What exactly is Iran after in the Gulf? Some of its neighbors fear the Islamic Republic wants to impose its hegemony on the region, feelings that are sustained by statements such as the recent one issued by a close advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, saying that Bahrain was Iran’s 14th province. A statement eerily reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s claim that Kuwait was Iraq’s 19th province. We saw where that took us.
Such talk, particularly aimed at countries that have a large Shia minority, such as Bahrain, does little to improve relations between Iran and its Arab neighbors, or to appease sentiments of apprehension among some of the countries in the region, particularly for smaller, less well defended nations; which is to say most, with the exception of Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, that incident led to Morocco from Tehran as other Arab nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan rushed to the defense of the Kingdom of Bahrain. Leaders of those three countries reassured the Bahraini monarch of their support. A most reassuring gesture seeing that the tiny kingdom would be no match against the far more superior armed forces of Iran. Much as Kuwait was when Iraq invaded the emirate in 1990.
But is that really something new? Is the Iranian threat a new factor in Gulf politics and policies? Or has this wish by the Iranians to be seen and recognized as the primary power in the region, and to export its influence beyond its borders not been a dominant factor, a regular trait regardless of who ruled in Tehran?
Iran has always stood apart from the rest of the Gulf in one manner or another. Iran is a Farsi speaking country living on the rim of the Arab speaking world; and it is a majority Shia nation in the in middle of the Sunni world. As such, Iran, it could be said, suffers somewhat of an identity crisis.
It is perhaps because of this feeling, that of being a minority group, that pushes the Iranians to try and impose their political diktat on the rest of the region. The Iranians might see this as a means of survival.
Indeed, the fear of Iranian expansionism in the Gulf is not merely a product of the Islamic Revolution, although the mullahs in Iran have been far more successful in doing so that the shah ever was. That fear existed well in the days of the shah, in the days of imperial Iran. Iran, even in its imperial days, has traditionally devoted a far larger budget for military spending, even if one takes into account size and population.
Imperial Iran, with its far larger military, equipped and trained by the United States, was suspected of having, well… imperial designs. Nevertheless, perhaps because of Iran’s close ties with the United States, under the shah, there was the belief that Washington could exert pressure on His Imperial Majesty, and keep Tehran in line.
Of course with the Islamic revolution, all this has changed. Perhaps one of the most threatening changes for the rest of the Gulf region has been Washington’s loss of influence over Tehran, that for the rest of the region translates as having to look over their shoulders at Iran, the way Bahrain does. Indeed, Iran’s design to remain as the dominant power in the region has never been greater. Yet despite its relentless efforts the Islamic Republic’s successes has been limited to its influence over the Lebanese Hezbollah, and it’s inroads with Hamas in Gaza.
Many will argue that Iran’s designs on the Gulf region today is a far greater threat because unlike the shah, who answered to no one but himself, (and to pressure from the United States), the Islamic Republic on the other hand is driven by its Islamist fervor.
Furthermore, in order to survive, the Iranian revolution, much like any other revolution, needs to remain in a perpetual revolutionary mode or risk disappearing. And that is why it constantly has to invent itself enemies to keep that revolutionary fervor going. That is why Iran – a country that used to have diplomatic relations with Israel – has picked the Palestinian issue as its recruiting poster. That explains much of the rhetoric aimed at Israel that has been coming from Tehran.
That might also explain Ahmadinejad’s rants against Israel and the United States.
At the same time as Iran is seen as a threat, Iran feels just as threatened by its surroundings, and an Israel and the United States. Iran’s highly controversial decision to acquire nuclear weapons, while seen as a threat to the region and well beyond, is certainly regarded by Tehran as a necessity to defend itself, a point driven home by the US invasion of Iraq. The argument amongst many political analysts, an argument surely endorsed by the Iranian mullahs, is that if Iraq had nuclear weapons the chances of it being invaded by the US would have been highly unlikely.
Claude Salhani: - Editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington.