Iran’s dangerous quest for superpower status
History, of course, does not repeat itself but those who do not learn from their past are condemned to repeat it. This warning, attributed to George Santayana, finds a contemporary application in Iran.
Every now and then, an Iranian official makes overbearing claims about the revival of the ancient Persian empire. However, such claims follow a pattern in Iran’s behaviour that began 150 years ago. The Qajar and the Pahlavi dynasties each made its own bid at superpower status and both ended in defeat and humiliation.
The fate of the current bid by the Islamic Republic is unlikely to be much different.
In the 19th century, Iran’s attempt to assert itself came under Mohammad Shah Qajar, who tried to capture parts of western Afghanistan. This drew the attention of the British and an ensuing 10-month military operation ended in the humiliation — and a loss of territory — for Persia.
In the 1970s, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi tried to make Iran the regional powerhouse, suggesting Tehran was a sole defence of the West against communism and oil-rich Arab countries. He also tried to make the country more modern and secular. That stab at power ended internally, as the shah was overthrown by the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Now, the mullahs who inherited power from those who chased the shah out are seeking their own superpower status.
The most vital part of the Iranian strategy involves creating turmoil in Arab countries by agitating Shia communities, which never before turned to Iran for guidance and inspiration.
Two crucial developments curtail the Iranian agenda: The outcome of the civil war in Syria and the Arab response in Yemen.
The fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad would constitute a humiliating defeat for Tehran, dealing Iran’s superpower aspirations a severe blow. That defeat would send shockwaves through Shia communities, which Iran eagerly mobilised to fight on Assad’s side, throughout the world. Anti-Iranian sentiment — considerable among learned Shias, especially the clergy — would become widespread and explicit.
An equally significant loss for Iran is Yemen, which is vital for Iran’s regional designs because it can be used to directly threaten Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Arabism and Sunni Islam.
However, the Saudi-led response took the Iranians by surprise. The air campaign mostly destroyed the Iranian arsenal that was created over several years, bringing Tehran’s scheme in that country to a humiliating conclusion.
Since the early days of the Islamic Republic, Iran has used terrorism as a low-cost method to project power beyond its borders. The list of terrorist attacks committed by Iranian-backed groups in the Gulf states and beyond is long.
The problem of Iran is not with its Arab neighbours. It is with its own history. More precisely, it is with its failure to come to terms with its past. Regardless of who ruled Iran, since Mohammad Shah Qajar to the Islamic Republic, the Iranian psyche has been dominated by a yearning for the past.
While Iranians have every reason to be proud of their cultural heritage, their attempts at reconstructing their past has unavoidably created enemies where permissible rivalry might have existed.
Many empires have come and gone; all have moved on. Only Iran gives credence to Santayana’s warning.