The current developments in Syria and the evolution of the Iran-inspired Shi’a movements in the region brought to the attention the Shi’a extremism’s expansion, seen by the analysts as a possible new “export of the Islamic Revolution”, or an effort to impose so-called “Mahdi governments” controlled by the Shiite religious authorities in Qom, thus maintaining the influence of Tehran and preserving the “Shi’a Axis” from southern Afghanistan in the East to Syria and Lebanon in the West.

a) According to the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community”, presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on 12 March 2013, in its efforts to spread influence abroad and undermine the United States and our allies, Iran is trying to exploit the fighting and unrest in the Arab world. It supports surrogates, including Palestinian militants engaged in the recent conflict with Israel. To take advantage of the US withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it will continue efforts to strengthen political and economic ties with central and local governments, while providing select militants with lethal assistance”.

Regarding the terrorist threat, the document also mentions that the U.S. is also facing “uncertainty about potential threats from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, which see the United States and Israel as their principal enemies”.

b) The assessment was confirmed by a declaration of Major General Aviv Kochavi, director of military intelligence in the Israel defense forces (IDF), who said, at the beginning of March 2013, that, according to his service, Iran and Hezbollah have already built a 50,000-strong parallel force in Syria, to help prolong the life of the Assad regime and to maintain their influence after his fall. He also said that Iran intended to double the size of this Syrian “people’s army”, which was being trained by Hezbollah fighters and funded by Tehran.

The current declarations of Aviv Kochavi are confirming previous accusations of Western and Israeli governments that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are advising Assad’s generals operationally, with strategic consultation, intelligence and weapons and that Hezbollah guerillas are fighting alongside Syrian government troops. Israeli officials also say that the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, has been in Damascus to oversee operations. According to the Israeli head of military intelligence, Iran plans to increase this parallel force to 100,000, in preparation for Assad’s fall, when they will use this army to protect their assets and interests in Syria.

Such evolutions are seen as an effort of Tehran to prevent the diminishing of its influence in Syria and Lebanon as well as in Iraq, where massive Sunni protests against the Shiite government in Baghdad already are under way. In Syria, the Sunni rebellion also gained steam, in no small part due to Israeli and Western efforts to deprive Iran of its Mediterranean foothold in the Levant. Not surprisingly, during his March 2013 visit to the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama declared he was concerned about Syria becoming “an enclave” for extremist groups, saying that is why the U.S. continues working with partners to support a viable Syrian opposition.

c) The current evolution of the Shiite, Iran-inspired movements are also worrying Saudi Arabia, thus leading to its decision to support the Sunni jihadist anti-Assad movements in Syria. According to the intelligence analysts of Stratfor, the government in Riadh considers that such a support would help to break the arc of Shiite influence that reaches from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Having lost the Sunni counterweight to Iranian power in the region with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the installation of a Shiite-led government friendly to Iran, the Saudis view the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni regime in Syria as a dramatic improvement to their national security.

Such complex evolutions brought to a new attention the specific features of Shi’a Islam, especially of its main branch called the “Imami” or the “Twelver” Shiites, which is the one of the main ideological source of Iran’s “Islamic Revolution”, as well as of the Shiite movements in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.


I. The religious sources of the Shi’a extremism


The Imami or “Twelver” is the largest branch of Shi’a Islam and it takes its name from the belief in twelve divinely ordained leaders, known as the Twelve Imams, among which a special importance is given to the Twelfth Imam, known as “the Mahdi”, who is in occultation (hiding) and will come back to Earth before the Judgment day.

The Twelver faith is in majority in countries like Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, and forms a plurality in Lebanon. Alevis in Turkey and Albania and Alawis of Syria also regard themselves as Twelvers, but hold significantly different beliefs from mainstream Twelver Shiites. The Twelver faith also forms large minorities in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Twelvers believe that the descendants of Prophet Muhammad – through his daughter Fatimah and his son-in-law Ali –  are the best source of knowledge about the Koran and Islam, the most trusted carriers and protectors of Muhammad’s Sunnah (traditions) and the most worthy of emulation. They recognize the succession of Ali, the first man to accept Islam (second only to Muhammad’s wife Khadijah). Ali is the male head of the Ahl al-Bayt or “people of the [Prophet’s] house” and the father of Muhammad’s only bloodline, as opposed to that of the caliphate recognized by Sunni Muslims.

Ahl al-Bayt is an Arabic phrase literally meaning “people of the House”, or “family of the House”, and it was used in Arabia before the advent of Islam to refer to one’s clan, and would be adopted by the ruling family of a tribe. Within the Islamic tradition, the term refers to the family of Prophet Muhammad. The members of Ahl al-Bayt are particularly important to Shi’a Muslims because they generally derive their hadiths from the Ahl-al-Bayt and their close associates. In Shi’a thought, the household is limited to Muhammad, Fatimah, Ali, Hasan, Husayn, and their descendants (altogether known as the Ahl al-Kisa). The Ahl al-Kisa, together with the Imams, make up the Shi’a definition of Ahl al-Bayt. Ahl al-Bayt members are seen as divinely appointed individuals and teachers of the Islamic faith after Muhammad.

Twelvers also believe that Ali was appointed as a successor by Muhammad’s direct order, and therefore he is the rightful leader of the Muslim faith. He is also supposed to be the author of the Nahj al-Balagha (“Peak of Eloquence”), the most famous collection of sermons, letters, tafsirs (interpretation, exegesis) and narrations.  It is considered a masterpiece of literature in Shi’a Islam, third only to the Koran and Prophetic narrations. Nahj al-Balagha comprises various issues that cover major problems of metaphysics, theology, fiqh, tafsir, hadith, prophetology, imamate, ethics, social philosophy, history, politics, administration, civics, science, rhetoric, poetry, and literature. The book not only reflects the spirit of early Islam, but also serves as a guide to traverse the future in the light of these teachings.

The Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to Muhammad. According to the theology of Twelvers, the successor of Muhammad is an infallible human individual who not only rules over the community with justice, but also is able to keep and interpret the Sharia and its esoteric meaning. The Prophet’s and Imams’ words and deeds are a guide and model for the community to follow; as a result, they must be free from error and sin, and must be chosen by divine decree, or nass, through Muhammad. The Imamat, or belief in the divine guide is a fundamental belief in Shi’a Islam and is based on the concept that God would not leave humanity without access to divine guidance.

According to Twelvers, there is always an Imam of the Age (also mentioned as Lord of the Age), who is the divinely appointed authority on all matters of faith and law in the Muslim community. Ali was the first Imam of this line and, in the Twelvers’ view, the rightful successor to the Prophet of Islam, followed by male descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah. Each Imam was the son of the previous Imam, with the exception of Husayn ibn Ali, who was the brother of Hasan ibn Ali. The twelfth and final Imam is Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is believed by the Twelvers to be currently alive, and in hiding.


The Mahdi

Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Ali, or al-Mahdi (the “Guided One”), is the twelfth Imam and the savior of mankind and prophesied redeemer of Islam. Twelvers believe that the Mahdi has been hidden by God and will later emerge to change the world into a perfect and just Islamic society alongside Jesus (Isa bin Maryam) before the Yaum al-Qiyamah (literally “Day of the Resurrection” or “Day of the Standing”).

The idea of the Mahdi has a historical precedence in ancient Zoroastrian beliefs, and the notion of a promised savior is present in Persian literature and poetry. Abol-Ghasem Ferdowsi (935-1020), the author of “Shahnameh” (The book of kings), Iran’s national epic, wrote that a “noble man” would appear in Iran and “will spread the religion of God to the four corners of the world”.

The Twelver Shiites believe that Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdi was born in 869 and assumed the Imamate at 5 years of age. He did not die but was hidden by God in 941 (the Occultation) and will later emerge with Isa (Jesus Christ) in order to fulfill their mission of bringing peace and justice to the world.

The most popular account of al-Mahdi in Shi’a literature is referring to his father’s funeral. It is reported that as the funeral prayer was about to begin, al-Mahdi’s uncle, Jafar ibn Ali approached to lead the prayers. However, al-Mahdi approached and commanded, “Move aside, uncle; only an Imam can lead the funeral prayer of an Imam”. Jafar moved aside, and the five-year-old child led the funeral prayer for his father. It is reported that it was at this very moment that al-Mahdi disappeared and went into ghaybat, or occultation. The period of occultation is divided into two parts:

  • Ghaybat al-Sughra or Minor Occultation (874–941 AD), the first few decades after the Imam’s disappearance, when communication with him was maintained through deputies of the Imam. In 941 AD, the last deputy announced an order by al-Mahdi, that the deputyship would end and the period of the Major Occultation would begin.
  • Ghaybat al-Kubra or Major Occultation began in 941 and is believed to continue until a time decided by Allah, when the Mahdi will reappear to bring absolute justice to the world. Another view is that the Hidden Imam is on earth “among the body of the Shi’a” but “incognito”. There are several stories according to which the Hidden Imam is “manifesting himself to prominent members of the ulama (scholars)”.

Shiites believe that Imam al-Mahdi will reappear when the world has fallen into chaos and civil war emerges for no reason. At this time, it is believed, half of the true believers will ride from Yemen, carrying white flags to Makkah, while the other half will ride from Karbala, in Iraq, carrying black flags to Makkah. At this time, Imam al-Mahdi will come wielding Ali’s Sword, Zulfiqar the Double-Bladed Sword. Shiites believe that Jesus will also come and follow the Imam Mahdi to destroy tyranny and falsehood and to bring justice and peace to the world. Isa will return to aid the Mahdi against Masih ad-Dajjal (“the false Messiah”) and his followers. He will descend at the point of a white arcade, east of Damascus, dressed in yellow robes with his head anointed. He will then join the Mahdi in his war against the Dajjal. Isa will slay Dajjal, and unite humanity. The battle would commence at Kufa – an Iraqi town near the holy city of Najaf.

