Wednesday, May 18, 2011

William O. Beeman Review of "Tehran Rising" by America Abroad Media

I listened to the radio program Tehran Rising produced by America Abroad--a
program distributed by Public Radio International
this evening and I must say that I was deeply disturbed by the way the piece was framed.
The program centers on "spreading Iranian influence" in the Middle East.

Frankly it is somewhat fatuous to try to hang a story about
change and unrest in the Middle East on the Iranian bogeyman. Haven't we
had enough of this? Since nations such as Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq, all
covered in the reporting for this piece,  are hugely different in their internal
and external dynamics, to make this a story about Iran really obscures any
nuance whatever in the politics of the region, and implies that nothing would
be happening if it weren't for Iranian machinations. There are certainly a few
people in Iran who would exult in this misperception--giving Iran far more.
Interested people should listen to the program or read the transcript themselves.
However, here are some of my objections:

1. The piece posits a "cold war" between Iran and  Saudi Arabia. This is a complete 
fictional construction. Saudi Arabia has long been wary and disturbed by 
the Shi'a majority in the Hasa, its eastern oil territory. This was true 
even under the Shah and long before. The fear of the uprising in Bahrain 
has little or nothing to do with confronting Iran--it is driven by fear 
that the Bahraini uprising will spread over the causeway to its own 

2. The implication that Iran is doing something to spur on the Bahrain 
uprising. Your own interviewee, Kristin Smith Diwan, denied this. 
Moreover, I just participated in a seminar for the U.S. Central Command 
in Tampa. Two Military Intelligence agents--fluent in Arabic and 
Persian--former students of Ray Motaheddeh and Juan Cole--flatly denied 
that there was any evidence that Iran had any agents on the ground in 
Bahrain, based on their own extensive investigations in February and March.

3. Hezbullah--I think you know not only my position on Hezbullah but 
that of virtually every other observer of Hezbullah, and that is that 
iran has no effective control over Hezbullah's political actions today 
(as opposed to 30 years ago). You documented clearly the charitable 
actions carried out by Hezbullah that were  supported by Iran. Iran 
never denied this. At the same time, the program clearly pointed out the 
correct statement that the bulk of Lebanon's redevelopment funds came 
from foreign remittances and from the Gulf States. The program 
misleadingly implies that Hezbullah is not receiving funds from the same 
sources. In fact the bulk of Hezbullah's funds come from those sources, 
not from Iran. Of course the Sunni's such as the one interviewed on the 
program are opposed to Iran, but look at the welcome President 
Ahmadinejad got from BOTH Shi'as and Sunnis in his recent trip.

4. The implication that Iranian influence is negative or evil as opposed 
to being just what nations do. Turkey is trying to increase its 
influence in Central Asia, but no one complains about that. Iran is 
being squeezed economically and of course is trying to develop economic 
and political ties.

5. Ash Jain and all those at WINEP are dedicated to propagandizing 
against Iran. The idea that Iran is "exploiting weak democracies" is 
rather silly. Iran can't exploit anyone unless they are able to 
promulgate messages and actions that are welcome to the populations of 
other nations. In fact, Iran has made little or no headway in any 
predominately Sunni nation. Karim Sajjadpour is quite right about the 
"self-limiting" nature of Iran's influence. Case in point: Tajikistan. 
Persian speaking, culturally Iranian, the Tajiks should be susceptible 
to Iranian influence. They are extremely wary of Iran because Iranians 
are Shi'a and Tajiks are Sunni.

5. Ash Jain claims that Iran has "won" because Hamas has stabilized and 
become a force in the Middle East. For heaven's sake, one would think 
that the denizens of Hamas have no interest in their own affairs and 
future. Does he think that Hamas lives only to fulfill some fantasy 
foreign policy influence on Iran's part?

6. Let's be clear. No Shi'a religious leaders outside of Iran 
agree with Iran's form of government or want 
to emulate it. Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is flatly opposed to Iran's 
brand of clerical rule, and disagrees with the idea that the Iranian 
Revolution should be spread abroad--a vain hope anyway.

7. Therefore the flat answer to the question of Iranian influence is: 
Some in Iran would like to see Iran have greater influence in the 
region, but their "success" is largely a figment of the imagination of 
overwrought Westerners looking about for another "cold war" enemy, to 
echo the framework of this program." Much of what is attributed to Iran 
here is the result of the natural dynamics of the individual communities 
of the region playing out their own local interests. The fact that some 
in Iran may be cheerleading from the sidelines doesn't mean that Iran is 
in control. Nor does it mean that what Iran is doing is any different 
than any other nation in the world trying to create favorable relations 
for itself.


Bill Beeman
University of Minnesota