The Muslim world comprises a substantial geographical expanse, a remarkable demographical makeup, and a potentially powerful political-security collective. Islamic countries are often bifurcated over trivial ideological divisions; otherwise, there is much they can accomplish by coalescing around the vaunted vision of Islamic solidarity and harnessing their shared interests and assets to benefit a population base of at least 1.5 billion, representing a unique cultural, racial, lingual and social diversity.
The public image of Muslims is being deplorably contaminated by the radical gambits of an extremist minority that touts itself as the standard-bearer of Muslims, and markets its fundamentalism as the pure version of Islam. What we have seen in recent years in the form of cruelties by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or acts of terror across Europe attributed to “Islamic extremists”, are examples of how an entire population can be villainized by the excesses of a brainwashed coterie of criminals bereft of any semblance of the teachings of the religion, whose malevolence was never endorsed by the millions of peaceful Muslims.
Provided that cohesion and solidarity prevail among and between Muslim-majority nations, it is indeed possible that unfavorable interpretations of Islam precipitated by the savagery of extremists shrouding themselves as devout Muslims aspiring to expand religious ideology worldwide can be neutralized. This means a more nuanced, factual portrayal of Islam will be purveyed to the global audiences.
But there are other indispensable dividends to the fulfillment of the notion of Islamic solidarity, as well. The world, including Muslim nations, is facing untamed challenges: climate change, pandemics, hunger and food insecurity, poverty, armed conflicts, gender disparities, racial inequalities, lack of access to education, shrinking water resources, curtailment of civil liberties and democratic backsliding. Sustained and persuasive collaboration between Islamic countries building on their enormous resources can contribute to addressing many of these conundrums.
Above all, Muslim nations retain an incremental economic capability, which if actualized, can serve as a potent incubator of progress and development in each of these countries. The Islamic Cooperation Organization (OIC) consists of 57 member states, accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Some of these states are thriving global economies. For instance, three of the OIC member states, namely Indonesia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are part of the G20 group of nations, reckoned to be integral drivers of the international economic momentum.
Other OIC nations, including Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates are emerging regional powers, with an indispensable geopolitical footprint and weighty roles to play in the global energy markets. For one thing, nine out of thirteen member states of the world’s leading bloc of energy exporters, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), are Muslim-majority countries and OIC members. The magnitude of what these mostly affluent countries, endowed with vast natural resources and young human capital, can accomplish if they work harmoniously and discard their frictions is astonishing.
To be sure, the concept of Islamic solidarity is an adulated objective, and there have been symbolic manifestations of it too, including the Islamic Solidarity Games sports event, which has been held three times since 2005, bringing together thousands of athletes from across the Muslim universe. There have been other gestures as well, such as the conventions of Shia and Sunni scholars in different academic institutions. Even the annual Hajj pilgrimage rites can be cited as an epitome of Muslim unity when diverse nations come together for a common goal and function.
But the fact that this idea has mostly remained an abstraction and a promise, rather than the dominant narrative of these governments, can be chalked up to a variety of factors. Of course, internal sectarian divisions in many of the Islamic countries are to blame to an extent, which spill over to intergovernmental relations. The geopolitical alliances of Islamic nations, as seen through the prism of great power competition and the ensuing conflict of interests, have also played a role in slowing down their full-fledged cohesion.
Iran is one of those nations that emphasizes its religious identity as a pivotal aspect of its global representation, and at the same time accentuates the prioritization of Islamic solidarity as a key tenet of its foreign policy. This conviction is so pronounced in the Iranian leadership’s calculi, at least rhetorically, that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared the Iranian calendar year 1386 (2007-2008) as the year of Islamic solidarity, setting the tone of the year ahead for the executives of the government and the general public, with a special focus on coaction with Muslim nations.
To be sure, Iran is a large, populous and influential country that has reasserted its standing in the Middle East and North Africa as a regional power and is prosecuting an augmented international imprint. Its civilizational salience is not negligible and its educated entrepreneurial youth is its imperative asset. But as the Iranian government continues to pay lip service to the paradigm of Islamic solidarity, its foreign policy trajectory reveals how removed it is from implementing this ideal, and it is not difficult to figure out how some of its most entrenched rivalries involve Islamic countries in its neighborhood and beyond.
With the inception of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy took a sharp ideological turn, predicated on promises and dogmas rather than national interest and pragmatism. The major hallmarks of this novel policy included exporting the revolution, expanding the Shia faith, investing in ties with non-state actors such as militant proxies rather than nation-states, and an active confrontation with the United States and whoever allies with it closely. Realism in foreign policy being outflanked by ideology meant that the Iranian leadership continued to rhapsodize about how consequential Islamic solidarity was in its worldview, while in practice casting about for the upper hand and a leadership role in the Muslim world, spawning fierce competition with some of its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.
As of today, Iran does not maintain diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which is a corollary of sundry factors, including, but not limited to, its persistent pattern of interference in the internal affairs of these countries and its botched attempts to spread Shia culture beyond its borders. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the trigger of the severance of bilateral relations was the violent attack by a mob on Saudi diplomatic missions in the Iranian cities of Tehran and Mashhad in January 2016, which marked the crescendo of venom between the two rivals. But that assault only scratched the surface of years of fracas and simmering tensions pitting the Persian Gulf neighbors against each other.
It was in the aftermath of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran that other Muslim-majority countries, in a show of solidarity with Riyadh, suspended diplomatic relations with Iran, such as the Comoros and Sudan. Around the same time, in January 2016, Somalia also announced that it was cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, citing Tehran’s destabilizing role in the Horn of Africa and its meddling in its domestic politics. A few years earlier, in November 2010, The Gambia, another OIC member, pulled the plug on relations with Iran and ordered all Iranian diplomats to leave the country, even though it never gave explicit reasons.
The checkered history of Iran’s relations with Morocco, a significant Muslim kingdom in North Africa, is another glaring example of how Iran has been bogged down in a dilemma of Islamic fissure rather than consummating its professed devotion to Islamic solidarity. In March 2009, King Mohammad VI terminated diplomatic ties with Iran over Tehran’s proliferation of Shia faith in the Sunni-dominated country, as well as polemical remarks by Iranian officials questioning the sovereignty of Morocco’s ally Bahrain. Although the two nations restored relations in 2014, in May 2018, the Moroccan government once again decided to suspend ties, this time over Tehran’s financial and logistical support for the separatist Polisario Front, which had been engaged in a feud with Rabat for a long while.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Iran’s relations with two other pillars of the Islamic world, Egypt and Jordan, have been wobbly and fraught for decades now, though punctuated by fleeting episodes of thaw, which mostly crystallized under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami in the early 2000s. Egypt is represented in Tehran through a small interest section and Iran similarly maintains an interest office in Cairo, which suffices to illustrate how tenuous the bilateral relations are between the two most ancient civilizations of the Islamic world. Iran has constantly failed to patch up its strained relations with Jordan over the latter’s affable partnership with Israel, Iran’s perennial fall guy.
Things are not better with Iran’s other Muslim neighbors. Azerbaijan’s warming relations with Israel and the two countries’ booming military, security and intelligence synchronization have been an anathema to Iran and something about which the Islamic Republic is deeply nervous, carping at the Baku authorities to desist from advancing their partnership with the Jewish state.
During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Iran vocally supported Azerbaijan and called for the annexation of territories it said belonged to Azerbaijan and constituted the “soil of Islam” but were occupied by Armenia. It was apparently a demarche to appeal to Azerbaijan at a time it was emerging resilient and triumphant in the war, so that it would consider distancing from Israel. But Baku did not revisit its stance, and between 2020-2021, Israel became the largest supplier of weapons to the Caucasian republic. This continues to be a thorn in Iran’s side and a disincentive for the further expansion of trade and diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan. The volume of bilateral trade never exceeded $400 million per year, and only in the last Iranian calendar year ending 20 March 2022, amounted to $608 million. Although the reasons bilateral business remains trifling are mostly geopolitical, the connotation for Iran is another setback in upholding the paradigm of Islamic solidarity: non-success in being on friendly terms with an imperative Muslim country.
The United Arab Emirates is one of Iran’s primary trade partners, a facilitator of Tehran’s continued connectivity to the outside world, at a time of its interminable international isolation, and a popular resort for thousands of Iranian holidaymakers. The Washington Post has put the number of Iranians living in Dubai at 600,000, making up a huge community of expats, while a 2010 study showed that more than 400,000 Iranians have plowed over $200 billion of capital into the city, particularly in its real estate sector. But these intertwinements have not precluded the political and diplomatic dust-ups between the two governments from escalating, especially over Iran’s unremitting projection of its soft power in the Arabian Peninsula, building on its Shia values through the programming of its Arabic-language broadcasters, as well as over Iran’s funding of Shia institutions and mosques, the territorial disputes over the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, the two sides’ divergent alliances in the Yemen war, and the quest for supremacy in the Gulf through the gaining of nuclear deterrence and military edge.
