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Is Iran Still Center Of Middle East's 'Great Game'?

An Iranian student holds up a sign with a picture of a Bahraini protester in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. Iran has been vocal in its criticism of Saudi actions against Shi'ite protesters in the Persian Gulf state.
An Iranian student holds up a sign with a picture of a Bahraini protester in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. Iran has been vocal in its criticism of Saudi actions against Shi'ite protesters in the Persian Gulf state.
By Robert Tait
From being the most assertively visible actor in the Middle East, it has seemingly become quiet and unnoticed, almost the forgotten country. Yet three months into what has become known as the "Arab awakening," non-Arabic-speaking Iran remains the giant elephant in the living room for foreign-policy makers in Washington.

Indeed, some view current developments as little more than a temporary lull in the long-running contest for influence between the United States and the Islamic regime, an interpretation that appears to be shared by senior officials in Tehran.

"The New York Times" crystallized the trend by reporting on April 2 that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama regarded events in Libya, where Western powers have sided with rebels trying to unseat Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, as a "sideshow" and that it "sees the region through a Persian lens."

Under the headline, "The Larger Game In The Middle East: Iran," the paper wrote, "Containing Iran's power remains their [administration officials'] central goal in the Middle East. Every decision -- from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria -- is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration's regional strategy."

Trita Parsi, head of the Washington-based National American Iranian Council, says the preoccupation is evident in conversations with U.S. officials as well as in administration decisions, including its hesitation over whether to back the mass protests that ultimately ousted the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

"In my own conversations with administration officials in regard to what is happening in the region, it's been very clear that the frame through which they are looking at these things consistently is: 'How does this affect the competition between the United States and Iran?'" Parsi says. "When looking at what was happening in Egypt, the real question was not what was best for the Egyptian people or democracy. It was: how will this affect the geopolitical rivalry between Iran and the United States? Will any of the decisions the U.S. make[s], or any of the developments, undermine Iran's position in the region?"

Pushing The Old Order Out

Fueling that tendency is the widespread feeling that the upheavals are working in Iran's favor. Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says the revolts play to the Islamic regime's inclination to sow and exploit discord.

"I think Iran is the beneficiary of almost everything that is happening in the region, including what has happened in Bahrain," Maloney says. "The one exception is the recent upheaval in Syria. But everything else has really put many of Iran's old adversaries on the defensive and has obviously forced Washington to scramble and revisit some policies and deal with new elites and leaders."

She describes this as a "real positive" for Iran, because the Islamic republic "has a natural predisposition toward uncertainty and turmoil. They don't need a wholly sympathetic or identical system of government as the Iranians themselves [have developed]. They simply need to see some of their old adversaries pushed out of power and they need to have opportunities to cultivate new allies."

The turbulence in Bahrain -- where Saudi troops were recently deployed to help the U.S.-backed Sunni monarchy suppress an uprising among the Shi'ite majority -- seems to capture the Iranian specter in microcosm.

Events there have been heavily covered by Iran's state-controlled media, which has sided with their fellow Shi'a. This is in contrast to the deadly clashes in Syria, Tehran's close ally, which have been virtually ignored. Iranian officials, including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, have also bitterly criticized the Saudi involvement in Bahrain, with some predicting the imminent collapse of Saudi Arabia's Western-backed dynasty.

The global intelligence website Stratfor recently depicted the turmoil in Bahrain as the center of a wider struggle with greater strategic importance than events in Libya or elsewhere in North Africa. "Bahrain is the focal point of a struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the western littoral of the Persian Gulf," wrote Stratfor's chief executive officer, George Friedman, who added that Tehran's goal was to be "the dominant power" in the gulf.

The Wrong Frame Of View

Yet the portrayal of Iran as "the biggest show in town" rankles some specialists, who believe it runs the risk of blinding policymakers to underlying currents in the region. Scott Lucas, head of the EA World View website and an Iran analyst at Birmingham University in Britain, describes it as a "terrible approach."

"The U.S. is applying a relatively old strategy of linking up with elites in the region to a new situation and I don't think they're really thinking through the consequences" argues Lucas, who says the approach is unsuited to an "asymmetrical battle" that is being waged. "The issue of political legitimacy is the one that people are pushing. It's not the U.S.-Iran contest, it's not even the question of economic factors and if you are seen in any way as basically not really being on board with that question of political legitimacy, if you are seen as in effect trying to impose this Iran question on top of it, I think it'll bite you on the backside."

The regime in Tehran has mirrored the tendency to view the Arab revolts in geostrategic terms, portraying them as rebellions, inspired by Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979, against unpopular U.S.-backed governments.

The difference, Lucas says, is that Iran's approach is driven by propaganda purposes stemming from a need to distract its own discontented population still smarting over Ahmadinejad's bitterly disputed reelection in 2009. The U.S. policy, by contrast, is being shaped by "mistaken conceptions" about Iranian power that overlook the country's internal weakness.

"What Egypt should have proven to us is that the old way of looking at this as some kind of "Great Game", where these countries are just pawns in the Great Game and the people are just pawns, [is] absolutely out of date," Lucas says. "It also completely wipes out the internal considerations regarding Iran. This is a country which has serious internal issues. All you do by projecting this Iran game in the Middle East is ignore those issues. The U.S. made this mistake in 2009 when it went with a nuclear-first approach to Iran and missed what was happening. It's making the same mistake in 2011."

And according to Parsi, fixating on the time-honored Washington-versus-Tehran policy frame obscures the emergence of new contests in the region.

"The inherent weakness of all frames is that they may not be capable of incorporating completely new and unforeseen developments," Parsi says. "The competition between Iran and the United States is still there but it's not the only competition. There are new developments taking place in the region and the major question going forward is going to be how the relationship between Egypt, Turkey, and Iran will change the picture."
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: fereydoun from: vienna
April 13, 2011 18:00
It is true that Iran often looks like a forgotten country.Even when the country is back into the centre of world attention,it is either bacause of nuclear issue,human rights violations and the like.However,Iran country is passing through serious and decisive economic transformation that could change its doomed economic charactor since the beginning of the century.Inspite of all mismanagements and unwise decisions that is being taken in this country,Iran is fast moving towards becoming an emerging market.In fact one important reason behind the current international sanction against Iran is to prevent the country from achieving that objective.
In Response

by: Kaveh from: Esfahan
April 15, 2011 20:58
I am sorry “Fereydoun”, it is so hard to be a propagandist for a discredited regime in the information age, compare these stat for Iran just before revolution and now, Iran was ahead of South korea in 1977. Now Korea has hi-tech giants as Samsung, LG and SK, in addition to Hyundai etc. IRI has Revolutionary Guard
Year=1977, Per Capita income (PPP)
Iran,$3400
South Korea,$1850
Turkey$1900

Year=2010, Per Capita income (PPP),GDP,Exports
Iran,$3,400,$360 B,Export goods petroleum (80%), chemical and petrochemical products (4%), fruits and nuts (2%), cars (2%), carpets (1%), technical services
South Korea,$30,200,$1,007 B,semiconductors, wireless telecommunications equipment, motor vehicles, computers, steel, ships, petrochemicals
Turkey,$13,400,$742 B
N Korea,$1200,$1800,stupid acting leaders- the same as IRI
In Response

by: Kaveh from: Esfahan
April 16, 2011 18:52
sorry - corrections:
Year=1977- Per Capita income (PPP)
Iran-$3400
South Korea-$1850
Turkey-$1900
North Korea-$1200

Year=2010- Per Capita income (PPP)-GDP-Exports
Iran-$11,400-$360 B-Export goods petroleum (80%), chemical and petrochemical products (4%), fruits and nuts (2%), cars (2%), carpets (1%), technical services
South Korea-$30,200-$1,007 B-semiconductors, wireless telecommunications equipment, motor vehicles, computers, steel, ships, petrochemicals
Turkey-$13,400-$742 B
N Korea-$1900-$28 B-stupid acting leaders like IRI regime

by: James D. from: USA
April 13, 2011 19:02
Mr. Lucas and Mr. Parsi are right -- US vs Iran is much too simple of a framework for looking at everything that is happening in the Middle East!

by: irani from: France
April 13, 2011 19:22
fereydoun,
I disagree that Iran is emerging as economic power any more than its oil/gas base, hampered by 75 M+ population to feed and inefficient globally unintegrated economy. Iran's claim is a joke to self sufficiency (cheap imports from China and destruction of small biz that slowly was growing a decase ago is evident to anyone close to Iran). Just compare that with Tureky with non-oil economy, outpasing Iran in every aspect and 10 fold if you take the resources Iran has and Turkey does not. So I agree with Parsi analysis. Israel current view is to see middle-east in prism of Iran and that biases US (not all though). I think even Israel interest is not to see ME in prism of Iran. If left alone, in the multi-game of ME, the Khamenei-Ahmadinezhad failure will be even more self evident.
In Response

by: Irani from: California
April 14, 2011 13:06
The only thing common between Iran's economy and Turkey's is the size of their market (Turkey is actually slightly larger) . Turkey has open access to credit markets, Iran has none. Turkey has open access to U.S and EU markets for its products, Iran has none. Turkey has free access to most technologies available, Iran has to circumvent sanctions to have access at a lot higher cost. The only advantage Iran has is access to cheap energy where Turkey through free access to cheap credits and etc. is offsetting that advantage. Iranian economy has experienced a revolution, subjected to various forms of sanctions for decades plus eight years of war with Iraq and mismanagement by the regime and a negative image as a consequence of the actions of its government, but still manages to be the 19th largest economy in the world only two notches away from 17th largest which is Turkey (according to the CIA website). By the way Iran has practically no international long term debt as opposed to Turkey.

That 19th place is quite an accomplishment by economically active Iranians who metaphorically speaking have one hand and one leg tide and are forced to run.

On a recent visit to Iran where I traveled to 5 different cities I noted a very active and vibrant economy trying to adjust with current world economic downturn and cutting of subsidies.

I also noted during my encounters and conversations with average Iranians whether taxi drivers, a barber, merchants, an old man who attends to the tennis court at one of Tehran's tennis clubs(he was furious with Ahmadinejad),professionals, government employees etc. there is a big grudge against the regime to the extent we saw the demonstration in 2009. But when I would ask them if they want the regime to be overthrown through a revolution similar to the 1979, the overwhelming answer was, no!

It seemed to me Iranians were fed up with experiencing crisis after crisis in the country and they are plotting their next move to force reform within the regime .

One example is the economic reform currently undertaken by the government is in my opinion as a result of the 2009 uprising. This reform package was ready for implementation almost 16 years ago but was post pond by various administrations until today were I think the government is forced to put it in action.

By the way I noted less "cheap Chinese" products than I encounter in California every day. But I saw quiet a few Chinese engineers in Tehran, two of them at a park called "Soul" (after south Korean capital) munching on a bag of Iranian pistachios, when I asked them about what they thought of U.S sanctions against Iran, they responded by saying how good the sanctions were for china, and with out it they probably would not have work in Iran living in a luxury apartment in northern part of Tehran.

Now where is my bag of pistachios.
In Response

by: mimi from: Vienna
April 14, 2011 22:53
With all due respect, you have no clue of what is really going on in Iran. Like many other Iranians who live in diaspora, you have visited Iran for a few weeks or months and enjoyed the hospitality and probably you had a few conversations with middle class people on the streets. I left Iran only a few weeks ago and I can say it for sure that the overwhelming majority of people in that country live in abysmal poverty, inflation is skyrocketing and finding a decent job for most university graduates is an elusive dream. Sanctions have created some opportunities for some Korean or Chinese firms to start businesses in Iran but that can hardly make up for the insufferable pain that Iranians have to endure every time they travel on board one of those dilapidated Russian planes. To make a long story short, Iran could have been one of the most developed countries in the world BUT...

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
April 13, 2011 19:34
Talking about the Arab awakening, guys, what happened in Lybia? I thought that the successful American air strikes were going to dislodge Gadafi from Tripolis within days, that humane democratic rebels were going to go all the way to the Lybian capital and democratically hang Gadafi, the way Americans' friends did with Saddam. And now it looks like NATO prefers to occasionally bomb its own friends (this is a part of the strategy, of course) and in general looks kind of stuck in three wars (Afg Iraq and Lyb) simultaneously. Or it's just going to take some time for democracy to win on this front, the way it is taking time in Afghanistan :-).

by: hass from: hassani1387@yahoo.com
April 13, 2011 20:17
I don't think that the election is "still bitterly disputed" at all. That's why the so-called Green Movement has since fizzled out.

by: Yashar from: Germany
April 13, 2011 21:34
To analyze the events in the Middle East and North Africa by focusing on what Iran is going to benefit from them or not, is shear shortsightedness. It is typical of some US analysts who cannot see the wood for the trees. With the exception of comments made by Lucas, the rest are wide of the mark and nonsensical. Protesters in Bahrain, Syria and Egypt have said that they do not follow Iran and they do not wish their country to be run like Iran. So how is Iran going to benefit from the Arab awakening? God grant you some common sense!

by: Kaveh from: Esfahan
April 13, 2011 22:04
The Islamic regime no doubt miss the good old days in the 1980s when brute force and control of the media allowed them to control much of the information received by Iranians. Instead the regime devotes its energy and resources to jailing journalists and activists, building bigger prisons, filtering the internet, and financing suicide jihadists and cyber-warriors.
It is a country without a true government, as regimes such as this do not govern their people, they simply try to control them. A true government would address 15% inflation, joblessness and the more than 10 million drug addicts in a country of 70 million people. These Islamic awakenings, as Islamic regime party line suggests, recall Iran's own revolt against the Shah of Iran in 1979. And the message to the Iranian people now seems to be: you already had your Islamic awakening; the Arab world is simply catching up. There is just one problem with this line of reasoning: it's not true today, and it wasn't true in 1979, either. The Iranian in 1979 did not chant: "Death to the Shah, long live an underperforming, isolated revolutionary state ruled by unelected and corrupt clerics in alliance with a dubiously elected president and a rapacious military establishment with a demonstrated willingness to deploy brute force on its own citizens amid an environment of chronic inflation and economic woes.

by: Iran Girl
April 14, 2011 03:49
A huge disappointment that the article references Islamic Republic lobbyist and apologist Trita Parsi as a credible source.
In Response

by: Feridun
April 15, 2011 08:54
My elderly relatives (who have not lived in Iran for many many years) tell me that the Iranian people are not so interested in democracy because they have never really known it. However, they are very interested in having their own business and being able to earn some money to support their family and have a good life. It sounds like even this has disappeared.

by: Freedom from: USA
April 15, 2011 16:00
Mr. Trita Parsi is on the payroll of Islamic Regime of terror and death. Anything he says and does in Washington, is according to the orders he receives from Tehran which is campaigning for the regime's security at all cost. For naive Americans believing what this article suggests is truly sad.
Islamic Regime is an illegitimate regime that must and will be uprooted with all of its faction by Iranian people. As for Mr. Parsi he will one day have to respond to the Iranian people in the court of law.

by: Irandoost from: NZ
April 17, 2011 22:06
Amazing how strong and effective the "Brain Washing" propoganda machine in Iran is. I don't blame pro-regime people in Iran, all they know is what they get told on state media. I grew up there and remember how thru out school they thought us that "all shah cared about was the rich and the big cities and did nothing for the poor." In the mid 1900s our country was in the dark ages, people had no electricity, refrigeration, hot water, roads, no showers. It was a feudal society adn only the programe of modernisation implemented by Mohammed reza shah and later by his son that made Iran what it is today. Every thing we have today down to the equipment we use in our hospitals to this day were the result of their vision...what have the mullahs done for the last 30years. I doubt that proponents of the regime know that the mullahs had given Fetwah banning vaccination as "najes"?! It was Shah's father who lifted the ban and introduced mass immunization for our country, one of tne many wonderful things that still benefits our country. I'm not a loyalist, just a realist. I hope we all live long enough to see this regime topple...Inshallah

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