The Arba'een Pilgrimage is held every year in Karbala, Iraq, and is believed to be the second largest public gathering in the world. The Islamic Republic of Iran plays a decisive role in the organization of the pilgrimage, using it as a massive show of force against Tehran’s regional rivals.
The Arba'een Pilgrimage takes place at the end of the 40-day mourning period following Ashura, the anniversary of the martyrdom of the third Shia Imam, Hossein.
The only mass gathering that is bigger than the Arba’een is the Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage in which millions of Hindus bathe in the holy river the Ganges in India. However, the Kumbh Mela is held once every 12 years, and not annually. The Arba’een Pilgrimage is even bigger than Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. On average about 1.5 million Muslims have traveled annually to Mecca over the last decade.
A Show of Force against Iran’s Regional Enemies
The number of Iranians who travelled to Karbala for the Arba’een pilgrimage was about 50,000 in 2011, 240,000 in 2012 and 480,000 in 2013. However, it rose to about 1,500,000 in 2014, 1,600,000 in 2015, 2,050,000 in 2016 and 2,320,000 in 2017. The number of the Iranian pilgrims that traveled 2018 has so far not been announced, but it reportedly fewer than that in 2017, due to the recent increase in currency exchange rate. At least the same number of non-Iranian pilgrims, mostly Iraqi Shias, have participated in the Arba’een Pilgrimage on an annual basis.
It must be borne in mind that the Arba’een Pilgrimage does not takes place on a single day. In fact, the waves of pilgrims enter and leave the city of Karbala, where Imam Hossein is buried, over the course of about a week. Iranian pilgrims often go to Najaf, where the shrine of the first Shia Imam, Ali, is located, and then march together alongside a 80-kilometer road toward Karbala. Iraqi pilgrims often begin their journey from their own cities, but they also march on foot during the final parts of their journey.
The number of the Iranian pilgrims taking part boosted significantly in 2014 due to a strategic decision taken by the Iranian authorities. The Islamic Republic of Iran was alarmed by ISIS’s advances in Iraq, and especially the fall of Mosul, and so mobilized its military, political and ideological forces to crush the anti-Shia Jihadi group in Iraq. At that time, Iran was particularly concerned that ISIS would advance toward those holy cities of Iraq where the most important Shia shrines were located. So it decided to capitalize on the Arba’een Pilgrimage to unite the Shias against ISIS and its alleged regional supporters. Following the repeated defeats of ISIS in Iraq, the Islamic Republic continues to capitalize on the Arba’een Pilgrimage to remind Sunni regional rivals (especially Saudi Arabia) and Western powers (especially the United States) of its influence in Iraq.
Massive Arrangements for the Ceremony
During the Arba’een Pilgrimage, tens of thousands of Iraqi police, security and military forces, as well as Iranian military and security advisers, are mobilized to protect pilgrims against the possible attacks of anti-Shia armed groups. During ISIS’s presence in northern Iraq, it repeatedly tried to carry out planned attacks on the Arba’een Pilgrimage, but the security forces managed to neutralize their forces. However, on November 24, 2016, an ISIS soldier drove a bomb-laden van into a petrol station in Hillah, near Karbala, killing more than 80 people. Most of the victims of this attack were Shia pilgrims, including at least 40 Iranian pilgrims.
In addition to security arrangements, Iran provides massive logistic and financial support to the Arba’een pilgrims to facilitate their annual trip to Karbala. Building thousands of toilets and sanitary facilities, setting up thousands of centers to supply free food and drink to the pilgrims, providing Iraqi dinars to Iranian pilgrims at a rate below that of the free market, deploying hundreds of medical centers alongside the Karbala route, and providing cheap mobile and WiFi connections to the pilgrims are all parts of Iran’s efforts to ensure the pilgrimage is a success. In the course of the recent Arba’een ceremonies, an Iranian telecommunication company even deployed balloons in some border areas to boost the internet and communications when there was network congestion due to the massive number of users.
Iraqi government institutions and religious charities, as well as ordinary citizens, make widespread arrangements to host Iranian and other pilgrims. And many Iraqi Shias participate in such efforts out of religious beliefs too. In fact, this massive pilgrimage provides enormous benefits to Iraq’s economy and tourism industry, especially in the areas near the pilgrimage routes.
Significant Propaganda Achievements for Tehran
In spite of the Arba’een Pilgrimage’s profits for Iraq’s economy, the financial costs Iran takes on to provide for the ceremony are much higher than the benefits of such a presentation. It cannot be denied that this rally provides opportunities for the tourism industry in a few Iranian border cities. However, the Iranian government takes on huge expenses to facilitate this enormous rally, meaning that those who participate in it have very low financial costs. This is the reason why many critics view it as being just another costly project taken on by the Iranian regime in the region. Many people go on to social media to highlight the various economic shortcomings in Iran itself and demand to know why the huge budget set aside for the Arba’een Pilgrimage cannot be spent on helping to resolve Iran’s internal problems.
On the other hand, the Iranian state-run media and government institutions encourage people to participate. For instance, Iranian media always publish photographs of high-ranking Iranian officials and celebrities among the Arba’een pilgrims. In fact, a massive number of the Islamic Republic’s supporters, such as the Basij members, are mobilized and transported annually to take part in this rally. Many ordinary citizens take part too, regardless of their opinion on the country’s political system. For many of them, especially those belonging to lower economic classes, this annual ceremony is, apart from its religious importance, an amazing and affordable festival.
In summary, the Arba’een Pilgrimage can be regarded as one of the Islamic Republic’s major propaganda achievements and an important show of force against its regional rivals. As a result, as long as the Iranian regime takes strategic advantage of this annual gathering, there is little possibility that the authorities will put an end to their investment in the events, no matter how much it costs.