Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Iran expands on ruins of Arab nation state

The spread of Iran’s regional influence is the outcome not only of disastrous US policies but the failure to build Arab nation states, writes Azmi Ashour

Al-Ahram Weekly

Is it not ironic that over the past 30 years the Iranian state, ruled by the clergy and fuelled by Persian nationalism, has expanded regionally at the expense, and on the ruins, of the nation state in Arab society?

Instead of religion becoming a source of strength in these societies it has become in instrument for fragmenting them into conflicting ideologies. And instead of nationalism serving as an instrument to unite and strengthen them, it has led to weakness and facileness. Grand banners have brought nothing but half a century of tyranny and failed development.

Many factors combined to create the current position of the Iranian state, but the combination of Shia religiosity and Persian nationalism created its character, even if it appears at its most extreme. Iranian encroachment and intervention in the Arab environs is part of plans to revive the Persian Empire beneath a religious guise.

It has succeeded in achieving considerable inroads towards its objectives, even if it has resorted to illegitimate means to do so. Not that it is to blame for this. A nation’s promotion of its interests cannot be measured on a scale of absolute morals and values.

Iran has outstripped the US, turning American weapons into instruments to bolster the regime domestically and further its objectives. It traded in Arab causes and the Palestinian cause in particular.

It planted Hezbollah in Lebanon, as a tangent to the already sectarian environment there, to destroy the state and obstruct the creation of a national government. The Hezbollah veto is one of the main obstacles to any power-sharing agreement, quota formula or presidential election.

Hezbollah’s role is not restricted to Lebanon. It has extended into Syria, where Hezbollah fighters moved in to act as an auxiliary force to aid the Assad regime to fight the revolution and cling to power for another three years. In the process, it participated in the killing and displacement of many civilians.

Iraq is the secret laboratory for Iranian encroachment. Tehran capitalised on everything the Americans did when they invaded and occupied Iraq. The Iraqis lost their state, which shattered into warring sects and factions. During ten years of warfare, Iran was unable to defeat the Iraqi army. Then, thanks to the folly of US policy, Washington handed the country to Iran on a silver platter, turning Iraq into a Shia adjunct to Iranian nationalism.

From Iraq and Syria, and now to Yemen, we can see how Iran has followed the trail of weakness that resulted from the failure of the Arab nation state, and manoeuvred itself or its proxies into the vacuum. The most recent case in point is Yemen, where the Houthis have taken control over most of the territory with the moral and material support of the rulers of Tehran, and then proclaimed their coup against the constitution and the state from within the walls of the republican palace.

Surely it is ironic that Iran’s sources of strength are our sources of weakness and collapse. Nationalism and religion have torn our societies apart, while for Iran they served as cement and an instrument for regional expansion.

True, there are many other contributory factors, such as the nature of international changes and the embargo on Iran due to its nuclear programme, which in turn worked to unify the domestic front.

But none of this refutes the fact that Iranian institutions of government ⎯ and particularly those dealing with foreign policy. They have stood on an equal footing during their negotiations with Western powers, shown an acute awareness of the nature of the prevailing variables governing the conflicts in the Middle East, and deftly used these to Iran’s advantage.

In this regard, Iran reaped the benefits of two factors. The first was the folly of American policy towards the institutions of the Iraqi state and, in particular, the dismantling of army and Baath Party establishments as soon as the US occupied the country. The effect of this was to leave that country without foundations, making Iranian encroachment all the easier, especially given that Tehran already had parties it could depend on inside Iraq.

The second factor is related to the failure of the Arab nation state. At the time when the Iranian nation state was growing stronger, despotism was propelling the Arab state towards increasing fragility and collapse.

This applied in particular to those regimes that sought to pass on power hereditarily, as was the case of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Egypt. The objective of state-building was warped into perpetuating rule and dynasty building, in turn entailing concessions and compromises at home and abroad on crucial questions of development and progress.

It was therefore only natural that 2011 would bring waves of revolution in those societies, leading to the situation we see today. Were it not for the vigilance and deep-rootedness of the state institutions in some countries, such as Egypt, and their rapid ability to rally and resume their functions in society, these countries would also have ended up like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The question now is whether the still surviving Arab nation states can turn their weak points into strengths, as Iran has. In other words, can Arab nationalism become a powerful constructive force instead of the negative force it was in the decades when it was used as cover to launch dictatorships and to spread the culture of the “glorious leader”?

Can the practice of religion return to normal within the embrace of the state and shed its transnational jihadist guise, which is the outward form of the terrorist groups that are currently serving as instruments to tear our countries and societies apart through their atrocities and scorched-earth tactics?

Such questions throw into relief how important it is for our political leaders to understand the potential hazards and gains in the regional and international environment, and to turn them to their advantage in the framework of shared interests and in a manner that supports Arab nationalism. In light of the realities that Iranian policies are creating on the ground, this aim could not be more urgent.

The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

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