United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Supreme Leader Blasts Foreign Plots in Vote

      On June 4, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei charged that foreign powers are plotting to discourage Iranians from voting in the upcoming presidential election. Tehran’s enemies also want to cause “sedition” after the poll “just like what they did” after the disputed 2009 election, Khamenei claimed in a televised speech. He spoke to thousands at a ceremony marking the 24th anniversary of the passing of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei also encouraged Iranians to vote in large numbers on June 14 to show their confidence in the political system. He warned candidates against “making impossible promises” and giving concessions to the West. The following are excerpts from Khamenei’s official Twitter account and a variety of press reports.

Presidential Election
            Iran’s enemies “wish for either a low turnout in the election or sedition to emerge after the poll…The enemies are seeking to portray the election as a threat to the Islamic establishment whereas the vote is in fact a great opportunity.”
            “Candidates shouldn’t make impossible promises. Speak in a way that if next year at this time you listen to a recording of yourself or people do, you won’t be ashamed. Make promises that you can deliver on so that afterwards you don’t say that they didn’t let me do this or didn’t let me do that.”
            “A vote for any of these eight candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system and our electoral process.”
            Some candidates “have the wrong analysis that by giving concessions to enemies, their anger towards Iran will be reduced. This is a mistake... In practice [they] prefer the enemies' interests to our national ones."
            “Those who assume there is a silent majority opposed to the Islamic Republic's system have forgotten that a huge number of people have been pouring into the streets on February 11th each year [the anniversary of the 1979 revolution], chanting the ˈDown with USAˈ slogan every year."
           “Where in the world are presidential candidates, from well known figures to unknown figures, given equal time on national television? In America and capitalist countries, if you are not the candidate of the two or three [major] political parties, or if the wealthy or powerful or Zionist networks don’t support you, under no conditions do you have the ability to advertise.”
            “Yes, we have economic problems, yes we have inflation, but God willing the person who comes can provide a solution to these problems. This is the wish of the Iranian people.”
            “If we can shore up the economy, the enemy will be left defenseless in confronting the Iranian nation.”
Ayatollah Khomeini’s Legacy and Iran’s Progress
            “Imam [Khomeini]’s principles… are the very principles that turned the backward dependent Iranian nation into a pioneering, dignified and independent nation.”
            “Imam Khomeini had faith in three [things] that gave him determination; courage, endurance and faith in God, people and himself.”
            “Iranians have been successful in every field during the last 30 years… Imam Khomeini taught Iranians that ‘We can.’”


Rand Report on Iran Election

            In a new Rand report, Alireza Nader examines the implications of the election, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's objectives, the regime's electoral strategy, the competing factions and personalities, and the potential implications for the United States, especially concerning Iran's nuclear program. Among the key findings ofIran's 2013 Presidential Election: Its Meaning and Implications”:

• Ayatollah Khamenei is concerned with the election's legitimacy, but his goal above all else is to ensure a stable election that produces a president loyal to him personally.
• The only serious potential challenge to Khamenei, Rafsanjani, has been removed from the field of candidates, and this could help Khamenei further consolidate his power.
• The election could theoretically lead to a limited reduction of tensions between Iran and the international community, but Khamenei's monopolization of power will likely decrease Iran's flexibility on the nuclear program, depending on U.S. and Israeli policies.
• No matter who is elected president, the Islamic Republic is likely to continue its evolution into an authoritarian political system dominated by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.


US Sanctions Iran Currency

      On June 3, the United States imposed sanctions for the first time on Iran’s currency, the rial. Foreign financial institutions may now face penalties if they “knowingly conduct or facilitate significant transactions” involving the rial― which has already lost half its value since January 2012. The executive order’s objective is to render the currency unusable outside of Iran, a senior administration official said during a conference call. Iran conducts very little trade in the rial. So the measure may also be aimed at further depreciating its value and making Iranians feel more uneasy about holding their own currency. The executive order also authorizes new penalties on Iran’s automotive industry. And it allows the sanctioning of any individuals who help Iranians and others previously blacklisted by the Treasury.