The Redeemer will not only re-establish Islam, but all Abrahamic faiths, to their wholesomeness and new veracity, creating “submission to God”, the worldwide religion.

In this aspect it was noted that Judaism, Christianity and Islam come from one spiritual source. The unifying characteristic of Abrahamic religions is that all accept that God revealed himself to the patriarch Abraham. All are monotheistic and conceive God to be a transcendent Creator-figure and the source of moral law. Their sacred narratives feature many of the same figures, histories, and places in each, although they often present them with different roles, perspectives, and meanings.

Jewish tradition claims origins in Abraham, the first of the three spiritual “fathers” (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Christians refer to Abraham as a “father in faith”. The Islamic religious term Millat Ibrahim (“faith of Ibrahim”) indicates that Islam sees itself as having practices tied to the traditions of Abraham.

  • In the Torah, Abraham is recorded as the ancestor of the Israelites through his son Isaac, born to Sarah through a promise made in Genesis.
  • The first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, mentions the same ancestry claim.
  • In the Islamic tradition, Muhammad, as an Arab, descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael. Jewish tradition also equates the descendants of Ishmael, Ishmaelites, with Arabs.

The Mahdi will also convey knowledge to manhood by enlightening the obscure secrets of Holy Scriptures. The whole world will be taken to submission. Powers of inequality and obliviousness will be all eliminated, the earth will be inflated with justice and wisdom, and mortality revitalized by knowledge. The Mahdi accordingly prepares the world for the last trial of the ultimate reappearance of the Last Judgment.

According to various scholars, in Shi’a Islam, among the signs that presage the advent of the Mahdi there is a conflict in the land of Syria, until it is destroyed, as well as death and fear for the people of Baghdad and Iraq.

Some Shi’a schools do not consider ibn-Hasan to be the Mahdi, although the majority of the Twelvers do. Sunnis and other Shiites believe that the Mahdi has not yet been born, and therefore his exact identity is only known to Allah. Besides the Mahdi’s genealogy, Sunnis accept many of the hadiths Shiites accept about the predictions regarding the Mahdi’s emergence, his acts and his universal Caliphate.

A significant position is that of the Pakistani Islamic revivalist Abul Ala Maududi (1903–1979), who stated that the Mahdi will be an Islamic reformer/statesman, who will unite the Ummah and revolutionize the world according to the ideology of Islam, but will never claim to be the Mahdi, receiving only posthumous recognition as such.

From religion to politics: Mahdism, Velayat-e Faqih and Islamic revolution

Twelver Shi’a Muslims consider Ali and the subsequent eleven Imams not only religious guides but political leaders, based on a hadith where Muhammad passes on to Ali his power to command Muslims. Since the last Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into “occultation” in 939 and is only expected back at the end of times, the Shiite remained without a governance sanctioned by the religious authority.

With the exception of the Fatimid dynasty, which lasted for nearly 200 years in Egypt, Tunisia and the Levant (A.D. 969-1172), the Shiites have lived for centuries without a state to protect them. This role was assumed by the Shiite jurists (fuqaha), which was a clever solution to preserve the sect. In the absence of the state, the faqih (jurist) was keen to serve his followers’ interests and therefore he legally established this through his guidance, “velayat-e faqih” (guardianship of the jurist), which would develop to become a rational concept. This was especially true at a moment when the survival of the sect was fraught with peril, in view of the pressures by the surrounding Sunni communities, which morphed into a conflict and wars between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Safavid Dynasty. This war dragged on for 16 years, between 1623 and 1639.

The Safavid dynasty was the first Shiite political regime in Iran that ruled from 1501 to 1722 (experiencing a brief restoration from 1729 to 1736) and at their height, they controlled all of modern Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia, most of Iraq, Georgia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus, as well as parts of Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. The Safavids established the Twelver school of Shi’a Islam as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in Muslim history. For this, Twelver ulema developed a theory of government which held that while “not truly legitimate”, the Safavid monarchy would be “blessed as the most desirable form of government during the period of awaiting” for Muhammad al-Mahdi, the twelfth imam.

Traditional Shi’a Islam follows a hadith where the Prophet Muhammad passes on his power to command Muslims to Ali, the first Imam. Since the descending line stopped with the occultation of the last Imam (the Mahdi), Shiite jurists tended to stick to one of three approaches to the state: cooperate with it, try to influence policies by becoming active in politics, or most commonly, ignoring it. The historic change from religion to politics came in the late 1970’s.

The change was brought by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Twelver scholar who stated that a leading jurist or jurists also have inherited the Prophet’s political authority. In an analysis of a saying attributed to the first Imam, Ali who, addressing a judge, said: “The seat you are occupying is filled by someone who is a prophet, the legatee of a prophet, or else a sinful wretch”, Khomeini reasoned that the term “judge” must refer to trained jurists (fuqaha) as they are “by definition learned in matters pertaining to the function of judge”, and since trained jurists are neither sinful wretches nor prophets, by process of elimination “we deduce from the tradition quoted above that the fuqaha are the legatees”. He went on to explain that legatees of the prophet have the same power to command Muslims as the Prophet Muhammad and (in Shi’a belief) the Imams. Thus, according to Khomeini, the saying “The seat you are occupying is filled by someone who is a prophet, the legatee of a prophet, or else a sinful wretch” demonstrates that Islamic jurists have the power to rule Muslims.

Khomeini gave several lectures on the topic while he was in exile in Iraq, in the holy city of Najaf, from January 21 to February 8, 1970, that formed the base for his book Velayat-e faqih (also known as Hokumat-i Eslami – “Islamic Government”, 1970). In this book, Khomeini argues that government should be run in accordance with Sharia, and for this to happen, a leading Islamic jurist (faqih) must provide political “guardianship”” (wilayat or velayat) over the people. He also stated that in a true Islamic state, those holding government posts should have knowledge of Sharia, and the country’s ruler should be a faqih who “surpasses all others in knowledge” of Islamic law and justice, as well as having intelligence and administrative ability.

Khomeini mentioned that several clerics preceded him in making what were “in effect” government rulings, thus establishing de facto Islamic Government by Islamic jurists. Other analysts noted that he also took earlier notions of political and juridical authority from Iran’s Safavid period. Another influence is said to be that of Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr[1], author of several books on developing Islamic alternatives to capitalism and socialism, and whom Khomeini met in Najaf.

Researchers in Liban believe that concept of velayat-e faqih was first launched by a prominent Shiite scholar, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Maki al-Jizini, who lived in the fourth century in the village of Jezzine, in the Jabal Amel region. Jizini wrote a book titled “al-Lum’ah ad-Dimashqiya” (The Damascene Glitter), in which the expression “Deputy Imam” was mentioned for the first time. This expression had become widespread and was said to be the basis for the faqih’s role in relation with his followers. In this context, it had been said that Jizini interpreted Shiism in a way to fill the power vacuum that lasted for more than four centuries, i.e. since the practical completion of the Imamate (since the disappearance of the last Imam of Ahl al-Bayt.

Iranian sources do not refer to the role of Jizini. They consider that the concept of the absolute state of the faqih is attributed to another scholar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Niraqi, who was born in Kashan, Iran and died in 1820. Niraqi wrote about “Velayet-e Faqih,” to detail Islamic rules and governance. Whether the sheikh gleaned his title from the idea of the “Deputy Imam” – which was first put forth by Jizini – or not, the Iranian literature on this subject says that Niraqi was the author of the idea and Ayatollah Khomeini was influenced by it.

Based on this concept, the supreme religious authority can act on behalf of the Hidden Imam. It has absolute power and is the legitimate ruler, which makes the fuqaha rulers of the kings.

A modified form of Khomeini’s doctrine was incorporated into the 1979 Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran following the success of his Iranian Revolution, and Ayatollah Khomeini, became the first faqih, “guardian” or Supreme Leader of Iran. Iran became the first nation-state in history to apply absolute velayat faqih in government. The “Guardianship” of the faqih in the Islamic Republic of Iran is represented not only by the Supreme Leader, who must be a cleric, but in other leading bodies, particularly the Assembly of Experts, whose members must be clerics, the Council of Guardians, half of whom must be clerics, and the courts.

Under Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e faqih, he became the “guardian of Muslims” and representative of the Mahdi in the “first government of God” on earth. He allowed the election of a parliament, the Majlis, but in May 1980 he commanded the elected deputies to offer their “services to Lord of the Age (the Mahdi), may God speed his blessed appearance”.

Khomeini and the framers of the Islamic Republic’s constitution established an important precedent: Both rationality and irrationality can be employed in the governance of a nation. This approach explains how the Islamic Republic has survived in the modern world even as it pursues a millennium-old philosophy in the face of a skeptical international community and despite a largely progressive and enlightened Iranian population.

A militant Mahdi-believer: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Since the time of Khomeini, paying lip service to the Hidden Imam has been a standard practice for Iranian officials. For example, shortly after leaving office, former president Mohammad Khatami delivered a philosophical speech during which he said that the “Lord of the Age will bring about a world government”, even though he claimed that “we have no mission to change the world”.

However, it was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who brought militant Mahdism into the light, by making it a focal point of his rhetoric. In 2004, an institute was set up for the study and dissemination of information about the Mahdi, and in September 2005, the government sponsored the first annual International Conference of Mahdism Doctrine in Tehran. The conference presented Mahdism as an ideology that could form the basis for world peace and unity across religions. Addressing the conference, Ahmadinejad said that the “Islamic Republic and the system of velayat-e faqih have no other mission but to prepare for the establishment of a world government . . . as the Imam (Mahdi) runs and manages the universe”. At the second conference in 2006, he said the “Mahdavi perception (Mahdism) and view are the perfect method for the administration and direction of the world”. Within that context, the conference determined not only that the Mahdi’s advent is “inevitable”, but also that it can be “accelerated” through human action.

One of the first acts of Ahmadinejad’s government was to give a ca. $17 million to the Jamkaran mosque east of Qom, where the link between devotees and the Mahdi is closest. His announced plans were to turn “the tiny Jamkaran mosque into a massive complex of prayer halls, minarets, car parks and ablutions”.

