by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
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.