You may remember James Stavridis from such historical thought-crimes as “I don’t know anything about Sunnism, Shiʿism, or the Reformation, so let me write an article that mashes them all together.” Well, he’s back, and better than ever!
Oh God, this is going to suuuuck.
The headlines: A charismatic and wily Iranian leader seeks to expand the borders of his nation, pushing aggressively against neighbors in the region and especially to the West. Iran exerts dominance in a wide range of regional capitals, from Baghdad to Beirut. Trade routes are opening, and wealth will begin into flow to the nation, enabling further adventurism. Sound familiar?
Actually, this describes the foundation of the Persian Empire about 2,500 years ago by Cyrus the Great. The empire at its peak ruled over 40 percent of the global population, the highest figure for any empire in history. It stretched from the littoral of the Eastern Mediterranean to the coast of the Arabian Gulf, encompassing what are today Libya, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman, the UAE, Iran, and Afghanistan. Cyrus the Great said, “You cannot be buried in obscurity: you are exposed upon a grand theater to the view of the world.”
We don’t tend to think of today’s Iran as an imperial power, but the Iranians certainly do — indeed, it is woven into their national DNA and cultural outlook. And we need to decide how to deal with the reality of Iranian geopolitical outreach, which will only increase if the sanctions come off.
This kind of thing must sound awfully erudite to a certain segment of the DC foreign policy establishment. Empire is “woven” (what?) into Iran’s “national DNA” (seriously?) because until about a millennium and a half ago Iran was the hub of a series of Persian Empires. Somehow this is uniquely a problem when we’re talking about Iran, despite the fact that you could make similar or better cases that the “national DNAs” (is that the right plural form?) of Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Ethiopia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal the UK, France, Germany, Mongolia, Japan, Mali, Morocco, Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and the United States, to name just a few, are equally imbued with imperial ambition. But of course most people don’t make those cases, because those kinds of arguments are, well, dumb.
Tehran’s geopolitical strategy — underpinned by the Shiite faith as a religious movement — is taken directly from the playbooks of the first three Persian Empires, which stretched over a thousand years. Iran seeks regional dominance, a significant global level of influence, and the development of a power center that is not a bridge between East and West, but rather a force in its own right.
Does this make sense when it’s translated out of the native Orientalist? Because it’s gibberish as is. In what specific ways is Iran’s regional activity today taking after the “playbooks” of the first three Persian Empires? Any? Did Darius send special forces into Iraq to help them fend off the first millennium BCE equivalent of ISIS or something? Does the modern Iranian army rely on war elephants and heavy cavalry? What the hell are we talking about here?
Also, what country, given the choice, wouldn’t “seek regional dominance, a significant global level of influence, and the development of a power center that is…a force in its own right”? History, which Adm. Stavridis likes so much, tells us that even the Vatican likes to throw its weight around whenever possible. And why, apart from some outdated-by-at-least-a-full-century Euro-centric view of The Way Things Ought To Be, should Iran worry about being “a bridge between East and West (note the use of the capital letters, indicating that ‘East’ and ‘West’ are two fixed and entirely separate entities; that’s how you know you’re doing Orientalism right)” if it’s not in Iran’s national interest?
A glance around the region shows the power and reach of Iran today, despite the significant imposition of sanctions. Indeed, Iran is deeply and successfully dominating politics in the capitals of four major states in the region from Beirut to Baghdad, Sanaa to Damascus. And Iran is also punching above its weight in Kabul and Bahrain. If the sanctions are lifted, a significant amount of those resources would be available to fund a variety of causes — from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Yemen’s Houthis.
This is like a zombie talking point, but it needs to be batted back anyway: to say that Iran is “successfully dominating politics in Damascus” ignores the fact that Damascus only controls part of Syria these days (less than half territorially, probably somewhat more than that in terms of population), meaning that Iran’s overall influence in Syria has actually declined thanks to the civil war. Yes, Iran has supported Assad and the Maliki and Abadi governments in Iraq. That’s what countries tend to do for their allies, particularly when those allies are at war with hostile forces like ISIS.
Also what does “punching above its weight in Kabul and Bahrain” even mean? Despite constant assertions like this one, we’ve yet to see any evidence that Iran has had any involvement in Bahrain’s protest movement, responsibility for which lies entirely with the Sunni Khalifa family treating the country’s majority Shiʿa population like dirt. As for Afghanistan, I mean, Iran has deep historical ties there, ties that go back to those worrisome old imperial days and can be seen in the fact that one of Afghanistan’s two national languages is Dari, a Persian dialect. How is Iran “punching above its weight” there? Again, this is the kind of line that probably slays them at the monthly meeting of the Very Serious People Club in DC, but it says absolutely nothing.
I’ll save you reading the rest of the essay, which argues that we must Reassure Our Gulf Allies and Remember That Iran Is Still The Bad Guy, both of which are things that Washington is going to do anyway (although at this point it seems like no amount of reassurance is enough for those Gulf allies). The most important point is that a country that hasn’t engaged in an unambiguously offensive military campaign since the 1850s is obviously a threat to reconstitute an empire that hasn’t existed since the 7th century, because That’s Iran. Trenchant analysis as always.