The mosque has been a sacred place since the 10th century, when a man called Sheikh Hassan ibn Muthlih Jamkarani is reported to have met the Mahdi, who asked him to finance the building of a mosque. The mosque’s reputation spread in the decade of 1995-2005 with more than a hundred thousand pilgrims attending the Tuesday prayer.

In a greeting to the world’s Christians for the year 2007, Ahmadinejad said he expected both Jesus and the Mahdi, to return and “wipe away oppression”. Following his address, the official Iranian radio broadcasted a series on the imminent appearance of the “Mahdi”, speculating on specific dates for his return and mentioning that after the coming of the Mahdi, “liberal democratic civilization” will be found only in “history museums”. This fuelled the comments that Ahmadinejad’s mystical pre-occupation with the coming of the Mahdi might be a sign that a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic could trigger the kind of global conflagration that would set the stage for the end of the world.

The Hojjatieh Society and the Haghani circle

Most analysts agree that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Mahdism is strongly influenced by the so-called “Hojjatieh Society” that is believed to be led by Ahmadinejad’s mentor and close spiritual advisor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi[2], who heads the influential Haghani Circle in Qom.

The “Hojjatieh” was founded by Shaikh Mahmud Halabi in 1953, under the name of “Anjoman-e Zedd-e Baha-iyat” (“the Anti-Baha’i Society”), since the group’s goals were to counter the Baha’i and their potential claims concerning the Mahdi (the Islamic clerics considered that the founder of the Bahai sect was a false Mahdi). The group also opposed both Sunnism and the Khomeinist concept of Velayat-e Faqih. Halabi is said to have worked with SAVAK, the security agency under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in exchange of the freedom to recruit members and raise funds, and by 1977 Hojjatieh is said to have had 12,000 members. However, since the Shah’s regime, in Halabi’s view, allowed the Baha’is too much freedom, he supported Khomeini’s movement to overthrow the Shah.

The “Anjoman” were involved in the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and it was said that Mahmud Ahmadinejad, then a student, was involved in the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran. However, in 1983 Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the group to disband, since the “Anjoman” were opposed to the “Velayat-e-Faqih” on the ground that a purely Islamic government in Iran would delay the arrival of the Mahdi.

Consequently, the “Anjoman” changed their name to the Arabicized “Hojjatiyya” (Farsi: Hojjatieh) which is the short version of “Anjoman-e Hojjatieh Mahdavieh” (“Allah’s proof over his creation”). The name originates from the word Hojjat (“proof”), and denotes one of the titles of the Mahdi. Many of the Hojjatieh were absorbed by the Iranian Islamic Coalition Society (“Jamiyat-e Motalifih-e Islami”) where they remained in relative obscurity, until the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran, to the presidency of Iran. Ahmadinejad evidenced the political transformation of “Hojjatieh” by stating that the main continuing mission of the Iranian revolution is to “pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam… We should define economic, cultural and political policies based upon the policy of Imam Mahdi’s return”.

An interesting aspect pointed by some analysts is that since the “Hojjatieh” believe Imam Mahdi will reappear again when the world has become full of oppression and tyranny, they do not oppose the spread of tyranny and oppression as a means to hasten to the return of the Imam Mahdi. Consequently, the “Hojjatieh” society has been described as a messianic sect that hopes to quicken the coming of the apocalypse in order to hasten the return of the Mahdi. However, other researchers consider that the idea that supporters want to bring back the Imam by violence, rather than wait piously and prepare for the imam’s eventual return is a misinterpretation of the society’s position, since the “Hojjatieh” was banned in part for its view that the Mahdi’s arrival could not be hastened.

Since the 1980s, “Hojjatieh” has been frequently cited in conspiracy theories which claim that real power lies in hands of people who are secretly affiliated with “Hojjatieh”. In 2005, a former chief of staff of Khomeini claimed that “the executive branch of the Iranian government as well as the troops of the Revolutionary Guards have been hijacked by the Hojjatieh, which now also controls Ahmadinejad”, even if this information was later considered to be spread by Ahmadinejad’s enemies.

The leader of the “Hojjatieh” is considered to be Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the religious mentor of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. A member of the Assembly of Experts[3] and director of the Imam Khomeini Institute, Mesbah-Yazdi (sometimes nicknamed “the Crocodile” because “Mesbah” sounds like the Farsi word for crocodile) is a leading proponent of Mahdism and a powerful senior cleric with great influence over Ahmadinejad, his government, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the security forces. He has been called “the most conservative” and the most “powerful” and “influential … clerical oligarch” in Iran’s leading center of religious learning, the city of Qom.

He is also one of the founders and current head and trainer of hard-line clerics at the Haqqani theological college (Haghani Circle) in Qom.

The Haghani Circle has its origin in the Haghani seminary, founded in 1964, which previously had been called Muntashiriya. In 1981, the hawza changed its name to Shahidan Seminary (Martyr Seminary).  It was originally conceived in a reform effort to strengthen the weight of philosophy in the hawza curriculum. The school trains clerics with both a traditional and modern curriculum, including a secular education in science, medicine, politics, and Western/non-Islamic philosophy. The Haghani Seminary has been described as “a kind of Ecole Nationale d’Administration for the Islamic Republic” whose alumni form the backbone of the clerical management class that runs Iran’s key political and security institutions. During Iran’s electoral periods, it is said to be common for candidates to visit the city to pay homage to Haghani religious leaders and receive their blessing. Many Haghani people serve in the security forces or in the military.

Analysts see the Haghani Circle as an aggressive school of radical Shi’a Islam, which lives in expectation of the imminent coming of the Mahdi, and its members believe they must act to speed the Mahdi’s coming. Among the theologians and influential figures in Iran’s politics associated (as teacher or student) with the Haghani Circle or follow its ideology there are Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehei (Minister of Intelligence and National Security-2005 – 2009, currently attorney-general of Iran) and Ali Fallahian (former Minister of Intelligence and National Security and former Prosecutor-General of the Special Court for the Clergy).

It is noteworthy that while “Hojjatieh” generally renounces all Islamic (and other) governments before the arrival of the twelfth Imam as illegitimate or at least unnecessary, Mesbah Yazdi recommends and gives full authority to the pre-messianic Islamic government. He also advocates the use of violence to promote the interests of Islam and seeks to purge the republican aspect of the Islamic Republic system in favor of a pure Islamic system, which his publications refer to as the nucleus of a Mahdi-led world. In 2005, one of Yazdi’s publications stressed that the “superiority of Islam over other religions is stressed in Koran, which calls on believers to wage war against unbelievers and prepare the way for the advent of the Mahdi and conquering the world”.

Mesbah-Yazdi even attributed Ahmadinejad’s  2005 election to the presidency to the will of the Mahdi. He is not the only senior cleric who endorses Ahmadinejad’s messianism. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the secretary-general of the Qom Seminary Lecturers’ Association, member of the Assembly of Experts, has also endorsed the president’s beliefs. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself characterized Ahmadinejad’s election to the presidency as the fulfillment of the “prayers of the Lord of the Age”.

However, after winning in controversial conditions the 2009 elections and beginning to oppose the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad seems to be losing the support of Mesbah-Yazdi, who recently called Ahmadinejad’s entourage “garbage” and said that the president has been “bewitched”. Several commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is said to have played a key role in Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 reelection, have also publicly denounced the president’s political clique, while vowing allegiance to the supreme leader.

Mesbah-Yazdi’s role as a central figure in promoting Mahdism is also important because both he and at least one influential disciple, Hojjatu’l-Islam Mohsen Gharavian, openly endorse the Islamic Republic’s acquisition of “special” (nuclear) weapons. Mesbah-Yazdi’s views and influence over Ahmadinejad and other spiritual pupils grows in importance because his religious edicts are obligatory for his followers. Even if Khamenei supposedly issued a fatwa (which was not made public) declaring that making nuclear weapons are contrary to Islamic teachings, Mesbah-Yazdi is theologically permitted to issue a contrary fatwa binding for his followers. As for the Mahdism context of these developments, Khamenei’s own words as commander in chief, cited on his website, are significant: “Becoming equipped with power is a lesson derived from belief in Mahdi”.

The Hawzas: towards a Shiite Vatican?

According to unconfirmed information, members of the “Hojjatieh” Society are also followers of the Iranian-born but Al-Najaf-based Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, head of the Al-Najaf’s hawza. Even if such a claim has not been confirmed, it helps to explain the official Iranian concern and strive to maintain a leading role for the Qom hawza, on which the regime bases much of its legitimacy and religious credentials. The Qom hawza would fear the transfer of prominence to the Al-Najaf hawza, which is claimed as going to become the “new Islamic Vatican” and is seen as a rival of Qom.

Mashhad, the birthplace of the “Hojjatieh” Society, also rivals Qom, especially because Qom looks to merge religion and politics, while Mashhad thinks of separating the two. Another cause of concern on the part of the Iranian government about Ayatollah al-Sistani (who was born in Mashhad and currently heads the Najaf hawza) is the fact that al-Sistani does not advocate “velayat-e faqih”.

In the Shiite theological education system, a hawza is a seminary of traditional Islamic school at a higher level, where clerics are trained. The hawza is led by several senior Grand Ayatollahs. The hawzas in Qom and Najaf are the most important seminary centers for the training of Shiite clergymen. Smaller hawzas exist in other cities, such as at Karbala in Iraq, Isfahan and Mashhad in Iran, as well as in India, Africa, Europe and North America. The hawza is not an organized theocracy with clear hierarchies and chains of authority, but rather it is bound by fervor, consensus and the devotion of its leaders and followers.

Qom is considered holy by Shi`a Islam, as it is the site of the shrine of Fatema Mæ’sume, sister of Imam Ali ibn Musa Rida (Persian Imam Reza, 789–816 AD). The city is the largest center for Shiite scholarship in the world, with an estimated 50,000 seminarians in the city coming from 70 countries, and is a significant destination of pilgrimage. Shiite academies existed in Qom dating back as early as 10th century, and the hawza became prominent at the time of the Safavids when Shi’a Islam became the official religion of Iran.

