Iran and the Threat of Salafism

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Rasoul Souri & Jahan Heidari
Senior Experts on Regional Studies and International Relations

In the Middle East of today, national security is grappling with the complicated phenomenon of terrorism. Terrorism in the Middle East is the product of Wahhabi Salafism which has been materialized in the form of al-Qaeda. Up to the present day, the Salafist current has gone through four stages, which can be enumerated as follows: 1. theoretical (led by Ibn Taymiyyah during the 8th century AH), 2. adaptation and implementation (by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his successors in the middle of the 12th and early 13th centuries in a test environment limited to Hejaz), 3. strengthening and increased effectiveness (by Saudi kings and sheiks in the Islamic world), and 4. A revolutionary ideological phase [started since the beginning of the 15th century AH and through show of force in other regions such as Afghanistan and the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)]. Wahhabi and Salafist groups have been able to enter regions around the Islamic Republic of Iran by organizing themselves. The Islamic Republic of Iran, as a factor of stability in the region, is not only trying to transfer the concepts of the Islamic ideology to its surrounding and international environments within a “soft” framework, but is also endeavoring to provide as much help as it can to those thoughts and groups, which have been target of extremist attacks across the region. A number of the most important factors increasing the pace of the Salafist current are discussed below.

Salafism: The most important “accelerators”

Among the most important “accelerators” of Salafism in contemporary times include:

- Salafist militants known as the “Afghan Arabs,” who returned to their own countries following withdrawal of the former  Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from Afghanistan and their subsequent bloody conflicts against established Arab governments such as those in Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia during the 1990s;

- The powerful Salafist current that came into being in the Arabian Peninsula as a consequence of the fatwas (religious decrees), issued by Salafist ulema , which prohibited “getting help from infidels” following the occupation of Kuwait by the former Iraqi government and deployment of American forces to the Persian Gulf to fight Iraq;

- The Saudi “educational system,” which has been blamed by the United States for its tolerance toward radical Salafist ideas after it was revealed that there were 15 Saudi citizens among 19 people accused of being behind terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2011;

- Providing grounds for the occupation of Iraq in 2003 which allowed Salafists to declare a fight against the so-called infidels (Americans) and heretics (Shias in Iraq).

There are three types of Salafist currents in the Arab world and the Middle East, which include:

A) Traditional: which is affiliated to Saudi regime and includes their Wahhabi ulema and affiliated networks;

B) Jihadist: which includes such terrorist organizations as al-Qaeda; and

C) Scientific: Which exists in countries like Bahrain and Kuwait where they put more emphasis on their relevant texts and traditions and do not believe in armed and violent operations.

Salafism: Contemporary currents

Saudi Salafist and Wahhabi groups: Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the then king of Saudi Arabia, was facing criticism from Muslim Brotherhood Salafists, with that criticism including: 1. Prohibition of the monarchial rule; 2. Prohibition of the use of such modern inventions as automobile, telephone and telegram; and 3. Not forcing Shia Muslims in al-Ahsa region of Saudi Arabia to practice true Islam (Wahhabism in their view) and preventing attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood on “infidels” in Iraq and Kuwait in order to make them join the Dar al-Islam. Since the third decade of the 20th century, Al Saud family (who had its origins in the Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula) became united with Salafists and ran over the entire Arabian Peninsula.  Due to certain political and historical factors, Salafists in Saudi Arabia gradually started to play a prominent role. Some Islamist forces affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, however, formed groups which were opposed to Saudi government and went to England in order to play their media and political roles. Traditional Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood do not accept responsibility for what neo-Salafists (who only enjoy intellectual, not practical, legacy of traditional Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood) do in interaction with other Arab and Islamic governments. Neo-Salafist figures who invite others to reforms and moderation, include many graduates of Western universities, who not only take aim at the legitimacy of the Saudi regime, but after enthronement of King Abdullah and projection of national dialogue have been trying to get integrated in the official discourse by choosing an approach which focuses on giving advice to Saudi rulers.

North African Salafists: While being inclined toward Sufism and being a minority, through Saudi Arabia’s support, Salafists in this region, including in morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, have been able to find sympathizers. Since the early 19th century, Saudi Arabia started to promote Salafism in Egypt. Due to their social influence in Egypt and the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists in that country established al-Jamiat al-Shariah in 1912. After establishment of al-Azhar University and due to support given to it by then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his hostile approach to Saudi Arabia, growth of Salafism slowed down in the country until Anwar Sadat became Egypt’s president in 1970 and due to his relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism restarted its activities. By passing over their past positions, Egyptian Salafists formed the al-Nour party and took part in elections in which they came out the second, thus, securing a foothold in the country. At present, Salafists have a considerable supporter base in Egypt.

Salafism in Lebanon: Lebanese Salafists are more numerous in northern parts of the country and some of their jihadist offshoots include: 1. Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami (Islamic Unification Movement), which fought against Syrian army in 1958; 2. Ansar group, which is based in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp and fought against the Lebanese army in 2000; 3. Osbat al-Nour (Band of Light) group, which embarked on the assassination of some Fatah movement’s leaders in Lebanon; 4. Jund al-Sham movement, launched by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999; and 5. Fatah al-Islam group, which fought against the Lebanese army at Nahr al-Bared, which is a Palestinian refugee camp. Many Lebanese Salafists, especially Jund al-Sham group, have fought alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq during past years.

