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Iran’s Global Ambitions – Part I

Iran has pursued global influence while the US busied itself with war east and west of the nation. This YaleGlobal series suggests that, in a global game of chess, Iran is no pawn. As major powers impose sanctions for violation of its non-proliferation commitment, Iranian leaders cultivate ties with developing nations, explains Jamsheed Choksy in the first of three articles. Messages drawing on pride in the ancient Persian Empire resonate; recent polls show a majority of Arabs in Middle East states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, hold favorable views of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Many of these citizens are marginalized, chafing under dictatorial rule condoned by the West. Iran also promises gas pipelines in Asia, promotes trade with China, forms alliances with Latin American nations disgruntled over US policies, and divides the UN Security Council, while taking on leadership roles in UN committees. Choksy warns Iran’s goals are no secret. A flurry of international activity which might seem hollow, could eventually transform into effective power. – YaleGlobal

Iran’s Global Ambitions – Part I

Sanctions don’t slow Iran’s drive for influence in the developing world
Jamsheed K. Choksy
YaleGlobal, 13 September 2010
Winning friends, influencing people: President Ahmadinejad's foray into Africa, with President Mugabe of Zimbabwe

BLOOMINGTON: The firing up of Iran’s Bushehr reactor has provoked anxiety among Americans and Israelis. Yet a poll this summer by the University of Maryland and the Carnegie Corporation indicated that 77 percent of Arabs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco believe Iran has a right to its nuclear program and 57 percent see a positive outcome to Iran’s developing nuclear weapons. Another poll by the Pew Research Center, while not as favorable for Iran, also found growing support. This shift in Middle Eastern perception is one result of the Islamic Republic’s drive to expand its global influence.

In his own words, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to return Iran to “its proud and great heritage” of prominence on the world stage. His Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki claims that Western nations “lack political maturity.” They are referring to Iran’s 2500-year history during which the Achaemenid Persian Empire ruled from the Indus River to the Aegean Sea, the Sasanian kingdom divvied up the Near East with Byzantium and the Safavid kingdom split the Middle East with the Ottomans. Indeed the president’s Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei brags: “What Westerners are most concerned about is Iran leading the world.”

Iranian officials
extend development
aid to poor nations as
a means of gaining support….Pinching
its own citizens to expand global
influence is working.

Words are cheap yet what Iran is doing warrants attention.

Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei schedule numerous annual meetings with African heads of state to consolidate Iran’s growing role on that continent. Iranian officials extend development aid to poor nations there as a means of gaining support. So doing reduces hard currency reserves available to an Iranian regime already under considerable economic pressure at home after years of international sanctions. Yet pinching its own citizens to expand global influence is working. Sub-Saharan countries like Senegal increasingly regard Iran as a “reliable partner.”

Iran has reinforced its links with Shiite militias and politicians in Iraq so that successful nation building there requires Tehran’s cooperation. Providing material support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza gives Iran clout among the Arab public. These actions have added to calls among Americans and Israelis for a military strike against Iran – a confrontation that Tehran’s leaders cannot possibly win. Yet Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) notes that Tehran’s gamble is making “Iran a great power in the Middle East.” Not surprisingly, and contrary to their citizens, leaders of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt remain wary of a powerful Iran dominating the region.

Winning friends, influencing people: Ahmadinejad  welcoming Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa to Iran and showing solidarity with Venezuelan President Chavez

In Asia, Iran has focused attention on Tajikistan and Afghanistan – challenging Russian and American influences there. It initiated negotiations to lay a natural gas pipeline via Pakistan to India to become a major supplier of energy to South Asia, a scheme unlikely to materialize for decades, however. In the meantime Iran, one of the world’s largest exporters of crude oil, ironically has inadequate refined gasoline for its domestic consumption due to economic sanctions brought on by belligerence toward the West. Attempting to break US and EU attempts to isolate it, Tehran actively courted China into becoming Iran’s largest trading partner. South Korea too has begun to feel a need to position itself in a more neutral capacity toward Iran due to lucrative bilateral trade. A great deal of coaxing by the US was necessary to convince Seoul to go along with sanctions. Ahmadinejad’s government reckons that easing the West’s economic stranglehold will alleviate the Iranian public’s growing malcontent with domestic progress. 

