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Ayatollah Khomeini: Strategist, practitioner and mastermind of the Islamic revolution in Iran

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The year 2019 marks 40 years to the Islamic Republic of Iran. On February 11, 1979, the Islamic revolution won in Iran. The last shahinshah of the Persian Empire, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown. The 2500-year history of the Persian Monarchy came to a close.

Undoubtedly, the Islamic revolution in Iran marked a significant chapter in the history of the 20th century and can in fact be ranked on par with the Bolshevik October Revolution in Russia, which, like the Iranian one, turned the whole country “upside down” and to this day continues to affect political processes in the region and worldwide.

The unquestionable leader of this revolution, who had been planning it for many years in exile, was Ayatollah Seyid Ruholla Mostafavi Mousavi Khomeini. He devoted his whole life to the struggle against the shah regime which repeatedly subjected him to arrest and persecution. In 1964, Ayatollah Khomeini was expelled from Iran and spent the next fifteen years in exile. For almost a year he lived in Turkey, another 13 years in Iraq and almost half a year near Paris.

However, throughout all those years Khomeini never stopped the political struggle, influencing the mentality of Iranians from abroad. In exile, Khomeini stepped up his opposition activities devising the theoretical foundations for a new Islamic state and at the same time preparing the Iranians for the overthrow of the Shah. His associates recorded his sermons and speeches on an audio tape and secretly shipped them to Iran to be distributed in Iranian mosques there.

The population of Iran knew Khomeini fairly well and were aware of his views on the domestic situation in the country and his plans for the country’s further development. His views were pretty radical. In his speeches, Khomeini lashed out at Shah’s leadership, the “comprador bourgeoisie,” the United States, and Israel. The USSR, as a major Communist power, came under fierce criticism as well. In one of his speeches, he said: “America is worse than England, England is worse than the Soviet Union, and the Soviets are worse than both of them !!!”

Whether accepted or not, Khomeini was in his own way a unique religious figure and politician. He was the one who put forward the idea of “velayat faqih”, that is, the principle of a sacred and politicized expression of religious spirituality, aimed at the absolute power of a fair legal theologian who would represent the highest level of spiritual Shiite authority – “marja e taglid”.

It was this principle that Khomeini chose to go into the basis of Khomeinism (or “neo-Shiism”) ideology he had elaborated and the principle of state-building. He combined Islam and politics, his major goal being a complete Islamization of the whole society by forcibly extending the sphere of influence of religion to embrace other sections, which in other societies are occupied by ideology, while simultaneously turning them into an instrument of political struggle. The slogan “Our religion is our ideology, our ideology is our policy” was put by the Ayatollah into practice. Thus, the boundaries between religious, ideological, and political activities in Iran were largely blurred and make up a single whole at present.

Naturally, comparison is always fraught with subjectivism. Nevertheless, Ayatollah Khomeini can be compared with Joseph Stalin. And not only because both were markedly ascetic, both expressed their thoughts simply and dogmatically, so those thoughts were clear to everyone, even the uneducated, both devoted themselves to fierce political struggle and both came to power, bringing an countless number of victims to the altar of victory.

Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionary zeal did not subside after the fall of the Shah. Moreover, he did all he could to clear the way for a new, Islamic dictatorship under the republican slogans. The Shah’s institutes of power were destroyed in a matter of months.

On April 1, 1979, a referendum was held with only one question: “Do you support the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran?” And the majority said yes. On that day, Iran, which marked the 2500th anniversary of the monarchy only a few years before, became an Islamic republic.

In December the same year, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was adopted, which stipulated the supremacy of Islamic principles on the basis of Khomeinism.

The year 1980 marked the beginning of the rapid process of formation and institutionalization of the organs of the new theocratic power in the country. Khomeini was an Islamic innovator who put his idea of “velayat faqih” into practice.

This principle formed the foundation of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like in any republic, the Constitution of the IRI proclaims the separation of the legislative (parliament), executive (government) and judicial branches of government. However, above all these branches is the supreme leader of the country, selected by a narrow circle of Islamic clerical experts from among the highest-ranking Shiite clergy. He has the control of all kinds of power in Iran – the spiritual, state, political and military. As the country’s spiritual leader, he is called Faqih, the head of the Shiite community; as a nationwide political leader – Rahbar – the head of the country; as a military leader, the Supreme Commander of all Iranian armed forces. Naturally, the title of a supreme leader went to Ayatollah Khomeini.

