The West does not seem to appreciate the intensity of Iran's commitment to its Shi'ite cousins in Syria. The West also seems not to comprehend the depth of Iran's spiritual ties to its centuries-old role as the champion of Shi'a Islam.
Much Western journalistic commentary addresses Iran's commitment to the Assad regime in Damascus. Left underreported is the profound sense of shared religious identity between the Shia of Iran and the Shi'a Alawi minority of Syria. Iran's determination to maintain Alawi supremacy in Syria transcends any personal attachment to the Assad administration.
In light of this month's execution of a leading Shi'ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia and the consequent heightened tension between Tehran and Riyadh, it might help policymakers to understand that the religious divide between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims as an inveterate and unbridgeable chasm as that between ISIS and the United States.
Iran's Shi'ite Ayatollahs are on record declaring that Syria's Alawites are genuine Shi'ites, a question finalized after a centuries-long dispute. The Iranian Shi'ite establishment had questioned the Syrian Alawi inclination to venerate Jesus, Mohammad and Ali as a pale reflection of the Christian theological concept of the Holy Trinity. Moreover, some Iranian Mullahs were not comfortable with the Alawi practice of celebrating Christmas. Iran evidently felt obligated to extend a protective cover to its Shi'ite co-religionists.
Another dimension of Iran's support for regional Shi'ism is its close operational relationship with the Lebanon-based terrorist group, Hezbollah -- the political arm of Lebanon's Shi'ites. The links are so close that Tehran has been able to mobilize thousands of Lebanese Shi'ite volunteers to fight in support of the Assad regime in Syria. Iran's theological ties to Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslims also are deep and longstanding.
Iran's sense of responsibility for Shi'ism beyond its borders seems linked to the historical Islamic world-power contest for hegemony between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. The Sunni, for centuries, have dominated and persecuted the Shi'ites, even in states where the Shiites have been in the majority. This century is first time the Shi'ites have started successfully to challenge Sunni supremacy in the region of the Persian Gulf. The George W. Bush Administration replaced Iraq's ousted Sunni President, Saddam Hussein, with a basically Shi'ite leadership. And the Obama Administration, thorough the promised infusions of up to $150 billion (much of which Iran will presumably use to increase its terrorist activities worldwide), has paved the way for Iran to have the capability to assemble nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.
But perhaps even the Americans could not, in an electoral system, have prevented Shi'ite predominance in a country where the Shi'ites constituted about two-thirds of Iraq's population. Next-door Iran is at least 75% Shi'ite. The theological cadre from both countries receives its religious training in many of the same seminaries in Qom, Iran and Najaf, Iraq. Much of Iraq is now controlled by militia groups loyal to Tehran, not to Baghdad.
Iran is also extending assistance to Bahrain's Shi'ites, the vast majority of the island's population. Iran, which had controlled Bahrain before the island was colonized by Great Britain in the 19th century, had agreed to London's grant of independence to the Gulf state in 1971. The agreement had served British imperial interests in the region. Yet Iran has evidently never been comfortable with the arrangement. The final secession of Bahrain from Iranian patrimony remains an open wound to Iran's national pride. The Bahrain issue is particularly sensitive, as the United States Navy's 5th Fleet is now headquartered there. The fleet's naval assets enable the U.S. to guard the Persian Gulf below Iran's southern border.
A religious reason, however, also motivates Tehran's role in Bahrain. For more than two centuries, Bahrain has been governed by the al-Khalifas, a Sunni family originally from Qatar, and sustained in power by Iran's regional and religious arch-rival: Saudi Arabia. The Sunni ruling family in Riyadh even financed the construction of a 14-mile bridge linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, enabling a quick response to any possible move by Tehran to re-establish its dominance in the island. In 2011, Riyadh dispatched military units to Bahrain to suppress protests by the country's Shi'ites, who were demanding more representation in keeping with their majority status on the island.
Iran also maintains extensive ties to the Shi'ite minority in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where most of the country's oil fields are. The Saudi National Guard does not permit demonstrations against Riyadh's policies. Imams who preach any opposition sentiment to the House of Saud are immediately imprisoned. One imam, Nimr, al-Nimr, was executed by the Saudis this month, presumably as a warning to Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia not even to think any dissenting thoughts.
Iran's sense of duty to Shi'ite communities outside the Arab Middle East has also earned it influence, particularly in South Asia and West Africa.
Iran's commitment to Shi'ite interests seems firmly linked to its idea of its mission, as well as to the survival of its revolutionary regime. Iran's theocracy is likely willing to pay a high price to safeguard this legacy. The West should not expect Iran to reduce its presence in Syria or Iraq, even under severe military pressure.
As the Obama Administration continues to reward Iran for violating its agreement not to build nuclear weapons under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and violating its agreement not to build nuclear-capable missiles, and its refusal to sign the worthless "Iran Deal," its presence is set to become even more unpleasant as it becomes more prominent.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, where he was a Military Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
 In 1972 Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Hasan Mahdi al-Shirazi issued a Fatwa ruling that Shia and Alawis are "two synonymous words." Ayatollah Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared on a visit to Libya reconfirmed al-Shirazi's Fatwa. See also The Vanished Imam by Fouad Ajami, 1986. p 174.
 Encyclopedia Britannica (1997) and various other compilation sources support the statistics cited. However, B.E. claims the percentage of Shia among Iran's Muslims is about 93%.
 Encyclopedia Britannica. Kuwait 30%, Syria/15%, Pakistan 15-20%, Bahrain/65%.
 The Council on Foreign Relations Initial Background Paper on Militia Groups in Iraq by Lionel Beehnor and follow-on versions, 9 June 2005.
 Encyclopedia Britannica.
 Al-Khalifa has governed Bahrain directly or indirectly since 1783.
 The key pro-Iranian militia/terrorist group in Pakistan's mega-city of Karachi is the Tehrik-e-Jafaria.
 Iran has just lodged diplomatic protest against the alleged Nigerian Army's recent massacre of Shi'a Muslims.