Iran and its supporters often go on about the scourge of American “imperialism,” and Iran famously executed the leader of its Jewish community in 1979 on charges of “economic imperialism.” The assumption implicit in this rhetoric is that “imperialism” can only apply to Western state actors, and that any such activity taking place in the Middle East can unwaveringly be traced back to the US or another Western power – while Iran and its proxies stand out as “anti-imperial paragons.”
But it is becoming increasingly apparent to the world – and to the Western press along with it – that Iranian imperialism is a key factor. For months, we have been noting how the threat of Iranian imperialism has been downplayed by the media (just like the danger of a nuclear Iran), with reporters such as The Huffington Post’s Graham E. Fuller and Paul Pillar of The National Interest dismissing it as “much hyped,” “overstretched,” or “supposedly threatening.”
As early as 2012, however, we singled outlets and reporters out for telling Iran like it is – a “revolutionary state” with imperialist designs and a “Shi’a missionary overlay,” not a “status quo power seeking acceptance in the global order,” to cite Robert Manning. And lately, with civil war- and ISIS-induced chaos raging in Syria, Iraq, and, most recently, Yemen (where Iran has been playing a Great Game), Tehran’s increasingly military involvement in its neighbors’ affairs and the benefits it has reaped from the region’s instability have made even more evident that in the Middle East, imperialism “lives on, but not as a Western conceit.”
This dawning understanding has been reflected in the media as well, with plenty of articles centering in recent weeks on Iran’s quest for domination – and possibly empire. From a Commentary Magazine piece in which Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was dubbed “the most successful imperialist in the history of modern Iran,” to a Foreign Policy op-ed by James Stavridis on “Imperial Iran” seeking to “expand” its borders by “pushing aggressively against neighbors in the region,” to another FP analysis – this one by Robert Kaplan – suggesting that Iran is poised to “inherit the void left by the disappearance of Ottoman, European, and American empires,” news outlets have been actively recognizing and addressing “the broad campaign of Iranian imperial activity.”
If nothing else, according to Stavridis, these shows of awareness go one step towards reassuring the West’s “increasingly nervous allies” in the Middle East – for whom an Iran seeking to export its religious revolution is hardly just “supposedly” threatening.