Modern Iran: Empire or Network?
Geopolitics is a field ripe with narrative. The dream of stumbling upon an enduring insight that summarizes something hopelessly complex into something beautifully simple is, in large part, what keeps political science classes filled to the brim. With fresh violence in Gaza last month, observers scrambled to explain the larger context of Israel’s invasion and the Arab reaction. Some argued that it should be viewed as part of a larger battle for regional dominance by Tehran. Robert Kaplan, for example, had a short piece in The Atlantic Monthly describing “the postmodern beast that the Iranian empire represents.” In a similar vein, former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote in The Wall Street Journal of “a ‘Shiite arc’ of power forming in the Near East.” John Arquilla, noted futurist and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, was kind enough to explain to Bellum why he disagrees with this analysis, as well as share his broader thoughts about the Iranian nuclear crisis.
Please see the Appendix for the fuller context of the Kaplan and Gerecht quotes.
1. Let’s imagine a 1-10 scale, 1 being “genuine phenomenon” and 10 being “figment of the imagination.” Where would you place the “imperial” framework for understanding Iranian behavior?
I’d rate it a “2.” The biggest problem with those trying to portray an Iran-based “Peacock Peril” is that they are limited to thinking in old ways about Iranian strategy. Imperialism is a construct comfortable to those confined to thinking through the sole lens of nations and their interests. What Iran is really doing is pioneering a series of links between the nation and a wide range of social and militant networks. Not to control them or extract resources, but to spread ideology and influence, and to build counterweights against hostile nations while improving (from their perspective) governance. Bottom line: Iran’s behavior is about networking, not empire-building.
2. The implication of the Gerecht and Kaplan pieces is that some sort of rapprochement between elements of the Sunni and Shia worlds, as a result of Iran’s growing stature, may be at hand in the near future. This would have profound implications for the network of terrorist groups and proxy forces that have dominated the news coming out of the Middle East for decades, since the Sunnis support organizations opposed to the Shiites and vice versa, especially in Palestine. Having written a fair amount about networks, what is your view on this alleged shift in the dynamics?
Much will hinge on the endgame in Iraq, one of the critical Shi’a-Sunni fault lines. If the United States departs in a way that allows civil war to re-emerge, hopes for Shi’a-Sunni rapprochement go down drastically. On the other hand, if the Americans play the endgame skillfully, and a peaceful Iraq emerges, one full of sectarian cooperation, then the crossing of these religious lines is more likely. Ironically, this would mean that Muslim social and militant networks would be greatly energized - and capable of posing ever greater threats to American interests. A tricky business.
3. Consider two data points. First, the crisis with Iran has lasted longer than the war in Iraq, and yet the questions about Iranian intentions and capabilities, and Western and Israeli options and policy responses, have essentially remained static. Second, many advisers to President Obama have called for “game-changing” diplomacy. Is there anything we can actually do to change the game?
The world we live in is one where the term “crisis” is being temporally redefined. Crises used to move at a quick pace, for the most part (e.g., the July crisis of 1914, or the crisis over Danzig in 1939, or even the Gulf of Tonkin). Either they would resolve quickly or there would be a conflict of some sort. Now, crises can go on and on - in part an artifact of American power, which gives it a lot of choice about how, how much, and when to act, and whether to rely on suasion or coercion. The current Iran crisis is hardly unique. There has been an equally long-running North Korean crisis. And before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was a 12-year lingering crisis, replete with no-fly zones, lots of shots fired, and all sorts of crisis bargaining.
In a world where the Americans can control the tempo of crises to such a significant degree, it behooves us to think creatively about the more energetic use of statecraft - as opposed to simply making forceful threats. To some extent, President Bush moved in this direction with regard to North Korea and Iran. But the real game changer would be for President Obama to “talk with our enemies” as he promised during his campaign. If he does so, there is the potential to change the whole course of international events - on a scale similar to the changes wrought when Ronald Reagan turned so adroitly and decided to negotiate with the “evil empire,” in the process doing a lot to end the arms race and the cold war that went with it.
Robert Kaplan, writing in The Atlantic Monthly on January 5, 2009,
Gaza constitutes the western edge of Iran’s veritable new empire, cartographically akin to the ancient Persian one, that now stretches all the way to western Afghanistan, where Kabul holds no sway and which is under Iranian economic domination…But there is a fundamental problem with what Israel is doing that goes to the heart of the postmodern beast that the Iranian empire represents…Israel’s dilemma is that it is not fighting a state but an ideology, the postmodern glue that holds together Greater Iran…Whether it is the sub-state entities of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Mahdi movement in Shiite southern Iraq; or the hopes, dreams, and delusions of millions of Sunni Arabs, principally in Egypt, who feel a closer psychological identity with radical Shiite mullahs than with their own Pharaonic Sunni autocracy, Iran has built its dominion on a combination of anti-western ideas and the dynamic wiliness of its intelligence operations (which, in turn, are a reflection of a civilization more developed and urbanized than that of the Arabs).
Reuel Marc Gerecht, writing in The Wall Street Journal on January 7, 2009:
Tehran has been aiding Hamas for years with the aim of radicalizing politics across the entire Arab Middle East…Prominent Sunni rulers Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah — have railed against a ‘Shiite arc’ of power forming in the Near East, only to see few echoes develop outside of the region’s officially controlled media…Through Hamas, Tehran can possibly reach the ultimate prize, the Egyptian faithful…With Gaza and Egypt conceivably within Tehran’s grasp, the clerical regime will be patient and try to keep Gaza boiling…Ultimately, it’s doubtful that Tehran will find President-elect Barack Obama’s offer of more diplomacy, or the threat of more European sanctions, to be compelling. The price of oil may be low, but the mullahs have seen worse economic times. In 30 years, they have not seen a better constellation of forces.