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 province. 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. Best, Bill Beeman University of Minnesota