On 28 April 2022, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) hosted a group of experts for a panel entitled “Sectarianism and Iranian Foreign Policy.” The panel consisted of Shahram Akbarzadeh, Professor of Middle East and Central Asian Politics at Deakin University and Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum at Alfred Deakin Institute; Fanar Haddad, assistant professor in the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at University of Copenhagen; and Edward Wastnidge, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the Open University, UK. The panel was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar.

Akbarzadeh began by providing an overview of the role of sectarianism in Iranian foreign policy. He noted that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy used an ideological lens to see the world during its early years, reflecting Ayatollah Khomeini’s view of Iran being isolated by Western countries and representing the Muslim world against the West. This viewpoint was reinforced during the Iran-Iraq War, when several regional powers, as well as the United States, backed Iraq.

In reaction to Iran’s foreign policy and especially following the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran, the United States imposed sanctions against Iran, and American foreign policy has focused on containing Iran ever since, resulting in a perpetual relationship based on fear and distrust. The September 11 attacks offered a window of opportunity for the two countries to improve their relationship, but that lasted only briefly due to George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” which reaffirmed to Iran that it could not rely on the US. Recognizing its inability to withstand the might of the United States, Iran has turned to asymmetrical capacity building, which means that it is finding ways to acquire an advantage over traditional ways of warfare. “The idea of ‘forward defense’ doctrine is a manifestation of addressing threats before they materialize on the national frontier and to deter attacks by making them costly for anyone who dares to engage with Iran militarily.”

Given its foreign policy approach, Iran has not been successful in finding regional allies and has only established relationships with a number of sub-state actors, often minority groups or communities that have been oppressed. According to Akbarzadeh, the common factor among Iran’s proxy actors is that most of them have a Shia affiliation, with the exception of Hamas. He argued that Iran did not set out to be a sectarian power, but rather the defender of the ummah and the oppressed, as conveyed in the Iranian constitution. Akbarzadeh further stated that dynamics such as the nature of Middle Eastern regional politics and the marginalization of the Shia communities, particularly in Saudi Arabia, have created an audience for the Iranian message. As a result, Iran has easy access to these countries’ Shia populations and communities. He maintained that Iran’s foreign policy is a realist response to external threats resulting from its hostility toward the United States and its allies, producing a self-perpetuating cycle of distrust and dread.

Haddad continued the panel discussion by focusing on the concept of sectarianism as it is often used to refer to the geopolitical rivalry between some Arab states and Iran, or it is reduced to the projection of Iranian power abroad. An alternate approach describes Iranian policy’s methods and goals as sectarianism, although the term’s meaning is still unclear. Iran uses sectarianism to create transnational Shia solidarity in pursuit of strategic goals. There are many examples of Iran’s strategic use of Shia narratives and networks, such as its protection of the shrines in Syria, and support and recruitment of Shia militias in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria. Haddad maintained that Iran, like any other player, pursues its interests, and that its foreign policy toolkit includes unconventional instruments such as sectarianism.

In answering how and when sectarianism is used, Fanar stated that the “sectarian card’s efficacy and potential for Iran differs from other cases because of the nature of the current Iranian state, a self-proclaimed Islamic state claiming to represent pan-Shiism.” Iran seeks to be the sponsor of international Shiism and exerts a gravitational pull on Shia movements across the world. Haddad argued that the demographic weakness of Shiism and the significance of pan-Islamism in Iranian regime’s ideology imply that sectarianism is not always in Iran’s best interests, leading the country to downplay its Shia identity on the international arena.

The sectarian card, on the other hand, is not always straightforward. While Iran has the demographics, tools, and proxies to play sectarian politics in Iraq, these policies have backfired in recent years, resulting in a growing anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq. These negative sentiments are being expressed more loudly than ever by Iran’s target audience, primarily young Shias. Haddad concluded by stating that Iraq has undergone significant changes in recent years, and it is unclear if Iranian policy has kept pace with these developments.

To round off the panel discussion, Wastnidge reflected on Iran-Saudi relation in the context of sectarianism. Wastnidge provided an overview of the literature on Iran-Saudi rivalry and explained Iran’s perception of the rivalry arguing that sectarianism is not the driving factor behind this complex relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran’s main concerns in its relationship with Saudi Arabia are mainly geopolitical, tied to both states relations with the United States. “When it comes to religion, Tehran has long promoted the notion that Saudi Wahhabism is a threat and that has been overlaid on its justifications for the action it has taken in the wider Middle East region.” The Iranians assume that Saudi Arabia is promoting a sectarian agenda in the region, and that Iran is responding defensively to protect oppressed populations and Shia communities. Wastnidge further claimed that within this rivalry, “there is a geopoliticization of identity which is expressed through an instrumentalization of religion to justify certain policy stances”. He continued that there are many ways in which Iran-Saudi rivalry has little to do with sectarianism, particularly in the case of Central Asia. “While Saudi Arabia has historically used confessional linkages, Iran’s strategy and policy towards this region has not really had any sectarian component, indicating that geopolitical opportunism can be an element of this rivalry.”