an Islamic empire or not? All the evidence points to a positive answer to this question. Problem is, Tehran vehemently denies any such ambitions knowing that admitting to doing so would only increase the distrust and anger of its Arab neighbors.
So instead of saying so out loud, it does so under-cover, by political meddling, toppling antagonistic regimes and “helping” countries it desires to bring under its fold. Thus, it has rightly deserved the title of “King of the Meddle East“.
From the “Greater Iranian Empire” to the “Global Islamic Awakening”
Over a month ago, Rouhani’s chief adviser on Ethnic and Religious Minorities (and former Intelligence Minister) Ali Younesi’s spoke about a “Greater Iranian Empire” with Baghdad as its capital. Younesi was quite clear about Iran’s role in the region: “We are protecting the interests of [all] the people in the region — because they are all Iran’s people,” he said. “We must try to once again spread the banner of Islamic-Iranian unity and peace in the region. Iran must bear this responsibility, as it did in the past.” The reactions from all sides were fierce: Neighboring Arab countries decried that Younesi’s aspirations was targeting them while Iranian leaders chose the “lost in translation” strategy together with calls to dismiss Younesi.
It’s notable that Khamenei did not have anything to say about this since he himself has been speaking of a vision of a “Global Islamic Awakening” which would finally dominate the world after centuries of subjugation to the “colonialist powers”.
In all probability, Younesi’s vision echoes Khamenei’s and reflects a deep yearning to bring back the glory of the golden days of a Persian empire, this time under the flag of the Islamic revolution.
“Foreign Interference” vs. “Help” in Syria and Yemen
Iran has active fighting forces in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and political/military forces in Lebanon and in Gaza. In all these countries, Tehran is financing and deploying troops for the sides which are sympathetic to the Islamic Revolution.
In the case of Syria, Tehran’s involvement definitely saved Assad from caving under the rebel forces and in the process has prolonged a long, internal and bloody civil war. But at every chance, Iranian leaders and diplomats would warn the world that Syria should handle its own business without foreign interference as if Tehran’s involvement was not “foreign interference”. Just to make things clearer, according to Khamenei, Iran isn’t meddling in Syria’s business, it is “protecting” it. Iran vows to stand by Assad against the “Tafkiri terrorists” (calling the rebels “terrorists” is a PR move) even though Assad himself said that Iranian troops are not fighting in Syria…if all of this sounds confusing, it’s meant to be. The simple truth is problematic for Iran to admit: As far as Tehran is concerned, Syria will be part of its empire.
The same pattern is evident in Yemen except that this time, Tehran is supporting rebels against the Yemenite government. Once again, Houthi rebels sympathetic to Tehran and the Islamic Revolution were financed and supported by Tehran directly or through Hezbollah militia. Once again Iran is dedicated to “help” Yemen because, as FM Amir-Abdollahian put it, Yemen’s security is tantamount to Iran’s security. And once again, FM Zarif issued a warning to the world to not get involved in Yemen while at the same time, calling for a new Yemenite government.
The hypocrisy of Iranian diplomacy in regards to Syria and Yemen is most evident in the statements of Iranian deputy FM Sarmadi. According to him, Iran is simply “seeking restoration of regional peace, stability through dialogue” and that “Syria and Yemen should determine their own fates“…yeah, maybe…as long as Iran is on the winning side.