CNN’s Nicole Dow featured Hillary in an interview on “Iran’s Soft Power Messaging” last week in connection with the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, see here. Hillary also appeared on Al Jazeera over the weekend to talk about the new United Nations/Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and the prospects for progress toward resolving the conflict there (click on video above to view). Her two interviews bring together a number of important points about Iranian foreign policy and the requirements for a political settlement in Syria.
Twenty years ago, Harvard University’s Joseph Nye famously defined soft power as the ability to get others to “want what you want,” which he contrasted with the ability to compel others via “hard” military and economic assets. Hillary’s CNN interview explores what we have called the Islamic Republic’s “soft power offensive” in the context of the geopolitical and sectarian (Shi’a-Sunni) rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In the interview, Hillary notes that the rise of Tehran’s regional influence over the last decade has little to do with hard power. (As CNN’s Nicole Dow documents, “the numbers would certainly seem to bear this out. Last year, Saudi Arabia reportedly purchased as much as six times as much military equipment from the United States as Iran’s entire official defense budget.”) Rather, as Hillary points out, Iran’s rise is fundamentally about soft power. “We always think of Iran as a military dictatorship, but the Iranian message is clear: they want free and fair elections” in countries like Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iraq. “The Iranian message and belief is—if a country has free and fair elections, it will pursue independent policies that are in that country’s national interest. The Iranian belief is that if they pursue independent policies, they will inevitably be unenthusiastic about pursuing U.S. or Western policies.”
Hillary argues that Tehran can apply this approach even in Syria. Saeed Jalili, the secretary-general of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme National Security Council, has made clear that “Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way.” But, as Hillary points out, “The two big points of the Iranian push” [on how to deal with the Syrian situation] were for there to be a ceasefire in Syria for three months at the end of Ramadan, and that there should be free and fair elections.”
Iranian policymakers are willing to roll the dice on elections in Syria because, first of all, they judge (correctly) that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to retain the support of at least half of Syrian society. Thus, it is not at all clear that he would lose an election. But Hillary underscores that, even if Assad were to leave office as part of a democratic transition, “a free and fairly elected successor to Assad would not be interested in strategic cooperation with the U.S. and would not be interested in aligning itself with Israel. That would be completely against the views and histories of the people.”
On the other side of the Middle East’s geopolitical and sectarian divide, Saudi Arabia is pursuing a very different strategy, in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The Saudi strategy emphasizes the funding and training of fundamentalist Sunni groups ideologically aligned with Al-Qa’ida—groups that, in contrast to mainstream Sunni Islamists “who are not interested in killing other Muslims,” take a strongly anti-Shi’a stance. This is, of course, the strategy that Saudi Arabia followed when it joined with the United States to fund largely Pashtun cadres among the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—and then fueled the rise of the Taliban during the 1990s, after the Soviet withdrawal.
In Hillary’s assessment, “The Saudis cannot call for a ceasefire or for free and fair elections because the Saudis haven’t had free and fair elections in their own country. It doesn’t sound genuine, so they can’t do it, and they don’t want to do it. No precedent has been set to have everyone else doing it except them.” More fundamentally, though, “the Saudis aren’t interested in an outcome in Syria that leads to a government that carries out the interests of the people of Syria. What the Saudis are interested in is a head of state who will be on their side. And their side is against Iran and its influence in the region. This is a big albatross that Saudi Arabia has on its neck.”
Hillary elaborates on the point: The Saudis want to convince others in the region that “the Iranians don’t stand for Muslim causes, beliefs, independence or nationalism. The Saudis want others in the region to see the Iranians as Shiite, Persian, non-Arab, non-Sunni, and that what the Iranians are doing has nothing to do with democracy or freedom, but rather promoting a narrow sectarian vision…the Saudi message is that the Shiites are infiltrating Arab affairs to undermine the Sunni community and Sunni states. They see the Shiites as heretical, non-believing, non-Arab Persians. Some Sunnis believe that”—and some Saudis try to play on that “with a tremendous amount of money and weapons.”
But polls and other objective indicators suggest that regional publics are not buying the Saudi message. As Hillary concludes, “That’s where the conflict is today. It’s a battle today between this message that Iran has to promote of freedom,” in the sense of real independence, “and the Saudis that are really trying to fight that message.”
In Hillary’s reading, dealing with the contrast between the Iranian and Saudi approaches to Syria will be crucial to Lakhdar Brahimi’s chances of success in stabilizing the conflict there. On Al Jazeera, she highlights “two critical points” that Brahimi has made since taking over from former Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the U.N./Arab League Syria envoy.
First, Brahimi “has come out clearly against foreign military intervention. That is critically important because that could prevent the escalation of the civil war in Syria, and it could even start to dial back some of the armed support for opposition fighters.” Second, Hillary highlights Brahimi’s “refusal to simply parrot the White House talking point that Assad has to go and that Assad has lost all legitimacy. That is really a ridiculous point that is not going to lead to a negotiated outcome, and he has stood up courageously and refused to parrot it.”
Recalling her own experience working with Brahimi on post-9/11 Afghanistan, Hillary notes that his “track record” in the various civil wars and conflicts where he has been a mediator—Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti—is to focus on “power sharing. He focuses on getting together all of the critical players inside a country that need to be part of a solution. That’s power sharing. That’s not saying who goes and who leaves. That’s putting everybody into the same pot and having them work together. And then it’s critically important for him to work with the outside players.”
When challenged with an assertion that neither the Assad government nor the opposition is willing to talk, Hillary pushes back by observing that, just as the Islamic Republic supports a political solution in Syria, President Assad has been willing to talk with opponents since virtually the beginning of unrest back in March 2011. (So just who is it that it really blocking movement toward a possible political solution?) Furthermore, she underscores that it is largely the external Syrian opposition that has demanded Assad’s ouster up front; the internal opposition has not insisted on that.
In this context, she points out, Brahimi’s track record suggests that he will “focus on the players that are in Syria…He doesn’t actually have much time or patience for expatriates who sit in cafes in London or Paris. He doesn’t really think they’re players. He focuses on people who are in country.”
That is certainly a very different approach to post-conflict stabilization than that pursued by the United States in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and, now—in collaboration with Saudi Arabia—in Syria.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett