If there’s one thing the mullahs in Tehran take very seriously, it’s the “revolution”, meaning the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, is a self-professed “revolutionary” who places “revolutionary ideals” above the welfare of the Iranian citizens. One would think that since the revolution happened over 37 years ago, the regime in Tehran would have moved on but the power of the regime lies in keeping its revolutionary ideals alive or as FM Javad Zarif claimed, “without revolutionary goals we do not exist …our revolutionary goals are what distinguish us from other countries”. Perhaps this is what Henry Kissinger meant when he said that Tehran was acting less as a country than a cause.
But the revolution doesn’t end within the borders of Iran: Tehran is duty–bound by Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision to “Export the Revolution” in order to save the “oppressed” from the “oppressors” in all corners of the world. This vision, as Zarif claims, is meant to “change the international order”. This may sound naïve, dangerous, incredible, ambitious etc… to anyone looking from the sidelines but to the governments of the countries who are targeted to “Import the Revolution”, this is definitely worrisome because none of these governments want to be deposed by a revolution.
The mechanics of exporting a revolution are actually quite simple: Set up and support Shiite “cultural” centers in order to recruit and empower local Shiite leaders who are then trained in Iran to “sell” the Islamic revolution to their followers through a mixture of democracy and subversion with the aid of Iran’s terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s part in the exporting the revolution is to militarize the struggle. Of course, on the way, the local revolutionaries will have to deal with the resistance of the governments which they want to overthrow and people are bound to be imprisoned or killed on the way, but, hey, what’s a revolution without casualties?
Nigeria was targeted by Tehran as a potential country to which the revolution might be exported to and Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky was the Shiite cleric to spearhead it. Zakzaky watched in awe as the Islamic Revolution replaced the Iranian monarchy with an Islamic regime in 1979 and felt that such a revolution might be feasible for Nigeria. Zakzaky founded the Islamic movement in Nigeria in order to “to ensure more stringent application of Islamic legal and administrative systems…then ultimately to create an Islamic state in Nigeria” and claimed that “there is no government except that of Islam”. The fact that only half of Nigerians are Muslim and only a small portion of these are Shiites might make Zakzaky’s goals seem out of touch but this only served to impress Tehran.
Zakzaky, a frequent visitor in Tehran, was making progress…too much progress in the eyes of the Nigerian government. After a number of arrests for “civil disobedience” the Nigerian government finally had enough and in December 2015, Zakzaky’s compound was raided, hundreds of his followers were killed and Zakzaky himself was wounded (he lost one eye and is partially paralyzed) and arrested. Furthermore, Shiite organizations were banned in certain areas of Nigeria as fears spread that a revolution really was under way.
Tehran shifted gears and began to apply as much diplomatic pressure as it could in order to free Zakzaky and to reignite the revolutionary ideals. Tehran claimed that the crackdown on Zakzaky was “Illegal and unfair” and that Nigeria should focus more on “Takfiri terrorism” (Boko Haram) and less on “legitimate” Shiite organizations. The attack on Zakzaky and his followers was, in the eyes of Tehran, an act of “genocide” and the Nigerian government was responsible for Zakzaky’s welfare. According to Tehran, Zakzaky’s “posed no danger” to Nigeria despite his numerous claims to lead a revolution in Nigeria.
The Iranian ambassador in Nigeria, Saeed Koozechi, increased the pressure by claiming that Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement was a “peaceful religious group that has no connection to extremism” and Zakzaky was imprisoned only because he was “fighting corruption”. “The Shiites are a small minority group in Nigeria. They engage in peaceful religious activities and they are not harmful to anyone. We have never heard of unrest and extremism from the Shiite followers in Nigeria”. Furthermore, he pontificated that “the Shiites are Nigerians too and they have rights like other citizens. The government shouldn’t pour fuel on fire” and that the Nigerian government should compensate “for the damage on those who suffered losses during the bloody clash”. Koozechi’s statements were obviously not welcomed in Nigeria and earned him a one-way ticket back to Tehran.
Tehran didn’t stop the pressure and steered the narrative to issues of religious freedom and democracy. Tehran went further to claim that the Nigerian government’s aggressive acts were “violent and brutal measures by extremists and Wahhabi-affiliated forces against Shias”. Tehran, which claims to try to unify all Muslims all over the world, returned easily to the Sunni-Shiite divide. Meanwhile, more Iranian diplomatic pressure was focused on Nigeria as Zarif visited Nigeria but the Nigerian government made it clear that Zakzaky was an internal issue which did not merit any foreign intervention, least of all from Tehran. The Nigerian government, just like the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen, made it very clear that it doesn’t want to import Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.
But if there is one thing that can be learned from Tehran’s efforts to export the revolution, is that Tehran is persistent and patient. As long as there are Shiites who feel oppressed by local governments, Tehran will continue to instigate an Islamic revolution. And as long as Tehran keeps on trying to export the revolutions, local governments will be forced to continue to block the import of such a revolution by imprisoning or killing the leaders of the local revolutions.