The hawza in Najaf, Iraq was founded in 430 AH (the 11th century AD) and remained the main centre of learning for the Shiites for over 1000 years until its decline in the 20th century. Its revival has begun after the fall of the Saddam regime but it is still considered small, with only a few thousand clerics. Besides Ayatollah Sistani, who heads the Najaf hawza, there are four other Ayatollahs.

The Mashhad center is also an important pilgrimage and scholarship center, since it developed around the Imam Reza shrine (the mausoleum of Reza, the eighth Imam) and a mosque that is the largest in the world by dimension and the second largest in capacity. The complex is known for his four seminaries and the Razavi University of Islamic Sciences.

Armed wings of the Mahdists: Iranian Hezbollah and Ansar-e-Hezbollah

A specific feature of militant Mahdism in Iran was the association of the hard-line clerics with violent groups. Such association between toughs and clerics became common during the era of weak government of the Qajar period, when prominent members of the ulama in any town associated themselves with a band of the town’s ruffians, known as lutis, to their mutual benefit. The ulama disposed of a violent group that would take to the street to oppose what the ulama opposed, and in turn, the lutis had a protector with whom they could take refuge if the government moved against them.

According to researchers, such groups became known as Hezbollah (Party of God), during the 1979 Islamic revolution, when they assisted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his forces in consolidating power.

Since Hezbollah was not and is still not a tightly structured independent organization, but more a movement of loosely bound groups, usually centered around a mosque, many researchers refer to the members of the group, the Hezbollahi.

Hezbollahi are said to generally act without meaningful police restraint or fear of persecution and initially attacked demonstrations and offices of newspapers that were critical of the Ayatollah Khomeini. They are said to have played an important role on the street at crucial moments in the early days of the revolution by confronting those the regime regarded as “counter-revolutionaries”. Hezbollah was supervised by the Islamic Republican forces, with Hojjat al-Islam Hadi Ghaffari, a young protégé of Khomeini, being in charge of them.

In the early 1990’s, the Iranian Hezbollah evolved into Ansar-e-Hezbollah (Followers of the Party of God or, more literally, Helpers of Hezbollah), an organization with an ideology based on the devotion to the principles of the revolution, especially the belief in Velayat-e faqih.

Ansar-e-Hezbollah is said to be a semi-official, paramilitary group that, unlike other paramilitary groups, undergoes formal training. It is thought to be financed and protected by many senior government clerics. It is often characterized as a vigilante group as they use force but are not part of government law enforcement.  The group pledges loyalty to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and is thought to be protected by him.

Ansar-e-Hezbollah is described sometimes as “a small fringe group” with “perhaps 100 Tehran members at most”, but with disproportionate influence because of its links with police and security services and high-level conservative clerics. They were thought to be financed and partially controlled by various conservative high level religious leaders, including Ayatollah Khamenei, to whom they pledge their loyalty, and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. These leaders used the group to help consolidate power by harassing or eliminating their opponents.


II. Amal and Hezbollah: Shi’a extremism at the Mediterranean


For Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei, the concept of exporting the Islamic revolution served as a means of advancing Iranian strategic interests, aiming to achieve regional hegemony and a good position in the battle against Israel and the West. As part of this strategy, Iran has been providing aid to subversive Islamic movements and terrorist organizations in the Middle East, the Balkans and Africa as well as undertaking intensive propaganda campaigns to disseminate the principles of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran provides support for the Palestinian terrorist organizations (particularly the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas) and the Shi’a militias in Iraq.

As shown earlier, at the core of Khomeini’s concept of an Islamic state stood the idea of the Muslim community ruled by God’s law, the Sharia. Application of this law and guidance of the community should be provided by a clerical council led by the supreme Islamic jurist (velayet-e faqih, leadership of the jurisprudent). As the Hidden Imam’s vice-regent, the leading faqih was seen as divinely ordained and inspired leader, whose verdict was binding for all Shiites. This political leadership went far beyond the spiritual and theological authority Shiites traditionally confer to their marja al-taqlid (model of emulation) [4].

Another trait of Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamism was its internationalist, pan-Islamic orientation. The Iranian revolution was understood only as a first step in the worldwide Islamic revolution. As such, Khomeini’s Islamic revolution deeply influenced Islamist movements in other countries, in particular in Lebanon. This influence resulted from the Iranian leadership’s intensive efforts to export the revolution, but also from close intellectual and personal contacts between Shiite clerics in Iran and Lebanon, many of whom studied at the seminar in Najaf.

The Al-Sadr family: scholars and militants in Lebanon and Iraq

Among the Najaf scholars that shaped the Shiite movements both East and West of Iran, some of the most important are those from the al-Sadr family. Historians of the movements agree that Ayatollah Khomeini and sheikh Musa al-Sadr both represented currents which had their origins in Najaf. Al-Sadr pioneered a politically activist vision of Shi’a Islam, but he remained a moderate and a reformer. Khomeini, in contrast, shaped Shi’a Islam into a doctrine of religious and political revolution that would affect later the initial “reformist” approach of Musa al-Sadr.

Musa al-Sadr came from a well-known family of Twelver Shiite scholars, descending from the Grand Ayatollah Sadr-eddine bin Saleh.

The Sadr family is a branch of Sharafeddine family from Jabal Amel, in Lebanon. The Sharafeddine family itself is a branch of the Nour-eddine family, which traces its lineage to Musa al-Kazim (the seventh Shi’a Imam) and through him to the first Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatima Zahra, the daughter of Muhammad (died 632). The al-Sadr family produced numerous Islamic scholars in Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq, including Sadr-eddine bin Saleh’s son, Ismail as-Sadr (died 1919/1920), and his grandsons, the first cousins Musa al-Sadr (died 1978?), active in Lebanon,  and Mohammad Baqir as-Sadr (died 1980), active in Iraq (see next chapter).

Musa al-Sadr was born in Qom, on 15 April 1928 and, after graduating in 1956 in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) and Political Sciences at Tehran University, he moved back to Qom to study Theology and Islamic philosophy. Eventually he left Qom for Najaf to study theology, at a time when a politically activist version of Islam had begun to emerge among students and scholars at the seminar.

In 1959 Musa al-Sadr was invited to take over the position of Mufti (religious judge) in Sur (Tyre), South Lebanon, where he soon became popular, not least because of his commitment to charitable work and his outspoken criticism against the Shiite community’s marginalization. A political movement formed around al-Sadr which engaged in modern forms of propaganda and mobilization.  Al-Sadr’s recurring theme was the call for social justice and he used religious language and drew on Shiite symbols and historical examples.

The Amal Movement

In 1974, Musa al-Sadr founded Harakat al-Mahrumin (the Movement of the Disinherited), to press for better economic and social conditions for the Shiites. He also attempted to prevent the descent into violence that eventually led to the Lebanese Civil War, but was ineffective. During the war the Movement of the Disinherited developed in 1975 an armed wing known as Afwaj al-Muqawamat al-Lubnaniyyah, (The Battalions of the Lebanese Resistance), better known from by its initials, Amal.

In august 1978, Musa al-Sadr went to Libya to meet with government officials, on an invitation from Muammar Gaddafi and disappeared in unknown circumstances. It is widely believed that Gaddafi ordered al-Sadr’s killing, although Libya has consistently denied responsibility, claiming that al-Sadr and his companions left the country for Italy. According to some sources, Gaddafi murdered Musa al-Sadr after a discussion about Shi’a beliefs. Other sources claimed that the murder of Musa al-Sadr was done at request of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, since the Shiites and the Palestinians at that time were involved in armed clashes in Southern Lebanon. According to a former member of the Libyan intelligence, al-Sadr was beaten to death for challenging Gaddafi at his house on matters of theology, and an eye witness of the meeting between al-Sadr and Gaddafi mentioned that the meeting lasted for two and a half hours and ended up with Qaddafi saying “take him”.

Al-Sadr’s disappearance continues to be a major dispute between Lebanon and Libya. On 27 August 2008, Gaddafi was indicted by the government of Lebanon for al-Sadr’s disappearance. Following the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Lebanon and Iran appealed to the Libyan rebels to investigate the fate of Musa al-Sadr. He is still regarded as an important political and spiritual leader and his legacy is revered by both Amal and Hezbollah followers. In the eyes of many, he became a martyr and a “vanished Imam”.

In 1980, under the leadership of Nabih Berri, Amal entered in the Lebanese Civil War. In summer 1982, Husayn Al-Musawi[5], deputy head and official spokesman of Amal, broke away – due to disagreements over the Islamists’ allegiance to Khomeini and to Amal’s reluctance to engage in military resistance against the Israelis – and formed the so-called Islamic Amal Movement that was to become Hezbollah. Amal and Hezbollah would fight until 1989, when Amal accepted the  agreement that ended the civil war. In the framework of the Syrian-controlled end of the civil war, 2,800 Amal troops joined the Lebanese army in September 1991.

As a political group, the Amal Movement evolved to become the largest Shiite party in the Lebanese parliament and part of the governing coalition which includes the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, and the Progressive Socialist Party.


In organizing the Islamic Amal, the future Lebanese Hezbollah, Husayn al-Musawi was aided by the Islamic Republic of Iran which, in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, strove not only to help Lebanon’s Shiite, but to export the Islamic revolution to the rest of the Muslim world. About 1,500 members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), arrived in the Beqaa Valley and contributed to ensure the survival and growth of al-Musawi’s newly-created small militia, providing training, indoctrination and funding. Iran’s funding meant generous pay for the militia’s recruits ($150–200 per month plus cost-free education and medical treatment for themselves and their families). This was a major incentive among the impoverished Shiite community, and induced “a sizable number of Amal fighters defect to the ranks of Islamic Amal. Encouraged by the Iranian mentors, the different factions formed Hezbollah.

