Shi’a Islam adheres to the prophetic teachings and guidance of Muhammad and his designated successor Ali ibn Abi Talib. The group emphasizes the innate value of strong family ties, lineage, and loyalty. Shi’a activism has been exercising control over political processes and socio-economic dynamics in the Middle East and the Gulf (Norton 12). For instance, the political authority of the Shi’a or Shi’ism is a response to the excesses, corruption, and spiritual malaise associated with the Ottoman Empire. Notably, when writing the history and political instability in the Middle East, Western media and literature often portray the region as a battlefield full of religious fundamentalists and ethnic groups that are continually fighting and killing each other. The political doctrines and beliefs among the Shi’as emphasize the importance of an Imamate as the community or state leader. According to the doctrine of Imamate, the Imam should be a direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad through family lineages. The global community and powers, such as the United States and Iran, have used Shi’a activism and Sunni rebellion and related political processes to reshape Middle East policies and events.
The Impact of U.S.-Led Security Order of the Middle East on Transnational Shi’ism
The Sunni Islamic ideologies have been the main face of the greater Middle East before the U.S.-led security order of the region. The Shi’as were underdogs in the area, marginalized and oppressed by the Sunni-led dictators. As such, the Shi’as attracted support and sympathy from the Iranian Revolutionary Forces. Throughout history, Western nations have been trying to impose their model of democracy and order in the Middle East (Mervin 267). However, in most cases, foreigners may face violent backlash from the locals. Washington relies on corrupt or repressive monarchies to promote its interests in the region. The U.S.-led security order of the Middle East has dramatically affected the political systems and effectiveness of modern transnational Shi’ism in the Middle East. Before the interference from foreign powers, the Shi’a ideology was always smooth, practicable, and reasonable (Nasr 7). The Imamate under Shi’a ideology played a fundamental role in shaping Muslim society. The obedience to the Imams and the Prophet among Shi’a Muslims is still obligatory.
The entry of the U.S.-led security order of the Middle East influenced ideological tension between the Sunni and Shiites. For example, the Iraqi War has had profound impacts on the region’s geopolitical dynamics (Mervin 268). Before his fall, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, mistreated the majority Shiites in Iraq. After his death, the ideological tension between the two groups is still evident in the Iraqi political environment. Traditionally, the Sunni Arabs have dominated the Middle East. The Shiites came into power after the U.S.-led security order of the Middle East. In particular, the successful invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government marked the first time a Shiite government gained full control of the government in any Arab-majority country. The historical event facilitated the rise and expansion of Shi’ism in the Middle East, further creating suspicion and attracting hostility from other opposing ideologies (Mervin 271). Accordingly, the region has been facing the emergence of armed rebellion from the opposing Sunni fundamentalists. The rebellions target the rise of Shi’ism in the region and the U.S.-led security personnel. The spiraling violence has been destructive and destabilizing from political and socio-economic perspectives.
Iran also relies on the expansive network of radical Shia organizations and movements to exert its control and influence over the Middle East. The political radicalization of the non-Iranian Shias has been fundamental in expanding Iran’s political and religious authority in the region. Iran is propagating the idea of creating an Islamic state through the reintroduction of Sharia laws in various political and economic activities. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran allowed the Shia movements to propagate their ideological positions more forcefully (Ostovar 2). The movements are demanding for increased political integrations and are enjoying the strategic military and financial benefits from the Iranian government. Iran relies on the transitional clerical networks to control the rise of Shi’ism in the region (Nasr 12). Through these networks, Iran is using Imams and other religious leaders to spread their ideological and religious positions. Currently, the Iranians are also using the Shiite-led government in Iraq to influence anti-West policies, such as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from countries in the region. The Imams are leading the radical Islamist movements responsible for propagating pro-Iran ideologies in the region.
Overall, these transnational links are helping the Ayatollahs to spread the Iranian revolutionary thoughts and Shi’ism in the Muslim world. Notably, by harmonizing the political and religious orders in the region, Iran is succeeding in its grand plans of radicalizing the Shia movements in its favor. Through such pragmatic and sectarian policies, Iran has attracted various anti-Shia sentiments from the Salafists and Arab nationalists in majority Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia (Roy and Mervin 26). The conservative Sunni majority in the Middle East rejected the adventurism of the politics and organization of contemporary transnational Shi’ism.
The Implications of Regional Security Dynamics and State Alliances
Shia actors in the Middle East draw their inspiration from the Iranian Revolutionary ideologies. In essence, while the toppling of Saddam Hussein seemed easy and swift, replacing the sectarian regime and country’s traditional political and social systems proved challenging (Damluji 71). The U.S.-led security operation in the Middle East has facilitated the rise of sectarian groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Al-Qaeda strongly opposes the rise of Shi’ism and the presence of foreign troops in the volatile region. The terrorist organization (according to the West) portrays itself as the protectors of the Sunni ideological positions and religious beliefs (Norton 12). The organization applies brutal tactics and extremist religious perceptions to alienate Shi’ism. Some of these tactics include suicide and car bombing attacks on foreign troops’ positions and the Shiite government forces. Moreover, opposition groups, such as the Sunni-majority Kurdish forces, moved in to oppose the new Shiite-led majority government in Iraq.