Bilateral relations have been so inimical on the diplomatic and political level that the position of the UAE ambassador to Tehran has been vacant for six years and it was not until a couple of weeks ago that UAE authorities publicly announced they were mulling the appointment of an ambassador to Iran. Scathing remarks directed against the Islamic Republic by the UAE delegation to the United Nations at the General Assembly meetings occur annually, mostly hovering around the dispute on three Gulf islands under Iran’s sovereignty that the Emiratis assert are theirs.
The list can go on if Iran’s flailing relations with Muslim nations and governments are to be elaborated. Despite its high-octane, acerbic advocacy of the rights of Palestinians and its routine tongue-lashing of Israel for how it treats the people of Palestine under occupation, Iran never enjoyed robust relations with the Palestinian Authority, and instead put all its eggs in the basket of forging a nexus with Hamas, a sanctioned militant group whose popularity and legitimacy are seriously in doubt beyond the Gaza Strip. In order to keep Israel’s ambitions within bounds and ensure a perpetual threat looms over Tel Aviv, the Islamic Republic continues to fill the coffers of Hamas, and it is reported that as much as $100 million is procured to Hamas by Iran every year.
The same holds true about Iran’s relations with Lebanon. In reality, there are no convivial ties between the governments of Iran and Lebanon. On the contrary, during the two terms of Saad Hariri as prime minister of Lebanon from 2009 to 2011 and 2016 to 2020, tensions soared, to the extent that, in 2017, Iran’s overreach in Lebanese politics and its bloated influence over Hezbollah were cited as triggers of Hariri’s resignation. It is only with Hezbollah, a Shia faction with a formidable military wing and an existential aversion to Israel, that Iran indulges in an unassailable partnership. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is essentially credited with sowing the seeds of Hezbollah’s foundation in 1982. The financial aid earmarked for the Lebanese party by the Iranian government amounts to a whopping $700 million per year, in addition to the missiles, drones and other weaponry it ships to Hezbollah, which in turn ups the ante against Israel and ensures the anti-Western, anti-Israeli streak pervades Lebanese politics.
These are all symptoms of chronic flaws in Iran’s relationships with the Muslim world and the deficiency of its compliance with the principle of Islamic solidarity that it peddles as a core element of its foreign policy. It is not simply the absence of embassies, diplomatic vacancies or conflicting interests that explain the dysfunction of Iran’s promised synergy with its counterparts across the Islamic world. Rather, Iran seems to be missing pivotal links in the realms of economy, development, academic collaboration, cultural exchanges and other people-to-people ties with potential partners within the OIC and beyond, which betokens a fundamental imperfection in how it carves out its external connections.
There is no misgiving that Iran’s foreign policy is largely blighted by the ripple effects of its nuclear brinkmanship and its intransigence in not going back to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. After all, the Iranian brand of diplomacy is one that is defined by a hardcore Shia mentality and esoteric republican values, mostly built around the ideas of nationalism, sacrifice and martyrdom, rather than pragmatism conducive to public interest. But the Islamic Republic failing to induct thriving, progressive relations with most of the major Muslim nations, and being steeped in perennial showdowns with all the important players of the OIC, incurs staggering costs for a nation questing for universal legitimacy among the faithful.
The sincerity of Iran’s commitment to Islamic unity would be cast in doubt if this allegiance does not transcend the boundaries of idle talk and translate into quantifiable action. Lingering standoffs with Arab countries and other essential players in the OIC will have the boomerang effect of eliciting cynicism and derision when it projects itself as a leading force in the Islamic world, sketching its regional and global ambitions as adventurisms that should be taken with a pinch of salt rather than being viewed with deference as a country’s roadmap for exponential growth.
There are compelling latent advantages in Iran reconstructing its relations with Muslim nations across the world and following through with the commitment to Islamic solidarity. These include the consolidation of regional and global security frameworks that the community of nations would consistently benefit from, as well as the facilitation of interaction between these nations to get to the bottom of baleful economic, political, social and environmental issues facing them collectively. Similarly, Iran can capitalize on these unifications and integrations to become a better-functioning, more agile, accountable government that caters to the needs of its people and is more respected on the international level. The fact that misplaced priorities and miscalculations cast a dark shadow on Iran’s overseas agenda, as well as its domestic policies, means the government is a far cry from being an embodiment of the different criteria of good governance.
At the moment, the zeitgeist of Iran’s foreign policy track can be captured by arguing this much-needed coalition is not being charted to stamp out the country’s isolation and kickstart a new era of its engagement with potential strategic allies outside the diminutive sphere of its friends, so however vocal Iran has been in championing the concept of Islamic solidarity, it is failing the sniff test of honoring it.
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