Volume 21 Issue 5 May 2017

It is difficult to map the contours of Iran’s strategic relationship with the world in the 21st century. The country has woven its way into the fabric of the global culture and is likely to exert considerable influence on key events. This is primarily because Iran enjoys major advantages and has also devised suitable mechanisms to ensure that its interests are accounted for in the region.

According to Robin Wright, an American foreign affair analyst, Iran’s strategic importance can be gauged from the fact that its coastline and frontiers have served as crucial sites for “political, military and commercial developments.” In addition, it also spans three of the world’s most volatile regions and integral shipping lanes for oil. Wright, like many others, fears that Iran has the potential to destabilise these regions and shipping lanes.

The analyst also believes that Iran’s military significance has made it a force to be reckoned with. It has the largest army in the Middle East. After Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Iran has the largest arsenal. Although a sizeable proportion of its weapons are obsolete, old and lack quality, they have the potential to pose a major challenge.

Iran’s military might has other dimensions as well. According to Wright, the country is believed to have armed militant allies from Lebanon to Afghanistan. Iran, in many ways, serves as a dominant pivot in the region. Its military capabilities are accentuated by a string of economic advantages. Iran is believed to be an oil-rich country and also possess large reserves of natural gas. These are valuable properties that accrue economic benefits as well as political leverage to the country
Over time, Iran has been billed as a hard power owing to its history of war, alliances with violent regimes and factions and widespread support for terrorism. However, it is no secret that Iran’s hard power in the region has been honed by its sophisticated approach to maintaining soft power. As a result, Iran has carved a special status for itself within the Middle East. It has implemented a diverse menu of mechanisms to transform hard power and policies into effective soft power strategies that have radically altered its image and reputation. Iran’s soft power strategies are largely oriented toward achieving long-term goals and are tailor-made to suit its interests.

It is widely believed that Iran’s soft power stems from three vital sources. First, the country’s history and culture – which springs from its 3,000-year-old civilisation – has played a pivotal role in shaping perceptions. In a similar vein, Iran’s political values – which are primarily based on a hybridized system of religious democracy and provide a unique parallel to a traditional model of governance – are another useful source of its soft power tools. The third factor is foreign policy, which is considered to be the largest source of Iran’s soft power strategies.

Throughout the Muslim world, Iran has adopted a diverse array of instruments to strengthen its soft power and inculcate partnerships across the world to serve its own agenda. Iran has been focusing on Shias in many countries around the world through a string of media campaigns. It has also established cultural and religious centres and offered financial support to Shia minorities. In recent times, the Islamic Republic has provided political and military assistance to Shia communities to enhance their role within their societies. For example, Iran has made consistent efforts to back the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The anti-US rhetoric has seeped into Iran’s official line. This reflects a concerted attempt to capitalise on the simmering regional dismay over US policies. Such strategies serve as a vital tool to portray Iran as a regional player that can combat foreign hegemony with aplomb. With time, Iran has succeeded in creating a network of regional allies. In addition, Iran – like most Middle Eastern leaders – has heavily relied on pro-Palestine sloganeering to garner sympathy and popularity among Arab masses.

Trade and investment has also helped Iran consolidate its image. The Islamic republic has coordinated with Turkey and Malaysia to design and manufacture cars for Islamic markets. Through persistent efforts and hard work, Iran’s state-owned Khodro Company has exported millions of cars and trucks to various countries across the world since 2007 and has gradually emerged as the largest carmaker in the region.


Iran’s soft power strategies have been further intensified through the nuclear deal. On the strength of this deal, Iran was able to steer clear of war and evade any bargaining on other issues, such as Hamas and the Syrian regime.

The Islamic Republic’s growing influence in the region has allowed it the monopoly to ensure that other countries also contribute towards adhering to their interests. In early April, Iran expressed its reservations about the decision to appoint Pakistan’s former COAS Gen Raheel Sharif as the head of the Islamic Military Alliance created by Saudi Arabia. Mehdi Honardoost, Iran’s envoy to Pakistan, feared that the decision would impact the unity of Islamic nations. Iran’s grievances prompted a swift reaction from Islamabad to implement steps to control the damage and assuage Tehran’s reservations.

This was the first time Iran publicly expressed its dissatisfaction on the matter. But Islamabad remained mindful of the impact of the decision on its already fraught relations with Iran at a time when Saudi Arabia and Iran are jostling for control in major hot spots across the Middle East. Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua attempted to explain the decision to allow Raheel Sharif to head the Islamic Military Alliance. She insisted that the alliance was not against any country and pledged that Sharif will not act against Iran. Addressing a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, Janjua vowed that Pakistan will not go against Iran’s interests.

What is more, Gen Qamar Bajwa, Pakistan’s current chief of army staff, also sought to regain the Iranian leadership’s confidence in this regard. Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, had travelled to Tehran in February to address Iran’s concerns and might once again visit Iran to quell Iran’s insecurities over the controversial appointment.

Iran is vehemently opposed to the Islamic Military Alliance owing to a cluster of differences over the growing unrest in Syria and Yemen. The Islamic Republic’s role in Yemen has also drawn the ire of various elements. Saudi General Ahmed Asuri recently criticised Iran for turning Yemen into a missile base through which it can threaten the oil-rich kingdom.

Meanwhile, Iran has ramped up support for the Houthis through training, arms and financial support. This has been done to prevent stricter policies towards Iran signalled by US president Donald Trump and has gradually become a relationship of convenience. Iran’s involvement in Yemen serves as a double-edged tool – an efficient means to quell Saudi Arabia and the US at the same time. The growing Iranian presence can be gauged from the varying degrees of support provided to the Houthis. Although the scope for direct talks between the Saudis and the Houthis in the recent past could strip Iran of its influence in the region, the Islamic Republic will continue to call the shots until any headway is made in this regard.

In a similar vein, Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict is difficult to ignore or underestimate. It is widely believed that there are only three principal players in Syria: Russia, Iran and the US. Some analysts are of the opinion that Assad’s chemical weapons attack has blinkered our perceptions of the truth. While the world has been quick to blame Assad for the attack, a large segment of the media believes Assad does not act without receiving direct permission from Iran. There is an emerging perception that Iran encouraged Assad to launch the chemical weapons attack because it wants to stoke tensions between Russia and the US and immerse both countries in a seething war in Syria.

There is, however, a smokescreen of doubt surrounding such claims as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has demanded an impartial probe into the chemical weapons attack. Moreover, Iran, along with Syria and Russia, has also issued warnings to the US against launching new strikes in Syria. It is equally difficult to overlook Iran’s ethical and responsible role in helping people from the besieged towns of Syria evacuate. According to news reports, thousands of Syrians have been evacuated under a deal struck between Iran and Qatar.

Iran has used its soft power strategies to exert considerable influence on other countries. This has served the dual purpose of ensuring that its sectional interests are preserved and its hard power is not entirely compromised.

The writer is a poet and author. He is a law graduate of SOAS.

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