At first, the supreme leader used revolution sympathizers in his own interests. In a peculiar situation of anti-Shah struggle, Khomeini turned out to be an ingenious politician who was able to successfully play with the left and the right, balancing between them, juggling them, elevating some, and then others. But all this was to come to an end.

Starting from the summer of 1980 and perhaps until 1984, Ayatollah Khomeini removed the “companions of the revolution” that stood in his way. That is, those forces that backed him but were alien to him.

All those who disagreed with the new ideology he had brought in faced the same lot.

Among them were equally authoritative religious figures who did not agree with the idea of

“velayat faqih”, with the unification of Islam and politics. Among them was Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari. He and his associates were not repressed but deprived of the opportunity to act politically. They were put under house arrest. Some ayatollahs left Iran, some simply fell silent. Gathered in the city of Qum (the center of Shiism) they kept silent, without being engaged in any political activity against Ayatollah Khomeini.

But such a “humane” attitude on the part of the new authorities was not for everyone who disagreed. As any revolution, the Iranian revolution was accompanied by revolutionary terror. The wheel of repression was spinning.

Effectively using the Islamic Revolutionary Committees, the newly formed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian Hezbollah (Party of Allah), the new Shiite leadership of Iran, led by Khomeini, carried out a series of repressions. The repression campaign was launched on June 14, 1980, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree on the “Islamic cultural revolution” which proclaimed persecution of dissidents or a “witch hunt”. By the end of 1984, the total number of those executed in Iran was estimated at 40,000.

A powerful resistance to the Khomeini regime came from People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). Founded in the sixties to fight the Shah regime, it occasionally resorted to terrorist methods. From the ideological point of view, the organization based its strategy on Islamism with Marxism.
Members of PMOI did a lot for the Islamic revolution, actively opposing any attempts to restore the monarchy. At first, they were on the side of Khomeini. But Ayatollah Khomeini, having sensed competitors in them, began to exert a strong pressure on them. As a result, the Mojahedin were removed from government,  repressed (more than 3 thousand members were subjected to reprisals),  and went into hiding.

The last force Khomeini struck at was the People’s Party of Iran (PPI), that is, pro-Soviet Communists, who supported Khomeini’s anti-Shah struggle in the first revolutionary years. Thus, in January 1979, PPI General Secretary N. Kiyanuri spoke favorably about Khomeini, stating that “scientific socialism and Islam do not contract one another,” and  that “Communists and Khomeini can go together almost to the end”, “infinitely helping and assisting each other”. However, this did not stop the Ayatollah. More than 5,000 members and supporters of the party were arrested. From TV screens people could see high-profile trials against the left in which PPI leaders admitted that they had been fulfilling orders from the Kremlin and declared themselves agents of Moscow.

Affecting the nature of repressions in those years was the situation on the fronts of the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988). All opposition representatives were viewed as traitors who were allegedly acting in the interests of Saddam Hussein.

The suppression of the opposition, including, above all, Khomeini’s former supporters of the anti-Shah struggle, was accompanied by the Islamization of all spheres of life: political, economic, social, cultural, legal, and military. Naturally, the repressive measures of the Islamic authorities caused massive — legal and illegal — emigration from Iran. More than three million Iranians left their country. By the end of 1983 dissent had been suppressed across the country, so Islamic rule could be considered valid. The Islamic Revolution won. The Islamic Republic of Iran became a political reality.

The internal political struggle in the IRI continued after the defeat of brothers in anti-revolutionary struggle — both in parliament, the Majlis, and among various political groups. Representatives of those groups did not question Khomeini’s course but among themselves they had conflicting views on how best to implement it. Their differences were substantial enough. However, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, remained above those frictions and never took sides. When he spoke, it became clear what everyone should do.

Ayatollah Khomeini continued to enjoy immense authority even after his death. In 1989, when the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, passed away on June 3, the author of the obituary article was in Iran. Mourning ceremonies that were held throughout the country are difficult to describe or impart in words. All of Tehran was clad in black: men in black shirts, women in black hijabs. Tehran is known for its heat. In an attempt to make it less of an ordeal for the mourners, volunteers and firefighters pour water on them, as they walk in grief in an endless stream that fills all the space in the streets and squares. Nearly all residents of Iran, several million people, came to Tehran to pay their last respects to Rahbar.
Khomeini’s ideas continue to form the basis of the political doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which determines the external and internal policies of the clerical leadership. An important place in the doctrine is occupied by the principles of Islamic internationalism, developed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates; the principles of Muslim unity; ideas about the special mission of the Muslims; about the messiah role of Islam and Iran; the theory about the permanent nature of the Islamic revolution; about the antagonism between “the oppressed (the destitute)” and “the oppressors (the arrogant)”; the theory of the “bipolar world” and the division of the world along the South-North axis. The latter theory was developed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates on the basis of the Islamic dogma that divides the world into “areas of faith” and “areas of war” and is designed to meet global changes and serve the strategic goals of the Iranian policy.

