Since its beginning, the regime of Iran's Islamic Revolution has championed the idea of exporting its Revolution to the entire Muslim world. This doctrine is rooted in the thinking of the Revolution's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, particularly in his book Al-Hukuma Al-Islamiyya ("The Islamic Government," Beirut, 1979). In the book, he presented his perception negating the existence of peoples and states in Islam, and aspiring to actualize Islamic unity. Khomeini defined himself as a Muslim, not as an Iranian or a Shi'ite, and the Revolution as Islamic, not Iranian or Shi'ite. In his view, nationalism is an imperialistic plot to weaken and divide the Islamic world, and Islamic unity is the way to restore Islam to its greatness. The regime in Iran is the jumping-off point for a "comprehensive Islamic Revolution," and exporting the Revolution is the tool for attaining Islamic unity.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (image: Fars)
This concept, which Iranian revolutionary ideologues have called Umm Al-Qura – one of the names of Mecca – considers Iran the true Mecca, that is, Iran is the religious, spiritual, and political center of the Muslim world. These ideologues have set out a vision and a mission to spread revolutionary Shi'ite Islam across the geographic and religious region of the Islamic world.
According to this doctrine, Iran appropriates the leadership role of the Sunni Islam that is based on Mecca and on that city's historic role in Islamic history, as part of the generations of political and religious struggle between the Shi'a and the Sunna. This constitutes also an additional layer in the intra-Islamic philosophical discussion on what form an Islamic regime should take, and of how to rebuild the Islamic world after centuries of repeated defeat by Western civilization.
In principle, it is an overall Islamic view, shared by both Sunnis and Shi'ites, that Islam not only defines sovereign borders but also demands the loyalty of Muslims living outside the borders of the Islamic state and their obedience to this state's ruler. Thus, it is no wonder that the concept of Umm Al-Qura as the political-religious center of the entire Islamic world was developed in the modern era by the Sunni thinker Abd Al-Rahman Al-Kawakibi in the late 19th century, on the eve of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the last Islamic caliphate. In his book Umm Al-Qura, published in 1901, Al-Kawakibi proposed a doctrine for rehabilitating the status of Islam and the Muslims, which centered on restoring the Arabs, who have a separate and unique ethnic identity not shared by the other Muslim peoples, as leaders of the Islamic world, and also on bringing Muslims back to the original Salafi Islam. In Al-Kawakibi's thought, two ideological aspects had nourished two different movements in the Arab and Muslim world of the modern era: the anti-imperialist national Arab movement, and the Islamic Salafi movement, from which emerged the various Islamic jihadi movements.
Al-Kawakibi (image: Aljazeera.com)
The Umm Al-Qura concept was espoused, and upgraded, by Iranian revolutionary ideologues, who adapted it to the needs of Iran's Islamic Revolution. For example, Ayatollah Sadeq Taqi Mesbah Yazdi published, in the autumn of 1996, an article titled "The Authorities of the Ruler of the Jurisprudent [Vali-e Faqih] Outside The Borders [Of the State]," in the Islamic Regime journal of the Center of Scientific Research of the Assembly of Experts. In his article, Mesbah Yazdi stressed that Muslims are obligated to pledge allegiance (i.e give ba'ya) and obey the worthy Islamic ruler regardless of geographic borders, ethnic affiliation, linguistic association, or anything else. He said: "From the point of view of Islam, the main element for the unity of the ummah and Islamic society is the unifying of faith, and there is no validity at all in the unity of states and in the existence of geographic borders, whether natural or agreed-upon... If a certain Islamic state is run by the Rule of the Jurisprudent, its ruler has supremacy... Therefore, his order is binding for every Muslim, and even Muslims in non-Islamic countries must obey him."
Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi (image: Farsnews.com)
It should be noted that the Iranian ideologues' view of the Umm Al-Qura concept is not aimed against the imperialist West – that is, the U.S, Israel, and so on – as it is camouflage for Iran's effort to expand the hegemonic Iranian-Shi'ite territory within the Islamic world at the expense of the historic Sunni hegemony that has prevailed in the Middle East for 14 centuries. Although hatred for America, the Great Satan, and Israel, the Little Satan, as well as antisemitism, are central elements in the ideology of the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran, the concept of Umm Al-Qura, which deals with the historic Shi'ite-Sunni conflict, is not directed against them.
Burning Israeli and American flags (image: ISNA, Tasnim, Iran, July 1, 2016)
The hatred for the U.S. and Israel are two ideological focal points that serve the concept of Umm Al-Qura as camouflage for the Iranian-Shi'ite aspiration to expand Iranian hegemony at the expense of the Sunni hegemony in the region. Dialogue with the U.S., the Great Satan, and even with Israel is possible and has been carried out in the past when necessary, but the Iranian-Shi'ite hostility towards Sunni Islam in the region and the struggle against are existential issues as far as revolutionary Iran is concerned.
Iranian spokesmen take care not to present the Umm Al-Qura concept as an Iranian doctrine aimed at expanding Iran's hegemony. In order to conceal their real aim, and to keep Sunni Muslims in the dark and recruit them to join the Iranian struggle for regional hegemony, Ayatollah Khomeini coined the saying "The path to Jerusalem goes through Karbala" – that is, the struggle for the ultimate Islamic goal (Jerusalem) goes through Iranian control of areas that historically been part of Sunni hegemony (Karbala in Iraq). This slogan is reiterated by Iranian regime officials and the Iranian military leadership today as well. Thus, even Iranian-Shi'ite involvement in fighting the Sunni Islamic State (ISIS), which is presented by the Iranian regime as a justified struggle against terrorism, constitutes effective cover for the Iranian-Shi'ite striving for regional hegemony, by deliberately eliminating every center of Sunni power in the arena of the fighting – Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – so as to create a contiguous swath of Iranian hegemony from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.
This strategy was not completely clear, because Iran had refrained from direct involvement in Sunni-Shi'ite conflicts, acting only via proxies – and its spokesmen have publicly denied such action and stressed that Iran has never started a war against its neighbors. But it was recently revealed when Iran began direct military involvement in Sunni-Shi'ite areas of conflict. In the past few years, senior Iranian officials have begun to express this strategy openly.
Thus, for example, Ali Younesi, advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rohani and a former intelligence minister, stated, in March 2015, that Iran was once again an empire as it had been in the past, and that its capital, Iraq, was "the center of Iranian heritage, culture, and identity." He stressed that the Iranian Islam is the pure Islam, with no Arabism, racism, or nationalism.
Ali Younesi, advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rohani (image: En.alalam.ir)
Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said in February 2013: "Iran has planned defensive positions outside its borders and linked its fate to the fate of the Islamic countries, and therefore will support people such as [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad to the end."
Ali Akbar Velayati (image: Farsnews.com)
Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr Kharazi, director-general of Hezbollah Iran and part of the elite of the Iranian regime, presented a plan in 2010 for establishing "Greater Iran" in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan, in the first stage, and for creating a union of Islamic countries under Iran's leadership. In 2013, he promised that if he were elected president he would restore Tajikistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to Iranian sovereignty.
Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr Kharazi, director-general of Hezbollah (image: ISNA, Iran, February 9, 2013)
On May 2, 2014, Yahyah Rahim Safavi, security advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said: "Iran's line of defense against Israel stretches to South Lebanon, and our strategic defensive depth reaches to the Mediterranean and above Israel's head."
Ali Saeedi, Khamenei's representative in the IRGC, said in August 2015 that Iran's strategic depth is in Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza, Bahrain, and Syria.
