Home/Daniel Larison/The Hawkish Fantasy of an Iranian ‘Empire’

The Hawkish Fantasy of an Iranian ‘Empire’

John Limbert dismantles recent talk about Iran’s “empire”:

What is the relation of Cyrus’ vast empire to the current Islamic Republic and its clumsy foreign policy? None. In the past there were great Persian empires, whose armies burned Athens and humbled mighty Rome. But the last of those empires disappeared over 1,400 years ago with the victory of the in­vading Arab Muslim armies over the Zoroastrian Sassanians. Since then, Iran has either been a province of larger empires or a country confined roughly to its present-day borders. Its history for the last 200 years has been anything but imperial. More often it has been invaded, divided, threatened, manipu­lated, and exploited by outside powers.

We know that Iran hawks have worked overtime in the last decade to conjure up an image of an Iranian “empire” that imitates ancient Persian empires. This comes in the form of Stavridis’ crude essentialism that this sort of empire-building is in the DNA of Iranians, and it also crops up in pro-Saudi propaganda that Iran’s influence is supposedly expanding throughout the region. Limbert is specifically objecting to a recent op-ed written by Stavridis on Iran, but this is hardly the first time he has made nonsensical, ahistorical claims on the subject. The funny thing is that Stavridis thinks his complete misreading of modern Iran gives him deeper insight into the actions of their government, but it does just the opposite.

One of the falsehoods that Iran hawks spread on a regular basis is that Iran has significant influence in Yemen through its “proxies” the Houthis. The only problem with this is the Houthis aren’t their proxies and Iran’s influence in the country is negligible. Even if Yemen were included in Iran’s orbit, theirs would be a ramshackle “empire” indeed, but they can’t even legitimately claim to hold sway there, either. Their so-called “empire” is imaginary, and it is invented by people that need to make Iran into a much larger threat than it is to justify the bad policies in the region they want the U.S. to carry out. As Limbert notes, Iran is relatively weak and isolated in the region:

Instead, the Islamic Republic today operates from a position of weakness caused by both cultural isolation and its own diplomatic ineptitude. It has managed to alienate almost all of its neighbors with the exception of chaotic Syria and tiny, land­locked Armenia. When the Islamic Republic’s rulers allowed a mob to trash Saudi diplomatic premises in January 2016, and then made only a grudging apology, they only further isolated themselves from much of the Arab world. Iran’s foreign influence today is feeble, and consists mostly of backing factions in the most dysfunctional places…

We hear constantly from our politicians and from the Saudis and their allies about the need to “counter” or “contain” Iran, but the reality is that Iran’s government has done a fine job of alienating almost the entire region and greatly reducing whatever influence they may have had as recently as ten years ago.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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