Ensuring robust diplomatic, economic and military ties with Latin American nations is yet one more aspect of the Islamic Republic’s globalizing its influence. Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba are forming alliances with Iran aimed at replacing US visions of democracy and security. As part of Iran’s adventurism in the western hemisphere, the IRGC engages in arms sales via its ally Syria to Venezuela and Bolivia. It now expands that activity by sharing “weapons know-how and the finished products” with many other developing nations.

Ensuring robust diplomatic, economic and military ties with Latin American nations is yet one more aspect of Iran globalizing its influence.

Such hard and soft power expansions fit well into Iran’s long-term scheme for reshaping global actions and shifting international priorities away from those championed by the US and its allies. It plays upon a popular Third World theme that the dispossessed should unite, irrespective of religion and ethnicity, against the world’s superpowers.

Iran has actively nurtured its influence within the Group of Fifteen, or G-15, now numbering 17 member states from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The group’s 14th summit was held at Tehran in May 2010 with Ahmadinejad presiding over the meeting. He used the occasion to build bridges of cooperation while championing opposition to the US, the EU and Israel.

The Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM, with its 118 member states occupies Iran’s attention, too. When NAM’s foreign ministers met in July 2008, Tehran took center stage as the host city. A public statement by the attendees lent support for Iran’s nuclear program. In June 2010, the NAM even praised “Iran for its cooperation with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency].” The NAM’s next summit will be held at Kish Island in 2012, where Ahmadinejad will assume its secretary-generalship, giving the Islamic Republic of Iran another global platform.

Iran plays upon a popular Third World theme that the dispossessed should unite against the world’s superpowers.

Despite having only a nascent space program, Iran chairs the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Its stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons notwithstanding, Iran holds the vice chairmanship of the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Iran also has steadily acquired seats on the boards of other UN agencies. Those organizations include the Office of Drugs and Crime, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development, the Development Program, the World Food Program, the Environment Program, the Children’s Fund, the Commission on the Status of Women and the Office of High Commissioner for Refugees. Iran seems to be wagering that leadership roles in these international agencies will eventually translate into perceptible power.

In dealings with the UN Security Council, Iran often does gain tangible victories by dividing Russia and China from the three other permanent members, namely, the US, Britain and France. Russia’s loading of fuel into the Bushehr reactor is a stark example of Iran exploiting superpower rivalry to achieve its goal of producing nuclear energy despite Western objections. Through negotiations, Iran also has gained cooperation from the Security Council’s non-permanent members like Turkey, Brazil and Lebanon during nuclear and sanctions deliberations.

Within the context of its overall global expansion, atomic energy provides Iran greater visibility as a limited number of nations possess that capability. Ali Akbar Salehi, director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, now claims his country is attempting nuclear fusion. Having not yet achieved fission, Iran is far from assembling a hydrogen bomb. Yet Iranian leaders’ willingness “to share nuclear knowledge and technology” with other developing nations will further undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty while enhancing their own influence, if other recalcitrant regimes like those in Syria and Myanmar accept the offer. Indeed, Syria is suspected of having collaborated with Iran on such an endeavor at the al-Kibar facility which Israel bombed.

Not surprisingly, and despite growing internal unrest, Iranian leaders feel confident in challenging the world’s great powers. Through words and deeds, Iran’s pursuit of global influence is multifaceted, targeted and well underway. It should be taken seriously.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Islamic, and international studies and former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the US National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed are his own.
Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