The U.S.-led security order of the Middle East also facilitated the rise of Iran’s influence in the region and the rise of transnational Shi’ism. Before his ultimate downfall, Iran viewed Saddam Hussein as its greatest regional threat to regional control and dominance. The replacement of the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam with the Shiite Islamist fundamentalists gave Iran a chance to expand its extensive trade and intelligence networks in the country. Therefore, the fall of Iraq at the hands of the U.S.-led security order of the Middle East was a geopolitical disaster (Damluji 74). The military interventions by the United States and its allies have failed to achieve its intended purposes, which included the replacement of Arab dictatorial regimes with Shiite governments that would be friendly to the West. The rise of Islamist fundamentalists backed by Iran is already complicating the map of the region (Ostovar 3). The push for democratization by the U.S.-led security order of the Middle East is very fragile. Markedly, while the U.S. is still the dominant power in the Middle East, the rise of Iran-backed Shia militias is threatening its regional influence.
The rise of the Hezbollah terrorist group is an illustration of the rise and influence of Shiite radicalism in the Middle East. The organization is a response to the U.S.-led security order of the Middle East and draws its inspirations from the distinct version of the Islamic Shia ideological perceptions. The Hezbollah is also a response by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Army led by Ayatollahs (Kanaaneh 39). The major principles of Hezbollah ideological programs include the total annihilation of foreign troops, such as Americans and the French from the Middle East. The group is also exacting revenge for the crime committed against other Muslims by the foreign powers in the region. The group also views its conflicts with the U.S.-led security order and Israel based on a religious perspective. Through the rise of such Shia violent Islamism, the U.S.-led security forces have facilitated the rise of the sectarian groups in the Middle East (Ostovar 3). In particular, the Western-led military operations support the emergence of power-hungry political players and sham democratic processes. The Islamic Takfiri movement opposes the spread of Sunni violent ideological positions in Syria and Lebanon ((Kanaaneh 39). The Shia group is more tolerant and willing to compromise its ideological viewpoints, negotiate, and collaborate with other like-minded entities to attain common goals and objectives.
Lastly, the recent emergence of the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or the caliphate draws its inspirations from the Al Qaida terrorist organization. The competition for political power and religious influence between the Shia and the Sunnis will continue to shape the stability of the Middle East (Martin 150). The rise of Sunni-affiliated jihadists, such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the militant Wahhabis is a response to the U.S.-led security order of the Middle East (Damluji 78). The groups promote anti-Shia violence in the region to dismantle the influence and control of the foreign powers. The violent reactions by the Sunnis to the rise and influence of Shi’ism will continue to create sectarian divide and tensions in the region for a very long time.
The Role of the Axis of Resistance and the Case Studies of Shi’a Actors in the Middle East
The Axis of Resistance is a comprehensive political alliance between Iran, the Syrian Assad regime, and the Hezbollah militant group. The alliance is an Iranian containment policy of the foreign powers in the Middle East through violent expulsion. Iran relies on Syria’s crucial geopolitical position to promote the actions and influence of the Axis of Resistance (Ahmadian and Payam 1). The alliance has helped in reshaping the strategic balance of power in the region. The members of the resistance share a similar ideological argument against the presence of the American forces in the Middle East and the Israeli State. The group has been effective in establishing deterrence against the Israelis and the Americans, hence preventing major military escalations. Currently, the Axis of Resistance is supporting the Assad regime, thus preserving Syria’s military capacity to deter the influence of foreign forces (Ahmadian and Payam 1). The group’s military containment strategies have been successful in eliciting support from the Arab world because of its strong opposition towards Israel. Shi’a actors, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps), are powerful members of the Axis of Resistance movement.
Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim military and political organization with major operational bases in Lebanon. It enjoys sophisticated security systems, apparatus, and socio-economic networks, fostering its regional reputation. The evolution of Hezbollah into a forceful military and influential political organization has been dramatic. Initially, Hezbollah emerged as a guerilla group in the early 1980s during the fifteen-year Lebanese Civil War (Kanaaneh 41). The Iranian-backed group draws its inspiration from the regional hatred towards Israel and resistance to Western imperialism in the Middle East. The organization has been experiencing significant growth in its military strength and capabilities. Hezbollah also has an impressive grassroots support in Lebanon and massive political influence. As such, the organization is using such support systems to create educational and social institutions running parallel to the Lebanese government. Hezbollah has succeeded in entrenching itself into every sector of the Lebanese society, highlighting the widespread influence of Iranian Shi’ism ideals in the country.
