The Phantom of Iranian “Expansionism”
Paul Pillar scoffs at the idea that Iran is striving to become the hegemonic power in the region:
In stark contrast to whatever minimal Iranian involvement there is in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia rolled its armed forces across the causeway to forcibly put down Shia unrest and prop up the Sunni regime in Manama. A similar contrast prevails today in Yemen, where any Iranian aid to the Houthis, whose rebellion was not instigated by Iran (and during which the Iranians reportedly have counseled restraint to the Houthis) is dwarfed by the Saudi airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians. (Tell us again—which Persian Gulf country is the hegemonic power?)
Stories of Iran as a supposedly threatening regional hegemon are not only not a reason to oppose reaching agreements with Tehran; the stories aren’t even true.
Hawks routinely overestimate the aggressiveness and ambition of other states. They frequently attribute to them motivations and goals that the hawks assume that these other states must have. Sometimes they try to ground these interpretations in ancient or early modern history, as the authors Pillar is criticizing try to do with Iran and the Safavids, or sometimes they place too much importance on the official ideology and public rhetoric of the regime. So we are constantly warned about a new “Persian Empire” on the one hand that longs to reconstitute the domains of the Achaemenids, Sasanians, or Safavids, and on the other we are told about the “revolutionary” nature of the regime that must inevitably make Iran an aggressive and revisionist power. Hawks take for granted that an officially “revolutionary” state must behave this way even when the evidence points in the opposite direction. Between believing their own propaganda and the most alarming parts of the propaganda of the other government, hawks predictably come away with a distorted picture of the regime’s goals and capabilities.
As Pillar notes, the chief problem with these stories is that they aren’t true, but because they are alarming and eye-catching they circulate widely and quickly. These stories are also told to build support for more hawkish policies in the region that aren’t warranted. The phantom of Iranian “expansionism” suits advocates for aggressive policies towards Iran very well in general, since the hawks can pretend that they are merely “responding” to an aggressive move by the other government. As we can see in the Yemen case, however, there is a danger in believing one’s own propaganda, since the gross exaggeration of Iran’s role there has led the Saudis, the U.S., and the other members of the coalition into a huge and indefensible blunder.