Salafists in Iraq: According to the tribalist viewpoint of Salafist groups and when geographical power is adapted to political power, Iran is considered as the center of the political geography of Shias in the Middle East. Tribalist views reduce functions of Islamic geopolitics or even render it totally ineffective. Since they believed that Iran and Iraq are converging against their geopolitical and cultural logic, and in order to disturb security balance in Baghdad and overshadow positive developments, Salafist groups and Arab regimes have been encroaching upon Iran’s geopolitics. Saudi Arabia’s effort to take advantage of Salafist leverage to deal blows to the new political structure and Shias in Iraq, caused severance of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Baghdad eleven years after the fall of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. However, Saudi Arabia maintains relations with Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis.

Salafists in Pakistan: Salafists active in eastern parts of Iran have been mostly dispatched from religious schools (madrasas) in India and Pakistan. Due to ideological and possibly organizational links between radical figures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the one hand, and religious and ethnic extremists along Iran’s eastern borders, on the other hand, this issue has become more complicated and important.

Al-Qaeda and Iran: Effects

Al-Qaeda has more social, cultural and ideological effects in Sunni-majority regions of the country.

1. Social effects: One part of these effects is efforts made to increase expectations from the Shia government. In this way, ethnic and federal Baluch demands, which existed before the Islamic Revolution, were given a religious guise after the revolution.

2. Cultural effects: Since littoral countries of the Persian Gulf and Egypt launched their Arabsat and Nilesat satellite stations, attention has been paid to production of Persian program. In the meantime and due to efforts made by some Iranian Sunni radical figures, Nour network has been launched as the first network special to Arab Sunnis. In parallel, measures have been taken on the internet to undermine Shias and have opened a new arena for influencing Iran’s national security.

3. Ideological effects: The rise of al-Qaeda paved the way for more contacts between some Iranian Sunni seminaries and schools and Sunni centers beyond the country’s borders, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Salafism seeks to cause ideological problems for the Islamic Republic, and continuation of ideological credit of Iran depends on closing the existing gaps between Shias and Sunnis and also between Arabs and non-Arabs. The Salafist approach is trying in line with the general Zionist approach to weaken Iran’s approach to promoting unity among Muslims.

The United States: Feeders of regional goal

The United States’ approach to spreading conflicts in the region is fed by propaganda campaign, establishment of close relations with Iran’s neighbors in opposition to the Islamic Republic’s interests, strengthening of Israel's influence over neighboring countries, as well as fostering autonomy and such currents as secularism, Protestantism and Buddhism within Iran’s cultural sphere and beyond.

Major components of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategy toward extremism:

1. Taking proportionate and specific measures with regard to every one of terrorist groups in the country’s comprehensive national security document;

2. Establishment of a special section called “sectarian studies desk” in such ministries as interior, foreign affairs, and intelligence as well as in the Supreme National Security Council;

3. Conclusion of bilateral and multilateral security agreements with regional countries in view of the floating nature and rapid spread of extremism. For example, conclusion of agreements with Turkey and Iraq with regard to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and PJAK; with the central government in Baghdad and the government of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region with regard to Ansar al-Islam; and with Pakistan and Afghanistan with regard to al-Qaeda;

4. Increasing use of modern technologies such as establishing a national databank of criminals and using biometric technology to identify agents behind terrorist attacks;

5. Studying untoward effects of future security arrangements in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region in view of the region’s willingness to allow establishment of permanent U.S. bases;

6. Simulation of security scenarios facing Iran with an eye to possible cooperation of the Islamic Republic of Iran with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the United States against extremist elements of the Taliban and other similar groups.


Those dimensions of Salafism which are threatening to Iran can be divided into ideological (anti-Shia propaganda) and geopolitical (due to Iran’s common borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq which has security effects, especially on the Sunni-dominant parts of the country). After the rise of al-Qaeda, Sunni inhabited regions of the country started to consider those groups as a model. In parallel, their expectation to take part in social, political and cultural fields of the country started to rise. The final outcome was creation of religious differences and taking negative stances. In this way, the ethnic challenge that existed in various parts of the country, especially in its eastern regions, took on a religious hue. The Salafists claim to be fighting against central governments has led to the establishment of such groups as Jundallah, which are active against the Islamic Republic. Under the present circumstances, political Salafism should be considered as a threat to the national security of Iran as a result of which the most important ideological components of the Islamic Revolution, which include bridging the existing gaps between Shias and Sunnis and Arabs and non-Arabs and highlighting the conflict between Islam and Zionism, are exposed to a major threat from Salafism. Saudi Arabia continues to be the most important driving force behind Salafism in the world. At any rate, despite the possibility to solve the issue of differences between various ethnic groups and the central government through tolerance and negotiation, existence of foreign provocations which encourage secessionism has made the situation more complicated.

Key WordsIran, Threat of Salafism, Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi Groups, North African Salafists, Lebanon, Iraq, Al-Qaeda, Pakistan, Social Effects, Cultural Effects, Ideological Effects, Extremism, US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jundallah, Secessionism, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), PJAK, Souri, Heidari

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

*Photo Credit: Islam Sight, Real Iran