Senior Iranian officials attended a public gathering in Damascus over the weekend to commemorate the Shiite religious event of Eid al-Ghadeer. According to the Iranian media, Abolfazl Tabatabai, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s special representative to Syria, and Javad Torkabadi, Tehran’s ambassador to Damascus, were among keynote speakers at the event. Hundreds of people attended the celebration at the historic Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in southern Damascus.
During his speech, Tabatabai congratulated the Syrian Army and the “Islamic Resistance” for their latest military victories in Iraq and Syria, particularly in Syria’s Deir Ezzor. Tasnim News Agency also published photos from the event, including billboards with pictures of Khamenei and Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
It appears to be the first time the Iranian government has organized a public event to mark Eid al-Ghadeer event in Syria since the start of the civil war in the country six years ago. A senior official of Iran’s Basij Organization said last year that the paramilitary forces planned to hold the Ghadeer event in Syria and Iraq the following year. He claimed that people in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States had expressed an interest to organize the event in their respective countries in the future as well.
Eid al-Ghadeer, according to Shiite Muslims, marks the event in which Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph and first Imam of Shiite Islam, was appointed the leader of the Muslim community after Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis Muslims reject that interpretation.
Comment: While Iran’s direct military role and arms support to its regional proxies often make headlines, Iran’s soft power efforts aimed at promoting the country’s ideological and political goals in the region are largely overlooked.
The weekend event organized by the Iranian government in Syria is one illustrative example of how the Islamic Republic uses soft power tools to expand its ideological, cultural and political spheres of influence across the Middle East.
Similarly in February, the Iran-Syria Friendship Popular Committee organized a ceremony in the Syrian city of Aleppo to commemorate the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution “in a show of solidarity with Iran.” Political, religious and cultural leaders of the two countries attended the event. Syrian participants reportedly commended Iran’s Islamic revolution and thanked Tehran for its support to the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in the past six years. Speaking to the audience, Iran’s cultural attaché in Syria, Mostafa Ranjbar, said the Islamic Revolution did not belong to Iran alone, but it had impacted the whole region – citing specifically the recent “liberation” of Aleppo and Iran’s anti-Israel stance over the past 38 years.
Similar events were also held in other Syrian cities. In Latakia, the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, the Cultural Center of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Association of Iran-Palestine Friendship in Syria jointly organized an event entitled “The 38th Anniversary of Support of Iran’s Islamic Revolution for Palestine against Zionism.”
The Iranian Embassy in Damascus, too, held a ceremony that was attended by senior Syrian regime officials, including Prime Minister Imad Khamis, Parliamentary Speaker Hadiyeh al-Abbas and several cabinet ministers. According to the Iranian media, several foreign diplomats and Palestinian leaders also attended the event. (More details here.)
Tehran has established cultural and religious centers in many regional countries to expand its soft power influence and complement its hard power activities as well. In Lebanon, for example, Iran established the Cultural Center of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Beirut in 1987 to elevate Hezbollah’s popularity and depict Iran as the “Vatican of Shiism among Lebanese people.” The center supervises a chain of Iranian-funded schools, universities and religious seminaries mostly in Shiite-dominated areas. It also coordinates with Iranian state media to promote Tehran’s propaganda in Lebanon.
Moreover, Iranian charity and cultural organizations often provide a civilian cover for Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) and its secretive Quds Force operatives to carry out subversive activities at the expense of regional stability. Iran’s cultural center in Lebanon, for example, works in close partnership with Hezbollah’s cultural department to implement joint projects and raise funds for Hezbollah inside Iran. The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, ostensibly a charity organization, functions to promote Tehran’s ideological and political goals in the region and helps the I.R.G.C.’s efforts in Afghanistan, Lebanon and beyond.