Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Beacon No. 83: Iran’s Power of Reputation


Although I primarily write about soft power, some stories straddle the line between soft and hard. One of these is David Ignatius’ “Iraq Should Be Used to Widen American-Iranian Talks.”

Ignatius’ home paper is the Washington Post, but if you click on the link below you’ll see that I read his article in Lebanon’s Daily Star, a moderate English-language newspaper in Beirut. It’s a testament to both Ignatius’ ability and the Post’s syndication bureau that he gets read that far afield; they both have soft power.

Ignatius’ topic today is the recent opening for Iranian-American dialogue over Iraq:

... [A]fter almost 30 years of official enmity, a U.S.-Iran conversation seems about to start in earnest, focused initially on mutual steps to achieve political stability in Iraq. The moving force has been America's ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who won White House approval last fall to seek such meetings. Khalilzad got some useful political cover last week when Iraqi Shiite leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim asked the Iranians to meet with the United States. Two days later Iran's national security adviser, Ali Larijani, announced that Tehran was ready to talk.

The talks in Baghdad aren't likely to begin for a few weeks, until Iraq's political leaders have made progress in forming a new government. American officials aren't discussing what the agenda might be, but it's sure to be limited at first to Iraqi security issues. Khalilzad explained the U.S. stance this way in an interview with CBS: "Our goal will be to encourage cooperation as well as to halt support for extremist groups, training, arms, intelligence, Revolutionary Guard presence. Those are all points of concern."

The dialogue with Iran is an important step in the right direction. The two countries have a common interest in stabilizing Iraq. The worst thing that could happen, from Iran's standpoint, would be a civil war that leads America to withdraw its troops quickly, before it could secure a new democratic government that, given Iraq's demography, would be Shiite-led. So the two sides start with similar goals.

I doubt that America can stabilize the Middle East without building a new regional framework that includes Iran. Right now, the Iranians are poised to obstruct America at every crossroads - in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and even Persian Gulf states such as Kuwait and Bahrain. The Iranians aren't supermen, but they do have a network of dangerous proxies. A successful American policy for the region must take account of Iranian interests, and vice versa. The alternative is war.

Ignatius, who I’ve attended conferences with twice in the past few years, and who had already been to Iraq several times when I saw him last in late 2004, seems on the money.

To counter U.S. attempts to isolate it and to stave off the possibility of Israeli attack, Iran has patiently and steadily made itself the indispensable player in southwest Asia. It has friends everywhere in the region, influences events in Iraq and western Afghanistan, and underwrites militias and terrorists in the Levant.

If pushed, Iran can push back, violently or not, in both flashpoint countries like Lebanon and relatively stable U.S. allies like Kuwait and Bahrain, all without initiating direct military action. It has created a large, stable sphere of influence without needing major-league conventional forces and, if current trends continue, Iran will have a small nuclear deterrent by the 2010s and be essentially untouchable.

For now, apprehension about Iran’s possible actions—in other words, its reputation, a component of its soft power—give pause to all the actors in the region without Iran needing to be a military or economic powerhouse.

1 comment:

Calculator said...


I never heard before of the term "Beacon", it is very true and interesting.
I think that the most powerful countries like America are not willing to waste their time in building any soft power. They seem to be satisfied with their hard power. What do you think?
I agree with you that America can't stablize the region without the cooperation of Iran. It is a key country that has been excluded for 3 years after Iraq's war.
Al Hakim's initiative is very important and gives us some hope.

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