TEHRAN - As Barack Obama's national security team assesses the challenge of
Iran's role in the Middle East, it confronts a paradox: Iran is seen as having
ambitions of regional hegemony, but it lacks the military power normally associated
with such a role.
That paradox is explained by the fact that Iran's position in the Middle East
depends to a significant degree on its cultural, spiritual, and political ties
with other Shia populations and movements in the region. That characteristic
of Iranian foreign policy, which Iranian officials and think-tank specialists
emphasized in interviews with this writer, poses some unique problems for the
United States in opposing Iranian influence in the region.
The pivotal development in the new Iranian position in the region has been
the emergence of Iraq's Shi'a-dominated regime.
Hamid Reza Dehghani, director of the Center for Persian Gulf and Middle East
Studies at the foreign ministry's think-tank, left no doubt in an interview
that the transformation of Iraq from mortal enemy of the Islamic Republic of
Iran to a friendly state represents an epochal shift in Iran's security position
in the region.
"For the past 400 years, we've had problems with our western neighbors,"
said Dehghani, "mostly from the Ottoman empire and from the Iraqi regime
after independence." The climax of that historical security problem was
the eight-year war against Iran launched by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1980.
The U.S. removal of the Hussein regime in 2003 changed all that. But what
has turned that opportunity into a more permanent Iranian advantage is what
Dehghani calls Iran's "soft power" in Iraq its cultural, religious,
and economic relations especially with Iraqi Shias.
He cites the close connections between the Iranian and Iraqi Shia spiritual
communities: the top Shia cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is an Iranian;
Iraqi Shia scholars study in Iran's main spiritual center, Qom; and hundreds
of thousands of Iranians have made pilgrimages to the Iraqi holy cities of
Najaf and Karbala since 2003.
Relations between Iranian and Iraqi Shia have also had a political-military
dimension, of course. The present close relationship between Iran and Iraq
"was not a project inaugurated by a few politicians," he said, "but
is the outcome of long-standing relations with the country."
Dehghani was referring obliquely to the history of Iranian support for Shia
opponents of the Hussein regime, both before and during the Iran-Iraq war.
That support has now paid off in the form of an Iraqi government in which the
Shia majority in the country controls state power. Iranian-trained political
parties and armed formations that still maintain close cooperation with Iran
have influential positions in the regime.
Ali Akbar Rezaei, the foreign ministry's top official on the United States,
also emphasized the importance of Iran's "soft power" in the region,
based on its ties of affinity, as the real basis for its new position of influence.
"We have a natural influence in the region," said Rezaei. "Although
there are borders, peoples in the region go back and forth, and enjoy cultural
and economic relations." Rezaei emphasized the heavy traffic across Iran's
borders with Iraq and Afghanistan and the implications for intensive trade
relations with Iran's neighbors as essential to that "natural influence."
A paper on the "Shia Factor" in Iran's regional policy, published
last month by the Center for Strategic Research, a think-tank that serves Iran's
Expediency Council, acknowledges that Iran is now cultivating Shia allies,
especially in Iraq and Lebanon, in pursuit of its national security objectives
in the region. The author, Dr. Kayhan Barzegar, an international relations
specialist at Islamic Azad University in Tehran, argues that Iran's close relations
with the Shia in the region are aimed at "building a strategic linkage
for establishing security."
The main strategic advantages of Iran's relationships with Shia movements,
Barzegar writes, is the "installation of a new generation of friendly
elites at the level of states, who have no backgrounds or feeling of enmity
toward Iran." The Shia government in Iraq, according to the author, was
the "turning point" in putting the "Shia factor" at the
center of Iran's foreign policy.
But Iran's Shia diplomacy in the region also extends to Shia movements that
either hold quasi-state power, like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, or that have
remained shut out of political power completely, as is the case in Bahrain
and Saudi Arabia.
In those countries, a transnational network of Shia political activists inspired
by the Iranian revolution and schooled in Shia seminaries in Iraq and Iran
has mobilized large-scale Shia support for Shia empowerment.
Iran has provided large-scale military assistance to Hezbollah, including
thousands of rockets capable of hitting Israel. Those rockets were well known
to be part of the Iranian deterrent to an Israeli attack against Iran, which
was a major reason Israel launched its invasion of Lebanon in 2006, with U.S.
An adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who agreed to be interviewed
on the condition that he not be identified, observes that the conventional
Western portrayal of Hezbollah as an instrument of Iranian power misses the
role of shared Shia spirituality in the Iran-Hezbollah nexus. "Hezbollah
is not just a group of Western-style commandos," he said.
Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has been able to mobilize the support
of Lebanese Shia population, according to the adviser, because he possesses
the two main sources of power in Shia communities: spiritual and Islamic legal
Although it is never mentioned in Western coverage, Nasrallah studied theology
in Najaf during Lebanon's civil war in the mid-1970s well before the Islamic
revolution in Iran. And when he was about to rise to a senior military leadership
position, he interrupted his career to return to his theological studies at
the holy city of Qom in Iran.
In a striking historical parallel, Iraq's charismatic nationalist Shia political-military
leader, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, interrupted his career last year at what appeared
to be a critical moment to take up intensive theological studies at Qom.
Another case of Iranian "natural influence" through Shia ties, which
officials did not bring up, is Bahrain. The Iranian revolution has also inspired
activism in the Shia community there, which represents two-thirds of the population
but has been denied political power by Sunni rulers.
One hundred thousand Shia, as much as one-third of the entire Shia population
of the country, turned out for a protest rally over the February 2006 bombing
of a Shia shrine in Iraq. Shia demonstrators there have displayed pictures
of both Iranian and Hezbollah leaders, and the government of Bahrain cites
the pro-Iranian fervor of its Shia population as evidence of Iranian subversion.
Iranian officials view Iran's "natural influence" in the region,
based on geography and relations with fellow Shia, as much more fundamental
and durable than the influence the U.S. seeks through its troop presence. As
a result, they argue, U.S. policy cannot avoid contributing to greater Iranian
influence in the longer run, regardless of whether it increases or decreases
troops in the region.
"Whatever the U.S. does in the region," said the foreign ministry's
Rezaei, "will be in our interest: if the U.S. withdraws troops from Iraq,
we will win; if they want to stay, we are also the winner."
The same dynamic applies in Afghanistan and to the rest of the region as well,
according to Rezaei. "Even if they provoke other countries against us,"
he said, "we are the winner."
(Inter Press Service)