Concerns have previously arisen that Iran may similarly be promoting sectarian conflict in Oman, angling to exert more influence in the Arabian Peninsula through other Shiite militias. And Iran’s efforts to expand its sectarian influence certainly do not end there. In the island nation of Bahrain, Iran-supported Shiite rebels have been blamed for disrupting elections and destabilizing the political situation in an effort to overturn to Sunni power structure.
According to AFP, Iran attempted to assert direct influence over the situation in Bahrain on Wednesday when it urged the government there to release Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of the Al-Wefaq Shiite movement who is accused seeking regime change by force.
“We want to see him released,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham of Salman. But she and other Iranian officials have disregarded efforts to secure the release of Iranian political prisoners, including US nationals with dual citizenship. The regime has said of such people that it recognizes only their Iranian citizenship and that their cases are matters only for the Iranian justice system.
News.com.au reported on Wednesday that the US State Department had denied reports or a proposed prisoner swap with Iran in exchange for one such individual, former US Marine Amir Hekmati. But a State Department official renewed calls for Hekmati’s release. He has served two years of a ten year sentence on the charge of cooperating with a hostile regime, following the revocation of a former death sentence on the charge of spying for the US. Hekmati and the US have rejected all claims that he was in the country as a spy, and Iran has presented no corroborating evidence to the public.
Although the vast majority of attention by US policymakers is still focused on the nuclear issue, many critics of the Obama administration’s Iran policy have also highlighted a perceived failure to seriously push for the release of Hekmati and others, or to pressure the regime to improve its human rights record, end its support for global terrorism, or limit its regional influence.
These perceived failures contribute to an overall perception of Obama as “conciliatory” an “naïve” in his relations with the Islamic Republic. These are the terms that were emphasized by Public Radio East in an article recapping some of the reaction to Obama’s comments on Iran in an interview broadcast this week on NPR.
This is unlikely to appease Obama’s critics, however, including Senator Marco Rubio, who recently reiterated claims already made by other Republican senators to the effect that the new Congress would be capable of securing a veto-proof majority in favor of new sanctions against Iran. According to the USA Today, Rubio also declared that in his view there is currently no realistic prospect for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.
Rubio’s pessimism can be linked to the perception, voiced in an editorial by Ben Cohen at JNS.org which claimed that the Obama doctrine aims to turn “enemies into friends even when those enemies don’t want to become friends.”
This sentiment was echoed by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, who said that there is no evidence that the leaders of Iran are interested in joining the community of nations, and that quite to the contrary they seem to still be intent on broadening their influence in the region and developing an Iranian-Shiite hegemony there.
Furthermore, there are signs that Iraq may serve as an essential lynchpin in that effort, and this leads to significant concern about the fallout from allowing Iran to gain more political and military ground in its western neighbor. France24 reported on Wednesday that the two nations had just signed a memorandum of understanding on security matters amidst talks between the Iranian and Iraqi defense ministers.
Details of the agreement have not been released, but considering that Iran has already effectively re-built the Iraqi army as a series of Shiite militias known as the National Defense Force, there is justified speculation that the memorandum will also give Iran a leading hand in developing a new regular army.
This is sure to be a source of concern not only for Obama’s critics in the US government but also for Iran’s regional adversaries. This was emphasized on Wednesday by Ben Cohen, who wrote that Gulf Arab states, Egypt, Turkey, and other view it as their top priority to prevent an outcome specifically outlined by the Obama administration in his NPR interview this week – one in which Iran becomes a “very successful regional power.”
Iran already uses its strength to attempt to influence domestic activities in nearby nations. There may be new evidence of this from Pakistan this week. Pakistan Today reports that Iran has now denied earlier reports indicating that the two nations had agreed to waive penalties related to Pakistan’s delays in completing a joint pipeline project.
The delay between the initial reports and this denial may indicate that Iranian officials changed their mind, perhaps in response to the latest reported attacks this week by rebel groups in the Iran-Pakistan border area. That is to say, by denying this agreement, Iran may be pressuring the Pakistani government to crackdown on perceived threats to Iran before relations between the two countries are allowed to normalize again.