The leading role in this Islamic revolutionary process should be assumed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is set on forcing its religious and ideological theories on the rest of the world. Here lies the main political core of Khomeinism of the official ideology of Iran  – the “export of the Islamic revolution”. Along with it being part of official ideology, this concept is a legal one, since it is enshrined in the Constitution of Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini positioned himself no more than a global Islamic leader with radical views. In his speech in March 1980, he said: “We must work to incite revolution all over the world and we must preclude any thoughts of abandoning it. Iran not only refuses to recognize any differences between Muslim countries, it also acts as an intercessor for all oppressed peoples. We must make clear our stance on powers and superpowers and voice our protest to them, despite the difficulties that we experience. Our attitude to the world is dictated by our beliefs».

From time to time, Iranian officials recall about the “global and historic importance” of the Islamic revolution. Thus, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005 – 2013), speaking at a ceremony in honor of the Iranian Basij militia in December 2008, said: “You all understand that the Islamic revolution was a movement that cannot be confined to the territory of Iran. This movement was aimed not only at creating a new system, but also at materializing the promises of God. The Islamic revolution was a fundamental and decisive movement for all humanity, following the path of divine prophets ”. And this naturally gives rise to questions from most politicians and countries that do not share these radical views.

Of course, 30 years after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran has undergone significant changes. The current regime in Iran, which came into being thanks to the Islamic revolution, is constantly evolving and this evolution, proceeding under the motto of the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, has been spiraling.

The eight-year Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988) undermined the economy of Iran. The “Tawhid economy» model developed by the Khomeini team while still in exile  (the Islamic analogue of the War Communism economy) could not save the country. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who became president of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the death of Khomeini (1989-1997), said good-bye to the “Tawhid economy” and made a sharp turn towards the market. He initiated economic market reforms, which made it possible to liberate the Iranian business and overcome the post-war crisis. It dealt a serious blow to the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The next president, Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), while pursuing economic reforms, introduced elements of liberalism into domestic and foreign policy, which triggered an outrage from the radicals. And this is understandable: although carried out under the slogans of Khomeini’s teachings, the social and political reforms (whether their architects wanted it or not) inevitably took the country and society further and further away from the general concept of Khomeinism. The conservative-minded Iranian clergy could not let it happen. They wanted restoration of the Khomeinist regime, they needed a change in the policies of the two presidents to maintain their power.

President Ahmadinejad was expected to fulfill the mission of returning to the ideology of Khomeini. This he did with great enthusiasm, bringing the nuclear conflict on the verge of a war with the United States and Israel, and throwing the economy into the abyss of the most severe international sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani (2013 – present), a liberal-reformist politician, saved the situation. However, the provocative policy of President Trump towards Iran and the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal have given Iranian conservatives and radicals a new chance to return to the ideological principles of the time of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Thus, the Islamic Republic of Iran has gone through various stages of its development: revolutionary terror, war, a thaw, and a cold spell. But it would be quite correct to assert that the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran boils down to expanding or narrowing the limits of the permissible across a vast variety of dogmatic political, economic, and social restrictions. At the same time, all evolutionary processes in the Islamic Republic of Iran have proceeded under the portrait of Khomeini, with quotes from his works, to his, in fact, personality cult.

Ayatollah Khomeini created the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has become a kind of laboratory, in which political Islam for the first time in global practices has turned into a means of resolving problems that confront the Islamic civilization in the present-day world.

Khomeinism never restricted itself to Iran. The theory and political practice of Ayatollah Khomeini have in many ways encouraged politicians in a number of Islamic countries to use political Islam for their own purposes. Over time, there appeared special terms that reflect the essence of Khomeini’s policy – the “Khomeini effect”, the “Khomeini model” and even the “Khomeini world plan.” But the practice of pursuing one of the basic principles of Khomeinism – the export of the Islamic revolution on the model of Iran – alarmed many Islamic (and not only Islamic) countries, particularly those in which a significant number of Muslims are Shiites. But what is clear is that Khomeinism never developed to become a global doctrine or a major political practice, neither in the region, nor elsewhere in the world.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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