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The Hawkish Fantasy of an Iranian ‘Empire’

John Limbert dismantles [1] 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 [2], 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 [3] written by Stavridis on Iran, but this is hardly the first time he has made nonsensical, ahistorical claims on the subject [4]. 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.

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10 Comments To "The Hawkish Fantasy of an Iranian ‘Empire’"

#1 Comment By Joe F On November 4, 2016 @ 12:14 am

Iran delenda est

Saudi Arabia, the MIC, and Israel demand it.

#2 Comment By Aegis On November 4, 2016 @ 2:15 am

Iran was never a major threat. Sure some funding of perhaps malicious organizations but what major country does not do that? Iran could have built an atomic bomb easily in any of the last 6 years and they chose not to. Why is that? Perhaps Iran actually is not an aggressive nation. After all they have not invaded another nation in hundreds of years.

#3 Comment By Phil Giraldi On November 4, 2016 @ 9:35 am

Ex-CIA acting chief and current Hillaryite Michael Morell is advocating US Navy international waters interception of Iranian ships alleged to be transporting arms to the Houthi. That used to be referred to as piracy.

I was at a conference last December in which ex-DIA head Michael Flynn, current Trump adviser, said that Iran is responsible for at least five conflicts currently engulfing the Middle East.

One might just assume that the people are demented but I suspect that they are actually being clever, knowing that Iran bashing is extremely popular and a sure route to continued relevancy and power no matter who is elected next week.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 4, 2016 @ 10:00 am

The foreign policy mavens are still bristling from the overthrow of the Shah. The same way Putin is hated for not being Yeltsin.

#5 Comment By Johann On November 4, 2016 @ 10:38 am

It is unacceptable to the US and Israel for there to be any significant power in the middle east that they do not control. That is why Iran is the boogie-man and is called the largest state sponsor of terror, even though they don’t do non-battlefield terror. That is a Sunni thing. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and indirectly the US are the largest state sponsors of terror, beginning with our support of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.

#6 Comment By mars probe On November 4, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

You’re being a bit harsh, I think. Admiral Stavridis is free of adult resposibilities now and entitled to imagine whatever fantastical anachronisms he likes.

I sort of like the idea of a neo-Zoroastrian empire ranging from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas and the Caspian to the Arabian Sea.

But he should have elaborated it further to include doughty Ottomans and brave Hellenes checking its westward movement, wild Scythians or perhaps MONGOLS hemming it in from the north, while the other side of the Himalayas bristles with anachronistic Islamic and Hindu nuclear arsenals under the personal control of the 12th Imam and Lord Indra. Elsewhere of course the United States is in a death struggle with a resurgent human-sacrificing Aztec civilization to its south, the Jews are still arguing over whether to be ruled by judges or a king, the Egyptians are perfecting the art of mummifying cats, and the Atlanteans are squaring off with the people of Mu …

… and where does it all end, one asks? To which the answer is: in a village called Dabiq.

#7 Comment By Jonathan Lester On November 4, 2016 @ 6:24 pm

Decades of sanctions turned self-reliance into a point of pride for Iran, and I would submit that it’s a truly independent nation because of it. The same can’t really be said of Israel while it continues to accept American aid and protection.

#8 Comment By a spencer On November 5, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

Of course the people who peddle this nonsense are completely silent on the notion of expanding Eretz Yisrael, for instance.

I shouldn’t say “silent”. Some are vocal about it.

#9 Comment By a spencer On November 5, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

sorry for the double post.

>>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.

This is largely true, but consider its neighbors.

I hate to sound like a dread Persophile, but does Iran want to be friendly neighbors with Afghanistan or Pakistan? They share a longer border with Turkmenistan than either of those. Does anyone care about them? Azerbaijan coordinates with NATO. TAC’s Turkish expert wrote about Turkey’s fractious nature (and appears in these comments); anyway, most of Iran’s border with Turkey is Kurd/Armenian/Frontier People. Iraq? A separate discussion.

Befarmayid. No one has to like it, but the story of the Islamic Republic is that it has survived despite intense international opposition from its inception, including war and threats of war. As others have pointed out, it became a nation of self-reliance, for the most part. Best mechanics in the world, I’d bet money. Any piece of machinery.

#10 Comment By Seth Owen On November 6, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

As objective fact, how many sovereign nations has Iran invaded in the last, say, 200 years? Any?

How about the United States? Mexico, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, not to mention various colonies and dependencies of sovereign nations such as Cuba, Philippines, Canada, etc.