By August 1983, Islamic Amal and Hezbollah were effectively becoming one under the Hezbollah label, and by late 1984, Islamic Amal, along with other armed groups in Lebanon, had been absorbed into Hezbollah.

The ideology of Hezbollah has been summarized as Shi’a radicalism. Hezbollah follows the Khomeini version of Islamic Shi’a ideology (Velayat-e faqih)Hezbollah (as well as the political/religious leaders of Iran) believe that the destruction of Israel will bring about the “reappearance of the Imam”. Although Hezbollah originally aimed to transform Lebanon into a formal Faqihi Islamic republic, this goal has been abandoned in favor of a more moderate approach.

According to the historians, Hezbollah’s ideological development can be divided into three phases. From 1978, with the arrival of al-Musawi in the Bekaa valley, until 1984-85, when the institutionalization of Hezbollah took place, the “Party of God” is to be grasped essentially as a religious movement. The second phase runs from the middle of the 1980s until the beginning of the 1990s. Although at that time the religious and political ideologies were mixed, the religious discourse was mainly a tool to justify the political stances of the movement.

In 1991, al-Musawi defended the notion of openness to other communities and encouraged the movement to engage its fellow Lebanese in order to integrate itself into the Lebanese political system and public sphere. From this moment after, the historians refer to a gradual “Lebanonization” of Hezbollah over the years.

In the third phase, the era of the political program, from 1992 to the present, Hezbollah has been integrating more and more into the Lebanese public sphere, even attempting to control it after winning a national prestige for opposing Israel in the Second Lebanon War (2006). In 2008, Hezbollah became part of the government for the first time. In June 2011, Lebanon’s new prime minister, Najib Mikati (who recently announced his demission), formed a government dominated by members and allies of Hezbollah.

Spreading Mahdism

Hezbollah’s political ascension allowed it to develop a network of schools and youth groups, the main one being the Mahdi Scouts, considered to be the vanguard of Hezbollah’s youth movement. The graduates of the Scouts’ courses join Hezbollah’s guerrilla army, or work in the party’s bureaucracy. Most of them eventually join the loyal base of support that has made Hezbollah the most powerful political, military and social force in Lebanon.

The Mahdi Scouts were founded in 1985, shortly after Hezbollah itself. Officially, the group is like any of the other 29 different scout groups in Lebanon, many of which belong to political parties and serve as feeders for them. But the Mahdi Scouts are different. They are much larger; with an estimated 60,000 children and Scout leaders, they are six times the size of any other Lebanese scout group. Even their marching movements are more militaristic than the others. While the Mahdi Scouts fall under the umbrella of the Lebanese union, they have no direct affiliation with the international scouting body based in Switzerland. Because of the Scouts’ reputation as a feeder for Hezbollah’s armed force, the party has become extremely protective and rarely grants outsiders access to them.

Besides the scouts, Hezbollah organized a network aiming to educate the younger generation to continue its struggle. It is a network of schools – some of them run by Hezbollah, others affiliated with or controlled by it – and a nationwide network of clerics who provide weekly religious lessons to young people on a neighborhood basis. There is a group for students at unaffiliated schools and colleges that present Hezbollah to a wider audience. The party also organizes summer camps and field trips, and during Muslim religious holidays it arranges events to encourage young people to express their devotion in public and to perform charity work.

According to local observers, it is a complete system, from primary school to university with the goal to prepare a generation with deep religious faith and is also close to Hezbollah. Hezbollah has gone further than any other organization in mobilizing its force, both to build its own support base and to immunize Shiite youths from the temptations of Lebanon’s diverse and mostly secular society. The Shiite religious schools, in which Hezbollah exercises a dominant influence, have grown over the past two decades into a major national network, and a growing number of clerics are associated with the movement.

Hezbollah and its allies have also adapted and expanded religious rituals involving children, starting at ever-earlier ages. Women, who play a more prominent role in Hezbollah than they do in most other radical Islamic groups, are especially important in creating what is often called “the jihad atmosphere” among children. Islamic schools, some run by Hezbollah, begin Koranic lessons at the age of 4, and it is common for girls to start fasting and wearing a hijab at 8. In all this, the mother’s guidance is the key.

Politics and terrorism

During the process of “Lebanonization”, which transformed Hezbollah into a strong political actor in Lebanon, it also remained a strong military force. From several hundred in 1983, the number of its trained fighters is estimated to 2,000-4,000 out of a total of 20,000-30,000 organized members. Improved tactics and technology, with Iranian help, resulted in increased military capabilities. According to reports released in February 2010, Hezbollah received $400 million dollars from Iran. The US estimates that Iran has been giving Hezbollah about US$60–100 million per year in financial assistance. Other estimates are as high as $200-million annually.

Structurally, Hezbollah does not distinguish between its political/social activities within Lebanon and its military/jihad activities against Israel. “Hezbollah has a single leadership”, according to Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s second in command. “All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership… The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel”. During its 30 years of existence, Hezbollah was responsible for several terrorist attacks, being classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, the Netherlands, Bahrain, Egypt, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Israel.

However, Hezbollah is differently approached in the European Union, so far reluctant to add the organization on its terrorist groups list. Hezbollah members and supporters operate with few restrictions in Europe, raising money that is funneled to the group’s leadership in Lebanon.

While the group is believed to operate all over the Continent, Germany is a center of activity, with 950 members and supporters in 2011, up from 900 in 2010, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said in its annual threat report. According to counter-terrorism experts, Hezbollah has maintained a low profile in Europe since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, preferring to hold meetings and raise money that goes to Lebanon. European security services keep tabs on the group’s political supporters, but experts say they are ineffective when it comes to tracking the sleeper cells that pose the most danger.

The European Union’s unwillingness to place the group on its list of terrorist organizations reflects the many roles that Hezbollah has played since it emerged in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982. If Hezbollah’s militant wing was responsible for a string of terrorist attacks at home and abroad, the group also became a source of social services and evolved into a strong political force. Skeptics in Europe say that as Hezbollah has become more political, the group has moved away from its terrorist past, if not forsaken it entirely, and that Israel is stoking fears as it seeks to justify an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Other experts say the reason security officials on the Continent are resistant to blacklisting the group is that they see a tacit détente, where Hezbollah does not stage attacks and European law enforcement officials do not interfere with its fund-raising and organizational work.

Notwithstanding the European distinctions, the U.S. intelligence community has determined that Hezbollah is “a multifaceted, disciplined organization that combines political, social, paramilitary, and terrorist elements” and this was even confirmed by Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem, who declared in October 2012: “We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other.… Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities are in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority”.

Links to Iran and involvement in Syria

Hezbollah’s relations with Iran and the Assad regime in Syria made it a major player on the Middle Eastern scene.

Hezbollah’s link with Iran, and especially with Imam Ali Khamenei, president of the Islamic Republic between 1981 and 1989 and then elected supreme leader of the country, is based on the velayat e-faqih and Iran’s important military and financial support. Imam Khamenei has been a proponent of the Party of God from the very beginning, when he was deputy minister of defense under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1992, Ali Khamenei authorized and supported Hezbollah‘s participation in the Lebanese elections.

The acceptance of velayat e-faqih by the Lebanese Hezbollah makes it, theoretically, a subject of the supreme leader of Iran. Since the Supreme Leader of Iran is the ultimate clerical authority, Hezbollah‘s leaders have appealed to him “for guidance and directives” if Hezbollah leadership failed to reach a consensus.  After the death of Khomeini, Hezbollah’s governing bodies developed a more “independent role” and appealed to Iran less often. Since the Second Lebanon War (2006) however, Iran has restructured Hezbollah to limit the power of its current leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and invested billions of dollars “rehabilitating” Hezbollah.

The Iranian leadership regards Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah as a “soldier [in the ranks] of supreme leader Khamenei” (as stated by General Yahya Safavi, advisor to Khamenei), while Hezbollah regards Khamenei as an ideological and strategic source of authority (as stated by Sheikh Naim Qassem, second in command to Hassan Nasrallah). For Iran, establishing Hezbollah and bringing the Shiites in Lebanon under its influence was the most successful achievement of exporting the Iranian revolution. Hezbollah’s terrorism is a strategic tool of the Iranian regime both in Lebanon and beyond. It is perceived by Iran as a weapon to promote Iranian interests in the Middle East and for the needs of its struggle against Israel, the United States and the West.

In 1995, Ali Khamenei himself appointed Hassan Nasrallah and Mohammad Yazbek, the head of the Sharia council of the organization, as his religious representatives in Lebanon. This decision allows Nasrallah’s party to directly receive the khums, a form of financial support coming from religious taxation (about 20 per cent of income added to the traditional imposition of zakat) without having to channel it through Iranian foundations. This situation has partly contributed to Hezbollah‘s autonomy. Dynamic and evolving, depending upon formal and informal networks between Hezbollah’s clerics and Iranian clergymen, the Party of God’s affiliation with Iran is far more complex than a one-dimensional relation, and this is best shown by Hezbollah’s involvement in the current Syrian civil war.

Hezbollah has long been an ally of the Ba’ath Party government of Syria, led by the Al-Assad family. Hezbollah has allegedly helped the Syrian government in its fight against the Syrian opposition during the civil war. In August 2012, the United States sanctioned Hezbollah for its alleged role in the war.Although General Secretary Nasrallah at first denied that Hezbollah had been fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, he also admitted that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their “jihadist duties”.

In 2012, Hezbollah fighters crossed the border from Lebanon and took over eight villages in the Al-Qusayr District of Syria. On 16–17 February 2013, Syrian opposition groups claimed that Hezbollah, backed by the Syrian military, attacked three neighboring Sunni villages controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). A FSA spokesman said, “Hezbollah’s invasion is the first of its kind in terms of organization, planning and coordination with the Syrian regime’s air force”. In response, the FSA allegedly attacked two Hezbollah positions on 21 February 2013; five days later, it said it destroyed a convoy carrying Hezbollah fighters and Syrian officers to Lebanon, killing all the passengers.

