Iran wants to have it both ways — and they’re getting it. In the one instance Tehran aims to convince its neighbors and the rest of the world it is the unjustified target of U.S. animosity. At the same time it clearly wants to gain power status internationally by aggressively pursuing economic and political objectives around the world.
Being a victim at one moment and shifting into benefactor garb the next seems to be working far better than Washington would like to recognize. The Iranians have mounted an effective campaign to deflect the persistent American efforts to categorize them as potential nuclear weapon developers.
The American view of Iran is as a danger to Israel as well as Arab nations in the region. In the Gulf area, in particular, this is not a paramount concern. For these Arab states Iran is first a major source of investment capital and expatriate skilled workers. In Dubai alone, nearly half a million Iranians reside and provide essential services, as they do elsewhere in the area. Iranian investment in the Gulf economies has been estimated to exceed $500 billion.
These factors by themselves, without any customary and expected political influence, have diminished the Gulf nations’ support for the United States’ efforts to coerce Tehran in respect to its nuclear development program. On the contrary, a not inconsiderable diplomatic effort is under way among those whom Washington considers regional Arab allies to have the Bush Administration soften its stand against Iran in the United Nations.
While the U.S. is struggling with the perception of the dangers that a nuclear-armed Iran may present in the Middle East, Iran’s immediate neighbors appear to be more worried over what American military preemptive measures might occur. Clearly anti-American propaganda around the world plays to this twisted concept.
The oil price rise has provided more than enough capital for Iran’s covert programs to influence foreign political judgment. At the same time, perfectly legitimate commercial involvement of Iran in major development projects from Asia to Latin America creates a benign Persian image that carries with it an important political component.
The influence of Iran in places like Lebanon has been obvious for many years. Less well recognized is the long-term interest Iranian business has had in South American economic centers such as Rio de Janeiro and Caracas. Before the Anglo-American invasion to depose Saddam Hussein, Persian and Iraqi businessmen were in fierce behind-the-scenes trade and investment competition in Brazil and other major Latin economies.
THE IMAGE OF AN isolated Iran is just not correct. Not only does it have strong protectors in the United Nations in the form of Russia and China, but many countries, such as India, which depend on imported oil and gas are vulnerable to Iranian blandishments. All over the developing world small and large economic projects show an Iranian investment connection.
Accompanying the economic devices of Iran globally is the easily reinforced local reaction in support of the principle of smaller nations standing up to the American behemoth. “Twisting the lion’s tail” originally applied to British colonial interests. Now the United States has been smeared with the same imperial character.
Tehran knows well how to play that theme. While it successfully has expanded its regional power and continued to proceed with its secret nuclear weapon program, Iran has assumed the character of the misunderstood, poor, struggling post-imperial nation. That Iran is sitting on some of the world’s largest natural gas and oil reserves is ignored as it pretends to be among the disadvantaged of the developing world.
Imbedded in the philosophy of Shia culture is the principle of taqiyah, which in simple terms means dissemblance and lying to protect the faith. The Iranians have perfected this device and use it today to hide their abilities and intentions. To appear to be weak when you are actually strong is the essence of this policy. Unfortunately, it appears to be working.
It is far too easy to recommend a policy of firmness and finesse to counter the Persian ploys. The next Washington administration is going to have to decide just how dangerous it is to have a regionally ambitious, nuclear-armed Iran. Talking alone is just not going to make any difference when one side uses talking as a tool of dissimulation rather than negotiation.