Iran’s “Soft Power” Increasingly Checks U.S. Power

October 13, 2010

Twenty years ago, Harvard’s Joseph Nye famously coined the term “soft power” to describe what he saw as an increasingly important factor in international politics — the capacity of “getting others to want what you want,” which he contrasted with the ability to coerce others through the exercise of “hard” military and/or economic power.  The question of soft power, when it comes to Iran, is contentious.  Most analysts seem prepared to acknowledge that the Islamic Republic’s soft power in the Middle East rose significantly in the first several years of this decade.  But many Western analysts now argue that Tehran’s regional soft power has declined over the last couple of years, following the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the fallout from the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election, and the imposition of new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.

Others — including the two of us — argue that Iranian soft power remains strategically significant and is perhaps even still growing.  In this regard, we are struck by two developments today.  First, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Beirut — the first visit by an Iranian president to the Lebanese capital since President Mohammad Khatami went there in 2003.  Although White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the visit demonstrated that Ahmadinejad was continuing his “provocative ways” and that Hizballah “values its allegiance to Iran over its allegiance to Lebanon,” the Iranian president received what the Christian Science Monitor‘s Nicholas Blanford described as a “rapturous” welcome from tens of thousands of Lebanese who turned out to greet him on his drive into Beirut from the airport.  We include photographs of Ahmadinejad’s reception in Beirut today at the end of our text below.

During his trip to Lebanon, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit Dahiya, a heavily Shi’a southern suburb of Beirut, and tour southern Lebanon.  We would anticipate strongly positive and enthusiastic reactions from populations in both settings.  As Rami Khouri aptly put it today in The Daily Star,

If Ahmadinejad, as planned, goes to south Lebanon and visits Hizbullah-controlled villages near the Israeli border, we should expect political emotions to go through the roof in both the pro-Iranian and anti-Iranian camps.  This will not be a surprise, because Ahmadinejad overlooking the northern border of Israel in the company of his Hizbullah allies is a nightmare for most Israelis and many of their friends in the West, while for Hizbullah and its allies in the region this would be a prize-winning moment of defiance to be savored for a long time.

We do not believe that any Western leader — or even any Arab leader — could travel to Beirut today and move about in an open motorcade, as Ahmadinejad did, let alone do so and attract crowds of tens of thousands of eager well-wishers.  Security concerns alone would preclude such a scenario.  And this is the reality even though the United States and its European and Arab allies have put significant sums of money and political capital into trying to consolidate a “pro-Western” political order in Lebanon.

If Iran today has substantial soft power in the Middle East — as we believe it does — it has that power in no small part because it has picked winners rather than losers as its allies in key regional theaters.  Whether we speak of Hizballah in Lebanon, HAMAS in Palestine, or Shi’a Islamist parties in Iraq, Iran’s regional allies are genuine political forces — that is, forces that win elections because they represent important and unavoidable constituencies with legitimate grievances.  And, in many cases, those allies engage in what their constituents believe is thoroughly laudable resistance against what those constituents see as America’s (and Israel’s) hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.  Again, Rami Khouri put it very well:

The United States and other Western powers are unhappy with the Iranian-Hizbullah link because these two parties represent an advanced form of indigenous Middle Eastern defiance of Western power, threats and sanctions.  Western global powers are not used to having smaller Middle Eastern countries or movements ignore the orders or threats that emanate from Washington, London or other Western capitals.  Lebanon has been a central test case of American support for the majority in the Lebanese government that confronts Hizbullah in some respects, so this visit represents a blow to Washington’s strategy of bringing Lebanon firmly into its orbit.

Second, Colum Lynch, of the Washington Post and Foreign Policy, published an interesting piece today on the United Nations General Assembly’s election of Germany, India, and South Africa to rotating seats on the UN Security Council.  (It should be noted that, while Turkey will give up its rotating seat on the Security Council at the end of this year, Brazil will stay on the Council for another year.)  As Lynch writes,

The election provides these emerging powers, all of whom aspire to become permanent members of the council, with an opportunity to show their stuff on the global stage.  But it also poses a challenge to the United States.  New members India and South Africa, as well as current member Brazil, differ sharply from the United States on everything from the use of economic sanctions to constrain Iran’s nuclear program to the importance of human rights in international affairs.  And they plan to be assertive about that opposition.

All of this underscores an important strategic point that we have been making for some time — in relative terms, the United States is becoming less capable of achieving its stated policy objectives in the Middle East and the Islamic Republic is becoming more capable of achieving its objectives.  This reality should prompt a fundamental recasting of America’s “grand strategy” in this critical part of the world.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 13 October 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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