On April 15, 2011, a prominent news story described Iran’s support for Syria’s draconian crackdown on protestors. The story focused on Iran’s widespread meddling in the region, but it missed the key point: Shia Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East is Sunni Syria. Iran deals freely with Sunni Muslims and Sunni countries when it’s in its interest to do so.
Many folks can only see in black and white. As a result, contrary to a mountain of evidence, many policymakers, counterterror specialists, and citizens continue to believe that there is no cooperation between Sunni and Shia because of religious hatred.
While it is true that, on the local level, Sunnis and Shias routinely attack and kill each other in places like Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, it is equally true that, on the strategic level, Shia Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East is indeed Sunni Syria; that Iran supports all the major Sunni terrorist organizations; and that Iran is planning to re-establish formal diplomatic relations with Sunni Egypt after more than 30 years.
None of this is surprising given that ninety percent of all Muslims in the world are Sunni. Iran has long realized that if it is to be the dominant power in the predominantly Sunni Middle East, it is simply in its interest to actively cooperate with Sunnis when such cooperation serves its purposes.
And so, for years, one of the key aspects of Iran’s foreign policy has been to undermine the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East by supporting Sunni terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
This support is not just a matter of self-interest. Iran does share an ideological affinity with Sunni Islamists. Ayatollah Khomeini and his close confidant Syed Ali Khamene’i, who later succeeded him as supreme leader, were profoundly influenced by the Salafi-jihadi ideology of Sunni theorist Sayyid Qutb. Khamene’i personally translated Qutb’s works into Persian, and Iran placed Qutb’s portrait on a postage stamp to commemorate his contribution to the revolution.
Recently, Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer asked former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton if he thought that Egypt and Iran would really reestablish diplomatic relations — given that Egypt is Sunni and Iran is Shia. This kind of ignorance is surprising. Evidence of Sunni-Shia collaboration spans years and is not hard to come by. Wikileaks, for instance, has revealed a number of State Department cables from Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE, and Egypt that specifically document Iran’s support of Sunni terrorist organizations. (I’ve put together a video incorporating these cables which can be accessed here.)
According to these cables, a Saudi official speaking for King Abdullah stated that Saudi Arabia sees an “alliance of convenience” between al-Qaeda and Iran. King Abdullah demanded that Iran stop supporting Sunni Hamas — and Saudi Interior Minister Nayif accused Iran of hosting Sunni Saudis, including Osama bin Laden’s son Ibrahim, who were in contact with terrorists and working against the kingdom.
In other cables, Israeli Intelligence Analysis Production Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz declared that there are multiple bases in Iran where Iranian forces train with operatives of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad; UAE officials stated that Iran is allied with al Qaeda; and then-Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Soliman told General Petraeus that Iran supports Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the Wikileaks cables are just icing on the cake. American public documents and statements by Sunni and Shia leaders provide ample proof of Sunni-Shia cooperation. Here are just a few:
From America: The 9/11 Commission stated in its final report that:
there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.
From the Shia side: On February 25, 2010, Iranian President Ahmadinejad publicly declared Iran’s support for Sunni terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; and on July 19, 2007, he met with Ramadan Shallah, secretary general of the Sunni Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
From the Sunni side: In July 2006, Sheikh Yussef al Qaradawi, an Islamist cleric and one of the most prominent Muslim Brothers in the world today, expressed his support for Shia Hezbollah, stating that the war between Hezbollah and Israel was a “legitimate holy war.”
Qaradawi also specifically addressed and dismissed Sunni/Shia religious differences, declaring:
Even if the Shias are different from Sunnis in many respects, they must receive our backing; the objective of Shias, like Sunnis, must always be the defense of Islam. Islamic law is life. The Lebanese resistance is a legitimate Jihad, and it is a duty for every Muslim to support Hizballah in its struggle against the Israeli invasion.
Also in 2006, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, who at the time was the top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, publicly declared his willingness to send 10,000 fighters to aid Shia Hezbollah. In the same year, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Masri, the deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon, described actual, on-the-ground Sunni-Shia cooperation, stating:
The Sunni Islamic Group in Lebanon fighters are defending southern Lebanon hand-in-hand with Hizbullah.
A year later, on March 16, 2007, Fathi Yakan, the founder and head of the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood and a staunch supporter of Osama bin Laden, visited Iran and called for an actual joint defense pact between Shia Iran and Sunni Muslim countries to defend the Muslim world against U.S. and Israeli aggression.
Whether in the 9/11 attacks on America, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the smuggling of jihadis into Iraq through Syria and the smuggling of advanced weaponry into Gaza for Hamas, the looming Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt, or al-Qaeda and the global jihad movement, Iran is involved.
As this evidence amply shows, at the strategic level, there is no ideological or religious barrier to Sunni-Shia cooperation. In fact, Iran provides crucial support to many Sunni entities. Any denial of this cooperation, whether out of ignorance or political expediency, puts America at a distinct disadvantage, preventing us from understanding Iran’s strategic regional goals and the true nature of the international Salafi-jihadi movement.