Ali Saeedi (image: Press.tv.ir)
IRGC commander Ali Ja'fari said on September 15, 2014 that "the missions of the [IRGC elite unit] Qods Force are outside Iran's borders and it aids the revolutionary movements, the resistance movements, and the oppressed worldwide. Whether in Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon, if there is a need for help, we will help."
IRGC commander Ali Ja'fari (image: En.trend.az)
Mohammad Ali Falaki, retired IRGC general and an associate of the Iranian military elite, discussed, in August 2016, the Shi'ite Liberation Army that Iran established for the war at its three battle fronts in the Middle East – Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – under the command of Qods Force leader Qassim Soleimani and the oversight of Leader Khamenei.
Hossein Hamdani, former IRGC commander in Tehran, revealed, at a May 2014 regime conference in Hamadan, the extent of Iran's involvement in Syria. He said that Iran was operating in Syria out of concern for the interests of the Islamic Revolution and that it had established popular militias, called the Second Hizbullah, in 14 districts in Syria, with a total of 70,000 members.
Hossein Hamedani (image: Iranbriefing.net)
Mehdi Taeb, head of Khamenei's Ammar Base think tank and the brother of IRGC intelligence director Hossein Taeb, said in March 2013 that Syria is "the 35th district [of Iran] and a strategic district for it," and stressed that losing it would lead to the loss of Tehran.
Mehdi Taeb (image: Nowruziran.wordpress.com)
Additionally, the escalation in the Iran-Saudi clash in its various aspects, both political and military, has also exposed additional aspects of this strategy (see Appendix: MEMRI Reports On Iran-Saudi Conflict).
Beyond these verbal statements, Iran's approach is manifested on the ground in its military involvement in the various areas of the fighting in the region – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen – and in its tremendous investments and in the heavy price it is paying in Shi'ite casualties, from both Iran and the entire Muslim world.
This paper is in two parts: Part I, below, will review the Umm Al-Qura concept, while Part II, forthcoming, will review its implementation by the Iranian regime in the Islamic region.
Part I – The Concept Of Umm Al-Qura
The Concept Of Umm Al-Qura In The Thought Of Mohammad-Javad Larijani
In the winter of 1996, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, a senior Iranian regime official, who is the secretary of Iran's Judiciary High Council for Human Rights and an advisor to Khamenei, as well as a member of the prominent Larijani family, three of whose members hold top positions in Iran, published an article titled "The Political Boundaries" in the Islamic Regime journal of the Center of Scientific Research of the Assembly of Experts. He described the article as an expansion of Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi's Autumn 1996 article "The Authorities of the Ruler of the Jurisprudent [Vali-e Faqih] Outside The Borders [Of the State]" in the same publication. Larijani wrote:
Mohammad-Javad Larijani (image: Press.tv.ir)
"A state in which the Islamic regime is in complete control has a select status, called Umm Al-Qura. The most important, and the major, unique aspect of Umm Al-Qura is that the Islamic regime was established [in that state] and that its leader the worthy one and his authority extends throughout the entire Islamic ummah. That is, this leader is worthy of leading the entire Islamic ummah, even though in practice his leadership is only actualized, for now, in Umm Al-Qura."
Larijani went on to explain that the Muslims in Iran, as well as Iran's Assembly of Experts, must make decisions concerning the selection of the leader and his actions, with the understanding that a worthy and chosen leader serves not only them in Iran, but the entire Muslim ummah.
This concept forces is actually forcing the worthy leader chosen by Iran on the entire Islamic world. This is also a one-time selection; in the case of Ayatollah Khomeini, it was made by the people, but this was not so with the selection of Khamenei, who did not even have the religious rank necessary to become Supreme Leader.
Larijani continued: "Although the leader of Umm Al-Qura officially rules only a certain state [Iran], the entire Islamic ummah must obey him... Any defeat or victory by Umm Al-Qura is a defeat or victory for Islam. Therefore, if Umm Al-Qura is attacked, the entire Islamic ummah must rise to defend it... The Islamic ummah is a collection of people who have chosen Islam as the foundation of their actions, and believe in it. Therefore, everyone in the Islamic ummah has a responsibility towards Umm Al-Qura – even if they live in infidel lands and are distant from it."
