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The  Arab  World  Fears  the  ‘Safavid’   Dore  Gold,  June  9,  2013     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.    


The Arab World Fears the ‘Safavid’ by Dore Gold  

Deterring a nuclear Iran who wants to change the international status quo and pursue the territories of the Safavid Empire.

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