x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Policy of proxies works to deepen Iran's isolation

New revelations about Iran's bloody-handed meddling in neighbouring states shows again that the rulers there do not understand the best way to win influence.

Summoned to answer questions from Iranian lawmakers on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did nothing to appease his critics; in fact his banter and his dismissive tone seem to have further angered some MPs. It was another surprising turn in the poorly-veiled power struggle among Iran’s elites.

Less surprising, but perhaps more significant, are two news reports shedding light on Tehran’s tactics in regional affairs.

The New York Times said this week that Iran appears to be systematically sending rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, explosives, bomb components and cash to rebel elements in Yemen. This is being done largely by the Quds force, the elite covert-operations unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Meanwhile the Guardian says that hacked private email accounts, said to be used by the Assad family in Syria, have revealed a steady flow of advice to Bashar Al Assad, coming from Tehran, all of it aimed at helping him contain and minimise the year-long resistance movement, to which the regime’s response has grown steadily more bloody.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s hour-long showdown with the Majlis was focused on domestic affairs; squabbling at the top in Iran may have little to do with foreign policy, public or covert. But Iran’s regional activities do give cause for concern.

The new reports come just weeks after allegations that Iranians were behind recent planned and actual bomb attacks on Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok. Police in India named three Iranian suspects yesterday.

Iran’s truculent opacity about building a nuclear-weapons capability, along with the bomb attacks and these new reports, demonstrate just how badly Tehran’s decision-makers have misunderstood their best path to influence. Iran aspires to be a regional power, but wariness of “Persian” ambition is an ancient reflex in this region. To project its influence and gain stature among its neighbours, then, Iran’s best tools would surely be those of “soft power” – trade, cultural ties and cooperation – and not the violent and subversive approaches it seems to prefer.

The world can see clearly that Iran has isolated itself, obsessing over weapons – from AK-47s to atom bombs. Shamelessly trying to manipulate neighbouring states through violent proxy groups and clients is not the way to win friends or influence affairs.

Unfortunately, no player in Tehran’s power struggle seems ready to consider any other approach.