The Imaginary Iranian ‘Empire’
Michael Rubin repeats a familiar lie:
Indeed, the Houthis represent perhaps the clearest example of Iranian imperialism.
Rubin refers to Iran as having “de facto control” over Yemen’s government, which is nonsense. Whatever limited support Iran has provided to the Houthis, that doesn’t give it control over the country or the Houthi-led government. Thomas Juneau studied this question and said this:
Yet as I argue in a recent article in the May 2016 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies.
If the Houthis are the “clearest example of Iranian imperialism” when the Houthis aren’t even really their proxies, we should conclude that referring to Iran as an “imperial” power is a ridiculous exaggeration. The purpose of repeating this falsehood isn’t only to provide cover for the Saudi-led war on Yemen by pretending that there is an Iranian “presence” to be eliminated, but also to lend support to the false claim that Iran is “on the march” throughout the region. Both are wrong, and the latter depends heavily on the former. Because Yemen wasn’t about to fall into the hands of Iranian proxies, we can see that Saudi claims to that effect are nothing more than paranoid propaganda. Because Iran isn’t “on the march,” we can recognize that indulging the Saudis and their allies in their most destructive habits is an indefensible blunder.
Iran undoubtedly has significant influence in Iraq and Syria, but at present it is trying to shore up two governments that currently don’t control large sections of their own territory. Insofar as those governments are satellites in Iran’s orbit, they have become liabilities that drain Iranian resources. There is also no question that Iran has substantial influence in Lebanon through Hizbullah, but that has been true for decades and hardly counts as proof of an “empire.” The reality is that Iran’s regional influence is considerably weaker than it was just ten years ago in large part because of its role in backing Assad in the Syrian war. Every other government in the region is opposed to them and their goals to one degree or another. If that qualifies as an “empire,” it is a very rickety and declining one.
Of course, the point of warning about Iranian “imperialism” is not to give an accurate assessment of what’s happening, but to push a flimsy story about how Iran has supposedly made great gains at the expense of the U.S. and its clients in recent years. The truth is that the biggest gain in regional influence that Iran made happened because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent empowerment of parties aligned with Tehran, and it hasn’t made another gain that is remotely comparable to that one since then. Michael Hanna sums this up nicely:
The revisionist history on Iranian regional power is convenient for many, but the major shift in Iran’s profile+posture happened in 2003.
— Michael Hanna (@mwhanna1) October 18, 2016
When that was happening over a decade ago, Iran hawks denied that it was taking place, and now that Iranian influence is receding they are convinced that Iran has an “empire.” If you want to get a good idea of how relatively powerful Iran is at any given moment, take whatever Iran hawks say about it and assume that the opposite is true.