      The Obama administration has now implemented nine sets of sanctions on Iran. An official said that the timing of the latest measure was not tied to the June 14 presidential election. So the timing may have more to do with pressuring Iran ahead of nuclear negotiations expected to resume after the election hiatus. The following is the complete text of the White House press statement, including links to the executive order and the president’s message to Congress.
            Today the President approved a new Executive Order (E.O.) to further tighten U.S. sanctions on Iran and isolate the Iranian government for its continued failure to meet its international obligations.  
            This new action targets Iran’s currency, the rial, by authorizing the imposition of sanctions on foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct or facilitate significant transactions for the purchase or sale of the Iranian rial, or that maintain significant accounts outside Iran denominated in the Iranian rial.  While the rial has lost half of its value since the beginning of 2012 as a result of our comprehensive sanctions, this is the first time that trade in the rial has been targeted directly for sanctions.
            Taking aim at a major revenue generator for Iran, the E.O. authorizes the imposition of new sanctions against those who knowingly engage in significant financial or other transactions for the sale, supply, or transfer to Iran of significant goods or services used in connection with Iran’s automotive sector, building on the sectoral sanctions in the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012 (IFCA) that target Iran’s shipping, shipbuilding, and energy sectors. 
            Further increasing the pressure on the Iranian government, the E.O. authorizes the imposition of additional sanctions on persons who provide material support to Iranian persons and certain other persons designated pursuant to Iran sanctions authorities that are included on the list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN List) maintained by the Department of the Treasury. 
            The E.O. also implements and builds upon certain sanctions set forth in the IFCA, signed into law by the President on January 2, 2013, as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013. 
            Pursuant to today’s action, the following activities will be subject to sanctions:
The Iranian Rial:  The significant transactions for the purchase, sale of, or holding of significant funds or accounts outside Iran denominated in the Iranian rial. 
Iran’s Automotive Sector:  The sale, supply, or transfer to Iran of significant goods or services used in connection with the manufacturing or assembling in Iran of light and heavy vehicles including passenger cars, trucks, buses, minibuses, pick-up trucks, and motorcycles, as well as original equipment manufacturing and after-market parts manufacturing relating to such vehicles. 
Material Support to the Government of Iran:  Providing material support to Iranian persons and certain other persons designated pursuant to Iran sanctions authorities that are included on the SDN List (in each case other than certain Iranian depository institutions).  This provision includes an exception for certain Iranian depository institutions and certain activities relating to the pipeline project to supply natural gas from the Shah Deniz gas field in Azerbaijan to Europe and Turkey.
            The steps taken today are part of President Obama’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, by raising the cost of Iran’s defiance of the international community.  Even as we intensify our pressure on the Iranian government, we hold the door open to a diplomatic solution that allows Iran to rejoin the community of nations if they meet their obligations.  However, Iran must understand that time is not unlimited.  If the Iranian government continues down its current path, there should be no doubt that the United States and our partners will continue to impose increasing consequences.


Part I: Iran-Syria Religious Ties

Mehdi Khalaji

            Iran and Syria are unlikely bedfellows. Iran has been an Islamic republic—and the world’s only modern theocracy—since the 1979 revolution. Syria has been a rigidly secular and socialist country since Hafez Assad took over in 1970. Ethnically, Iran is predominantly Persian, while Syria is predominantly Arab. Yet Tehran and Damascus have one of the region’s strongest alliances—based in part on religion. Iran is Shiite-dominated and Syria is predominantly ruled by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot. They share a common interest in the survival of a minority in the Middle East, which is about 85 percent Sunni Muslim.

