With Iran still seeking to dominate the Middle East through funding a plethora of armed conflicts, it would seem the cycle of war and carnage may never end. Iran may be seeking to dominate the region through coercion, but it is only through soft power that they will be able to do so. How so? Well, one needs to look at Iran’s history and their new relationship with the West to see this.
The Middle East has had a tricky relationship with the West ever since the end of the First World War. After so much promised by the Allies, such little was delivered. France and Britain carved up the land mass to suit their own colonial interests, uninterested in the fact that they were creating sectarian conflicts all over the place. Since then matters have complicated themselves even more with the establishment of Israel, proxy wars during the Cold War and the mess of post-9/11 US foreign policy. The past century has been one of hostility between the West and the Middle East.
Iran is no stranger to this estrangement. All we need to look at is the 1979 revolution and the subsequent barrage of anti-American propaganda to see the sheer violent rhetoric and hostility between Iran and the West.
The Iranian government’s main foreign policy goal is to divide and conquer the Middle East.
But the world has changed radically in the past few decades, and a nation’s power is now defined through soft power rather than through coercion. Soft power is a nation’s ability to influence foreign actors through non-threatening tactics. It can range from lifting sanctions and building trade to making people admire your country through the enormous reach of Hollywood.
Obama understood that this is the ultimate power given the context of the globalised world. He didn’t oversee an entire retreat from hard power (influencing countries through coercion) but he put a new doctrine in place for soft power to be entrenched in foreign policy. This manifested into policy with Iran, which culminated in the recent Nuclear Deal.
This explains why, in the space of a few years, Iran went from ‘rogue state’ to a strategic ally of the West. How, then, does the discrepancy still exist in Iran, that despite it being a valued ally of the West, it still acts like a warmongering theocracy under the rule of Ayatollah Khameini?
To understand this we have to look at the makeup of Iranian society. If we split the country into two factions – those who oppose the Nuclear Deal (and by extension oppose globalisation) and those who welcome it (and by extension welcome globalisation) – we see a pattern emerge. In the former group we see the religious-right headed by the Ayatollah. If you think it’s ironic that the most powerful man in Iran didn’t get his way, think again: it makes perfect sense.
With the latter group we see a majority of the Iranian population, most of whom were born after the 1979 revolution. They grew up in a time when the rage against the West and especially the USA was cooling down. And more importantly they grew up in a world where globalisation was accepted as a fact. As a result 68 per cent of Iranians favour better relations with the West, Rouhani became Prime Minister, moderates performed best in this year’s legislative election and the nuclear deal went ahead.
Ayatollah Khameini may in theory have the ultimate say on most matters, but when the vast majority of his country want something, and when the democratic institutions are becoming stronger with each election, it is hard for him to say no.
To boil the Nuclear Deal down to what it essentially means for Iran: they have to ditch their jingoist attitude towards the West if they want economic prosperity. Iran chose economics over war; they chose globalisation over nationalism.
Yet the aforementioned group on the religious-right still exists. Iran does not act for a single interest. The government continue to be split between its ugly foreign policy towards the Middle East and appeasing its population who want to be more like America.
Let’s not beat around the bush. The Iranian government’s main foreign policy goal is to divide and conquer the Middle East. It aims for complete regional dominance.
Iran has for years been funding regional conflicts with the ultimate aim of bleeding dry their main ideological and regional rival: Saudi Arabia. These proxy wars have spread across the Middle East and are of an increasing worry to a number of countries, especially Sunni countries.
Ironically, this may have the opposite effect of helping Iran’s regional dominance. Only last week the Iranian-funded Houthi rebels (a Shia militia battling the Yemeni government) fired rockets at a US naval ship. The US retaliated, marking an engagement against an Iranian-backed group. Iran’s meddling in regional affairs is attracting the wrong sort of attention from nations it does not want to involve.
Furthermore, Iran may be doing their second regional rival, Israel, a favour. By scaring countries like Jordan and Egypt, Iran is encouraging their governments to warm to the least popular state in the neighbourhood. This has happened for a number of reasons, but mainly because Israel’s main foreign policy goal (as long as Netanyahu is Prime Minister) is to reverse all power which Iran gains. Intelligence sharing and military cooperation between Israel and its Arabian neighbours is the highest it has ever been.
This makes it difficult to foresee whether Iran’s veiled aggression will benefit or hurt them in the long run. But when we look at Iran’s domestic politics and relationship with the US, it implies a possible end to Iran’s focus on hard power.
The tactic to pursue regional dominance changes given the context of the Nuclear Deal. By giving up its nuclear program and by bolstering its economy, Iran is moving towards soft power.
The only way the paradox of the power-seeking Iranian government and the ever-liberalising Iranian population can be resolved is through soft power.
The acceptance of the Nuclear Deal was essentially an acceptance of globalisation, and it is very difficult for a country to seek to destroy other countries in the globalised world. By accepting a new diplomatic maturity and by welcoming the lifting of sanctions, Iran has all but vowed to honour the doctrine of peaceful cooperation. Given new circumstances it would, after all, harm them not to honour this.
Furthermore, by entering into such a profound agreement with Israel’s closest ally, it is tacitly accepting that its dominance of the Middle East will have to be less overtly hostile towards Israel, even if Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani continues to moan about them in front of the UN.
The only way the paradox of the power-seeking Iranian government and the ever-liberalising Iranian population can be resolved is through soft power. Iran is set to dominate the region. The only thing which can stop this is if the nations actively resist it.