The Iranian state, controlled de facto by the conservatives in the government, promotes the idea that Iran is the center of Shi‘ism. It bases its argument on the fact that Iran is a Shi‘i-run state, whereas Shi‘i Muslims in other parts of the world live in states that are dominated by Sunnis, and so Iran is free to pay near exclusive attention to Shi‘i concerns.

Much Western attention has centered on the Iranian government’s ideological, military and economic support of one Shi‘i faction outside Iran, Hizballah in Lebanon. Since the 1980s, many observers have seen the creation of Hizballah as a result of the desire of the post-revolutionary Iranian government to “export the Islamic revolution.” Hizballah, therefore, is seen as an extension of Iranian interests, which are defined as expansionist and implacably hostile to the West. This point of view underpins statements like the one attributed to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in 2002 that Hizballah is the “A-Team of terrorists” with “global reach.” As evidence for the Lebanese party’s organic ties to hardliners in Tehran, such observers cite Hizballah’s stated allegiance to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution and a key conservative power broker in Iran’s domestic turmoil.

Hizballah does regard Khamenei as its marja‘, the “source of emulation” whose pronouncements, under the hierarchical system within Shi‘i Islam, are the main signposts offering guidance to pious Shi‘i Muslims. These religious ties to Iran can set Hizballah apart from other Lebanese Shi‘i parties. In 1994, for example, Khamenei issued a fatwa enjoining Shi‘a to refrain from the practice of hitting haydar, that is, striking one’s head until it bleeds severely, during ‘Ashura, the annual commemoration of the death of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein in the battle of Karbala’. As Hizballah acknowledges Khamenei as marja‘, its followers stopped the practice. Sympathizers of Amal, the other major Shi‘i party in Lebanon, have continued it (as have Iraqi Shi‘a), signaling that they do not recognize the hierarchy that the Iranian government would like to impose on them.

Yet Hizballah cannot simply be called an agent of Iranian influence in the Arab world. After the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, the party has unmistakably developed a political agency of its own. Not only is the party hailed in Lebanon and the Arab world as the prime mover behind Israel’s decision to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000, it also has built a popular base in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Bekaa region and the south that has voted party cadres into the Lebanese parliament. Hizballah’s network of social services, meanwhile, has earned it a major role as an advocate for the disadvantaged Shi‘i population. These successes have deepened Hizballah’s self-identification as an actor in the interest of Arab nationalism, an ideology that does not necessarily comport with the type of pan-Shi‘i solidarity propagated by Iran. Pan-Shi‘i solidarities cannot be viewed independently from the national standpoints from which they are articulated.

Seeking to justify their involvement in Lebanese Shi‘i affairs, the Iranian government highlights what it sees as the central role of Iran and Shi‘ism in Islamic civilization in general. This strategy counters the Arab nationalist argument according to which ethnic solidarity among people defined as Arabs, regardless of sectarian affiliation, should take precedence over religious ties with non-Arabs. Yet by pointing to the central position of Iran in Islamic civilization, the Iranian government also tacitly draws on nationalist ideologies of its own. The way Iran is portrayed by institutions of the Iranian government working abroad frequently exhibits mainstream nationalist thinking about the splendor and impact of the Persian language and Iranian traditions. Conservative-controlled organs of the Iranian state make use of an elaborate cultural politics — language, films and the like — that they themselves had labeled as secular until recently. Ironically, these proponents of pan-Shi‘i solidarity draw on an Iranian religious nationalism in order to justify their position among Shi‘i Arabs in Lebanon.

