During his recent visit to Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon remarked that a “Shiite radical axis” headed by Iran “is exploiting the deal now to gain hegemony” in the region. This has, in fact, become a rallying cry for those countries in the MENA region that are irked by the nuclear deal reached in July 2015 between Iran and the 6-plus-1 world powers and put into effect in January 2016. Two weeks earlier it was Bahraini Interior Minister Rashid Bin Abdullah Al Khalifa who invoked the theme. Speaking in Tunis on the side of the Council of Arab Interior Ministers meeting, Rashid denounced Iran as having the goal of achieving “Persian hegemony” in the region. The Council’s final communique, dubbed the Tunis Declaration on Fighting Terrorism, condemned the attack against the Saudi embassy in Iran and deplored “the dangerous practices and acts carried out by the terrorist group Hezbollah to destabilize security and social peace in some Arab countries.”
Although done routinely (as was done officially by Bahrain in last October), however, accusing Iran of seeking regional hegemony through interference is a bit of a stretch. One wonders if the Arab countries whose combined population size amounts to some 366 million are really worried about the state of their cultural background so much so that they may feel the need—in the words of Bahraini Interior Minister—to “unify efforts and maintain the Arab character (‘Uruba) of the region in the face of the Persian Project led by Iran” whose population falls far short of 100 million. Furthermore, the talk of “the Persian project” (al-mashru‘ al-farsi), for better or worse, sounds so outmoded in this age of heightened sectarian tension and bloodshed in the region. For its turn, the Israeli Defense Minister spoke more tangibly of the impact of the money that the sanctions relief allows Iran to gain access to. Yet, again, one wonders if political influence peddling by Iran in a few capitals—most notably in Baghdad but much less so in Beirut and Damascus—would really add up to gaining hegemony in the region.
What sounds most odd if one is versed with the dominant strategic narratives in Tehran, however, is the very notion that the Iranian leadership is indeed seeking regional hegemony. The official narrative repeated by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and other key figures in its national security establishment not only has it that Iran opposes the US hegemony (nezam-e solteh-ye Amrika) in the region. But it also claim that Iran’s Islamic revolutionary state opposes, as a matter of principle, hegemony-seeking (solteh-gari) as such. The Iranian leader in his letter addressed to President Rouhani in October last year, for example, reminded him that, the recent nuclear agreement notwithstanding, US hostility toward the Islamic Republic of Iran is destined to continue. The reason, the Ayatollah said, is because of Iran’s insistence, among others, on the “Islamic right to opposition to the hegemonic and arrogant system.” For its turn, Iran’s principled opposition to the exercise of hegemony as such can be traced back to the strategic perceptions held by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 Revolution and founder of its Islamic revolutionary state. As revealed in the texts of his numerous speeches, Khomeini’s opposition to the both superpowers of the time stemmed not only from his understanding of what true independence required. He also framed it as constituting part of the religious obligation to be “an enemy of the oppressor and a helper of the oppressed” (a precept attributed to Imam Ali). In another post-deal declaration, Khamenei in last July reaffirmed that the nuclear agreement would not change Iran’s principled support for the “friends in the region,” including the people and the Government of Syria and the “oppressed people” of Bahrain.
But, practically, what do these amount to? Not much if we treat such narratives, as many in the US do, either as mere rhetoric or certain idiosyncratic, self-serving images that Iran’s decision-makers may well have. If we start with the premise, however, that such official narratives to a large extent reflect how key decision-makers actually perceive and interpret their strategic environments, there are some lessons that may well be learned from them. First, rather than aspiring to be a regional hegemon of its own, Iran is more than ever obsessed with “opposing” the hegemony that they perceive to be firmly in place—the US hegemony—in the MENA region.
Granted that some of its neighbors may well regard its “support for the oppressed people” as interference and influence peddling, Iran simply may not be aspiring to achieve any hegemony, regional or otherwise, in the sense usually understood, that is, domination. The counter-hegemonic aspiration, if genuine, would also help explain why Ayatollah Khamenei resisted—for such a long time until the unexpected election in July 2013 of former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rouhani as president—negotiating any sanctions relief despite the obvious mounting cost of such refusal. Second, if we take it that the primary strategic goal of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary state is to remain as a counter-hegemon, we may well conclude that Iran’s strategic posture will be fundamentally defensive, despite occasional incendiary remarks uttered by some of its ill-advised politicians and even some military commanders. It also explains why Iran allocates so much money and efforts for developing medium-range ballistic missiles. After all, what would such ballistic missiles do to help if Iran’s goal was to achieve regional “hegemony,” which is derived from the Greek word for leadership?
The importance that Iran’s national security strategy places on its missile program would only make sense if we construe Iran’s official strategic narratives as actually reflecting how fixated its key decision-makers are on deterring “likely” US aggression. The talk of Iran being a regional power, in the same vein, may well be understood rather cynically as not reflecting their self-appraisal but as attempts by Iran’s leadership to deter such aggression.
Yasuyuki Matsunaga teaches political science and is director of the graduate program in peace and conflict studies at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in Japan.