Debunking the Top 7 Myths on Iran's Middle East Policies

Debunking the Top 7 Myths on Iran's Middle East Policies

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This evening, I listened to the radio program Tehran Rising produced by America Abroad—a program distributed by Public Radio International—and I must say that I was deeply disturbed by the way the program 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 whatsoever 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, however, here are a few of the myths offered in the program which I would like to debunk.


Myth #1: A "cold war" between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This is a completely fictional construction. Saudi Arabia has long been wary and disturbed by the Shi'a majority in 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.


Myth #2: Iran’s spurring on of the Bahrain uprising.

The implication in the program was that Iran is doing something to spur on the Bahrain uprising. The program’s 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 – and former students of Middle East experts 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 of this year.


Myth #3: The bulk of Lebanon’s Hezbollah funds come from Iran.

My position on Hezbollah and that of virtually every other observer of Hezbollah is that Iran has no effective control over Hezbollah's political actions today (as opposed to 30 years ago).

The program documented clearly the charitable actions carried out by Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah is not receiving funds from the same sources. In fact, the bulk of Hezbollah's funds come from those foreign sources, not from Iran.

Of course the Sunnis 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.


Myth #4: Iranian influence is negative or evil.

This implication that Iranian influence is somehow negative or evil as opposed to being just what nations do was prevalent in the program.

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. It’s behaving as nations operate normally.


Myth #5: Iran is exploiting weak democracies.

Ash Jain, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and former State Department staff member, and all those at the 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 Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment 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. Instead, they are extremely wary of Iran because Iranians are Shi'a and Tajiks are Sunni.


Myth #6: Iran has “won” because Hamas has gained power.

Ash Jain of WINEP 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?


Myth #7: All Shi’a leaders agree with Iran.

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 of Iraq is flatly opposed to Iran's brand of clerical rule, and disagrees with the idea that the Iranian Revolution should be spread abroad. Not that there’s hope of that anyway.


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 in this radio program and elsewhere is actually 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.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of Anthropology and specialist in Middle East Studies at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota, formerly of Brown University.
 

Comments

 
Anonymous

Posted May 20 2011

To say that NO Shia leaders agree with Iran's form of government or want to emulate it is AS absurd as saying ALL Shia leaders agree with it.

Anonymous

Posted May 21 2011

No Grand Ayatollahs--the principal spiritual leaders of 12er Shi'ism agree with the Velayat-e Faqih (regency of the chief Jurisprudent) except Ayatollah Khamene'i himself. That is what was meant by that statement. And it is completely true.

There are a few clerics of lesser rank who support the doctrine such as Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi (not a Grand Ayatollah)

Bill Beeman

Anonymous

Posted May 23 2011

Thank you! I also heard this program and was appalled by its one-sidedness.

Anonymous

Posted May 24 2011

Professor Beeman is out of touch with reality and ignores many facts on the ground. From Osama, Iran and to Muslim brotherhood. This is the same mistake the the gullible President Carter made on Iran and we have been paying the price ever since. Iran leads the world on human rights violation using Islam as a pretext, yet the good professor does not write about it. Iran in fact is interfering in Bahrain, Lebanon and Palestinian internal affairs...but that is OK with the good professor. Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map...who cares?

Such intellectual dishonestly is appalling!

Anonymous

Posted May 24 2011

Professor Beeman is out of touch with reality and ignores many facts on the ground. From Osama, Iran and to Muslim brotherhood. This is the same mistake the the gullible President Carter made on Iran and we have been paying the price ever since. Iran leads the world on human rights violation using Islam as a pretext, yet the good professor does not write about it. Iran in fact is interfering in Bahrain, Lebanon and Palestinian internal affairs...but that is OK with the good professor. Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map...who cares?

Such intellectual dishonestly is appalling!

Anonymous

Posted May 24 2011

An excellant article. Unfortunately our national media write what they are directed to write sometimes without even knowing it. Some common sense in the West will go a long way in correcting the distortions which can only damage western influence in the Middle East

Anonymous

Posted Jun 3 2011

Morally equating Iran with Turkey.....really?

Anonymous

Posted Aug 3 2011

A "weak democracy" can mean several things. It could mean the superficial majority of the people. It could mean a reflection of American belief ("it looks democratic to us"). It could mean a democratic but poorly-run government (if there's no infrastructure, democracy is no better than anything else).

Even if Iran is exploiting those kinds of "weak democracies" from our perspective, you can't draw any deep conclusions from it.

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