Washington, D.C.-"An Iraqi would see
himself as an Iraqi first, a Shiite second, and an Arab third; an Iranian would
see himself as an Iranian first, an Iranian second, and an Iranian third." This
comment on the identity of Shiite Muslims was made by United States Institute of
Peace fellow Barbara Slavin during the June 20 presentation of her new USIP
Mullahs, Money, and Militias: How Iran Exerts Its Influence in the Middle East
on Capitol Hill.
Barbara Slavin is the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. available from amazon
Slavin dissected Iran's nuclear strategy saying that its real goal is a form of "strategic ambiguity," akin to Israel's refusal to confirm or deny its own nuclear arsenal as a means of deterrence. In reference to American efforts to curtail Tehran's actions through sanctions, Slavin was critical saying that the United States is beginning to get a portion of the blame for Iran's economic problems normally reserved for Ahmadinejad. She claimed that the so-called "surgical sanctions" aimed at only affecting the government are "causing a lot of pain" for the citizens while Tehran remains unafraid. According to a prominent Iranian economist Slavin interviewed, as long as oil prices remain at record high levels, Iran "will survive."
She did much to disprove the current belief that either the United States or Iran has total domination of the Middle East, claiming that although "Iran is more powerful now than seven years ago because of US actions," its power is far from overwhelming. Slavin defended this by adding that the US still has "plenty of cards to play" and that Iran is more than aware of the fact that the US is "not exactly leaving the region."
According to Slavin, Iran has traditionally played a major role within its neighbors' borders, including the construction of the state-of-the-art Rasoul Al-Azam hospital which treats over 200,000 patients a year at no cost or heavily discounted prices as well as "cradle to the grave" services for families of "martyrs."
However, as Iran's economy has weakened, so has its role as benefactor to the rest of the Middle East; Slavin remarked that individual Muslims outside of Iran have filled the vacuum in social services left by Iran. Slavin cited the growing independence of Hezbollah as a prime example, claiming that the group now makes its own tactical decisions and has become more of Iran's partner as opposed to its proxy. As for Iran's link to Hamas, Slavin insisted that the relationship is purely a marriage of convenience and not of ideological cohesion.
Slavin put these comments into the context of clarifying Iran's true sway in Iraq and the greater Middle East. She referred to Iran's weakening relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki as well as the deep division between Arabs and Persians as factors that decrease Iran's influence. In conjunction with the aforementioned quote on Iranian/Iraqi identity, Slavin relied on a statement from a prominent associate of Muqtada al Sadr who said that the supposed link between Shiite Iranians and Shiite Iraqis is comparable to the ties between the British and Germans: a religious commonality exists but it is heavily offset by cultural, historical, and especially linguistic divides.
Although Slavin admitted to overestimating Iran's true power before creating the report, she remained wary of its reach, stating that Iran "always has its people."
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