Several prominent Lebanese figures called on Hezbollah to end its involvement in Syria and said it is putting Lebanon at risk. Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, also called on Hezbollah to end its involvement and claimed that “Hezbollah is fighting inside Syria with orders from Iran”.

According to other analysts, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is not only pushed by Iran, but also by its own strategic interests, since Hezbollah, a Syrian ally since its formation after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, would face major problems if the regime collapses. It would lose its vital overland supply route for arms, including missiles, from Iran and Syria. That would limit its capabilities against Israel and seriously undercut its long-held supremacy in Lebanon. On the other hand, a successor regime in Damascus led by Sunnis, who form the majority of Syria’s population of 24 million, would join their Lebanese co-religionists in seeking to eradicate Hezbollah and Iranian influence in the Levant.

The United States authorities also accused Hezbollah of assisting operatives of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force in training Syrian forces inside Syria. According to the U.S., the Assad loyalist group known as Jaysh al-Sha’bi, an alliance of local Shiite and Alawite militias, was created and is maintained by Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Qods Force, both of whom provide it with money, weapons, training and advice.

The IRGC, also called the “Pasdaran” or the Revolutionary Guard, was founded after the Iranian revolution as a branch of Iran’s military, intended to protect the country’s Islamic system. Its activities also aim to prevent internal dissident and military uprisings. It also controls the paramilitary Basij militia which has about 90,000 active personnel. The Guard’s expanded social, political, military, and economic role under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – especially during the 2009 presidential election and post-election suppression of protest — has led analysts to argue that its political power may have surpassed even that of the Shiite clerical system.

Another unit of the IRGC is the elite Quds Force (or Jerusalem Force), sometimes described as the successor to the Shah’s Imperial Guards, a special operations unit handling activities abroad. It is classified in the United States as a terrorist organization. Also part of the IRGC is the Ansar-Ul-Mehdi (Followers of Imam Mehdi) Corps, primarily responsible for the protection of top officials of government and parliament (excluding the Supreme Leader). As an elite, secretive force within the IRGC Ground force, its officers are entrusted with many other special assignments, including counter-intelligence and covert operations beyond Iran’s borders.

While ostensibly created to bolster Syria’s battered, army, Jaysh al-Sha’bi fighters are predominantly a sectarian fighting force overseen by Iranian and Hezbollah commanders. It has been described as an Iran-Hezbollah joint venture, modeled after Iran’s own Basij, the paramilitary force subordinate to the IRGC that has been heavily involved in the violent crackdowns and human rights abuses in Iran after the June 2009 contested presidential election.

Relationship with Hamas

Iran’s and Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war also brought under new scrutiny the relationship between the Shiite Hezbollah and region’s main Sunni armed group, Hamas. Although Hezbollah and Hamas are not organizationally linked, Hezbollah is said to provide military training as well as financial and moral support to the Sunni Palestinian group.

An Islamist Palestinian paramilitary organization and political party, Hamas’ name is an acronym of the Arabic phrase Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, meaning “Islamic Resistance Movement”. The Arabic word Hamas also means devotion and zeal in the path of Allah. It was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin (1937 – 22 March 2004), as a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sheikh Yassin also served as the spiritual leader of the organization. Hamas gained popularity in Palestinian society by establishing hospitals, education systems, libraries and other services, but it has also claimed responsibility for a number of suicide attacks targeting Israeli civilians, leading to its being characterized by the European Union, Israel, Japan, Canada, and the United Statesas a terrorist organization.

The relationship began in 1992, when Israel expelled hundreds of Hamas leaders and activists to Lebanon during the middle of winter. Cared for at the time by Hezbollah, the Hamas leaders eventually met with Iranian Revolutionary Guard representatives in Lebanon and later in Tehran. After that, Iran and Hezbollah began funding, equipping, and training Hamas (It was seen as no coincidence the fact that the first successful suicide bombings perpetrated by Hamas came in the beginning of 1994, after the group received instruction from Hezbollah).

Hamas drifted further into the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” after Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, when the Palestinian Islamists looked to Hezbollah as a successful example of how to wage war against the Israeli Defense Force.

Despite the shared history, Hamas’ relationship with Hezbollah and Iran was more a marriage of convenience than true ideological kinship. For example, Hamas operated differently in its regional relations than Hezbollah, cultivating relationships with the Sunni world and, as a result, Hamas was able, at times, to receive support from countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Sudan, and even Jordan.

In the wake of Syria’s civil war escalation, analysts assess that the current strife in Syria has had a destabilizing effect on Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”, placing Hamas and Hezbollah on different sides of the fissures that have blown open in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Hamas’ decision in December 2011 to close its office in Damascus and abandon Bashar Assad is said to have brought a rebuke from Iran and a marked decrease in financial support. Despite visits to Tehran by Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders since then, Hamas – Iran relations seem unlikely to return to their formally strong state.

Additionally, lacking a headquarters outside of Gaza after dissolving the Damascus bureau scattered Hamas’ external political and military leaders around the Middle East, and the Islamic Resistance Movement is looking to cut deals with a Sunni world which largely finds itself siding rather against Iran. This aspect, along with the fact that Hamas is not religiously compelled to act on Iran’s order – as is Hezbollah – made analysts assess that Hamas is less likely than Hezbollah to side with Iran in a situation of open conflict.

Hamas’ potential course is a source of disagreement within the group. In late 2012, while Prime Minister Haniyeh told Reuters that ‘‘Iran is not in need of [Hamas]”, Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar told the Iranian semi-official Fars news agency that Hamas would respond ‘‘with the utmost power’’ against Israel if it attacks Iran.


III. Iraq: Mahdism’s political opportunities


At the other end of the Iran-led, Shiite axis, in Iraq, the Mahdism is mainly represented by a branch of the same al-Sadr family that led the Lebanese Amal movement. Its most visible representative is Moqtada al-Sadr.



Moqtada al-Sadr

Moqtada al-Sadr is often referred to as Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, the title Sayyid being used among Arabs to denote persons descending directly from the Prophet Muhammad, through his daughter Fatimah’s marriage with Ali. As shown earlier, the al-Sadr family has a clear and distinct lineage that can be traced directly to Muhammad, through Imam Jafar al-Sadiq and his son Imam Musa al-Kadhim, the sixth and seventh Shi‘a Imams.

The Sadr family’s ancestor was Grand Ayatollah Ismail as-Sadr, born in Isfahan (Iran). He was the first to be known with the last name of as-Sadr[6], taken after his father, Sadr ad-Din ibn Salih, whose ancestors came from Lebanon. He and all his five brothers were all scholars of Shia Islam. He resided in Najaf (Iraq) and became the sole marja until his death (ca.1919-1920). Ismail as-Sadr was a Grand Ayatollah (literally “sign of Allah”), a title which refers to a Twelver Shia scholar who is a fully qualified mujtahid (senior religious scholar) who asserts authority over peers and followers by virtue of sufficient study and achievement.

His sons were Muhammad Mahdi as-Sadr, Sadr ad-Din as-Sadr (died 1954), Haydar as-Sadr (died 1937), and a fourth one. Muhammad Mahdi is the great grandfather of Moqtada as-Sadr, Sadr ad-Din is the father of Sayyid Musa as-Sadr (who disappeared in Libya and was supposedly killed by Gadhafi in 1978, founder of Amal) and Haydar is the father of Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr (died 1980).

Moqtada al-Sadr is the fourth son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr and son-in-law of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr. Moqtada is cousin of Musa al-Sadr, the Iranian-Lebanese founder of the Amal Movement.

As to the religious background, Moqtada al-Sadr does not claim the title of mujtahid (the equivalent of a senior religious scholar) or the authority to issue fatwas (religious edicts). In his youth, he was known to be more preoccupied with videogames than Islamic studies, which earned him the nickname “Mullah Atari”. Having little formal religious standing to interpret the Koran, Moqtada relied for authority on an Iran-based Iraqi exiled cleric, Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, who was a student of Baqir al-Sadr.

The Sadrist movement in Iraq was launched by Moqtada al-Sadr’s uncle and father-in-law, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr (also known as Sadr I) during Saddam Hussein’s regime. Baqir al-Sadr and his daughter were killed in 1980, after Saddam indentified him as a threat for being one of the Dawa Party founders and opponent of the regime. The Sadrist movement’s leadership was taken by Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father. Unlike his predecessor, Sadiq al-Sadr opposed the principle of Taqqiyya (“dissimulation and concealment”, a principle also followed by other prominent Ayatollahs in Iraq, such as al-Sistani). Sadiq al-Sadr built a movement based on Islamic revivalism, Iraqi nationalism and social populism, which Moqtada al-Sadr would soon inherit. It was during that time of transition that the Mahdi Army began to evolve into its current form.

In 1998, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, in an unprecedented step in his quest to differentiate himself from traditionalists, revived the Friday prayers, which were considered an “inactive religious duty” of the Shiites. This move also served to review the rivalry between traditional consultants and those who say the idea of the wilayat-al faqih is being revived, not only in Iraq, but also in Iran. The revival of the Friday prayer was a tool for Sadr to argue for the limited guardianship of the jurist.

Sadiq Al-Sadr faced contention with regard to the details of guardianship and the “absolute guardianship of the jurist”, since Khomeini stated in 1988 that the position of “the Supreme Leader” was the role of a leader of the Shiites all over the world, because his part of the guardianship related to that of Allah, the prophet and the infallible imams. This is what allowed Sadiq al-Sadr the ability to play a role without an official title. The Iraqi state considered him a consultant, or a faqih (jurist) of Arab descent, facing the religious influence of the Hawza from inside the Shi’a institution itself and, at the same time, facing the Iranian official religious institution and considering it a counterpart.

