Soft vs hard power

Two articles offering different takes on Iran’s relationship with its neighbour Iraq.

The first, from the NYT’s At War blog, takes a look at the Iraq-Iran border, where American troops are currently training the Iraqi police in border control techniques. The difficulties associated with maintaining control over a porous and endlessly shifting border mean that it is these troops who will likely be the last to leave Iraq. American concern is greatest over the south-eastern section of the frontier, near key strategic points such as the sea ports in the Persian Gulf and Iraq’s oil fields; it is here, too, where explosives, missiles, and guns are allegedly smuggled from Iran. Yet the stand-off between Iranian and American troops along this frontier has its farcical aspects. Recently, the Iranians put up a large flag pole which dwarfed the Iraqi one on the other side of the border. They have on occasion encroached a few feet into Iraqi territory, ‘just to test things’, according to one American officer. The border itself seems to creep further and further westward.

The recent alliance of the main Shi’ite parties in the Iraqi parliament has prompted speculation over Iranian influence in Iraqi politics, with some seeing the new bloc, consisting of the Iraqi National Alliance and State of Law parties, as representing a resurgence of sectarianism in Iraq. ‘Iran wins Iraqi election’, read one headline. Yet Ranj Alaaldin has a couple of reservations: firstly, the new alliance is unstable, and it is unlikely that they will all fall into line behind Iran. The religious and ethnic complexity of Iraq, furthermore, makes the establishment of a ‘theocracy’ unlikely. He still admits, however, that the clergy in Iraq hold great sway over the political sphere: ‘most major decisions in the political arena are made with some degree of approval from the religious establishment in Najaf’. The Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq is complex, and it is oversimplistic to claim that this alliance is a victory for Iran, but its influence should not be underestimated, and neither should the marginalisation of Sunnis that the new bloc creates, even if they are within themselves disunited.

All this goes to show the importance of Iran’s ‘soft power’ in the region. Subtle power plays on its borders, its political influence over its neighbours, and its support for groups such as Hizbollah are as significant as its nuclear weapons program. In the hysteria over whether or not Tehran has the bomb or intends to get it, Iran’s soft power should not be overlooked.

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