Larijani then analyzed various situations in which there is more than one Islamic regime or worthy leader, and examined the question who should be the leader worthy of ruling the Islamic state.
Ideologically confronting what he sees as the Western championing of individualism aimed at promoting the hegemony of Western liberal economic order, Larijani stated that under the Islamic doctrine there must be "a unified Ummah with one consolidated regime." This, he added, "will be seen as a peak for the new Islamic culture."
He then sets out several phases for actualizing this vision:
"Phase one: Creating awareness of the need to revive Islam in the life of the individual and society.
"Phase two: Making an effort to establish Islamic regimes in several states in today's Islamic world. These efforts would naturally come from the people... Sometimes it will be possible to use tools that already exist, such as parliamentary elections and so on, and sometimes there should be street demonstrations, so that this movement will achieve results...
"The third phase begins when the people in several important states in the Islamic world succeed in establishing an Islamic regime. In this situation, the Islamic regimes should be …reorganized… and included in a unified regime in the [Islamic] Ummah...
"Here we must pay attention to a critical foundation of our Islamic logic – that we are obligated to carry out this mission...
Mohammad Javad-Larijani's 2007 Interview With Iranian Daily Resalat
In a February 2007 interview, Larijani explained additional aspects of the Umm Al-Qura concept to the Iranian daily Resalat, underlining again the supremacy of the Islamic state and its existential interests over the problems of oppressed Muslims at the edges of the Islamic region and over dealing with them as a priority. Reiterating Ayatollah Khomeini's saying, "The road to Jerusalem goes through Karbala," he explained that the Umm Al-Qura concept is aimed at reconciling two interests that appear to contradict each other: the interest of Iran as a state with defined borders, and the overall Islamic interest which is supranational.
He explained that what qualifies an Islamic state for the special status of Umm Al-Qura is not how Islamic a state is, but whether its defeat would be considered a defeat of all Islam. According to this definition, he said, the fall of the Saudi or Pakistani regime would have no ramifications for Islam as a whole, but the fall of the Islamic rule in Iran would be a defeat for the entire Islamic world: "If we are defeated, it will be said that the [entire] Islamic rule was defeated. According to this view, we become Umm Al-Qura."
Larijani also reiterated that when a certain place, such as present-day Iran, attains the status of Umm Al-Qura, all Muslims are "obligated to defend it... Defending Umm Al-Qura is not a mission just for the Iranians, but for every Muslim. If, God forbid, the Islamic regime in Iran is destroyed and becomes a monarchy, as it was in the past, Iran will no longer be Umm Al-Qura... Today, the logic of our actions is the logic of Umm Al-Qura... [Therefore] we believe that if Iran is attacked or if its interests are jeopardized, it is other states' Islamic duty to assist it – because the defeat of Iran is the defeat of Islam."
Iranian Regime Officials Talk About Implementing The Concept of Iran As Umm Al-Qura In Our Time
IRGC Deputy Commander Hossein Salami said in a November 27, 2016 interview with Basij Week TV: "In fact, the idea to create the Basij was a divine prophecy [delivered] to the Imam [Khomeini], and can be seen as a wondrous miracle, as it is an innovation by the Imam. That is, the creation of the Basij was not based on any previous model or experience; it was created out of Imam Khomeini's profound internal understanding, true prophecy, profound wise thought, and view of the future. The Imam Khomeini envisioned a Basij of the Islamic world. This idea and thought was later realized by the leader of the Revolution [Khamenei], and, gradually, this great defense institution has crossed the borders of Iran.
"If you look today at the arena of regional developments, you will clearly see the blessed tree of the Basij at different points of the Islamic world. For instance, Hizbullah in Lebanon has become a powerful defensive apparatus in the eastern Mediterranean, and defender of the honor and independence of the people in Lebanon – even of other Muslims and of the Palestinians. This is an example of a Basij in a different country in the Muslim world.