During this time, Sadiq al-Sadr made enemies who would become Moqtada al-Sadr’s political rivals. His actions also created some problems with Iran. Even though Sadiq supported an Islamic state ruled by Wilayat al-Faqh (learned jurist) just like Ayatollah Khomeini, relationships with Iran began to deteriorate, as Sadiq proclaimed his leadership over the Iraqi Shiites, thus taking supreme Islamic power away from Iran. During this period, young Moqtada al-Sadr became involved in his father’s movement, dealing with security matters and being chief editor of the Sadrist magazine al-Huda.

After the “Shi’a Intifada” in 1991, Saddam Hussein tolerated Sadiq and even assisted him, considering that this was a way to prevent another uprising. However, Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr scarcely proved to be a Saddam loyalist. Consequently, both Sadiq al-Sadr and Moqtada al-Sadr’s two brothers were assassinated in Baghdad in 1999, and Moqtada al-Sadr took over the leadership of the movement. He formed the Jama’at al-Sadr al-Thani (Association of the Second al-Sadr) as the key organization of the al-Sadr family network.

The collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime revealed the power base of the Sadrist movement, a network of Shiite charitable institutions (under the umbrella of an “Active Religious Seminary”). In the first weeks following the U.S.-led invasion, Moqtada Sadr’s followers patrolled the streets of Baghdad’s Shiite suburbs, distributing food, providing healthcare and taking on many of the functions of local government. They also changed the name of the Saddam City area to Sadr City. The al-Sadr family portrayed themselves as the ones doing the most to redress decades of suppression by Sunni Muslims under Saddam’s rule.

Moqtada al-Sadr continued his father’s practice of holding Friday prayers to project his voice to a wider audience. The practice undermined the traditional system of seniority in Iraqi Shiite politics and contributed to the development of rivalries with two of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollahs, Kazim al-Hairi and Ali Sistani.

Analysts agree that the Sadrist movement might be seen as a result of Arab Shi’ism that became independent of Iranian Shi’ism, while maintaining a continued presence inside Iraq, as opposed to the Shiite groups that existed outside of Iraq and returned with the American occupation. These combined factors, among others, made it act in a unique way; participating in the political process while fighting Americans; seeking refuge in Iran, while criticizing its strategy in Iraq; putting one man in government and others in the opposition; and forming a part of the Shiite “house” while engaging in Sunni protests.

From the Mahdi Army to Iraqi politics

During the power vacuum that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Moqtada al-Sadr emerged as a significant figure, with his followers organizing, in April 2003, a political movement, the so-called “Sadr Bureau” that provided throughout Sadr City services ranging from health care to food and clean water. The Sadr Bureau’s military wing was known as the Jaysh al-Mahdi[7] (the Mahdi Army, JAM) whose primary purpose, according to Moqtada al-Sadr, was to “restore stability to the country”, and to protect the Shiite religious authorities in the hawza and the holy city of Najaf.

The name of the military group evoked Moqtada al-Sadr’s sermons claiming that the Mahdi would soon return in Iraq and the Americans, being aware of the impending reappearance, invaded Iraq to seize and kill the Mahdi. Sadr stated that the army “belongs to the Mahdi” and refused to disband it, as required of other private militias.

The JAM was effective mainly from 2004 to 2007, gaining legitimacy by providing protection against Sunni radicals when the Iraqi government could not. In addition, the Mahdi Army offered Shiite Iraqis some much-needed services, such as generators. Also, many of the Mahdi Army’s activities resembled those of organized crime. Using mafia-like tactics have allowed the JAM to become involved at all levels of the local economy, taking money from gas stations, private minibus services, electric switching stations, food and clothing markets, ice factories, and even collecting rent from squatters. The JAM was able to control parts of their operation through exploitation and threats.

As of early 2004, JAM was estimated to consist of about 500-1,000 trained combatants along with another 5,000-6,000 active participants. According to another U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) estimate, as of 01 April 2004, the Mahdi Army was estimated to consist of about 3,000 lightly armed devotees of Sadr before operations against the group started. On 04 June 2004 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that the Mahdi Army consisted of 6,000 to 10,000 combatants.

The JAM was involved in several attacks that highlighted political differences among Shiite political organizations, mainly the mob killing of a pro-U.S. cleric, Abd al-Majid al-Khoi (Khoei), shortly after his return from exile in London on 10 April 2003. Immediately after al-Khoi’s murder, supporters of al-Sadr surrounded the house of Grand Ayatollah in Al-Najaf, Ali Sistani, in what was taken to be a gesture of intimidation. Al-Sadr’s group denied it had anything to do with the attacks, but in 2004, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the killing of Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi.

In early April 2004, the Mahdi Army attempted to interfere with security in Baghdad, intimidate Iraqi citizens and place them in danger. The militia attempted to occupy and gain control of police stations and government buildings. The coalition troops battled Shiite militias in half a dozen Iraqi towns and cities from near Kirkuk in the north to Basra in the south. As of 08 April 2004, the Mahdi Army had taken full control of the city of Al-Kut and partial control of Al-Najaf. Hundreds of loyalists to Moqtada al-Sadr attacked British troops on 08 May 2004 in the center of Basra, south of Baghdad. The first week of August 2004 witnessed a cycle of growing violence which culminated with fierce clashes across central and southern Iraq between the Mahdi Army and U.S, British, and Italian forces. Fighting between al-Sadr’s supporters and U.S. forces continued in Baghdad and Najaf through the beginning of August. Tensions in Najaf were diffused on 27 August 2004 when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was able to broker a deal with Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces. Later that month, al-Sadr ordered a ceasefire and announced that he was prepared to enter the political process in Iraq.

Between mid-2006 and the end of April 2007, at least 40 British soldiers died in suspected attacks by Mahdi forces in southern Iraq. Throughout April 2007, elements of the militia were accused of taking part in the deaths of an additional 11 British soldiers in southern parts of Iraq. Since the primary political base of Moqtada al-Sadr and a main concentration of strength for the Mahdi Army was Sadr City, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who needed Moqtada al-Sadr’s  political support repeatedly blocked coalition attempts to reign down on the Mahdi Army.

At the beginning of 2007, the U.S. forces intensified the operations against the Mahdi Army. Consequently, Moqtada al-Sadr asked his forces to stop operations and relocated to Iran, where he remained through May 2007.

A report from the “Iraq Study Group” in December 2006 stated that the strength of the Mahdi Army might be of 60,000 fighters. As of 27 April 2007, the “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” report released by the Department of Defense declared the Mahdi Army “has replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq”.

A U.S. briefing in Baghdad on 11 February 2007 accused the Qods Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of supplying Iraqi Shiite militias, including the Mahdi Army, with weapons and explosives. U.S. officials alleged that al-Sadr’s political power and significant following, in addition to his anti-American outlook, made the leader and the Mahdi Army an attractive ally to the Iranians. Iran has repeatedly denied the charges that it has supplied or trained Iraqi combatants and militias.

On June 13 2008, Moqtada al-Sadr released a statement outlining a new plan for the JAM. In a letter read by one of his clerics, al-Sadr announced the division of the Mahdi Army. The Sadrist movement would now consist of a social/political wing, made up of most of his followers, and a small group of elite fighters, that he labeled “special companies”, whose purpose was stated to be solely to “rid the country of all foreign occupiers”. This shift was considered worrisome because the restructuring mirrored the evolution of the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah.

After suspending the activities of the JAM, Al-Sadr reportedly moved to Qom, Iran. Following a strong showing by his bloc in the 2010 Parliamentary election, he returned to Najaf in January 2011, in order to take a more proactive and visible role in the new Iraqi government, but he soon returned to Iran, allegedly “to continue his studies” and to become an Ayatollah. Analysts say the title would grant him religious legitimacy and allow him to mount a more serious challenge to the conservative clerical establishment in Iraq. The advanced religious credentials would allow him to claim back the main hawzas previously controlled by his father.

According to Saudi-owned media, the reasons for Moqtada al-Sadr’s very short visit were threats from Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), a militant offshoot of his own Sadrist movement. For years, personal rivalries and policy differences within the Sadrist movement have prevented Moqtada from establishing firm control over his potential supporters through the “Office of the Martyr Sadr” (OMS), the organization he formed in 2003. According to al-Sharq al-Awsat, AAH leader Qais al-Khazali (Moqtada’s former aide and a student of his father) issued a ruling in Najaf “declaring the killing of Moqtada al-Sadr lawful”.

A significant aspect of the sermon Moqtada al-Sadr gave on January 8, 2011, was the warning against any agreement that might extend the U.S. military presence. Analysts pointed out that on this issue, Moqtada’s interests were similar to those of Iran. His speaking of “our joint enemy: America, Israel, and Britain” was seen as reflecting the Sadrists’ identification with the arc of anti-Western resistance that Tehran seeks to cultivate in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

By late 2011, when it appeared that the U.S. would largely withdraw from Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement controlled the largest bloc of the Iraqi parliament, having had reached a sort of détente with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who needed Sadrist support to retain his post. Currently, Al-Sadr’s party, the Sadrist Trend, is a member of Maliki’s ruling coalition and has 40 seats in the 325-member parliament.

According to most analysts, Moqtada al-Sadr became a mainstream political leader, looking for new paths to secure the claims to power that his movement achieved through violent opposition to the American occupation. He said he has temporarily put aside his religious studies in Iran, widely considered his patron, to attend to a political crisis here over contests for power among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that has brought the government to a standstill, and to position his movement for the next elections. His political movement is seeing as evolving as a political, martial and religious all-in-one, owing as its inspiration Lebanon’s Hezbollah, that has melded faith, social works and a military wing to achieve power.

Moqtada al-Sadr’s opposition to the Iraqi prime minister also puts distance, at least symbolically, between the Sadrist movement and Iran, which has backed Nouri al-Maliki. However, although many say they believe Moqtada al-Sadr is a pawn for the Iranian leadership, he is also considered a wild card in Iraqi politics and the degree to which Iran controls his decisions is widely discussed.

Iran involvement

Although Moqtada al-Sadr stated that he wishes to create an “Islamic democracy” in Iraq, most analysts point that his real aim is to create an Iranian-type theocracy in Iraq.

