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Reputational repair: Iran tries to capitalise on Myanmar's Rohingya crisis

Iranian leaders have been surprisingly vocal about the crisis in Myanmar. By reasserting its pan-Islamic credentials, the Islamic Republic hopes to overcome the sectarian mood generated by the Syrian conflict

The Iranian leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, made a strikingly strong statement on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar this week, berating “hypocritical” (presumably Western) governments for their double standards on human rights.

Addressing a gathering of clerical students, Khamenei on Tuesday urged Muslim countries to apply pressure on the Myanmar government, which according to Khamenei is headed by a “ruthless woman”.

Iran’s “victory” in the Syrian conflict and apparent momentum in other regional flashpoints, notably Yemen, have come at a huge reputational price

But crucially, Khamenei stopped short of supporting military action, an implicit swipe at Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the 1980s and 1990s, who has proposed the creation of an Islamic military coalition to help the embattled Rohingya. 

By this strident rhetorical intervention, Khamenei appears to be signalling a shift in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy by placing strong emphasis on pan-Islamic themes. It is noteworthy that in his speech Khamenei proclaimed that the Islamic Republic must stand against “oppression” anywhere in the world.

However, this is a rhetorical shift designed foremost to overcome the sectarianism engendered by the Syrian war and other regional conflicts. In terms of bread and butter foreign policy, the Islamic Republic will stay focused on regional issues that are connected to the Iranian national interest.

Pan-Islamic leadership

Iran’s post-1979 constitution commits the state to the pursuit of Islamic unity and the worldwide defence of “oppressed” peoples, particularly Muslims. Therefore, Khamenei’s statement on the oppressed Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar is entirely in keeping with both the spirit and substance of the Iranian constitution.

However, Iran’s actual policies in the past four decades have been much more nuanced. From its foundational moment, the Islamic Republic identified the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands as the foremost issue of the Muslim world and has consistently supported a wide range of Palestinian groups, in addition to anti-Israeli movements more generally.

Unlike in Chechnya, extending significant support to an “oppressed” Muslim population in this case coincided with Iranian interests, namely developing influence in Europe

But whereas countering Israel at a practical level coincides with Iranian national interests in the region, other pan-Islamic causes - arguably of a lesser importance than the longstanding Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands - chime less with Iranian national security discourse.

For example, in respect of the two devastating conflicts in the Russian Republic of Chechnya in the 1990s, Iran not only failed to intervene on behalf of the Muslims of Chechnya, but also described the conflict as an “internal” issue for the Russian Federation.  

By contrast, Iran intervened decisively in the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s and reaped the dividends afterwards by establishing strong influence in the Balkans, close to the heart of Europe. Unlike in Chechnya, extending significant support to an “oppressed” Muslim population in this case coincided with Iranian interests, namely developing influence in Europe.

Another significant and highly symbolic international Islamic cause is centred on Indian-administered Kashmir. Here, too, Iran’s approach has been decidedly careful and essentially informed by the demands of national interest, in this case the need to create a balance between India and Pakistan.

It was therefore highly symbolic, and indeed surprising, that back in late June, Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to equate the ongoing protests in Indian-administered Kashmir to the conflicts in Yemen and Bahrain, thereby risking an Indian diplomatic backlash.

There appears to be a pattern here of Iranian leaders staking out strong positions on pan-Islamic issues in which Iran is not directly involved and which, by extension, have little impact on Iranian national interests. This rhetorical shift is a clear indication of Iran’s growing confidence on the global stage and its desire to reassert itself as a leader in the Muslim world.

Beyond sectarianism

In addition to the response of Iran's leaders, the Rohingya crisis has generated strong reaction across the Iranian political spectrum. Iranian commentators have focused on Western “double standards” in terms of human rights discourse and the responsibility to protect in international law.    

Furthermore, Iranian political parties have been mobilising on the issue, notably by writing to the United Nations to complain of the international community’s “silence” in the face of abuses by the Myanmar military and some militant Buddhist groups.

By reaching out to "oppressed" Muslims on a global stage, Iran is clearly signalling that it has a potentially equal, if not superior, role to Saudi Arabia in this regard

The resonance of the Myanmar Rohingya crisis with the Iranian political establishment and civil society groups lends credibility to the leadership’s efforts at staking out clear-cut positions on this and similar issues.

This approach is in keeping with the Iranian national interest in so far as the Islamic Republic needs to rebuild its reputation following the gruelling proxy warfare in Syria. Now that the Syrian conflict appears to be concluding with Iran’s allies declaring “victory”, the Islamic Republic can set about developing a post-conflict reputation management strategy.  

Another consideration is Iran’s ongoing rivalry with Saudi Arabia over spiritual and ideological leadership of the Muslim world. While Iran is winning the regional conflict with Saudi Arabia, as demonstrated by the latter’s apparent inability to blunt Iran’s strategic momentum, there is a different story beyond the region.

By reaching out to “oppressed” Muslims on a global stage, Iran is clearly signalling that it has a potentially equal, if not superior, role to Saudi Arabia in this regard.

Iran’s “victory” in the Syrian conflict and apparent momentum in other regional flashpoints, notably Yemen, have come at a huge reputational price in so far as the Islamic Republic has been clearly situated in the sectarian fault-lines of the region. This is not only inimical to Iranian national interests, but in fact, threatens Iranian national security by stoking up sectarian tensions inside the country.

Promoting Islamic unity at a rhetorical level is a relatively cheap way to engage in reputational management. It is also useful in terms of energising the country’s diplomatic service in the face of the perennial challenge from Saudi Arabia.   

- Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics. He is the director of the research group Dysart Consulting. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Iranians take part in a protest against violence in Myanmar after weekly Friday prayer in Tehran on 8 September 2017. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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