Despite Iran’s emphasis on common Islamic values, long-harboured frictions with its Arab neighbours occasionally resurface.
Some believe President Ahmadinejad’s administration is placing more emphasis on Iran’s ancient and unique heritage these days, marking a shift away from the previous stress on a Muslim sense of community with the Arab world.
In the last few months, Ahmadinejad and his allies have used a variety of tactics to foster the perception that they are distancing themselves from the clerical establishment.
For example, the president and his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei have played up an exhibition of the Cyrus Cylinder which opened in Tehran in September.
On loan from the British Museum, the inscribed clay cylinder dates from the reign of the 6th century BC Iranian monarch Cyrus the Great.
In remarks justifying Iran’s right to develop a nuclear programme, Ahmedinejad described the cylinder as “as an embodiment of human values and cultural heritage for all humanity”. Mashaei, meanwhile said he endorsed “the Iranian rather than Islamic school of thought”.
Senior members of Iran’s Shia clergy lambasted the president for these remarks, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supported him, telling clerics during a trip to the holy city of Qom that “my understanding is that they don’t mean to set Iranian doctrine against Islam.”
Another indication of the shifting mood came in the angry popular response to remarks made by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, a close ally of Tehran.
In remarks which he made last year but which only came to light in Iran only in October, Nasrallah said, “There is no such thing as a Persian civilisation in Iran; it is an Islamic civilisation.”
This elicited angry responses in Iran, particularly on the Internet. In the space of just one week, more than 10,000 people joined a Facebook page called “We Iranians hate Nasrallah”, and thousands of anti-Arab comments appeared elsewhere on the web.
The spectacle of officials taking a nationalist stand surprised Parham, an Iranian-American recently returned from a three-month stay in Tehran.
“Following the widespread protests against the disputed 2009 [presidential] election, I think the administration in Iran is trying to win hearts and minds by exploiting the long-held Arab-Persian animosity,” he said, citing his personal observations and conversations in Iran. “Sometimes I was really shocked to see how some people are pleased with the Ahmadinejad administration’s jingoism.”
Meanwhile, the long-running dispute over the terminology used for the Persian Gulf has been reinvigorated.
While Tehran has always insisted that the stretch of water separating Iran from the Arabian peninsula be referred to as the Persian Gulf, especially in an official context, many Arab states continue to call it the Arabian Gulf.
Two weeks ago, when the Chinese hosts of the Asian Games used the words “Arabian Gulf” during the opening ceremony, they inadvertently sparked a fusillade of angry responses from Tehran.
When a senior US State Department official said the words “Arabian Gulf” in an October speech announcing a 60 billion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia, another online campaign by Iranians ensued.
The Iranian response mirrored the reaction of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, which refused to take part in the Islamic Solidarity Games in April if Tehran – hosting the event – insisted on having the inscription “Persian Gulf” on medals and promotional materials. In the end, the games had to be cancelled altogether.
Aware of the sensitivities of using either term, some foreign media, military strategists and oil firms simply call it the Gulf.
On the other side of the water, Sami Al-Faraj, president of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies, is concerned about the strength of feeling in both camps.
“The situation in the Gulf region today resembles the nationalistic climate of the time of the Iran-Iraq war,” he told IWPR. In longer hindsight, he said, “it resembles Europe before the start of the First World War.”
Al-Faraj, an advisor to the Gulf Cooperation Council and a consultant to the Kuwaiti government, believes “divisions between Iranians and Arabs really do exist, and if relations between the two sides don’t improve, they will enter a great battle.”
Al-Faraj accused figures like Ahmadinejad and Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, who recently issued a video message warning that Gulf Arab states were the prime targets of Iranian weapons, of turning to nationalism when they ran out of ideas for addressing domestic problems.
Farideh Farhi, formerly a research affiliate at the Institute for Political and International Studies in Tehran and now at the University of Hawaii, does not believe Ahmadinejad’s espousal of Iranian identity will be an automatic winner.
“Some people seem to think that Ahmadinejad's belated discovery of Iranian
pre-Islamic nationalism is working. I don't, basically because I’m not
sure what the audience is. His presumed [conservative Muslim] base in Iranian society can’t be too thrilled about the idea of an Iranian Islam,” she said. “And I can’t imagine that urban middle-class voters, who are generally sympathetic to the idea of a nationalism based on Iran’s pre-Islamic glory, will fall for this sudden interest in Cyrus the Great and Iranian Islam.”
Farhi suspects the new tack is being pursued with an eye on the next presidential election. “This is clearly a campaign strategy to attract opposition voters and convince them to vote for an Ahmadinejad clone instead of his likely opponent, a pragmatic conservative,” she said.
Popular prejudices undoubtedly exist among both Arabs and Iranians. There are hundreds of blogs and YouTube videos making disparaging remarks about the Iranians as “rafidi” (schismatics), “fire-worshippers”, and “worshippers of the dead”. These terms of abuse encompass both Shia Islam and the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian faith.
Meanwhile, Iranians who pray in Arabic and revere the 12 Arab imams at the heart of Shia belief will dismiss people from the desert states as “malakh-khor”, the “locust-eaters”.
In terms of popular attitudes, Farhi said that while some Iranians harboured anti-Arab feelings, others clearly did not, given that they were happy to go on business trips and religious pilgrimages to Arab countries. Nor, she said, did recent opinion polls suggest that Arabs were really worried about Iran’s strength as a regional power.
“In my view, there’s no such thing as ‘the Iranians’ or ‘the Arabs’ in this context. Both in Iran and in the Arab world, there is a variety of views and identities,” she said.
At a political level, she noted, Iranian-Arab relations were not uniformly poor in any case. “The Iranian government maintains good relations with governments like the ones in Syria, Iraq and Oman, whereas its relations with Saudi Arabia and Jordan have deteriorated,” she said.
Under the previous president, Mohammad Khatami, and his predecessor Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the relationship with Saudi Arabia were in fact much better than they are now, so Farhi believes other factors may be at play.
“We don't know to what extent the deterioration in relations has been caused by Ahmadinejad's aggressive foreign policy or by the change in the geopolitics of the region following the American invasion of Iraq,” she said. “But we might reasonably conclude that a less aggressive foreign policy on the part of Iran, and less interference by external powers, would lead to a reduction in tensions in the region.”
As things stand, though, the tide is against those like Al-Faraj who seek, in his words, “non-religious, non-sectarian, non-ethnic and non-nationalistic formula to bring Iranians and Arabs together”.
Nima Tamaddon is deputy editor of IWPR’s Iran Programme.