Hezbollah is a pro-Iranian military wing with a strong belief in transnational Shi’ism and Ayatollah’s religious fundamentalism. Despite the presence of the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah has managed to amass an impressive military capability capable of distorting the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran uses the organization to spread its skewed ideological positions against the State of Israel and the West. In particular, Hezbollah is part of Iran’s widespread emergence of transnational Shi’ism in the Muslim world (Kanaaneh 42). Specifically, the Islamic State of Iran supports the training and financing of Hezbollah’s military activities in Lebanon and Syria.
Hezbollah’s recent decision to join the Syrian conflict and escalate its confrontation with Israel threatens Lebanon’s socio-economic and political stability. The Iranian-backed group is supporting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, transforming it into a massive military entity (Norton 12). The organization is attracting support and criticism along sectarian lines with massive support from the Shiite communities. Hezbollah is also taking advantage of the mass discontent with the ruling class to elicit increased public support in Lebanon.
Overall, Hezbollah is billing itself as a Shiite resistance organization. The military and political group enshrines its ideological positions to the ultimate expulsion of Western influences from Lebanon and the total annihilation of the Israeli State. It pledges absolute allegiance to the Iranian Supreme Leader, shaping itself as an Iran-inspired Islamist regime (Ostovar 4). Hezbollah also believes that Lebanese people deserve the right to self-determination devoid of outside influences from the West or Israel. Through its robust political and social institutions, Hezbollah is increasingly shaping itself as a regional force that shapes geopolitics in the Middle East.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the country transformed its foreign policy approaches and relations, especially in the Middle East. Traditionally, Iran was a pro-American and an anti-Soviet country. The 1979 revolution shifted the country’s focus to other important geopolitical issues in the Middle East (Roy and Mervin 24). Some of the critical issues that Iran pursued included the suffering and pain of the Palestinian people in the Israeli-occupied territories. Iran also wanted Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and other strategic regions within Lebanon and Syria (Ostovar 5). The formation of the IRGC was a response to these geopolitical issues and Iran’s desire to become a regional superpower. Iranian leaders favored the idea of using the new military organization to export revolutionary thoughts and ideas in other oppressed Muslim-majority countries around the world.
The primary objective of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) is to protect the Iranian political regime against interference from foreign forces. In particular, IRGC is involved in the active deterrence of anti-American military insurgency or terrorism in the Middle East. The radical military wing sees itself as the guardian of the Islamic revolutionary thoughts and influences in the region. The IRGC is also responsible for introducing strict ideological and moral perceptions of Shi’ism in foreign Islamic countries, such as Lebanon (Ostovar 5). Notably, by spreading such revolutionary values beyond Iran, IRGC believes that it can influence popular support for the Khomeini ideological movement and shape the socio-economic and political systems in the Middle East. As such, the IRGC is supporting different armed political activism as part of its radical interventionism policies. For instance, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps supported the establishment and military activities of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and other Lebanese Shiite groups to fight the Zionist regime, which they still consider illegitimate. The IRGC’s foreign interventions draw its inspirations from fundamental Muslim ethics supported by the Khomeini. According to Khomeini’s religious school of thought, every Muslim is responsible for helping and supporting a fellow Muslim in distress (Ostovar 6). The IRGC used similar arguments to extend its global political influences and military control beyond the Iranian borders. The regime’s decision to support the PLO was part of its ideological position to extend help to foreign Muslims suffering under the perceived oppression of the West and Israel.
The IRGC’s conservative interventionist ambitions are currently targeting the ultimate liberation of the oppressed Muslim societies in the Middle East by the U.S.-Zionist aggressions. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the IRGC sent ground troops and military resources to suppress such aggressive campaigns against Iran’s ally and a Muslim country. The formation of the IRGC’s OLM (Office of Liberation Movement) in Lebanon was a response to the increasing outside influence of Western imperialism and Zionism in the region. The IRGC has helped Iran to strengthen its influence and long-lasting involvement in the Middle East (Ostovar 7). However, the West, led by the United States, considers IRGC’s foreign interventions as extreme and uncompromising. In particular, the IRGC’s use of war and political violence has attracted condemnation from the West. Despite these criticisms, the military organization views its foreign interventions as an extension of Iran’s desire to spread conservative ideological and religious sentiments in other Muslim countries. The recent proliferation of images of Khomeini throughout Lebanon is a clear example of the growing influence of the IRGC outside Iran. Further, Iran has been using the IRGC successfully to position itself as the vanguard defender of the Muslim world.
In conclusion, the United States and Iran are still using the conflicts between different Muslim groups to advance their geopolitical desires. For instance, Iran is using Shi’a activism to suppress Sunni rebellion and gain control of the Middle East. The emergence of Shi’a actors and their proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps continue to shape related political processes and religious beliefs in the Middle East.
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