Iran’s diplomacy: secular or sectarian?

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Here’s a recent communiqué channeled through Iran’s semi-official state media agency, describing its intention to “help Iraq in social, welfare fields”. What is interesting about this?

First of all it exemplifies an aspect of Iranian diplomacy that has developed since the islamic revolution. Iran’s main asset in projecting influence in the Middle East is its image as a populist regime that puts serious effort into improving the plight of the lower classes. Backed by a thriving export of crude Iran’s leaders have been able to get something of the ground resembling a European welfare-state, at least in economic terms. Expenditures on the military have gone down significantly in favour of social programmes, almost eliminating illiteracy, increasing life expectancy and getting fertility down to sustainable levels. Understandably this has given the Iranians a lot of street credit, not only in Iran itself, but also among the many disenfranchised in Arab countries.  Thus the regime’s domestic policy, the primary aim of which was to shore up support for the clerics in power, has at the same time proven a major boon for it in terms of ‘soft power’ abroad. In a region dominated by out-of-touch dictators the Iranians seemed to be the only ones who took the Islamic injunction to care for the poor seriously. Extending this aid to its neighbour is consistent with this policy: using aid to bolster Iran’s claim to regional power.

This projection of soft power has been especially effective in recent years in contrast with the Western-backed axis of power stretching from the Persian gulf to the Mediterranean. Iran seemed to many the only credible non-Western regional leader. Although basically a sound diplomatic strategy, it has from the beginning been plagued by one massive weak spot: sectarianism. Iran is the main Shia force in a region dominated by Sunni Arabs. The balancing act necessary for its socio-economic projection of power to succeed thus involved accenting the social aspect of its regime while downplaying its sectarian allegiance.

Quite clearly, this balancing act has come to unravel over the course of the war in Syria. As Iran has aligned itself with the Alawites as the self-styled representatives of the Syrian minorities including the Shi’ites, its non-sectarian socio-economic diplomacy has lost its punch. Notwithstanding Iran’s impressive literacy rate, the more Iran is seen as the evil genius holding up Assad’s regime, the less Arabs will be inclined to support its claim to power as their brethren are killed in Syria.

This brings us to the help offered to Iraq’s “physically and mentally impaired people”, as announced in the communiqué. The question is: What is behind the initiative to help Iraqis? Assuming that it is not sheer altruism guiding this policy of a cash-strapped Iranian government, it can mean either of two things: Either it is a continuation of the old policy to garner support amongst the Arabs on the street, or it is exactly the opposite, a break with the non-sectarian policy and an attempt to increase sectarian allegiance amongst Shia Iraqis.

Of course, it is impossible with the limited intelligence we have on the inner-workings of Iranian politics and the lack of coverage on Iraq to say anything conclusive as to the motivation behind the aid announcement. One possible indication of these intentions, however, is contained in the communiqué. The stated recipients of aid will be the physically and mentally impaired. It is not hard to guess what might have caused the physical/mental impairment of these Iraqis. Iran aims to help the victims of years of sectarian violence. These victims, their relatives and their friends are probably those most susceptible to sectarian rhetoric and calls for revenge on their Sunni compatriots. Distributing help in this way would therefore be a good way to gain Shia support in Iraq by stressing the sectarian allegiance to the main protector of Shia interests in the region.

If this is indeed the case it would mean a radical break with Iranian diplomatic policy. Lacking clear evidence, however, this observation can only remain speculative. Regrettably, there is one development clearly supportive of this speculation. The sad fact is that it is in the interest of both sides of the conflict currently enveloping the Fertile Crescent, Sunni and Shia, to portray the conflict as one that is inherently sectarian. Undying support, the reasoning goes, is more helpful than defusing the conflict. The effect of this reasoning is of course that it will create its own reality. Insofar as the conflict wasn’t sectarian to begin with, it is getting so by the day.

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