Iran's power rooted in Shi'ite ties
TEHRAN - As president-elect 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 Shi'ite 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'ite-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 US removal of the Saddam 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 Shi'ites.
He cites the close connections between the Iranian and Iraqi Shi'ite spiritual communities: the top Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is an Iranian; Iraqi Shi'ite 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 Shi'ites 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 longstanding relations with the country".
Dehghani was referring obliquely to the history of Iranian support for Shi'ite opponents of the Saddam 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 Shi'ite majority in the country controls state power. Iranian-trained political parties and armed formations which 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 "Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite 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 Shi'ites in the region are aimed at "building a strategic linkage for establishing security ... "
The main strategic advantages of Iran's relationships with Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite government in Iraq, according to the author, was the "turning point" in putting the "Shi'ite factor" at the center of Iran's foreign policy.
But Iran's Shi'ite diplomacy in the region also extends to Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite political activists inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979 and schooled in Shi'ite seminaries in Iraq and Iran has mobilized large-scale Shi'ite support for Shi'ite 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 US support.
An adviser to President Mahmud 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 Shi'ite 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 the Lebanese Shi'ite population, according to the adviser, because he possesses the two main sources of power in Shi'ite communities: spiritual and Islamic legal power.
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 Shi'ite political-military leader, cleric Muqtada 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 Shi'ite ties, which officials did not bring up, is Bahrain. The Iranian revolution has also inspired activism in the Shi'ite community there, which represents two-thirds of the population but has been denied political power by Sunni rulers.
One hundred thousand Shi'ites, as much as one-third of the entire Shi'ite population of the country, turned out for a protest rally over the February 2006 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Iraq. Shi'ite demonstrators there have displayed pictures of both Iranian and Hezbollah leaders, and the government of Bahrain cites the pro-Iranian fervor of its Shi'ite population as evidence of Iranian subversion.
Iranian officials view Iran's "natural influence" in the region, based on geography and relations with fellow Shi'ite, as much more fundamental and durable than the influence the US seeks through its troop presence. As a result, they argue, US 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 US does in the region," said the Foreign Ministry's Rezaei, "will be in our interest: if the US 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, according to Rezaei. "Even if they provoke other countries against us," he said, "we are the winner."
Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian specializing in US national security policy, has just completed a 12-day visit to Tehran to find out how Iranian officials, analysts and political figures view possible negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran.