Iran: A Case Study in Expansionism

When discussing Iran and effective strategies to confront their current geopolitical path, terms like “status quo power” have been used to describe the former and strategies like “containment” attempt to address the latter. To demonstrate the fallacy of both, a case study in Iranian behavior is necessary to understand Tehran’s version of expansionism and how a traditional containment strategy would be ineffective.

Iran’s regional and international behavior is inextricably linked to the genesis of Shia revivalist thought that occurred in Najaf, Iraq in the 1960s. During this time, the region was overtaken by eastern (communism) and western (capitalism, nationalism) versions of political thought that essentially marginalized Islam’s traditional political identity. As a result, the religious establishment in Najaf fashioned a coherent criticism of the region’s existing political systems and that prompted the construction of a theory regarding the formation of an Islamic state. It was here that a dominant Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ruollah Khomeini, formulated his ideal of the Velayet e Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent). This occurred at a time when the religious establishment (by and large) left the political reigns to the ruling elite of their respective countries. Khomeini was a staunch advocate for reversing that trend and he impressed upon the ulama to claim the mantle of political power in their respective countries.

After Khomeini seized power in Iran, the country’s initial efforts to spread this “new vision” of Islamic governance relied on an overt broadcasting effort. Operations like Radio Tehran broadcast messages throughout the 1980s encouraging the Shia populations in the Gulf to overthrow the existing regimes. Those messages resonated with pockets of Gulf-based Shia and newly minted Iranian officials would then facilitate their travel to theological centers in Qom or Mashad. After vetting the individuals who arrived at those facilities, the ones who appeared most committed to Khomeini’s ideology would then be trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) in paramilitary tactics. The newly indoctrinated and trained would return to their country of origin.

The propaganda/recruitment efforts coupled with IRGC training constituted Khomeini’s one-two punch for exporting his vision. The case study that best illustrates this behavioral pattern is Iranian activity in Bahrain during the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. Soon after Khomeini consolidated his hold on Iran in the late 1980/early 1981, some officials in Tehran called for Bahrain’s reintegration into Iran. Citing historic ties, it was argued that Bahrain was a Persian island that needed to be brought back into the fold. By December 1981, Bahrain security officials uncovered a coup plot orchestrated by the Iranian Charge d’ Affaires. As a result, roughly 70 people were arrested and reports clearly showed that the majority of those involved in the plot were Bahraini Shia who were trained in Iran by the IRGC. The group, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, attempted to target Bahraini defense, security, and other governmental officials as well as “vital installations.” This same organization was identified several years later trying to sabotage Bahraini oil facilities in another attempt to destabilize the country. This pattern reemerged in the early 1990s. In this case, dissident Bahraini Shia elements formed a group known as Bahraini Hizballah and were recruited from the Qom based theological seminaries they were studying in. According to their televised confessions, they were recruited, trained, and financed by the IRGC. They were subsequently dispatched to Bahrain in yet another attempt to destabilize/overthrow the regime. A similar pattern of behavior may be emerging today. There are noises made from Iranian sources about reincorporating Bahrain.[1] Bahraini clerics with Iranian theological training are beginning to play a more prominent role in inciting Bahraini Shia.

The similarities between the three operations are stark. In each case, Iranian officials recruited groups of Shia militants, brought them to Iran for indoctrination, and had them trained by the IRGC. They returned to Bahrain and were involved in subversive activities to further Iranian desires. Bahrain is a classic example of how Iran tries to expand its political hegemony. It is crucial to note in these cases that Iran’s theological appeal (rather than military or economic inducements) was sufficient to energize three different destabilization operations over the course of a decade. Arguably, Iran is the leading Shia nation in the world and has been adept at appealing to culturally based factors, such as values and institutions, to obtain the cooperation of militant elements within the worldwide Shia community. This is not the behavior of a nation that wants to maintain the “status quo.” Iran wants to expand their sphere of influence by covertly destabilizing neighboring states and then positioning itself or its allies to install a regime that is friendly to Tehran. Furthermore, these activities are able to take place while Tehran can safely maintain plausible deniability.

Iran’s expansionist behavior emphasizes the use of soft power, which focuses on attracting and persuading others to adopt common goals. Radio Tehran’s propaganda efforts and the covert actions of the IRGC and their trainees fall squarely into the soft power category. This is one reason why a traditional containment strategy would not effectively inhibit Iran’s expansionist activities. The containment strategy stems from the famous “Article X” written by a US Department of State Foreign Service Officer, George F. Kennan. The article outlined a strategy that checked the expansionist tendencies of the Soviet Union. In essence, the US applied a combination of hard power (ie military and economic inducements) to curb Soviet expansion and soft power elements to facilitate “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” This strategy worked well because the Soviet Union actively used its hard power elements (ie military inducements) to establish and enforce its foreign policy objectives. Iran does not project power through traditional military or economic means, but through the threat of what its adherents will do on behalf of Tehran. While governments can try to suppress or retard Tehran’s message, but they can not effectively “contain” it.

Another reason why containment is not an effective option is that the galvanizing threat of a nuclear Iran was thrown into question with the release of the recent National Intelligence Estimate. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) released a piece in which the NIE’s effect on Arab relations with Iran was examined.[2] The report cited works that clearly interpreted the release of the NIE as a reversal of US policy in the region. One of those works stated:

“After the publication of the report by the NIE report… the Arab states assessed that the time was ripe for greater rapprochement with Iran and for greater openness [towards it]… The Arab governments assessed that the publication of the [NIE] report might indicate a possible change in U.S. policy towards Iran, and this naturally led to greater openness towards this country on the part of the Arabs.”

Another stated:

“It is clear that there has been an unprecedented breakthrough in the relations between Iran and the Arab states… This breakthrough was made possible by the decrease of international pressure on Iran, which came after the NIE exonerated [Iran] of striving to develop nuclear weapons… Many think that this exoneration supplies the Gulf states and Egypt with the excuse they need in order to improve their relations with Teheran… The Gulf states would not have given Iran all this attention… had they not been convinced that these steps [i.e. the NIE report] were meant to prepare the ground for dialogue between Iran and the U.S.”

This situation contrasts sharply with the US’s employment of containment against the Soviet Union. There was no ambiguity surrounding the threat posed by Soviet military and that unified Western Europe and the United States against a common enemy.

Given Iran’s method of projecting power and the apparent shift in the minds of some Arab nations, attempting to create a containment regime in the Gulf region is wrongheaded and would likely fail. Frankly, the US should not be resigned to accepting Iran’s destabilizing behavior and then put itself in a position where it tries to “contain” it. Such action cedes the initiative and gives Iran time to compromise any efforts aimed at checking their behavior. The US needs to seize the initiative and focus a soft power strategy on leading the Iranian people to the bar of judgment about the direction of their country. This needs to happen before any nuclear ambitions come to fruition. The thrust of this effort should focus on two essential elements: 1) inculcating our ideology of individual liberty and freedom into the Iranian student population and 2) the use of covert action to complicate Iran’s ability export its ideology and cripple the institutions it needs to suppress popular discord.

The student population was instrumental in bringing Khomeini to power in 1979. The regime recognizes their potential and it is why they are nervous every time student led movements boil over. There have been numerous student led demonstrations in Iran, but there are two that I want to draw particular attention to because of the numbers that were quickly amassed and the catalysts that brought them together. In February 2001, roughly 1000 students demonstrated in Mellat Park in Tehran. Issues such as freedom of expression, the regime’s crackdown on the press, and the arrests of political dissidents fueled the organization of this demonstration. Another catalyst was broadcasts from a pro-monarchy radio station based in Los Angeles, California that argued for democratic reforms in Iran. Iranian forces, including the IRGC’s Basij, put down this demonstration and arrested dozens of its participants.

In June 2003, another demonstration took place in Tehran where roughly 3,000 students demonstrated against the government of Iran. Again, Iranian forces, to include the Basij, also suppressed this demonstration as well. Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Ali Yunesi, appeared on national television and stated, “These people [the demonstrators], incited by extremists outside the country, were shouting illegal slogans.” He went on to state that the demonstration was “organized by foreign media and satellite television channels.” Yunesi’s comments are interesting for two specific reasons. First, he was referring to the network of Farsi speaking radio and television stations located in Europe and the US. These stations cater to the Iranian expatriate communities in those locations but are also capable of broadcasting into Iran. These radio and television stations provide an excellent medium through which to propagate the ideas of liberty and freedom. Second, these demonstrations (and many others) clearly show there is a disaffected segment of Iranian society and that the messages of freedom and individual rights can motivate a substantial portion of them to take action. In other words, the radical ideals freedom and liberty are finding harbor in the minds of the disaffected.

Another method to augment supplying this message is to communicate directly with Iranians traveling to Iraq. Iraq possesses two of the holiest sites for Shia Islam, Najaf and Karbala. Annually, thousands of Shia from Iran make the pilgrimage to these sites. That provides an excellent opportunity for the US to speak to Iranian citizens who seek individual liberty and freedom. The US must expose as many Iranians as possible in hopes of creating a critical mass to form the basis of a movement. Given Tehran’s track record of arresting political dissidents, closing newspapers outlets critical of the government, and suppressing any overall dissent, the opportunity is ripe to “persuade and attract” the Iranian people to adopt the ideals of individual liberty and freedom.

Bottom Line: Iranian students brought the country to the bar of judgment in 1979 and have the ability to do so today. Roughly 70% of the country is under the age of 30 and have little if any direct attachment to Khomeini’s revolution. Furthermore, there are viable mediums to convey our message to the Iranian people and the US needs to actively seize that opportunity.

With that being said, there needs to be another component to this strategy, covert action. Not so much to force a regime change (like the US did in the 1950s), but to complicate Tehran’s ability export its ideology and cripple the institutions it needs to suppress popular discord. That would mean engaging the Iranian intelligence services and the IRGC on a global basis. Attack those vanguards in whatever manner necessary so that they can not function effectively in their overseas stations. That means take the fight to them in the streets of every city or nation they choose to work. If the message is crafted properly, the Iranian people may even respond favorably to these more aggressive actions. The MOIS and the IRGC has a history replete with attacks on its citizens. For example, in 1999, operatives of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) were behind the murders of several well known anti-regime dissidents and intellectuals. The IRGC’s Basij elements were/are instrumental in putting down demonstrations throughout Iran. The US needs to impress upon the Iranian people that we will engage those forces that silence their voices and kill those who do have the courage to speak out.

The US has the ability to win a soft power war with Iran. Instead of limiting our efforts to “containing” Iran or waiting for the noose of sanctions to somehow induce change, the US needs to prompt the Iranian people to take charge of their country once again.


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