Running out of talking points

Speaking of the “Bomb Bomb Iran” Caucus, analyst Paul Pillar did a pretty thorough job yesterday of fisking one of their favorite anti-Iran talking points: the idea that the Iranian Leviathan is wrapping its tentacles all around the Middle East.

An additional twist to this line of anti-agreement agitation is found in an opinion piece by Soner Cagaptay, James Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji, all of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The WINEP authors state that Iran is “a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations” and liken it to “hegemonic powers in the past”: Russia, France, Germany, Japan, and Britain—powers that “pushed the world into war” in 1914 and 1939.

Let us recall what those hegemonic powers did. The Russians used their armies to build an empire that encompassed much of the Eurasian land mass and whose successor state still spans eleven time zones. Britain dominated the oceans with the Royal Navy and used its power to build an empire on which the sun never set. France also captured and colonized vast parts of Africa and Asia and, when it had an emperor with sufficient talent, overran most of Europe as well. Japan used military force to seize control of huge parts of the eastern hemisphere. And as for Germany, the WINEP authors themselves—as part of the near-obligatory reference to Nazis in any anti-agreement writing about Iran—remind us that “Nazi Germany sought to dominate Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River, reducing other countries to vassal states and establishing complete military, economic and diplomatic control.” Actually, it didn’t just seek to do that; Nazi Germany used its preeminent military power to accomplish that objective, at least for a while.

Iran represents nothing that comes even remotely close to any of this, as a matter of accomplishment, capability, or aspiration. Certainly the current Islamic Republic of Iran does not come close, and one would have to reach far back into Persian history to start to get a taste of imperialism even at the reduced scale of the Persians’ immediate neighborhood. The twist of the WINEP piece is that the authors reach back in exactly that way. They tell us that “Iran’s hegemonic aspirations actually date back to the Safavid Dynasty of the 16th century.” You know that there is a lot of argumentative stretching going on when references to Safavids in the 16th century are used as a basis for opposing an agreement with someone else about a nuclear program in the 21st century.

Iran hawks keep citing Iran’s supposedly growing influence in four “Arab capitals” (Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and Sanaa) as evidence of their hegemonic power and pretenses, but no matter how many times they say that it just isn’t so. Iran has always been Bashar al-Assad’s biggest backer, and through him they’ve aided and controlled Hezbollah in Lebanon. And yes, Assad’s dependence on Tehran has grown over the course of Syria’s civil war, but that’s been happening at the same time as Assad’s control over his own country has been slipping away. His viability in Syria, and thus Iran’s ability to influence things there, may be more tenuous than it’s ever been. Meanwhile, the notion that Iran is behind the Houthi coup in Yemen has always been about 25% reality, 75% Saudi propaganda, especially when you consider the possibility (probability?) that much of the weaponry the Houthis have acquired has come from seizing Yemeni army facilities and taking the now-unaccounted for US-supplied weapons they’ve found there. I’ll grant you that Tehran has more influence in Baghdad than it did, say, prior to 2003, but one new ally doesn’t make for much of a Leviathan.

The WINEP piece that Pillar is debunking here goes on to compare Iran’s revolutionary aspirations to China’s, which is a ridiculous comparison given that, as Pillar points out, while much of China’s behavior has been geared toward upending the established West-dominated world order, Iran has been desperately trying to reconnect itself with that order. One of these countries is revolutionary, but the other is not in any obvious way.


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