Khomeinist Iran and the Arabs: Who Is Supporting Whom?
Khomeinist Iran and the Arabs: Who Is Supporting Whom?
The Iranian theory, explicit sometimes and implicit at others, is founded on the idea that Tehran, since its 1979 revolution, has been supporting the Arab effort to liberate Palestine and wipe Israel out and that Iran was the one to revive this project after the Arabs had abandoned it in succession.
Beginning with the Camp David Agreements of 1978 and 1979 between Egypt and Israel, the abandonment of the cause was subsequently crowned in 1993 when the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords.
The “betrayal” of Sadat’s Egypt and then of Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization are contrasted with the course taken by Iran, which does not compromise on the rights of the Arabs nor squander them.
This narrative leads us to conclude that Tehran has represented the interests of the Arabs - on their behalf, if not against their will - better than they represented themselves. To this end, its revolution cut the country’s diplomatic ties with Israel and then founded Hezbollah to resist Israel and its occupation, flooding Lebanon with missiles and tools of death. It did all that before launching its nuclear project, the sole driver of which was breaking Israel’s monopoly.
The idea of “representing” and “acting on behalf of” others have already been profusely critiqued.
Most political thinkers focused on the communist parties representing the working classes, one of the clearest examples. According to their narrative, these parties know the workers’ interests better than the workers themselves, as the latter have only a trade-unionist and economic consciousness. These parties thus transfer consciousness to the workers, as well as politicizing and organizing them and then leading their charge to topple the system exploiting them to replace it with one where the workers are in power.
This theory has been tested in several places, in former East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and other countries that communist parties governed in the name of the working classes; it always left the representatives oppressing those who had supposedly been being represented.
These experiences have demonstrated that this theory doesn’t hold water. First and foremost though, it is extremely paternalistic and demeaning of these “minors” who need others to tell them what their interests are and then lead them on their path to realizing them. That assessment applies to the Arabs in the Iranian narrative in the same way that it applies to the working classes in the communist narrative.
In fact, the opposite is always true: the intention is for the Arabs to support Iran in its battle against sanctions and help it realize its ambition of wresting a place for itself in the region, which the sanctions have impeded.
That is because the Iranian Republic - even before the series of sanctions imposed on it after its nuclear project was exposed in 1995 and then again in 2018 and 2020 after the collapse of the nuclear deal - was born into sanctions. They were first imposed in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, that is, after the US embassy in Tehran was stormed and its employees and diplomats were detained.
Being sanctioned and working to evade these sanctions are, in this case, foundational elements of the political system, not just a marginal or secondary characteristic. It is thus the element that dictates Tehran’s foreign policies and demands conditioning the entire Middle East to serve this purpose.
This conditioning is precisely what demanded and demands propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and keeping Iraq fragile and paralyzed (as is glaringly apparent today), as well as impoverishing Lebanon and forcing it into Iran’s orbit through Hezbollah.
Because the Israeli question remains among the most crucial pretexts of this project, clinging to the most radical, hardline positions on Palestine and the Palestinian cause has become required; otherwise, the claims and actions of Iran would lose all justification.
This relationship is most reminiscent of that between some countries in the Arab world and the Soviet Union: the latter provides the former with weapons, while the former grants the latter broad geographical and strategic reach, allowing it to establish a direct military presence and set up military bases.
Of course, the Soviets could not avoid supporting the Arabs in their wars with Israel, as this support was the pretext for the Arab-Soviet relationship. Nevertheless, an Arab victory in these wars was not in the realm of possibility.
The configuration and capabilities of the Soviet Union, as well as the nature of its relationship with the world, meant it had the capacity to shake up the status quo and agitate but not to launch the kinds of long, difficult, and costly campaigns needed to defeat Israel.
Now we see Putin’s Russia inheriting this specialty from the Soviet Union. This is most obvious in Syria: it can defeat the revolution but lacks the ability to build a more coherent and viable alternative to Assad’s regime.
In the same sense, a regime burdened by the need to lift sanctions that had been imposed on it can turn its vicinity into a card to play on the negotiating table or push it to rock bottom, but it cannot lead that vicinity in achieving the goal that it claims they share. Having the capacity to do so requires more force than those surrounded by sanctions can muster.