      The ties were again reflected in the Iranian regime’s call for volunteers to protect Shiite shrines in Syria in early May 2013, after Syrian rebels reportedly ransacked the shrine of Hojr Ibn Oday, a revered Shiite figure, in Damascus. The Nusra Front, a Sunni militia affiliated with al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for exhuming Oday’s remains. Syria is home to some 50 Shiite shrines and holy places. For centuries, Iranians have performed pilgrimages to Syria. The holiest is the Tomb of Zaynab (left) on the outskirts of Damascus. Mehdi Khalaji explains the religious ties that bind two of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East.
What religious doctrines do Shiites and Alawites share? How have the Iranian and Syrian regimes bonded through belief?
            The Alawite sect is a relatively minor branch of Shiism. Alawis share the Shiite belief that leadership of the Islamic world—and rights to interpret the faith—should have descended through Prophet Mohammed’s family after his death. They believed that Ali—who was both the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law—should have become the first caliph in the 7th century. Shiite literally means “follower of Ali.” In contrast, Sunnis believe that leadership should instead be inherited by the prophet’s early advisers. Ali was briefly the fourth caliph, but otherwise leadership of the Islamic world has since been largely dominated by Sunnis.
            Since the 9th century, Alawites struggled for legitimacy and recognition from other Muslims. One important breakthrough was a fatwa issued in the 1970s by Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric and head of Lebanon’s Shiite community. He formally announced the acceptance of Alawites as Shiites, a move that significantly opened the way for the sect’s recognition within the general Shiite community.
            In recent decades, Twelver Shiites have also made serious efforts to minimize theological differences between mainstream Shiism and Alawites. This has been partly due to the decline of Arab nationalism and rise of the religious factor in making political alliances and defining identity. The shift is palpable in many ways. Shiite clergy use Damascus as a bridge to connect Shiites in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon together. The Syrian government has allowed Shiites to visit various holy sites, especially the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque.
How are Alawites different from Shiites?
            Alawites, or “Alawis,” are primarily known in the Islamic orthodoxy as “Nusayris.” Nusayri-Alawi is an esoteric sect that is relatively unstudied because members have historically kept core beliefs secret.
            In terms of theological principles, rituals, and jurisprudence, Twelver Shiism and the Nusayri-Alawi faith have few commonalities. (Iran practices Twelver Shiism, so named because of the belief in twelve divinely ordained Imams, or leaders.) For centuries, Nusayri-Alawis were actually considered heretics by both Shiites and Sunnis and often faced persecution. For instance, they venerate Ali as a supreme and eternal God.
            They were only embraced by Muslims under certain advantageous political circumstances. Their historical position is similar to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among Christians. Both experienced difficulties being recognized by the orthodoxy. Both are secret sects. And outsiders have minimal access to their core beliefs and administration. 
            One major difference between the two Shiite branches is the source of religious authority. Twelver Shiites are led by an ayatollah, who is the source of emulation on juridical issues and rituals. The faithful are also obligated to pay religious taxes to their ayatollahs. But Alawis do not have ayatollahs. So the two sects have not historically had the same religious-financial bonds. 
What are the political bonds between Iran’s Shiites and Syria’s Alawites?
            The political bonds between Shiites and Alawites are more about identity and survival of a minority than about religious doctrine. The Middle East is dominated by Sunnis. Iran and Iraq are the only Shiite majority countries in the region, while Syria was for decades the only major Arab country ruled by the Shiite offshoot. Iraq was ruled for nearly a quarter century by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. So Iran and Syria have had natural psychological bonds that turned into a political alliance over common religious identity. The bonds were further fostered after the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq—the country that separates them—in 2003. This nascent Shiite bloc was dubbed the “Shiite crescent” by Jordan’s King Abdullah.
            The bonds are also strategic for two isolated governments. The Assad regime’s need for allies in Iran and Lebanon made it ignore the theological differences between Twelver Shiism and Nusari-Alawis. The Islamic Republic of Iran, spurned by the region’s Sunni-led governments, made ties with Alawite brethren in Syria particularly appealing—even though Tehran has actually never referred to Damascus as an Alawi regime. Its official policy toward Muslim countries has been to highlight Islam rather than its specific branches.
            In the end, Iran and Syria actually have very different types of government. Syria’s ruling elite may be Alawite, but the government’s official ideology is Ba’athism, a secular mix of socialism and pan-Arabism. The Ba’ath party is also not only Alawite. It also includes some Sunnis and Christians.
            The governments in Syria and Iran also have different ties to their constituencies. The Alawites are only about 12 percent of the Syrian population. Syrians are predominantly Sunni. In Iran, more than 90 percent of the population is Shiite.
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, studied Shiite theology in the Qom seminary of Iran. 


Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Part II: Shiite Holy Sites in Syria

Garrett Nada

            Syria is home to some 50 sites holy to Shiites. Some have been badly damaged in the fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels since 2011. At least one shrine has been reportedly desecrated by Sunni extremists. Several top Iranian officials have condemned attacks on holy sites. “Such acts could ignite the fire of religious rifts among followers of the divine religions,” warned Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in May 2013. The following are profiles of seven major holy sites in Syria.