Iran’s Cultural Politics in Lebanon

Consider, for example, the activities of the Cultural Center of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Beirut (ICC). Until 1987, the cultural section of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut coordinated activities considered “cultural” (barnameha-yi farhangi). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran monitored these programs, just like other activities of the Iranian Embassy. By 1987, the Iranian government felt the need to separate the cultural section from some Iranian embassies, and as the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance had been responsible for the cultural activities in Iran and abroad, the ICC opened a branch in Beirut under the umbrella of this ministry. A total of 23 employees currently work at the ICC, 17 of them of Lebanese origin, and the rest ministry employees sent from Iran. Until 1990, the Lebanese civil war limited the center’s activities, but after the war ended the ICC assumed its charge in earnest. The official goals of the ICC are to “deepen cultural, scientific and intellectual” relations, as well as “academic relations.” The ICC pursues these goals by “introducing Iran to the Lebanese public,” teaching Persian and supporting other Persian language teaching in Lebanon, sponsoring seminars and conferences on Islamic thought and history, and publishing the proceedings as well as other books.

A central, if unacknowledged goal of these cultural appreciation activities is to counter the ideology of Lebanese Islamists, Sunni and Shi‘i alike, who emphasize the special relationship between Arabs and the landmark accomplishments of Islamic history. By contrast, the Iranian government seeks to shift attention to the contributions of Iranians to Islamic civilization, while downplaying linguistic and ethnic differences between Arabs and Iranians.

The ICC’s most direct method of “introducing Iran to the Lebanese” has been to send a select group of 13-15 Lebanese to Iran every year to take part in the extensive ceremonies held to commemorate the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. These delegations, made up of intellectuals, religious scholars and leaders of Shi‘i political parties, also travel throughout Iran and visit cultural and research centers. Although most members of the delegation are Muslims, every year a few Christians are invited on the trip as well. In 2002, the Lebanese sent to Iran included two members of the Amal movement, two Sunnis associated with the party al-Tawhid al-Islami, the Christian poet Joseph ‘Aoun, a journalist from the al-Safir newspaper, and a judge from the Ministry of Justice. Mohamamad Hossein Hashemi, the Iranian cultural attache to Lebanon, characterized the project “as a way to correct the image of Iran in the mind of many Lebanese as Iran had come to be associated wrongly with terrorism.” He pointed to the surprise the travelers felt upon their arrival in Iran:

Many had imagined Tehran to be a larger version of al-Dahiya [the poor southern suburbs of Beirut mainly inhabited by Shi‘a], because of the connection they imagine between Iran and Hizballah. But once they visited the country, they realized, “Wow, what a culture! What a civilization!” Many of those who returned told us, “Why take a vacation in Europe? We’d rather go to Iran on vacation.” [1]

The emphasis on Iranian contributions to Islamic civilization becomes most visible when Hashemi urges students to learn Persian. On the first day of Persian classes at the ICC in 2002, he declared that “if Arabic was the language of the Qur’an, which we in Iran consider the gate to our knowledge of Islam and its eminent teachings, then Persian is the language of the Islamic Revolution. It is also the language of high culture (adab), poetry and a language of interaction between religions and civilizations for all of history.” Here Hashemi places almost the same emphasis on the revolution as on the rise of Islam as an event. He continued that “many of the great scholars well-known in the Arab world were from Iran, such as al-Razi, al-Farabi, al-Kharazmi, Ibn Sina, Ibn al-Muqafa’ and many other scholarly personalities.” [2] Later in the speech he mentioned that members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family hailed from the region called Iran today. In this way, Hashemi presents a picture of the past in which those settled in the region called Iran today spoke Persian, although they wrote in Arabic. He characterizes Islamic civilization as not a solely Arab achievement, remapping the imagined territory of that civilization so that present-day Iran sits squarely in the middle.

Outreach and Reception

The effects of this Iranian “cultural outreach” do not always conform to Hashemi’s script. One of the most successful activities of the ICC — the screening of acclaimed Iranian films — has little to do with Iran’s self-image as the center of global Shi‘ism. The ICC began showing movies in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The screening of Bashu: The Little Stranger moved Lebanese viewers to such an extent that for days the phone at the ICC was ringing with requests to order the film and for information about others.

Produced by the well-known filmmaker Bahram Bayzai in 1989, Bashu is the story of a young boy from the southern part of Iran whose family is killed during the Iran-Iraq war. He hides in the back of a truck during the bombardment, only to wake up the next day to find himself in northern Iran. The contrast between the dry landscape of southern Iran and the lush green of the north, and the fact that neither Bashu nor his newfound northern family could speak standard Persian, underline the diversity of the Iranian population. As Bashu is dark-skinned and speaks Arabic, as compared to many northerners who are fair-skinned and speak a northern Persian dialect, the film points to ethnic and linguistic divisions within Iran as well.

Such films probably succeed with Lebanese audiences, as they have internationally, because of their artistic value and because many Lebanese clearly distinguish between the Iranian filmmaking industry and the aims of the conservative government. In addition, the success of Iranian movies such as Bashu in Lebanon might be related to the familiarity of both societies with the devastation wrought by war. Yet the ICC prefers to present the films’ warm reception primarily as the result of the Lebanese audience’s interest in the Islamic Republic. It certainly does not call attention to the political differences between prominent Iranian filmmakers and the conservative wing represented in the Ministry of Guidance, or the way in which many contemporary Iranian films have advanced subtle critiques of the social strictures imposed by the Islamic Republic. [3]


Moreover, the cultural politics of the Iranian government as mediated through its emissaries in Beirut are not uncontested. One of the fierce opponents of the Iranian government’s reconstruction of a history where Iranians play a role in Islamic history that is not secondary to the Arab role is the Shi‘i religious scholar Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah. Spiritual leader of Hizballah until the mid-1990s, Fadlallah was born into a south Lebanese family with a strong theological background in the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf in 1936. He studied with Ayatollah ‘Abd al-Qasim Khu‘i, head of the Najaf hawza now led by Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani, and eventually joined the Da‘wa Party started by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in the late 1950s. His experiences during the Lebanese civil war with a Christian militia, who kidnapped him and destroyed schools for orphans and husseinyyas (prayer houses and community centers) under his supervision coupled with the agitation of the new Islamic regime in Iran, radicalized his views to the point that he suggested an Islamic republic as the solution to Lebanon’s sectarian strife. Fadlallah took part in the 1986 conference in Tehran to draft an Islamic constitution for Lebanon but, in later years, he came to believe that an Islamic republic in Lebanon was not a realistic goal.

Since 1996, relations between Fadlallah and Iran have deteriorated due to differences in opinion over theology and the extent of Iranian influence over Lebanese Shi‘i affairs. Fadlallah has actively built a reputation as an authentically Arab marja‘ in recent years, claiming that Iranians dominate the institution of the marja‘iyya and suggesting that Iranians indirectly try to fill marja‘ positions on a “racial” basis. “The Iranian theologians believe that Iran is the only Shi’i Islamic authority,” he has said, “because they consider Iran as the headquarters of Shi’i influence. The Iranians believe that all decisions regarding Shi‘i Islam must come from Iran.” [4] Reversing the equation preferred by the ICC, Fadlallah states bluntly that:

Arabism is a human condition, just like Persian nationalism…. Islam was able to give the Arabs their history…and [by this statement] we don’t want to erase all [the pre-Islamic] history, but Islam gave them their history, their culture and their movements and connected them to the world, just as the Arabs gave Islam a lot through their efforts. That is why nobody can criticize the Islamists about their Arabism. We are intertwined with Arabic, our Prophet was Arab, our language is Arabic, and for this reason Islam has been able to expand…[and] many non-Arabs entered Arab history. [5]

