On August 1, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar led with a revealing headline, in which it mentioned “The Sadr-Maliki Bomb.” For a publication that is regarded as close to Hezbollah, the words betrayed more than a little anxiety that the two broad Iraqi Shia alignments, one led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the other including prominent pro-Iran Shia figures, among them former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, would soon enter into a military confrontation with one another.
In an adjoining article by Hussein Ibrahim, the author pointed out that any conflict between these Shia groups would open the door to numerous developments in Iraq. These included a strengthening of the “separatist situation” in Iraqi Kurdistan, which would lead to “normalization with Israel,” as well as greater Turkish and Gulf Arab intervention in the country through “local agents.” While Ibrahim didn’t mention it, his point was perfectly clear, namely that inter-Shia strife would lead to a weakening of Iranian stakes in Iraq, to the advantage of regional powers whose interests clashed with those of the Islamic Republic.
Yet the Sadr-Maliki standoff is partly a consequence of Iran’s goals in Iraq. The political deadlock in the country, which started after parliamentary elections last October, resulted from a fear by pro-Iran groups that they would be left out of Iraq’s future government. The situation cannot be reduced solely to Iran, perhaps, given the personal rivalries involved and the fact that Sadr, the leading adversary of the pro-Iran groups, has long had a complex relationship with Tehran. But the reality is that Iranian interests would not be served if its most loyal Iraqi allies were out of a government that rests on the backing of Kurds and Sunnis, communities whose regional agendas differ from, and may even oppose, those of Iran.
Lebanon is central to Iran’s regional strategy, in that it was there that the Iranians first understood the gains that could be made in Arab societies divided along sectarian lines. Just as Iran, starting in the 1980s, played on Lebanese sectarian divisions to slowly shift power to the Shia community, it has pursued variations on this approach in other mixed societies—Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. In the Palestinian territories, which is not divided according to sect or tribe, Iran has exploited divisions among Palestinian factions to create profitable openings.
Yet this Iranian ability has led to a paradox. In Arab states where Iran has made gains, it has done so by taking advantage of domestic discord and violence. To be affiliated with Iran usually means being run into the ground by Tehran. In those places the Iranians have had sway, their allies have charted a path of destruction and poverty for their societies. If lining up with Iran brings such suffering, for the benefit of the neoimperial capital in Tehran, can Iran’s regional project ever become stable? Iran’s security and intelligence apparatuses, and their local allies in Arab countries, can of course intimidate to retain power, but at some point this only creates greater resentment, leading to what ultimately can be a harsh backlash.
This was certainly the message of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. For 29 years, Syrian hegemony seemed to be unassailable, until suddenly in February 2005 it no longer was. Since the Syrian military withdrawal in April of that year, Syria’s local allies have steadily seen their power erode, until the Syrian uprising accelerated that trend. No one looks back on the Syrian years with any nostalgia, since most Lebanese know that what Damascus helped to put in place and defend was a long interregnum of pervasive corruption, brutality, the destruction of Lebanon’s constitutional legacy, and submission to Syrian priorities. Come to think of it, that sounds rather close to what Iran offers Lebanon today.
Iran is not good at “soft power,”* which is usually defined as the ability to influence others without the use of coercion. And yet, as countless commentators have written, soft power can be extremely effective when it comes to reinforcing the appeal of dominant nations. For historian Niall Ferguson, political and economic liberalism were inherently positive aspects of Britain’s empire, and allowed it to survive for longer than it might have. The American writer Charles Paul Freund has argued that American popular culture was significant in helping to undermine the Soviet Union. France’s educational institutions, in their turn, have continued to play a vital role in its former colonies and mandates, helping to maintain French influence in those countries long after French direct control had ended.
It is surprising that Iran, a country with a rich cultural history, should instead have chosen as its message to the world a stark ideology of perpetual armed militancy and Islamic revolution, which has often drifted into Shia sectarianism, as during the Syrian conflict. In Lebanon, for instance, Iran’s strongest backer, Hassan Nasrallah, has time and again expressed his vision of a country that would effectively become a garrison state, in which Hezbollah would play a vanguard role in defending against threats from Israel, the United States, and other perceived enemies of what is known as the “resistance axis.” While many Lebanese may share Hezbollah’s hostility toward Israel, they do not necessarily want to be in the front lines in that battle, nor do they have any desire to sever their ties with the West.
In terms of appeal, the Iranian message offers limited returns. To engage in a destructive war with Israel on Iran’s behalf is hardly an option to which fervent Arab masses are flocking, whether in Lebanon, Gaza, or Syria. What is most alarming in Lebanon, in fact, is that Hezbollah’s stranglehold on the state has prompted not a few of the party’s opponents to consider partition, on the assumption that if you cannot beat Hezbollah, at least you can separate from it. Similar negative reactions to Iran exist in Iraq, where Shia men protesting against their government’s policies have been targeted by pro-Iran militias on a number of occasions. All this this doesn’t say much for Iran’s ideological attractiveness.
But if that’s the case, what is Iran’s ultimate purpose in the Middle East? If it is to create a zone of influence that would allow it assert Iranian regional importance, then is this possible in Arab countries where many people, in some cases majorities, regard Iran as a major source of their problems?
It could be that the Iranians, at this stage, are in an expansionary phase and have merely chosen to take momentary advantage of openings that are detrimental to the societies in which they are operating. Ultimately, the argument continues, once they consolidate their authority, they will change and try to appeal to wider segments of Arab populations. That sounds nice, but a theocratic regime still living off the memory of a revolution that took place almost half a century ago is not the best placed to guide that forward-looking effort, nor has it done so at home. Social and economic disintegration plagues the Arab world, and most of the region’s youths seem interested only in improving their living conditions.
Unless Iran can develop its soft power, unless it moves toward a vision that addresses the real worries of a new generation of Arabs, its hegemony over several Arab societies will remain both tenuous and unstable. But perhaps the Iranians already know that, as adapting to the region’s desires through a more open, alluring, less martial model that appeals to younger generations could ultimately threaten the regime in Tehran. In trying to preserve itself, this regime may actually be laying the foundations for the failure of its project in the Middle East.
* This passage was changed after exchanges with readers persuaded me that the original overstated the case about Iran "not doing" soft power.