Iran’s “Soft Power” Increasingly Checks US Power

by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

President Ahmadinejad greets cheering supporters in Beirut from an open motorcade.

Twenty years ago, Harvard’s Joseph Nye famously coined the term “soft power” to describe what he saw as an increasingly important factor in international politics—the capacity of “getting others to want what you want”, which he contrasted with the ability to coerce others through the exercise of “hard” military and/or economic power.  The question of soft power, when it comes to Iran, is contentious.  Most analysts seem prepared to acknowledge that the Islamic Republic’s soft power in the Middle East rose significantly in the first several years of this decade.  But many Western analysts now argue that Tehran’s regional soft power has declined over the last couple of years, following the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the fallout from the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election, and the imposition of new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.

Others—including the two of us—argue that Iranian soft power remains strategically significant and is perhaps even still growing.  In this regard, we are struck by two developments today.  First, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Beirut—the first visit by an Iranian president to the Lebanese capital since President Mohammad Khatami went there in 2003.  Although White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the visit demonstrated that Ahmadinejad was continuing his “provocative ways” and that Hizballah “values its allegiance to Iran over its allegiance to Lebanon”, the Iranian president received what the Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford described as a “rapturous” welcome from tens of thousands of Lebanese who turned out to greet him on his drive into Beirut from the airport.  We include photographs of Ahmadinejad’s reception in Beirut today at the end of our text below.

During his trip to Lebanon, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit Dahiya, a heavily Shi’a southern suburb of Beirut, and tour southern Lebanon.  We would anticipate strongly positive and enthusiastic reactions from populations in both settings.  As Rami Khouri aptly put it today, see here, in The Daily Star,

If Ahmadinejad, as planned, goes to south Lebanon and visits Hizbullah-controlled villages near the Israeli border, we should expect political emotions to go through th roof in both the pro-Iranian and anti-Iranian camps.  This will not be a surprise, because Ahmadinejad overlooking the northern border of Israel in the company of his Hizbullah allies is a nightmare for most Israelis and many of their friends in the West, while for Hizbullah and its allies in the region this would be a prize-winning moment of defiance to be savored for a long time.

We do not believe that any Western leader—or even any Arab leader—could travel to Beirut today and move about in an open motorcade, as Ahmadinejad did, let alone do so and attract crowds of tens of thousands of eager well-wishers.  Security concerns alone would preclude such a scenario.  And this is the reality even though the United States and its European and Arab allies have put significant sums of money and political capital into trying to consolidate a “pro-Western” political order in Lebanon.

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Demonising Iran

This was published in the Sunday Herald.

Two manifestations of Iranian Modernity
Two manifestations of Iranian Modernity

The mainstream media narrative of events unfolding in Iran has been set out for us as clear as fairytale: an evil dictatorship has rigged elections and now violently suppresses its country’s democrats, hysterically blaming foreign saboteurs the while. But the Twitter generation is on the right side of history (in Obama’s words), and could bring Iran back within the regional circle of moderation. If only Iran becomes moderate, a whole set of regional conflicts will be solved.

I don’t mean to minimise the importance of the Iranian protests or the brutality of their suppression, but I take issue with the West’s selective blindness when it gazes at the Middle East. The ‘Iran narrative’ contains a dangerous set of simplicities which bode ill for Obama’s promised engagement, and which will be recognised beyond the West as rotten with hypocrisy. 

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Voices of Dissent – Abbas Barzegar

A female supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad displays her hand painted with the Iranian flag, also used as a sign for his party (Photo: AP)
A female supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad displays her hand painted with the Iranian flag, also used as a sign for his party (Photo: AP)

Media fantasies in Iran – Abbas Barzegar

It was only a matter of time before revolution in Iran, believed dissidents and media in the west. They were wrong

It’s not about the election, Ahmadinejad, or the even the protesters. The world has been captivated by the events in Iran because for many, Iran is to Islamism what the Soviet Union was to communism and presumably today we are somewhere near the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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Rant against Hypocrisy

If Israel is not a racist state, if Zionism is not a racist ideology, then I do not speak English.

I don’t quite know why, but hypocrisy is the element in political discourse which catalyses my most murderous responses. Perhaps it’s because I like language, or respect it, and believe it shouldn’t be raped.

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Ahmadinejad criticism of Israel sparks UN walkout en masse

Ahmadinejad has a habit of upsetting the West, this time outrageously explaining how Palestine WAS wiped off the map.  Only to be followed by a shameful shower of Nakba deniers walking out in disgust.

The Iranian president was famously misquoted as saying he wanted Israel wiped off the map, a phrase repeated often and attributed to him incorrectly.  It was repeated so often in Israel that it became part of the political lexicon, with one cabinet minister, Meir Sheetrit, tellingly slipping up in revealing that ”we must take a neighbourhood in Gaza and wipe it off the map”.  A year later and more than just one neighbourhood has disappeared.

Do actions speak louder than misquoted words?  Not in the West it seems where Ahmadinejad remains the favourite Bond villain.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized on Monday, April 20, Israel’s racist practices against the Palestinian people, sparking a walkout by European delegates from the UN conference on racism.

“In fact, in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine,” Ahmadinejad told the conference.

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