Hizballah also resists Iran’s attempts to act as the Vatican of Shi‘ism, albeit more subtly. Each year during the Islamic month of Muharram, a group of 30-40 Iranian preachers (mubalighs) selected by Iran’s Organization of Islamic Culture and Propaganda come to preach at various Hizballah-dominated mosques and husseiniyyas in Lebanon. The ICC takes care of their housing and transport from and to the airport. These preachers are mainly ‘Ajamis, Iraqis of Iranian descent who Saddam Hussein’s regime expelled from Iraq in the 1970s and especially during the Iran-Iraq war. They are fluent in the Iraqi dialect of Arabic, which is highly regarded among Lebanese Shi‘a and considered the most “authentic” dialect for performing the rites of ‘Ashura. The ICC also supervises the activities of approximately ten mubalighs from Iran who are permanently stationed in Lebanon (mubaligh-e sabit). This group is comprised of native Arabic speakers of Lebanese and Iraqi origin, as well as two native Persian-speaking Iranians. These preachers are themselves the followers (muqalids) of Ayatollah Khamenei, and as such preach and convey (tabligh) his messages.

Hizballah demands a decrease in the number of these mubalighs, as they have trained their own preachers. Though the Iranian Ministry of Guidance realizes its loss of hegemony over Hizballah, in 2003 the same number of preachers were sent to Lebanon in disregard of the Lebanese party’s wishes. On the first day of Muharram, some of these preachers were not welcomed by Hizballah officials and not admitted into the mosques.

Price of Solidarity

Hizballah has hardly spurned its Tehran patrons. However, the party has grown adept at using marja‘ networks and their economic backing to help Lebanese Shi‘a to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the Lebanese state and to present themselves as a key component of the Lebanese nation. For example, two Iranian Islamic NGOs active in al-Dahiya, Jihad al-Bina’ (Struggle for Construction) and al-Imdad (Support) have evolved over the years from complete dependence on Iran to being de facto Lebanese organizations. [6] Even though each of these two NGOs still has close relations with their Iranian founding organizations, and a portion of their funding still comes from Iranian sources under the control of Khamenei, they now generate most of their support locally. They have also adapted the discourse of poverty and dispossession prevalent in these NGOs in order to enable Lebanese Shi‘a to voice their specific needs to the state. These NGOs work to make Shi‘i refugees aware of the reasons behind their dispossession, and as a result, many Shi‘a have declared refugee status, which theoretically entitles them to compensation from the Lebanese state. Iranian-created NGOs in Lebanon, originally based on transnational Shi‘i networks, have been domesticated.

In short, the original financial and logistical backing from Iranian sources and NGOs has enabled Shi‘is to further integrate into Lebanese society and politics. Hizballah has become a strong and equal partner in its political relations with Iran, despite its submission to the marja‘ Khamenei. Hizballah clearly draws lines between what it considers the religious and political spheres and resists the desire of Iranian conservatives to dominate the party. Hizballah does not accept orders from Iranian leaders, as is often imagined in the United States and Israel. The conservatives dominating the Iranian government recognize that to cultivate long-lasting ties to Hizballah and Lebanese Shi‘a, they need to bankroll the continuous cultural politics of the ICC in Beirut.
Author’s Note: Thanks to the Social Science Research Council’s Program on Global Security for the two-year fellowship that funded the Ph.D. research in Lebanon upon which this article is based.


[1] Interview with Mohammad Hossein Hashemi, April 8, 2003. For a discussion of the stereotypes regarding the southern suburbs of Beirut as a ghetto, see Mona Harb el-Kak, “Transforming the Site of Dereliction into the Urban Culture of Modernity: Beirut’s Southern Suburb and Elisar Project,” in Peter G. Rowe and Hashim Sarkis, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (New York: Prestel Press, 1998), pp. 173-181.
[2] al-Kifah al-‘Arabi, October 9, 2002.
[3] Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Iranian Cinema: Art, Society and the State,” Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).
[4] L’Orient le Jour, January 25, 2003.
[5] Ja‘far Fadlallah, Hadith ‘Ashura (Beirut, 1997), p. 76.
[6] Mona Fawaz, Islam, Resistance and Community Development: The Case of the Southern Suburb of Beirut City (Unpublished M.A. thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998).

How to cite this article:

Roschanack Shaery "Iran, the Vatican of Shi’ism?," Middle East Report 233 (Winter 2004).

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