Iran and the sick man of the Middle East

Iran and the sick man of the Middle East
Any way you look at it, Iran's increasingly bold interventions in the Arab region cannot be regarded positively.
6 min read
08 Jan, 2015
Iran is not seen as a deterrence to Israel but as an interventionist power. [AFP]
The Islamic Republic of Iran succeeded in consolidating an existing nation-state, and in establishing a system of government with a modicum of political pluralism within the confines of a religious-confessional government presided over by a clergy.

It was a system where the economy and society were made subservient to politics, but one which afforded a relatively wide margin of freedom for commerce, given the overlap of interests between the bazaari merchants and the clerics.

The Islamic regime had gone through a period of transformation during which it expunged the left and the liberals, followed by a suppression of a reformist camp and the absorption of those elements within it that were prepared to be absorbed.

A blockade, unjustly imposed against the country, ultimately contributed to the growth of its indigenous scientific and economic resources. As the revolution transformed into a state, religious confessionalism became a component of a national identity that affirmed Iranian nationalistic pride.

Collision course

In its foreign relations, the Islamic Republic adopted an approach which put it on a collision course with Israel and the American hegemon. On the regional level, a dangerous presumption of dual loyalty of Shia Muslims in neighbouring countries informed the replacement of religion - Islam as a whole - with the specific confession of Shiism as a vehicle for the expansion of Iran's influence in its geopolitical backyard.

In reality, this was a self-fulfilling presumption that divided Arab societies along confessional lines, not only on a local communitarian traditional level but on the national level, creating new "imagined communities". This attitude  applies equally to pragmatic Iranian policy-makers with bazaari motives as well as to those who are motivated by messianic religious beliefs.  

Meanwhile, many Arabs, including leftists, nationalists and Islamists, came to see Iran as a powerful neighbour which could play a constructive role in supporting Arab causes.
     Many Arabs, including leftists, nationalists and Islamists, came to see Iran as a powerful neighbour which could play a constructive role.

Previously, I had been adamant in the opinion that, provided there had been an Arab political project, or at the very least a single Arab state that would promulgate such a regional state enterprise, then this would have created a balance of interests that regional powers such as Turkey and Iran would be compelled to respect.

The primary reason for an imbalance of power between Iran and the Arab states, therefore, lies in the lack of an Arab state enterprise. Nevertheless, there is a question that must be answered. Does the lack of a joint Arab enterprise justify the violation of the Arab homeland's resources and the imposition of hegemony by other regional states?

If the answer is yes, then that would also justify colonisation by imperial powers, so long as the colonised people lacked a national enterprise. One would expect this attitude to be opposed by the Islamic Republic, which adopts an anti-colonial, pan-Islamist and Third Worldist rhetoric.

Ideological developments

The Iranian approach to Arab causes, and particularly the conflict with Israel, has progressed from being an approach that was primarily ideologically motivated by the Islamic Revolution, with tangible gains for Arab resistance movements, into a vehicle for the justification of Iranian foreign policy gains and direct tutelage over Shia Arab citizens, in disregard for their countries' national sovereignty.
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Undoubtedly, Iranian rhetorical ploys have also aided the construction of an imagined, separate Shia community, even in those Arab countries where the Shia never lived in isolation.

Previously, Shia communities across the Arab region filled the cadres and the leaderships of the Baathist, Communist, Syrian Nationalist and Arab nationalist movements in the modern era.

It was only in the aftermath of Iran's Islamic Revolution that these groups within the Arab countries began to join political formations based along sectarian lines, a phenomenon which reached its apex over the past fifteen years.

The Arab states facilitated this process by failing to understand the strict reliance of national sovereignty on citizenship within the modern state.

Syria and Lebanon

None of this justifies in the least Iran's posturing towards the Arab Levant, which it treats as the "Sick Man of the Middle East" - just as the Ottoman Empire was seen by its rivals during the 19th century, who later wrangled for bigger portions of the Arab countries that were its legacy, as the "Sick Man of Europe".

Iran's official proclamations to this effect grow bolder every day, and the country's enthusiastic politicians become increasingly unbridled in their public pronouncements. The thing is, they are now facing mounting Arab rage at the crimes being committed by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria.

Of course, the level of Arab organisational capability and awareness today is nothing like the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century; additionally, Iran's exercise of any influence it had in Arab countries would always rely on the exploitation of societal cleavages that it presumably does not want to enflame.

There is one final lesson from history that Iranian politicians rarely pay attention to.

Soviet influence expanded throughout the 1970s to the point that it seemed that the socialist camp would vanquish capitalism. The Soviets' economic and political regimes, however, simply could not withstand the pressures resulting from their competition with capitalism, particularly following the policy of détente.
     If Afghanistan was a bitter pill for the Soviets to swallow, then the Arab East will be too much for Iran to chew.

In the end, military intervention in Afghanistan and an arms race imposed by the Reagan administration broke the USSR's economy and administration systems.

If Afghanistan was a bitter pill for the Soviets to swallow, then the Arab East will be too much for Iran to chew. This is not purely because of the high economic and political price tag inherent in this Iranian endeavour, but also because of the retaliatory war of attrition which is being waged in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Adverse effects

Clearly, Iranian intervention plays into the hands of extremist Islamist movements that were never happy with the democratic nature of the Arab Spring revolutions.

Besides the adverse effect that such groups have on Arab societies, and the obstacles they present to our democratic and national advancement, they also extract a price from Iran, demonstrating that Iranian attempts to dominate the Arab Levant will not be a cakewalk.

Not only will Iranian attempts to dominate Arab countries have an adverse effect on Arab Sunni and Shia communities, but these will also reflect negatively on Iran itself: the militia which it is forming to fight this sectarian battle resembles the Islamic State group in totality - the only difference being that the Iranian militia are answerable to a regional paymaster.

With time, their impact - even on Shia communities - in the Arab region will be poisonous.

Any way you look at it, Iran's increasingly bold interventions in the Arab region cannot be regarded positively.

Ultimately, it will not be the miserable condition in which the Arab states find themselves that will save them, but rather their people's aspirations for freedom and justice.

We do not live in the 19th century. 

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.