Deputy Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Hossein Salami(image: Press.tv.ir)
"Additionally, when you currently look at Ansarollah – the fighting Muslim people in Yemen – which stands against America's criminal policy that is being implemented by Saudi Arabia, [you can see] that they have created an infinite and powerful channel of resistance near the Yemeni Red Sea. This is another example from the blessed tree of the Basij in the Muslim world.
"Likewise, if you look at the developments in Syria... Without the expansion of the Basij model in the society in Syria, which recruits the people's desires and beliefs to support national security [there] and the regime that rules in Syria – the current developments in Syria would have benefitted the Zionist regime, and America and its regional allies...
"Obviously, also in the other Islamic countries, like Bahrain and Afghanistan, we are seeing the first signs of the Basij. The Basij is broadening its reach and presence in the political, security, cultural, and social arenas of the Muslim world and within its expanding borders. Therefore, we have gained a prominent role in this global creation, and this process is unstoppable.
"We have exported the Basij philosophy or the Basij model... According to the Basij philosophy, the Muslim world does not think much of geographic borders. The borders are being removed. The Basij is the symbol of globalization of religious and revolutionary faith in the Islamic world; therefore, according to the Basij logic, geographic borders [are set by] faith in the goals, beliefs, and thoughts [of Islam]...
"In our society, the Basij is mightier than all political streams, that is, the Basij is not within or in the framework of [any] political stream. Rather, it is part of the Islamic Revolution's discourse, which is rooted in the philosophy, thought, and discourse of the Rule of the Jurisprudent."
Ayatollah Ahmad Alam Al-Hoda, Khamenei's representative in Khorasan, said on November 24, 2016: "Restricting [the role of] the Basij and IRGC [just] to the military level [inside Iran] is a plot [against Iran and against Islam]... [since] today, our fighters are fighting in Iraq and Syria, because this is not just defense of Iran, but rather of Islam and the Revolution. The true goal is the spread of Islam and the Revolution – and the Basij defends them."
Ayatollah Ahmad Alam Al-Hoda (image: Ifpnews.com)
Yahya Rahim Safavi, advisor to Khamenei, said at a November 29, 2016 commemorative service for the 500 Iranians who died in Chalus during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War: "Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen have copied their models from the Iranian Basij. In Syria, our youth have created a popular Basij comprising the Syrian people, who have fought terrorist elements for 68 months... Allah willing, in this century we will witness the revelation of the might of Islam, made up of [an Islamic] government [in Iran] and Islamic nations. Iran will be the central axis of this tremendous might."
Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military adviser to Leader of the Islamic Revolution (image: Press.tv.ir)
*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI; U. Kafash is a Research Fellow at MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project.
APPENDIX – MEMRI Reports On The Iran-Saudi Conflict
MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6622, Iran, Saudi Arabia Clash Swords In U.S. Press, September 21, 2016.
MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6607, Following Rafsanjani Call To Moderate Iranian Policy Vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia, Khamenei Delivers Virulently Anti-Saudi Speech, Sparking Increased Conflict With Kingdom, September 12, 2016.
MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6260, Saudi-Iranian Tensions As Depicted In Cartoons, January 13, 2016.
MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1215, Unprecedented Tension Between Saudi Arabia, Iran Following Execution Of Shi'ite Cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, January 4, 2016.
MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6251, Iran Furious Over Saudi Arabia's Execution Of Shi'ite Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, January 4, 2016.
MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6183, Iran Threatens Saudi Arabia: 'The IRGC... Will Take Vengeance' On The Al-Sa'ud Regime; 'Our Responses Will Be... Harsh And Decisive', November 10, 2015.
MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1144, Iran Threatens Saudi Arabia; Khamenei: Iran Will Answer Saudi Arabia 'A Blow With A Blow', October 2, 2015.
MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5918, IRGC Weekly To Saudis: 'Iran Has Many Options For Harming Saudi Arabia... All [It] Needs To Do Is Use A Single One Of [Them] So That Nothing Remains Of The Entity Named The Aal-Saud Regime Or Of Saudi Arabia Itself', December 30, 2014.
MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5858, Associates Of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei: Saudi Arabia Is The Source Of Scheming Against The Islamic World; The Al-Saud Family Is Of Jewish Origin – And Its Turn To Fall Has Come, October 14, 2014.
MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1108, Iran's New Strategy Of Diversion: Persuading The Sunni Camp To Fight Israel, Not Iran, July 31, 2014.
MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1068, Iran Calls For Violent Shi'ite Reaction Against Saudi Arabia, February 12, 2014.
 This is also the perception of the Sunni Islamic State (ISIS), which demands an oath of allegiance from every Sunni Muslim outside its borders.
 Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, "The Authorities of the Ruler of the Jurisprudent [Vali-e Faqih] Outside The Borders [Of the State]," in the Islamic Regime journal, Year 1, Part I, Autumn 1996, pp 82-96. The journal was published by the Assembly of Experts' Center of Scientific Research; on July 24, 2006 it was posted on Hawzah.net.
 Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, "The Authorities of the Ruler of the Jurisprudent [Vali-e Faqih] Outside The Borders [Of the State]," in Islamic Regime, Year 1, Part I, Autumn 1996, p. 85 and p. 92, respectively.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5991 - Advisor To Iranian President Rohani: Iran Is An Empire, Iraq Is Our Capital; We Will Defend All The Peoples Of The Region; Iranian Islam Is Pure Islam – Devoid Of Arabism, Racism, Nationalism, March 9. 2015.
 Yjc.ir, February 8, 2013.
 MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3021, The Iranian Supremacy Manifesto of 'Greater Iran': Hezbollah-Iran Secretary-General Lays Out Plan, Strategy for Reestablishing 'Greater Iran' as Prelude to Establishment of Global Government Led by the Mahdi - 06/10/10, June 10, 2010.
 Mehr (Iran), May 2, 2014.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6133, Khamenei's IRGC Representative: Lebanon, Gaza, Bahrain, Syria Constitute Iran's Essential Strategic Depth, August 14, 2015.
 Tasnim (Iran), September 16, 2014.
 MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6611, Iranian General Discusses Shi'ite Liberation Army Under Command Of Qassem Soleimani, Who Is Subordinate To Supreme Leader Khamenei, September 15, 2016.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5848, Iranian Media Reports Deleted Following Publication (1): Senior IRGC Official Speaking On Iran's Military Involvement In Syria Says Iran Has Established 'Second Hizbullah' There, September 24, 2014.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 946, Iranian Official: The Loss Of Syria Will Lead To The Loss Of Tehran Itself; Syria Is An Iranian Province; Iran Has Formed A 60,000-Strong Syrian Basij; Israel Is Our Only Threat, March 11, 2013.
 It should be noted that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei emphasized that the 2011 Arab Spring was in fact an "Islamic Awakening," in order to apply Iranian Islamic Revolution terminology and goals to the Sunni uprisings against dictatorships.
 Mohammad Javad Larijani, "The Political Boundaries," Islamic Regime journal,, Year 1, Part II, Winter 1996, pp. 37-49. The journal was published by the Assembly of Experts' Center for Scientific Research, and was posted on July 24, 2006 on Hawzah.net.
 Mohammad Javad Larijani, "The Political Boundaries," Islamic Regime journal,, Year 1, Part II, Winter 1996, pp. 37-49.
 Resalat (Iran), February 12, 2007.
 Tasnim (Iran), November 27, 2016.
 Tasnim (Iran), November 24, 2016.
 ISNA (Iran), November 29, 2016.