Dealing with Iran’s Exercise of “Smart Power”


The Financial Times, a right of center but highly respected newspaper, could not resist about coming up with a sensational headline: “Hizbollah confirms broad aid for Hamas.”  The Hizbollah-Hamas connection is not exactly an unknown variable, only its specifics are.  Even after the admission of Hezbollah’s deputy leader that his organization is providing military assistance to Hamas, the issue still remains murky and unconfirmed by other sources.  Why, then, is there so much hoopla about Hezbollah’s admission of support for Hamas? Because that reality only underscores the effective exercise of “smart power” on the part of Iran–Hezbollah’s chief backer–in the Sunni Middle East.  That is also worrying the United States, which, under the Obama administration, is relearning to come up with its own smart power-related maneuvers towards Iran.

For the uninitiated, “hard power” is a euphemism for military power.  Soft power, on the contrary, describes the use of all other activities such as diplomacy, cultural variables, trade, and aid, etc.  Joseph Nye, a Harvard Professor and the coiner of the phrase “soft power” described smart power as: It “is about tapping into diverse sources of American power, including our soft power, to attract others. It is about how we can get other countries to share our goals without resorting to coercion, which is limited and inevitably costly.”

The United States has been one of the oldest practitioners of smart power without even coining that phrase or without even recognizing the necessity for harping on it.  The only reason that phrase appears as a novel idea during the Obama presidency is because it followed an administration (that of George W. Bush), which almost ruined America’s reputation as a practitioner of soft power. 

Bush’s exercise of unilateralism, his voluble pronouncements about “regime change,” his use of intolerable phrases such as “axis of evil,” “either you are with us or you are against us,” and “preemptive wars” created so much global antagonism toward the lone superpower that the international community has pretty much forgotten the unsullied role of the United States in rebuilding the global economic and political order from the ruins of World War II. 

The American exercise of hubris worldwide during the eight years of George W. Bush created an unpleasant impression on the collective memory of the international community.  So the global discussion of the potential demise of the United States as the presiding power of the unipolar global order was received as welcome news throughout the world.  However, President Barack H. Obama’s promise of the exercise of soft power has acquired the status of a soothing melody emanating from Washington, D.C., after a long-lasting thunder storm.

Iran has emerged as a leading practitioner of smart power in the wake of America’s invasion of Iraq.  However, it has deftly mixed that soft power with its own exercise of hard power, by challenging America’s invasion and continued occupation of Iraq.  Iran could do that, ironically, because the United States played a crucial role in the creation of a Shia-dominated political order in Iraq.  In the new Iraq, Iran supported those who hated the American presence–most significantly Muqtada al-Sadr and his ilk.  Even those who were not active in demonstrating their hatred toward the United States felt much empathy for the insurgent activities of the Mahdi Army (which was a pro-Muqtada Shia paramilitary force).  Iran was also one of the chief backers of Hezbollah during the aforementioned 2006 war against Israel.

There also have been rumors of Iran’s alleged cooperation with al-Qaida in Iraq in that organization’s asymmetric war against the U.S.  Iran was most effective in the use of its al-Quds elite force in creating an anti-American chaos in Iraq between 2003 and 2006.  That force specializes in working closely with non-state actors in such countries as Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine.  Iran clearly understood that the most effective way of using smart power was to establish its credibility through the use of hard and soft power, which it also has been exercising in the aforementioned countries.

As the Obama administration contemplates having a comprehensive dialogue with Iran, it has remained wary about that country’s rising potential clout in the Middle East.  The Sunni Arab states–who have been most comfortable in dealing with the United States during and after the Cold War years–envisage Iran’s growing popularity with considerable apprehension.  They do not know how to deal with it because it is heavily slanted in favor of populism, which the Arab autocrats envision as a threat to their archaic rule.  Their memory of the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s is being revived.  At that time, the late Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini used the plight of the Mustadafeen (the underprivileged or the downtrodden) as a battle cry for ousting the pro-American Shah of Iran.  Now, even without that rallying call, Iran’s message is interpreted as an implicit message for anti-monarchical or anti-dictatorial changes in the Arab Middle East. 


The pro-American Sunni monarchs have long dominated the Middle Eastern political scenes without attempting to resolve the Palestinian issue.  By challenging the U.S. in Iraq and by supporting the Hezbollah of Lebanon, which challenged and survived the punishing military attacks of Israel in the war of July-August 2006, Iran is seen as the new liberator of the Mustadafeen of the Middle East.

As the United States edges toward negotiating with Iran, Iran’s hardline approach toward the lone superpower appears as an effective strategy for the Middle Eastern masses, a strategy no Arab ruler has the nerve to pursue on his own.  However, for Iran, its approach is more of an exercise of soft power than anything else. 

It is based on a blend of realism, Machiavellianism, rationalism of keeping its option of a dialogue with the United States very much open, and, above all, “Islamic populism” of a new variety.  This particular brand of populism is also open for a rapprochement with the U.S., which had maintained a strident anti-Iranian posture throughout the existence of the Islamic Republic.

If Iran’s exercise of soft power succeeds in reaching a comprehensive rapprochement with the United States, its leadership of the world of Islam will be an unquestionable reality.  While neighboring Pakistan has been reduced to a client state of the United States, and while Arab rulers are struggling to find common ground for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran is beginning to be viewed by the United States as a major Muslim country, and a state with which it must reach a modus Vivendi.  That is the ultimate success of Iran’s exercise of soft power.