In an interview on Al-Jazeera this past May, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, explained that the diversion of Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to Syria to take part in the civil war was part of a “Safavid” plan for the Middle East region.
This past January, an article in the influential Lebanese daily As-Safir accused Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of receiving assistance from his “Safavid allies.” After the powerful Sunni Muslim leader, Sheikh Yousuf al-Qaradawi, condemned Iran for its actions in Syria, the Muslim Scholars Association of Lebanon warned that the Sunni Arabs were facing “the spreading Safawi project.”
Indeed, over the last decade, the term “Safavid” has become a commonly used derogatory word among Arab leaders for the Iranians. American journalist Bob Woodward describes a harsh diplomatic exchange in one of his books between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and a high-level U.S. official about the 2003 Iraq War, in which the Saudi leader states: “You have allowed the Persians, the Safavids, to take over Iraq.” By using the term Safavid, Arab leaders were making reference to the Safavid Empire and imputing hegemonic motivations to the current Iranian government, suggesting that Iran is seeking to re-establish their country’s former imperial borders.
Who were the Safavids and over what territories did they rule? The Safavid Empire was based in Iran and existed between 1501 and 1722. Its founder, Shah Ismail, made Shiite Islam the state religion of Iran and he waged wars against the leading Sunni state at the time, the Ottoman Empire. At its height, the Safavid Empire extended its rule well beyond Iran’s present borders into large parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkemanistan, in the east and covering half of Iraq, including Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, along with the easternmost part of Syria in the west.
The early Safavid leaders imported Shiite leaders from southern Lebanon to help with the propagation of Shiite Islam across Persia. Thus the ties between Iran and Lebanon can be traced back at least to the 16th century. In the south, the Safavid Empire reached the Arabian coastline of the Persian Gulf, while in the north it included what is today Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Iranian leadership today has not formally claimed the borders of the Safavid Empire, but it certainly made statements suggesting they reflected part of their national aspirations.
For example, Hossein Shariatmadari served as an unofficial spokesman for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as the editor of the conservative Iranian daily, Kayhan. In July 2007, he wrote an op-ed stating that the Arab states of the Gulf were established as a result of the intervention of the West. He insisted that the Arab peoples in the Arabian peninsula were not involved in the appointment of their governments. He then claimed specifically that Bahrain was part of Iranian territory. In 2009, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, who was Khamenei’s candidate for president in 1997, bluntly called Bahrain Iran’s “14th province.”
A member of the Iranian Parliament’s Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy backed Shariatmadari’s statement and reminded the Arab states that “most of them were once part of Iranian soil.” More recently another Khamenei associate called Syria Iran’s “35th province.” It was not surprising when Internet whistle-blower site WikiLeaks uncovered a senior Omani officer, who worked for Sultan Qaboos, telling a visiting American counterpart in 2008 that the regime in Tehran was motivated by an “Iranian expansionist ideology.”
After taking office, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei provided justification for the Iranian activism that was threatening the Arab states. As he explained to the Iranian daily Ressalat in 1991, Iran’s National Security Strategy was not just based on preservation of the integrity of the Iranian state, but rather on its “expansion” — he used the term “bast,” in Arabic. This worldview was evident in the statements of some of Iran’s most important senior officers. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps stated in 2012 with respect to Lebanon and Iraq: “These regions are one way or another subject to the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its ideas.” Suleimani reports directly to Khamenei and was just appointed to coordinate all Iranian military activities in Syria against Israel.
In diplomacy, a fundamental distinction is often drawn between status quo states that are satisfied with the extent of their territory and do not seek to alter their borders and anti-status quo states that aspire to exercise influence over their neighbors and ultimately take over their territories. By calling the Iranians “Safavids,” the Arab side is expressing its view that Iran is an anti-status quo state which wants those parts of Iraq where the Safavids once ruled as well as the territories of many of the Arab Gulf states.
This discussion is relevant for the debate in the West over the consequences of a nuclear Iran. Last month an Iranian-American analyst from the RAND Corporation, Alireza Nader, wrote in the prestigious American journal Foreign Policy his view that Iran is only seeking nuclear weapons for deterrence. The purpose of an Iranian bomb is thus defensive; all Iran is seeking is to prevent the West from carrying out regime change against its Islamist leadership. He clearly portrays Iran as a status-quo state that will not overthrow the regimes of its Arab neighbors. This work fits in well with the new trend in Washington of recommending that the Obama administration reconsider the policy of containment, which it dropped in 2012 in favor of the policy of prevention.
There are other views that negate these suggestions. Saudi Maj. Feisal Abukshiem wrote an outstanding study last year for the U.S. Army’s Command and Staff College that reached the completely opposite conclusions about the implications of a nuclear Iran on the Middle East. He detailed how Iran used Shiite movements, some of whose leaders studied in the Iranian city of Qom, in order to promote assassinations, sectarian rebellions and terror in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He pointed out the cases of past Iranian military intervention in the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Yemen and most recently in Syria. He then concluded that “the possession of nuclear weapons will encourage Iran to expand those efforts without deterrence.”
A nuclear weapon in the hands of a status-quo state with a defensive orientation is a very different story than nuclear weapons in the hands of a state that wants to totally change the international status quo. This could have offensive implications. If Iran really views itself as a truncated state that deserves to recover the territories it once controlled in the days of the Safavid Empire, then deterrence of a nuclear Iran in the future will be far more difficult than many in the West currently realize.