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.