The U.S. government has long been accused of botching public diplomacy in the Muslim world, where the United States is largely seen as an aggressive superpower more interested in dropping bombs than promoting democracy.
Iran, on the other hand, has been bolstering its image not only by capitalizing on longstanding religious and economic ties, but also by contributing millions of dollars for the reconstruction of Lebanon and Afghanistan, as well as informal aid to Iraq.
A survey associated with the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that most of the world thinks the U.S.-led war in Iraq is a greater danger to world peace than Iran is and that the war has made the world a more dangerous place.
In predominantly Muslim countries, where the United States should presumably be focusing most of its soft-power energies, the project found that not only is the United States held in a negative view, but that Iran was regarded very favorably.
Since 2002, Tehran has committed more than $560 million to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, half of which has already been spent on “health, agriculture and road building projects,” according to the Iranian state-run IRNA news agency. The city of Herat, in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran, has a long trade history with Iran and has been largely rebuilt with Iranian funds.
And since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon, Iran has provided money, with some estimates exceeding $300 million, and workers for hundreds of projects to rebuild schools, clinics, roads and bridges. Some analysts say the money is going through Hezbollah, a militant group long labeled terrorist by the United States and long supported by Iran, to win them political support in the country.
Iran’s soft power has not simply come from government spending. Increased trade and religious links have provided Tehran opportunity as well.
According to Vali Nasr, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad, the border opened up to the flow of goods between the countries, as well as cross-border religious ties. Pilgrims bring money to Iraq, and Iranian religious endowments fund reconstruction.
“Iraqi Shias also have an enormous amount of influence in Iran, independent of the Iranian government. In other words, they are able to mobilize resources directly in Qom,” Nasr said. Qom is the religious center of Iran.
“Iran’s judiciary leader is an Iraqi, (Mahmoud Hashemi) Shahroudi. He is head of the judiciary, which is one of the most important organs of the Iranian state. He was born in Iraq; he is an Iraqi by upbringing,” Nasr said.
But Nasr does not see Iranian success as simply a result of what Tehran is doing now, but rather the fruit of its long involvement with its neighbors.
“What is new is the Afghanistan/Iraq angle, chiefly because, not because of things Iran has done, but because of the fall of Saddam and the fall of the Taliban. It provided Iran with new opportunities to build relationships with clients and to exert soft power. Iran’s allies ended up in government in Baghdad. When you have a situation of civil war in Iraq, clearly the Shias look to Iran,” Nasr said.
And there have been similar results in Afghanistan.
“The fact that Iran has more influence in Kabul is new because a lot of Iran’s clients ended up in government in Kabul. So it is not that Iran did anything new, it is just that the fall of the Taliban created a far more receptive environment for Iranian influence,” according to Nasr.
Iran’s so-called soft power is matched by its hard power. It is widely believed that Iran is arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as its traditional allies, who are in direct opposition to the Taliban.
The United States has officially argued as much. On July 31, Michael Mullen, President Bush’s nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during his Senate confirmation hearing that Iran may be providing arms to the Taliban.
According to Nasr, Iran is pursuing relations not only with its traditional allies in Afghanistan, but also with the Taliban, to “hedge their bets.”
However, during a trip to Washington last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai hailed Iran for its reconstruction efforts, as well as its anti-narcotics campaign.
“Iran has been a supporter of Afghanistan in the peace process that we have and the fight against terror, and the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan. … We will continue to have good relations with Iran. We will continue to resolve issues, if there are any, to arise. Well, so far Iran has been a helper and a solution,” Karzai said in an interview on CNN.
The United States has viewed Iran as a threat since U.S. diplomats were held hostage for 444 days between 1979 and 1981, and it has accused the Islamic republic of providing arms to Hezbollah in an attempt to subvert Lebanon and attack Israel, as well as destabilizing Afghanistan, and training and equipping Shiite militias in Iraq that have attacked U.S. troops.