That Iran has not started a war in the last 200 years has become a common refrain among those who want to downplay the threat posed by the Islamic Republic. Alas, it is a false claim, but that has not diminished enthusiasm for it.
This is not the only myth that surrounds the Islamic Republic today. Also fundamental to its self-image is that the Islamic Republic has become a beacon of anti-imperialism, standing for the aggrieved and the oppressed against the Great Powers that would victimize them. It is this myth—propelled and repeated in official Iranian statements ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution—that has attracted so many progressives in Europe and the United States to view the Islamic Republic with a sympathy and to make normalization with it a progressive cause.
First, a bit of history: Imperial powers did victimize Iran over the centuries. The Portuguese seized Bahrain and other Persian Gulf islands in the sixteenth century. The nineteenth century was a time of almost constant British and Russian encroachment along Iran’s frontiers. While the European powers never formally colonized Iran, the British conspired at one point with Zill al-Sultan, the powerful governor of Isfahan, in order to divide Persia. In 1907, the Anglo-Russian Convention maintained theoretical Persian unity but nevertheless divided the country into spheres of influence in a move that Iranians saw as a great betrayal. Suffice to say, the notion of imperialism has traditionally touched a raw nerve among Iranians given Iran’s experience during the imperial era.
To internalize the anti-imperialist cause and embrace Iran makes little sense, however. Aside from Russia, Iran is the world’s most imperialist country today. It may not engage in formal empire building, unless Kayhan editor (and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointee) Hossein Shariatmadari’s dreams of annexing Bahrain come true. When it comes to informal empire, however, the Islamic Republic is on the march.
Despite then-Iranian UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif’s pledge to credulous American diplomats in 2003 that Iranian forces would stay out of Iraq, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps infiltrated thousands of militiamen and its own forces into Iraq almost immediately; they never left. Iraqis certainly do not like the Iranian presence. Some politicians will take advantage of Iranian backing but Iraqi nationalists—even Iraqi Shi’ites—view those in Iran’s pocket as quislings. In historiography, the notion of informal empire was largely economic. Iran fits the bill here, as Iraqis—especially those in southern Iraq and Baghdad—complain how Iran dumps cheap manufactured goods on Iraq, eviscerates Iraqi industry, and seeks to establish a monopolistic dependency on the Islamic Republic.
Syria, too, has become part of Iran’s imperial design. Analysts can point out how Iran needs Syria as a hub to support and supply Hezbollah. They can also rightly point out Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian solidarity with Iran, or Syria’s legacy as the only Arab state that supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Still, there’s something more going on when Iran dispatches thousands of “volunteers” and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corpsmen to fight in Syria. If Assad remains on top when the dust settles, he will no longer be a partner of Iran. Rather, he will be a clear subordinate. The real leadership inside Syria will be just as much in the Iranian embassy which, not by coincidence, is traditionally headed by a member of the Qods Force, the unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with export of the revolution.
Southern Lebanon has been under de facto Iranian suzerainty for decades and, with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s acquiescence to the Doha Agreement in 2008, Hezbollah now has effective veto power over the rest of Lebanese society.
Iranian authorities never dreamed they would also be in de facto control of the Yemeni government through their client Houthis. Put aside Saudi errors in its military campaign—none of that justifies Iran’s presence in the country. Nor is there popular support: The Houthis simply seized power and, with Iranian backing, used brutal force to consolidate it over areas that were never traditionally Houthi. Indeed, the Houthis represent perhaps the clearest example of Iranian imperialism. The Zaydi Shi’ism practiced by the Houthis is theologically closer to Sunni practice than the Twelver Shi’ism practiced in Iran. And yet part of the Iranian presence seems to be for the purpose of ‘returning the Houthis to the fold’ by proselytizing the Iranian brand of Shi‘ism.
That Iran was a “regional power” was once a staple of Iranian rhetoric. In recent years, Iran began talking about itself as a “pan-regional power.” Now it describes its strategic boundaries as the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Africa. Make no mistake: The Islamic Republic is an imperial power, little different in its quest for political and economic domination of poorer states as its tormentors were in the nineteenth century.