The Iranian involvement in the Mahdi Army’s activities was evident, especially between 2006-2008. In December 2006 and in January 2007, U.S. Forces arrested in Iraq alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qods Forces agents, and in July 2007, coalition forces captured Hezbollah operatives, leading to the conclusion that Iran was using its protégé, Lebanese Hezbollah, to train and arm Iraq Shiite militias. In addition to providing weapons and training, Iran was involved in the ceasefire agreements between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government.

In August 2007, Moqtada al-Sadr publicly confirmed the Mahdi Army’s relationship with Hezbollah, stating: “We have formal links with Hezbollah, we do exchange ideas and discuss the situation facing Shiites in both countries. We copy Hezbollah in the way they fight and their tactics, we teach each other and we are getting better through this”.

Various observers suggested that al-Sadr has staked out an anti-Iranian position by raising the issue of the “foreign origin” of key Iraqi Shiite clerics, notably including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is of Iranian origin. Other observers contend that al-Sadr himself received theological backing from the Iraqi Ayatollah Kadhim Hussayni al-Hairi, who resides in Tehran. While in Iran, Moqtada al-Sadr was also supposedly studying under Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, head of Iran’s Judiciary from 1999-2009, currently a member of Iran’s Guardian Council.

Observers who analyzed Moqtada al-Sadr’s political evolution pointed out that one of his main goals is the eventual dominance of the Iraqi clerical establishment. He also hopes to establish clerical rule in southern and central Iraq, borrowing from the velayat-e faqih model in Iran, but with an Iraqi cleric (presumably himself) atop the structure. At some point, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s time as Iraq’s senior cleric will come to an end and Moqtada may seek to disrupt the selection of his successor from the traditional “quietist” school (which rejects a velayat-e faqih system for Iraq). In that scenario, Moqtada’s nationalist and dynastic interests would potentially come into conflict with Tehran’s ambitions to dominate the al-Najaf hawza and, through it, to control Iraq’s Shiites.

The Iranian strategy in Iraq worked to create a strong and unified Shiite block that could capture power and administer the country with a special relationship with Iran. Parallel to this strategy, there was an Iranian tactic dependent upon the support of armed militias able to sustain a war of attrition with the occupation forces, to prevent them from thinking about a military move against Iran. The relationship with the Sadrist movement in general, and the armed wings was a part of this tactic. Hence, the convergence of interests between Iran and the Sadrists was more than just on an ideological basis.

On the other hand, the Sadrist movement was in need of Iranian support, especially with regard to armament, as well as the need for a “backyard”, primarily for training and providing a safe haven when necessary. Until recently, Iran has been able to put pressure on Moqtada al-Sadr, who evaded arrest in Iraq by residing in Iran, to accept the nomination of Nouri Al Maliki as prime minister for a second term even though he strongly rejected this nomination for months. But the recent political practices of Muqtada al-Sadr revealed a deteriorating trend in the relationship between the Iranians and the Sadrist movement. In 2012, Moqtada al-Sadr started by distancing himself from Iran, deflecting blame for previous sectarian violence onto other Iran-backed groups, particularly Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Mahdi Army splinter group that broke away.

According to most analysts, the Sadrist movement’s chances to increase its power in the future depend on two factors:

  • The increasing number of the marginalized social forces, because of the economic model followed in Iraq.
  • An ideology aiming to create an Iraqi and Arab Shiite authority that runs counter to the authority of Iran’s Supreme Leader. This force may give the Sadrist movement a central role in the future because the strategy includes the potential to form bridges that transcend sectarian conflicts and link the components of Iraq to an Arab national framework.


IV. Mid-term perspectives


The radicalizing Shiite extremism is seen as a significant risk, both in the Middle East and Central Asia, where Iran, in spite of the difficult position generated by its isolation and sanctions of the West, is not disposed to abandon its place as a major actor. Notwithstanding its current situation, Iran remains a strong economic power (especially due to its considerable energetic resources – the country is in the top-5 of the world both for oil and gas reserves), as well as an ideological leader for the Shiite communities in the region.

a) Analysts agree that the most worrying risk is the escalation of the civil war in Syria and the increasing involvement of the external actors, as well as the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shiite confrontation.

According to the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, there are “two big risks” that should be of serious concern to the international community. “The first is the transformation of Syria into a playground for competing regional forces, governments and non-state actors alike”, a process that Brahimi sees as being “largely under way”. The second risk, he said, is “full-fledged regionalization of the Syrian civil war” that would engulf “the whole Levant”. Iran has already warned an explosion in the region if a solution in Syria includes dialogue that may lead to military decisiveness.

A clear indication of this growing involvement was the expansion, in the recent months of the secret airlift of arms and equipment for the anti-Assad forces, developed by Arab governments and Turkey with help from the CIA (not surprisingly, most of the actors denied it). The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, and it has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights. From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers are said to have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons.

The shipments also highlight the competition for Syria’s future between Sunni Muslim states and Iran, since even during the most recent military cargo flight for the rebels, the U.S, Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq to do more to halt Iranian arms shipments through Iraqi airspace.

In this context, experts said that Iran is less interested in preserving Assad in power than in maintaining levers of power, including transport hubs inside Syria. As long as Tehran could maintain control of an air- or seaport, it could also maintain a Hezbollah-controlled supply route into Lebanon and continue to manipulate Lebanese politics. Preservation of an Iranian-supported area on the Mediterranean coast is also seen as an alternative that Iran would hold to, even in the case where the Assad group relocates to the north-west.

As to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, it is seen as aiming to give Hezbollah (and Iran) political influence in Syria after the fall of the Bashar Assad’s regime, that would allow them to protect the Shiites and Alawites in the event of an Western and pro-Western Arab – Sunni Muslim intervention in Syria.

b) Another worrying consequence of the rise of the Shiite extremism is the spreading of the growing conflict with the Sunnis, who make up roughly 80% of the world’s Muslims.

In conservative Sunni monarchies (especially those with restless Shiite populations) dislike and suspicion of Iran, the Shiite bastion, is running higher than ever. Theology intertwines with geopolitics – and an incipient strategic-arms race. Far beyond the Gulf or Middle East, from Western Europe to North America, Sunni agitation (often Saudi-sponsored) is intensifying against the supposed heresies contained in Shiite teaching.

In 2012, Belgian police investigated the firebombing of Belgium’s biggest Shiite mosque, which killed the imam. The suspect they arrested claims to be a Salafist (hard-line Sunni) protesting against Shia backing for the Syrian regime. Grieving worshippers chanted Shiite slogans at the scene, eerily echoing far bloodier incidents in places such as Pakistan.

European Shiite – Sunni acrimony is part of a many-sided contest over the future of the continent’s tens of millions of Muslims, with the religious authorities in migrant-sending countries struggling to keep their people loyal to their own varieties of Sunni practice: they see Shi’a Islam and hard-line Sunni groups like the Salafists as equally dangerous and insidious temptations for their sons and daughters in Europe.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, a loose Muslim Brotherhood-inspired body designed to pronounce on issues of common concern to Muslims, often described as the de facto spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, has recently kept up a barrage of verbal attacks on the Shiites, accusing them for compromising the oneness of God (about the worst thing a Muslim can do) by ascribing semi-divine status to the people they regard as Muhammad’s legitimate successors.

This is seen as a change in Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s earlier position, when he used to praise Hezbollah as fighters against Israel. Recently, al-Qadarawi stressed the gap between Sunni and Shi’a beliefs and passionately called for regime change in Syria, where, among other things, a Sunni majority is rebelling against a ruling elite whose Alawite belief is a Shi’a offshoot. Al-Qaradawi, whose utterances command attention from Marseilles to north Caucasus, also backs Bahrain’s Sunni rulers in their anti-Shi’a stance.

The Sunni increasing radical stance is partly due to the fact that the Sunnis think they are winning the global contest, in contrast with the situation several years ago, when it seemed that Shi’a Islam, whether in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, was on the march and Sunnis who yearned to see a government or movement that would confront Israel in the name of Islam had to find role-models across the sectarian divide, in Iran, or in the mullahs’ Lebanese protégés in Hezbollah. Now, the Arab spring established a Sunni sort of political Islam as a powerful, domestically based force that has emerged from the underground or from exile.

On the other hand, Sunnis believe that Western sanctions are weakening Iran, and that the combined efforts of Sunnis and the West will also topple Iran’s only Arab ally, Syria. From a Sunni perspective, these impending victories outweigh the efforts of their co-religionists in majority-Shiite Iraq.


In the current context, the Tehran government and  Shiite extremism are to be closely watched, notwithstanding the current defensive stance of Iran, especially since Iran still has leverage means against its opponents. Preparations are already under way for Alawite forces in Syria to transition to an insurgency with Iran’s backing. In Afghanistan, Iran has militant options to snarl an already fragile U.S. exit strategy.

Even if Iran is weakening in the region and is becoming heavily constrained at home, Tehran also sees the United States in trouble, with Egypt and Syria posing problems for the United States, with a vulnerable Jordan and complex situations in the Maghreb, especially given the current trend of the American policy to become less involved in the Middle East.

[1] Details about the al-Sadr clerical family are presented in the next chapters

[2] Although Mesbah-Yazdi strongly denied this

[3] The body responsible for choosing the Supreme Leader, where he heads a minority ultraconservative faction

[4] Marja-i taqlid literally means “Source to Imitate/Follow” or “Religious Reference”. It is the label provided to Shiite authority, a Grand Ayatollah with the authority to make legal decisions within the confines of Islamic law for followers and less-credentialed clerics.

[5] Husayn al-Musawi, a Sayyid from Najaf, Iraq, and later the second secretary general of Hezbollah, was also the teacher of the current leader of the movement, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.

[6] Sadr is originally an Arabic honorific that has been used since the 10th century to denote a prominent member of the ulema. The title became hereditary in some Twelver Shiite families and is often used as a surname.

[7] The name refers to the Mahdi, the twelfth Imam, see supra

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