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque and Shrine
      The gold-domed shrine, located near Damascus, is one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam outside of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It houses the remains of Zaynab, granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed and daughter of Ali ― the fourth leader of the early Islamic empire and one of the most revered figures in Shiism. She was taken captive after her brother Hossein fell in battle against the Ummayad Dynasty near Karbala, which is in present-day Iraq. The shrine commemorates the seventh-century tragedy. The adjoining mosque was completed in 1990 and can accommodate more than 1,000 worshippers.
            Thousands of Iranians reportedly used to visit the site each year before the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iraq have since flocked to the area to protect the shrine from extremist Sunni rebels. One Iraqi was reportedly shot by a sniper in May 2013.
Shrine of Hojar Ibn Oday
      Hojr Ibn Oday was a close supporter of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. Ali was also the first imam, or Shiite leader. Oday led the early Muslims to victory in several battles. But the Ummayad Dynasty killed him and his sons in 660. His remains were enshrined in Adra, which is now a Damascus suburb.
      Syrian rebels reportedly ransacked the shrine in late April 2013. The Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for unearthing Oday’s remains. Iranian officials reacted angrily to the desecration. “Undoubtedly, such savage acts by the terrorists in Syria are indicative of their disbelief in Islam,” Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, said on May 4, 2013.
Sayyidh Ruqayya Mosque
      The Sayiddah Ruqayya Mosque houses the grave of Sukayna, the daughter of Hossein. She was captured after the Battle of Karbala and died at age four in an Ummayad prison. But her remains were moved to their current location in Damascus, according to tradition.
      In 1985, Iranians reportedly funded construction on the mosque surrounding the tomb. Pilgrims have traditionally taken home small pieces of clay from Karbala as keepsakes.
      In May 2012, Sunni extremists assassinated the mosque’s imam, Sheikh Abbas al Laham, according to Iranian news outlets.
Al Nuqtah Mosque
      The al Nuqtah Mosque in Aleppo houses a stone believed to be stained with Hossein’s blood. After the Battle of Karbala, the Ummayad army captured members of Mohammed’s family and forced them to march to Damascus. They stopped near a Christian monastery near Aleppo, according to one version of the story. A monk saw light emanating from Hossein’s head at the end of a spear. He paid the soldiers to let him spend the night next to the head. The monk placed it on a stone, which was stained red from Hossein’s blood. He spent the night talking to it and weeping, and he converted to Islam. The head was then taken to Damascus.
            The Allepo site was reportedly turned into a mosque in the 10th century. An explosion in 1920 destroyed much of the structure. But a group of Shiites rebuilt it in the 1960s.
Bab al Saghir Cemetery
      The ancient Damascus cemetery contains the graves of several prominent companions of the Prophet Mohammed including:
• Umm Kulthum, daughter of Ali and Fatima (Mohammed’s daughter)
• Bilal ibn Rabah, Mohammed’s muezzin (caller to prayer) and one of the first Muslims
• Sukaynah, another daughter of Hossein
• Fidha, the maid of Fatima
            The heads of Hossein’s 16 companions who fought with him at Karbala are also buried here. Pilgrims tie small strips of cloth to grates of the tombs and ask the deceased for assistance. They return to collect the strips after the petition has been granted. Some spend the night in the cemetery in hopes of receiving blessings.
The Great Mosque of Damascus
      The ancient mosque in Damascus is one of the world’s oldest and largest Muslim houses of prayer. It is in the center of the old city, which was designated as a U.N. world heritage site in 1979. The mosque is a popular destination for Sunni and Shiite pilgrims.
      The site was originally home to a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. It was then converted into a church in the fourth century. The church’s main draw was a unique relic ― the head of John the Baptist. The Ummayad Dynasty razed the church and built the grand mosque in the early seventh century.
      The Great Mosque of Damascus was known for detailed mosaics depicting paradise across its walls. But the Turkic conqueror Timur destroyed the mosque 1401. The Arabs rebuilt it. It was rebuilt again after a fire damaged the structure in 1893.
            The mosque is particularly significant to Shiites because captured members of Mohammed’s family were imprisoned in the complex after the Battle of Karbala. Some Shiites believe Hossein’s head was buried beneath a shrine inside the mosque. Others contend it was taken to Egypt, where another mosque has a shrine thought to house the head. Both Christians and Muslims visit shrine containing the head of John the Baptist.
The Great Mosque of Aleppo
      Built by the Ummayad Dynasty in the eighth century, the mosque is the largest and one of the oldest in Aleppo. It houses the remains of Zecharia, father of John the Baptist, according to tradition. The mosque has been destroyed, rebuilt and expanded several times. Most of the main structure was built between the 11th and 14th centuries.
      The mosque was severely burnt during clashes between Syrian rebels and government forces in October 2012. The rebels gained control of the area surrounding the mosque in early 2013. But the 11th-century minaret collapsed in April amidst another round of fighting. The heavy damage to the U.N. world heritage site prompted international outrage.
Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Photo credits: 

Hojr Ibn Oday by Anwar Rizvi (Flickr: Zareeh of Hujr ibn Adi) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sayyidah Ruqayyah Mosque by Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Al Nuqtah Mosque by Toushiro (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bab al Saghir Cemetery by Attariyaa via Photobucket

The Great Mosque of Damascus by James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Mosque of Aleppo by Preacher lad (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons



Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo