Iranian Diplomacy | Kaveh L. Afrasiabi: The new French President Emmanuel Macron is nowadays busy thrusting himself in the turbulent Middle East politics and, unfortunately, increasingly echoing the Iranophobic American and Saudi sentiments by warning of Iran’s “hegemonic” desires and “tendencies.” As expected, Tehran has reacted strongly against Macron’s, and his foreign minister jean-Yves Le Drian’s, ‘Trumpeseque’ calls for amending the Iran nuclear accord and addressing Iran’s ballistic missiles, warning that such hostile attitudes can negatively impact the growing Iran-French business relations.
One of the key problems with Macron’s and Le Drian’s frequent attachment of hegemonic ambitions to Iran is conceptual ambiguity, that is, their willingness to repeatedly invoke the concept of hegemony without ever defining it, other than giving the impression of a negative attribute suggesting coercive domination. But, this is a disservice to a commonly-used political jargon or concept that, in fact, is often used to distinguish from mere domination and control and, instead, conveys a more complex meaning that entails moral, political, and intellectual leadership, and the ability to take into account the interests of other groups and social forces and finding ways of combining them with one’s own interests.
Indeed, a cursory examination of the concept of hegemony in European (and more general Western) political philosophy and the various conservative, liberal and leftist interpretations of this much used and abused concept leaves no doubt that (a) there are contrasting interpretations, and yet (b) there is a common tendency to distinguish dictatorship from hegemony, which is often linked with “consent.”
Thus, the American political scientist Joseph Nye, in his recent article on “American hegemony or American primacy” carefully distinguishes the two and relies on a host of objective deterministic factors favoring the latter. As is rather well-known, the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci is credited with the contemporary use of the term hegemony, relating it to a complex strategy of domination that relies on the mix of ‘soft’, i.e., persuasive, and ‘hard’, i.e., coercive, power, emerging out of social and political contexts. According to Raymond Williams, hegemony is dynamic and has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. Inevitably, it is organically linked to “leadership” and the ability to muster the necessary ingredients of political and, in the case of states, diplomatic leadership.
Notwithstanding the above-said, the nub of the problem with President Macron’s explicit connection of hegemony with Iran is two-fold. First, it overlooks the positive connotations of the term and simply assumes a purely negative connotation of the term and, second, it fails to distinguish it from (regional) leadership.
Concerning the latter, it is the requirement of a dialectical, both historically, geographically and geopolitically conscious, mind-set to recognize the Persian Gulf and Middle East realities and to recognize the significance of leadership role Iran is presently playing beyond her borders. In the emerging post-ISIS context, with the region slowly recuperating from the calamitous past few years of rampant terrorism that will require years of rebuilding from the ashes of violent struggles, it is vitally important to disallow the region’s relapse to yet another round of terrorism-infested context wreaking havoc on both regional and global peace and security.
If hegemony relates to specific distribution of power and influence, then it is glaringly obvious that Iran’s position in the region is recently enhanced both directly, as a result of Iran’s prudent foreign policy actions, such as rushing forces to Erbil to assist the Iraqi Kurds against the ISIS onslaught four years ago, when the American President was turning a blind eye and branding the ISIS phenomenon as an “internal problem,” much to the pleasure of Saudi and other sponsors of ISIS and other terrorists in Iraq and Syria, who are now the net losers of a power competition gone badly for them, principally due to their misguided policies and priorities. In turn, this points at yet another basic flaw in Mr. Macron’s Middle East approach, that is, his muted criticism of the Saudis’ destructive policies against their neighbors such as Yemen and Qatar, which have been tolerated by the West simply because of the Saudi oil power.
Furthermore, doubtless it would be a tissue of historical naivete to ignore France’s own “hegemonic tendencies” so plainly obvious in France’s modern history in general and Middle East and African politics in specific. After all, France’s self-insertion in Persian Gulf security calculus through its naval base in the UAE since 2009 by the former President Nicolas Sarkozy has been openly deemed as a quest for “influence” parallel to the American and British influence in the region, dubbed as “peace camp” although one might be inclined to use a more appropriate term such as “interventionist.” But, of course, consistent with their second-nature Orientalism, neither France nor any other Western power is ever willing to embrace such negative pejoratives that, god forbid, insinuates any neo-colonial desires or ambitions, for these powers are officially above any blame and or ill-intentions, their powers are always couched in the benign language of “peace and stability,” not one of ‘divide and conquer’. There is, of course, a certain chasm between the rhetoric and reality that is a matter for historians and political analysts to sort through.
In conclusion, Mr. Macron would be well-advised to inspect the Persian Gulf map more closely, e.g., at Iran’s long shorelines and strategic islands, etc., in order to reach the apt conclusion that Iran is destined to play a significant leadership role commensurate with its history, location, and nexus of power relations. In both Iraq and Syria, Iran owes no apology for fighting terrorism, which could creep closer and closer to her own borders if left unchecked, and, certainly, Iran’s ability to forge close strategic partnerships with the governments of Iraq, Turkey, and Russia, to counter the terrorist menace is a big plus even for the sake of Europe’s own security. Unfortunately, Mr. Macron’s discourse on Iran leaves a lot to be desired and is bereft of the basic understanding of the historical necessity of Iran’s prudent leadership role, which is markedly different from naked aggression or coercive hegemony attributed to the country by the current French officials, who are now risking the health of France’s (lucrative) ties with Iran by their liberal misuse of the term hegemony.