Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 10:31 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 10:31 | SYDNEY

Those perfidious Persians


Rodger Shanahan


7 January 2010 12:54

My attention was drawn to an opinion piece in today's Australian that portrays the Middle East as locked in a modern-day Cold War pitting an expansionist, anti-Western Iran against a bloc of regional countries trying to valiantly resist the advances of the perfidious Persians.

I agree with elements of the piece — Iran is without doubt trying to expand its regional influence (which inevitably brings it into competition with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the erstwhile regional leaders), and it sees the development of a nuclear capability as the ultimate guarantor of the regime's security.

But much of the piece falls into the familiar trap of conflating Iranian intentions with capabilities, and of ignoring the motivations of various regional actors, particularly those in receipt of Iranian financial or security assistance.
The so-called pro-Iranian bloc is not much of a bloc, and neither does it show much of an inclination to replicate Iran's governance model. Lebanese Hizbullah is the only organisation that could legitimately be said to look to Tehran as a political model, but the demographic realities of Lebanon mean this will remain an aspirational goal for future generations (if the Iranian regime lasts that long). 

As for the other members of the 'bloc', I have written previously about the nature of Yemen's al-Houthi movement and the motivations behind (and lack of evidence for) accusations of Iranian involvement. Hamas and Syria have temporary, pragmatic alliance relations with Iran based on mutual temporary interests in opposing Israel. For both actors, Iranian support is logical and convenient at the moment.

But Hamas' Muslim Brotherhood antecedents and Syria's Alawi dominated government don't allow for any deep ideological connection with Tehran. So, while Iranian money buys it some political influence in the region, the ideological chasm between Tehran and its 'allies' (with the exception of Lebanese Hizbullah) limits its long-term ability to dictate terms with these actors. Iran can play a spoiling role in some areas, but there is little in its politics or ideology that holds long-term attraction in the region. 
As for Iran's putative 'rivals', Arab relations with Iran are a complex issue, as this recent Lowy paper illustrates. If Bahrain and Kuwait are part of the 'anti-Iran' bloc threatened by Iran and its clients, then it seems anomalous that their respective king and emir would send President Ahmadenijad a congratulatory message so quickly after his controversial election victory last year. 

While Iran is certainly seeking to increase its regional influence, Iranian 'dog-whistling' by certain Arab countries when internal security issues arise plays to Persian/Iranian/Shi'a biases while conveniently ignoring the internal causes that lie at the heart of many of the disputes.

Photo by Flickr user Ehsan Khakbaz, used under a Creative Commons license.