26 September 2010
Mr. Choksy is a much respected professor. He is of Indian and Iranian descent. He writes objectively and learnedly from knowing both the 3rd world and the 1st world.
-Ray Raj , Mumbai
20 September 2010
I misspelt. "We should concentrate, in the Middle East, on Iran for the moment."
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Japan
20 September 2010
The anti-American sentiments that are spread in large areas of the world, particularly in many Islamic countries, are understandble, but to let ourselves carried away with them is irrational.
It is in the interests of every nation and everybody to prevent nuclear proliferation.
We should be concentrate, in the Middle East, on Iran for the moment. Some day, which should not be a distant future, we should go into the warehouse of Israel for inspection whether it likes or not.
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Unnan City, Japan
18 September 2010
Iran is undoubtedly one of few remaining voices (and the only one in the Middle East) of resistance against the US/Israeli hegemonic adventures in the world.
Unlike US, Iran is trying to build its international significance not by bombing and murdering helpless countries but by building allaiances through dialogues and conversations.
Seeing that sanctions are not really working in stopping Iran from spreading its international influence every effort is now being made to deprive its people from accessing basic requirements of life through sanctions and thus frustrate them and create mass resentments and destabilize the government from within. This will not work if Iranian people remains united and resists imperialist machinations with sacrifice and fortitude.
Rise of Iran is important for regional balance of power and thus for world peace - God bless Iran!
-Adil Khan , Australia
16 September 2010
Iran should be taken seriously as Nation with ever increasing significance. This is not the same as regarding Iran as some dangerous threat to the globe. It is Israel that is the first country in the Middle East to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons. Not a whisper was raised against this by the Western Powers. Yet when Iran develops nuclear reactors the Anglo American and the EU Axis powers are nervously and uncomfortably watching Iran and making threats.
To seek good relations with any country let alone Iran, it is better to try to understand that nation before suddenly threatening and imposing all kinds of sanctions. Yet Sanctions and threats seem the poker game to try to subjugate Iran even before normalising relations.
Lets normalise relations and stop threatening Iran, before bullying that Islamic Republic.
-Mr. Hasan Abdulla , United Kingdom
15 September 2010
Parvin , Truckee, CA
Very good point!
-Paulo Borges , Brasil
15 September 2010
Good for Iran. The only country resisting US imperialism. Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy under NPT. Iran is no threat to world peace while US, Israel and England are the ones that will destroy the world. This article is biased toward US. Demonizing Iran is not a proper strategy for the West. U.S. just asked Arab nations to stop harassing Israel for their nuclear weapons. It is OK for Israel to have nuclear weapons but not Iran. Israel has been attacking its neighbors on a daily basis, killing and imprisoning Palestinians, stealing their land and America is 100% backing them. Iran has not attacked any of its neighbors for the last 200 plus years and Americans such as Mr. Jamsheed (by the way his name is Iranian) demonize Iran.
-Parvin , Truckee, CA
15 September 2010
The dream of a PERMANENT super power no longer looks eternal, what a pity!
Mr Jamsheed K. Choksy talks about the ability of Iranian politicians to "influence and manipulate" world leaders and gain support among the "marginalized".
Mr Jamsheed's article is informative but clearly biased toward demonizing Iran as usually done by the U.S. and supporting nations.
Has Mr Jamsheed evaluated the view that all those people (leaders included) sympathize with Iranian ideas and ideals JUST BECAUSE THEY SOUND FAIR?
If we analyze the reasons why Iran has become a bitter nation specially toward the U.S. and close allies anyone can understand and even appreciate Iranian determination to continue free from western domination and certain exploitation.
Contrary to Mr Jamsheed opinion that only the "marginalized" tends to be sympathetic with Iranian right to nuclear power, what I see is that intellectuals and well informed people understand Iranian resistance and drive toward securing their inalienable right to access to technology as stated on the NPT.
The GLOBAL perception that all the U.S. wants is to secure Israeli carte blanch to deal with Palestinian resistance to illegal occupation with their usual heavy hand and the eventual access to Iranian Oil reserves (just as the whole soap opera that led to the conquest of Iraq Oil Fields) only helps Iran to getter supporters to the Iranian quest.
The denying of the value of the agreement achieved by Turkey and Brazil with the Iranian leadership for Uranium exchange only proved to the world that the U.S. is not interested in negotiations and peace but just IMPOSE IT'S WILL and press for war.
The U.S. leadership JUST shot their own foot AGAIN!
-Paulo Borges , Brasil
13 September 2010
Very insightful and quite troubling that its happening. Who will stop Iran?
-Jay Rennick , DC
13 September 2010
Nice piece.
-S. Stephens , NYC