Wielding new power?
Standing in the Lebanese suburb of Bint Jbeil, a few short miles from the Israeli border, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, “Lebanon is the school of resistance and perseverance against the bullying forces of the world […] like a university for jihad, for adventure in the way of the noble, human causes.” He proclaimed, “The Zionist regime will continue its downfall and no power can save it” because of the regional efforts of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Palestine. Ahmadinejad received a hero’s welcome in this region, a Hezbollah stronghold, where memories of Israel’s 18-year occupation remain fresh.
These statements came a few weeks after Ahmadinejad’s speech at the United Nations where he commented that 9/11 was orchestrated by segments of the American government, prompting a walkout by the U.S. and 11 other delegations. Whereas Ahmadinejad is known for his fiery rhetoric, his new speeches come at a very important juncture for Iran: after 36 years it has assumed presidency of the international oil cartel OPEC. The question which looms large is that based on increased anti-West rhetoric, regional ties and the presidency of a major cartel what is Iran’s position like in influencing anti-U.S. sentiments in the region?
“OPEC presidency provides nil leverage (to Iran),” a former U.S. official with experience in Middle Eastern economics, told me recently, pointing out that OPEC did not want to be seen as prolonging the global recession and that any of Iran’s decisions which seem to radically depart from the status quo would be checked by other nations. This view seems fairly unanimous. An OPEC presidency does not bring Iran any powers that it could use to attack the U.S. or even Israel. Nevertheless, OPEC’s presidency does bring Iran international prestige. It cuts away at the perception, held primarily in the West, that Iran is an irresponsible and belligerent power, uninterested in creating peace in the Middle East or elsewhere. Presidency of an international organization with enormous influence and importance gives Iran the ability to recast its image and bringing to light its stature as a being a responsible and powerful player.
However, what really enhance Iran’s ability to further anti-U.S. sentiments in the Mideast and in turn increase its own influence are its regional ties. Three prominent developments in the past few weeks highlight this. First, is the trip to Lebanon; second are the Wikileaks Iraq War Logs which detail the deep role Iran plays in Iraq; and third, which is related to the second development, is Iran’s support of Nouri al-Maliki in his bid to stay on as Iraq’s Premier.
As Ahmadinejad’s trip to Lebanon displayed, Iranian foreign policy emphasizes and will continue to emphasize strong regional partnerships to counter the dominance of U.S. and the power of Israel. Iran has already made strides in accomplishing a stronger regional posture. The former U.S. official mentioned previously says, “Iran’s influence and stature in the region has increased markedly. Demonstrations in support of Ahmadinejad reflect that “Iran’s alliance with Syria is strengthening”. Moreover, with resilient military and financial support of Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran has already created a base of support in the region. The fact that the U.S. has been severely critical of these organizations, branding them as terrorist groups, only heightens anti-Americanism in the region while bolstering support for Iran. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad came to Lebanon with offers of economic investments and military support. Whereas sanctions on Iran make such a deal unlikely, it shows that Iran is poised to employ traditional methods of statecraft aimed at countering the weight of opposing powers.
The former official did argue that increasing Iranian influence “hardly mean (t) that Iran’s influence will come to dominate the region or Lebanon.” He could very well be right. Nevertheless, to strengthen its position Iran does not need to dominate the region or Lebanon; it simply needs to create a balance of power against the U.S. and Israel and ensure that Lebanon balances in a favorable manner.
Secondly, as the Wikileaks documents have showed, since the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and members of Hezbollah have been training Shiite militias in the use of explosives and other weapons such as sniper guns. A New York Times article details that Iran provided these militias with rockets, magnetic bombs and surface-to-air missiles. The Iranian-trained insurgents bled the U.S. military and had turned Iraq into a military quagmire and an economic drain. Iran’s goal, as the article explains, was to shape the government that took root in Iraq and simultaneously weaken American role and influence there.
Lastly, in mid-October Nouri al-Maliki visited Iran in the hopes of winning its support for his bid to remain the Iraqi Prime Minister. This loudly signaled Iran’s importance, and Tehran, in pursuit of deepening its regional clout, announced its support for al-Maliki. This, of course, is being done in coordination with Syria. Al-Maliki, who has had a tenuous relationship with the U.S., appears to Iran a candidate who will not follow American dictates on every issue and display sensitivity to certain Iranian interests. Furthermore, Al-Maliki has agreed to bring Moqtada Al-Sadr in his coalition. Al-Sadr, who currently resides in Iran’s holy city of Qom, was the leader of the tenacious Mahdi Army. Not only was he a beneficiary of Iran’s assistance in waging the insurgency, but Iran has also allowed him to live there in exile. His renewed participation in Iraqi politics offers Iran a direct line of influence.
It is essential to point out here that Iran’s increasing popularity comes also as a result of fierce American opposition toward it. Manouchehr Hosseinzadeh, a former Washington Post journalist, explains that U.S. support of corrupt regimes and military intervention has already bred anti-Americanism in the region. “Ahmadinejad wanted to be the revolutionary people’s leader and present himself as the alternative who has not sold out or compromised with the U.S. or Israel.” Ironically, he says,” the U.S. media has given him that position through consistent demonization.” Each attack on Iran adds to its popularity in the region and solidifies its perception as being the bold anti-imperialist.
At a time when Iran is under further sanctions and is increasingly seen as an international pariah in the West, OPEC’s Presidency puts Iran in a leadership position and brings it international prestige. It helps portray Iran as an important regional power and an international player which must be diplomatically engaged and given due respect, as opposed to being seen or treated like an unruly child. Beyond this surface-level power, however, lies Iran’s true strength: its regional alliances with Syria and Lebanon, strong military relations with Hezbollah and Hamas, and sizeable leverage inside Iraq. Whereas the U.S. still commands predominance in the region and finds allies in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran does, nevertheless, wield power and been able to use it to elevate its regional position. The strategic moves discussed herein help Iran strike a balance of power against Israel while also solidifying anti-U.S. sentiment in the region. With an increasing clout and prestige Iran has the capability to challenge American dominance in the Middle East.
Shehzad H. Qazi is a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Founder of the Council on Strategic and International Affairs.
This article was published by SA Global Affairs on January 21, 2011: