January 22, 2012

Iran's Soft Power Strategy: Why Iran Does Not Want A Nuclear Weapon

"If I was an Iranian national security planner I would want a nuclear weapon. Look at the neighborhood I live in: everyone else who matters has nuclear weapons and those who don’t, don’t matter and get invaded by the United States." - Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, as quoted in Richard Silverstein's article on January 19, 2012 called, 'Bruce Riedel: Netanyahu’s Goal is ‘Regime Change’…in Washington.'
The fear that Iran is in the process of developing a nuclear weapon is grounded in the false belief that a nuclear weapon would strengthen Iran's hand in the Middle East.

Trita Parsi, an Iranian expert at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and the president of the National Iranian American Council, says that Iran's strategic strength and regional position would drastically diminish if it acquired a nuclear weapon. Parsi made this point in an interview with Ali Ahmadi Motlagh in January 2011:
AM: One argument put forth in support of stopping Iran’s nuclear program is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities would trigger an arms race across the Middle East. What are your thoughts on this?

TP: Certainly it is difficult to envision the region becoming safer with the introduction of more nuclear weapons. It should also be noted that building a nuclear weapon may turn out to be a significant strategic mistake for Iran if it leads to the nuclearization of the Middle East as a whole, since that would eliminate Iran’s conventional military superiority in the region.
The prestige of a nuclear weapon is not all that it is cracked up to be. As Parsi observes, it is not in Iran's interests to build a nuclear weapon and thereby trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East because that would minimize its strategic and military superiority vis-a-vis its weaker neighbours such as Kuwait. Every nation would be on equal footing if nuclear weapons suddenly became common commodities.

True, an Iranian nuclear weapon is a kryptonite to foreign aggression, but it is also an act of strategic suicide.

Building nuclear weapons would also be an anti-Islamic act. The Islamic Republic of Iran would lose its political and religious legitimacy if it overturned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's fatwa against the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. In August 2005, Iran issued a statement at an IAEA Emergency Meeting which said:
"The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons."
Iran does not need nuclear weapons to defend itself if it comes under a full-scale attack by the United States and Israel. As Parsi said in an interview with Foreign Policy Association in November 2011:
"Whatever the capabilities are that the Iranians have, they have utilized only a fraction of them, compared to what they can if there is a real confrontation between the U.S. and Iran."
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, both of whom served on the National Security Council in the Bush administration, emphasize Iran's soft power strategy. In their article on October 13, 2010 called, Iran's "Soft Power" Increasingly Checks U.S. Power, they wrote:
"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."
Hillary Mann Leverett explained the success of Iran's soft power strategy and how it is countering Washington's current political objectives in the Middle East on a Swedish radio program on Saturday, January 21, 2012. She said:
"In terms of projection of what we call, often in international relations, hard power - conventional military force - the United States has today and will have for the vastly foreseeable future the absolute ability to project overwhelming conventional military force, hard power, into the Middle East basically whenever and wherever it wants. . . We've invaded Iraq, we've had military operations in Libya, we can do that.

But there are limits to how effective that is. And we've seen through our indeterminate military campaigns in Iraq, in Afghanistan, even in Libya, where we see this inter-militia conflict playing out now, is that yes we can kill Saddam Hussein, yes we can kill Gaddafi, but what do you do after that? The U.S. has nothing to offer. And so the United States is really demonstrating the limits of its power to something that is just a military hard power projection.

Iran, on the other hand, has had a policy, and many people, particularly here in Washington, ignore Iran's real strategy. They focus on what I call played-up, hyped threats about Iran, which prevents them from seeing Iran's really effective strategy, which is really a soft power strategy. Iran's effectiveness and success has nothing do with it's ability to project conventional military force anywhere in the Middle East. Iran doesn't have so much of an offensive, conventional military capability, it does not invade its neighbours, it does not use conventional military force against its neighbours. It doesn't do that. We win on that battlefield hands down, the Iranians don't even try to challenge us.

What they do is they have a soft power strategy, where they built up relations with political groups and forces in their neighbouring countries, and they try to galvanize the grievance that people have throughout the Middle East and they align themselves with these groups and with this galvanized grievance in the form of public opinion. And what that does is it positions Iran with these relationships they have with various groups, whether it's Hamas, whether it's Hezbollah, whether it's shi'ite groups in Iraq, whether it's the various groups that form the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, whether its with shiites in Bahrain. Across the Middle East and Central Asia, Iran has these alliances and it has public opinion often on its side.

What this does is it constrains these states. Let's take Bahrain for example. If Bahrain wanted to allow the U.S. Fifth Fleet to attack Iran, the leadership in Bahrain would have to think long and hard about that because they would have to face renewed resentment, protests, problems from their largely shiite population that Iran is aligned with. So that constrains the government of Bahrain or the government of even Saudi Arabia from attacking Iran.

The other thing it does is it positions Iran to have relations with these groups, with these people, whether they're shiite, whether they're kurds, whether it's the Sunni group Hamas, and others, that when there is a change of government or when there can be a change of government, it's Iran's allies that win the day. So when there is a change of government in Iraq, the United States invades Iraq, we get rid of the sunni political order, it's Iran's allies that are ready, poised, and thrust into leadership. When we invade Afghanistan and wet get rid of the irredentist sunni Taliban political order in Afghanistan, it's Iran's allies in the Northern Alliance that take over and are in charge in Afghanistan. . .If there is a change in leadership in Bahrain, if the government of Bahrain were overthrown, it would be Iran's allies that take over.

This is an extremely powerful offensive strategy that Iran has, but it's about soft power. It has nothing to do with hard power. So the focus here, particularly in Washington, about various concerns about Iran's military capabilities are entirely misplaced and means that we are missing the soft power offensive that Iran poses to us, the challenge they pose to us, the challenge they pose to our allies like Saudi Arabia which is now surrounded by countries that are much more friendly to Iran today than they were ten years ago.

So, if you look at the United States ten years ago, our allies like Saudi Arabia ten years ago, we are in vastly weaker positions in the balance of power in the Middle East than Iran is. Ten years ago, Iran had basically Syria, and the very weak groups of Hamas and Hezbollah. Remember ten years ago Hamas had not been legitimated in the elections among the Palestinians that they were in 2006. Remember ten years ago Hezbollah had not been legitimated through the elections that they've had in Lebanon. They were relatively weak players.

Today, Iran's allies are the indispensable decisive players in country after country after country across the Middle East that used to be pro-American territory, that used to be pro-Saudi territory. Today, both the United States and our allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, are on the defensive, and you see that playing out in some very dangerous ways across the region."
To get a more informed perspective about U.S.-Iranian relations and the general picture in the Middle East, visit Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's website, www.raceforiran.com, and the National Iranian American Council website, www.niacouncil.org.