The firing up of Iran's Bushehr reactor has provoked anxiety among Americans and Israelis. Yet a poll this summer by the University of Maryland and the Carnegie Corporation indicated that 77 percent of Arabs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco believe Iran has a right to its nuclear program and 57 percent see a positive outcome to Iran's developing nuclear weapons. Another poll by the Pew Research Center, while not as favorable for Iran, also found growing support. This shift in Middle Eastern perception is one result of the Islamic Republic's drive to expand its global influence.
In his own words, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to return Iran to "its proud and great heritage" of prominence on the world stage. His Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki claims that Western nations "lack political maturity." They are referring to Iran's 2500-year history during which the Achaemenid Persian Empire ruled from the Indus River to the Aegean Sea, the Sasanian kingdom divvied up the Near East with Byzantium and the Safavid kingdom split the Middle East with the Ottomans. Indeed the president's Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei brags: "What Westerners are most concerned about is Iran leading the world."
Words are cheap yet what Iran is doing warrants attention.
Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei schedule numerous annual meetings with African heads of state to consolidate Iran's growing role on that continent. Iranian officials extend development aid to poor nations there as a means of gaining support. So doing reduces hard currency reserves available to an Iranian regime already under considerable economic pressure at home after years of international sanctions. Yet pinching its own citizens to expand global influence is working. Sub-Saharan countries like Senegal increasingly regard Iran as a "reliable partner."
Iran has reinforced its links with Shiite militias and politicians in Iraq so that successful nation building there requires Tehran's cooperation. Providing material support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza gives Iran clout among the Arab public. These actions have added to calls among Americans and Israelis for a military strike against Iran - a confrontation that Tehran's leaders cannot possibly win. Yet Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) notes that Tehran's gamble is making "Iran a great power in the Middle East." Not surprisingly, and contrary to their citizens, leaders of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt remain wary of a powerful Iran dominating the region.
In Asia, Iran has focused attention on Tajikistan and Afghanistan - challenging Russian and American influences there. It initiated negotiations to lay a natural gas pipeline via Pakistan to India to become a major supplier of energy to South Asia, a scheme unlikely to materialize for decades, however. In the meantime Iran, one of the world's largest exporters of crude oil, ironically has inadequate refined gasoline for its domestic consumption due to economic sanctions brought on by belligerence toward the West. Attempting to break US and EU attempts to isolate it, Tehran actively courted China into becoming Iran's largest trading partner. South Korea too has begun to feel a need to position itself in a more neutral capacity toward Iran due to lucrative bilateral trade. A great deal of coaxing by the US was necessary to convince Seoul to go along with sanctions. Ahmadinejad's government reckons that easing the West's economic stranglehold will alleviate the Iranian public's growing malcontent with domestic progress.
Ensuring robust diplomatic, economic and military ties with Latin American nations is yet one more aspect of the Islamic Republic's globalizing its influence. Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba are forming alliances with Iran aimed at replacing US visions of democracy and security. As part of Iran's adventurism in the western hemisphere, the IRGC engages in arms sales via its ally Syria to Venezuela and Bolivia. It now expands that activity by sharing "weapons know-how and the finished products" with many other developing nations.
Such hard and soft power expansions fit well into Iran's long-term scheme for reshaping global actions and shifting international priorities away from those championed by the US and its allies. It plays upon a popular Third World theme that the dispossessed should unite, irrespective of religion and ethnicity, against the world's superpowers.
Iran has actively nurtured its influence within the Group of Fifteen, or G-15, now numbering 17 member states from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The group's 14th summit was held at Tehran in May 2010 with Ahmadinejad presiding over the meeting. He used the occasion to build bridges of cooperation while championing opposition to the US, the EU and Israel.
The Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM, with its 118 member states occupies Iran's attention, too. When NAM's foreign ministers met in July 2008, Tehran took center stage as the host city. A public statement by the attendees lent support for Iran's nuclear program. In June 2010, the NAM even praised "Iran for its cooperation with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]." The NAM's next summit will be held at Kish Island in 2012, where Ahmadinejad will assume its secretary-generalship, giving the Islamic Republic of Iran another global platform.
Despite having only a nascent space program, Iran chairs the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Its stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons notwithstanding, Iran holds the vice chairmanship of the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Iran also has steadily acquired seats on the boards of other UN agencies. Those organizations include the Office of Drugs and Crime, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development, the Development Program, the World Food Program, the Environment Program, the Children's Fund, the Commission on the Status of Women and the Office of High Commissioner for Refugees. Iran seems to be wagering that leadership roles in these international agencies will eventually translate into perceptible power.
In dealings with the UN Security Council, Iran often does gain tangible victories by dividing Russia and China from the three other permanent members, namely, the US, Britain and France. Russia's loading of fuel into the Bushehr reactor is a stark example of Iran exploiting superpower rivalry to achieve its goal of producing nuclear energy despite Western objections. Through negotiations, Iran also has gained cooperation from the Security Council's non-permanent members like Turkey, Brazil and Lebanon during nuclear and sanctions deliberations.
Within the context of its overall global expansion, atomic energy provides Iran greater visibility as a limited number of nations possess that capability. Ali Akbar Salehi, director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, now claims his country is attempting nuclear fusion. Having not yet achieved fission, Iran is far from assembling a hydrogen bomb. Yet Iranian leaders' willingness "to share nuclear knowledge and technology" with other developing nations will further undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty while enhancing their own influence, if other recalcitrant regimes like those in Syria and Myanmar accept the offer. Indeed, Syria is suspected of having collaborated with Iran on such an endeavor at the al-Kibar facility which Israel bombed.
Not surprisingly, and despite growing internal unrest, Iranian leaders feel confident in challenging the world's great powers. Through words and deeds, Iran's pursuit of global influence is multifaceted, targeted and well underway. It should be taken seriously.