Why Are Academics Ignoring Iran’s Colonialism?

Iranian armed forces members march during the National Army Day parade in Tehran, Iran, September 22, 2019. (Official Iranian President website/Handout via Reuters)
Behavior they decry when done by Europeans is overlooked when practiced by the Islamic Republic.

Academics today are obsessed with colonization, empire, and cultural hegemony, along with postcolonialism, ethnic studies, and intersectionality. Scholarship in many fields has come to be dominated by hegemony-fighting, indigenous-supporting anti-imperialists who attack anyone who disagrees with them. When a journal called Third World Quarterly published an article in 2017 about the benefits of colonialism, the uproar from the social-justice professors led to the article’s being withdrawn and 15 members of the editorial board resigning amid threats.

So if the profession is so adamant about the evils of colonialism, why is it ignoring Iran?

When strong countries exert their (unfair) advantages over weaker ones, imposing their values and cultures and manipulating indigenous economies, academics are among the loudest and most creative critics. Even the most benign influence of a powerful country over a weaker one is excoriated — hence the long obsession with something called “cocacolonization.” Legions of scholar-activists are busy enlisting history to shed light on the present, drawing parallels between a benighted European era of colonization and an ongoing American or Israeli one, looking under rocks for signs of Western, American, and Trumpian oppression and proclaiming a new American empire. Fair enough — but why ignore the Iranian attempts to do exactly to others what they accuse others of having done to Iran?

Journalists and analysts, such as Jonathan Spyer and Seth Frantzman, have been documenting Iran’s colonial expansion for many years. But most academics have been reluctant to turn their skills on Iran. Many prefer softer targets, such as Israel and the U.S. Earlier this month, the United Nations’ Decolonization Committee pushed eight anti-Israel measures through the General Assembly, showing where its priorities lie.

Even without its violations of other countries’ sovereignty, Iran itself is an empire, with ethnic Persians dominating the Arabs, Kurds, Balochis, Azeris, Turkmen, Lur, Gilakis, and Mazandaranis. Only a few, notably Daniel PipesIlan Berman, and Shoshana Bryen, are interested in this fact.

Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution was an imperialist project from the beginning, as one of his first moves after taking power (even before the collapse of the post-shah provisional government in November 1979) was to establish the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to spread his ideas. Shortly thereafter he made moves in Lebanon, dispatching “1,500 IRGC advisers [to] set up a base in the Bekaa Valley as part of [his] goal to export the Islamic Revolution to the Arab world,” as Matthew Levitt put it. Those advisers were instrumental in creating Hezbollah, which has served to spread Iran’s influence throughout the world.

In 1998, the al-Quds Force, the IRGC’s unconventional-warfare unit, got a new leader when Qassem Soleimani was appointed commander. Soleimani has ramped up Iran’s colonial enterprise, capitalizing on the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to take over Iraq in a way Iran could never have accomplished on its own. The so-called Arab Spring offered Soleimani the opportunity to stake out territory in Syria using Hezbollah and in Yemen using the Shia Houthi rebels, completing the goal of a “Shia Crescent” stretching from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Books on British and American empire building in Iran and the greater Middle East (real and imagined) come out every year. The topic has earned tenure for many willing to genuflect at the altar of Edward Said by exposing alleged evils of European and American “Orientalism.” Yet almost no academics are writing about one of the world’s most obvious and bloodiest colonizing projects even as it plays out right under their noses.

There are exceptions, of course. Efraim Karsh’s Islamic Imperialism (2006) reminded everyone that the Middle East is “where the institution of empire not only originated . . . but where its spirit has also outlived its European counterpart.”

Another exception is Tallha Abdulrazak, a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, but his interests in Iranian colonialism seem to end at Iraq, and the anti-American and anti-Israel tendencies in his writing at Al Jazeera and the Middle East Eye suggest a lack of interest in the totality of Iranian empire-building. These tendencies were doubtless instrumental in his being awarded the Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award in 2015.

Think-tank scholars have not shied away from Iran’s interference in other countries. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute notes that “aside from Russia, Iran is the world’s most imperialistic country today . . . little different in its quest for political and economic domination of poorer states as its tormentors were in the nineteenth century.”

Israeli scholars too seem more interested in today’s Iran than in yesterday’s. Hillel Frisch, professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, calls Iran “the only country whose focus is on political, military, and terrorist intervention and involvement in areas beyond its contiguous borders against states that have not struck the homeland.”

But where are the clarion calls from the ivory towers? Are all the anti-Orientalists busy stigmatizing the West, privileging victimhood over achievement and finding new ways to use “other” as a verb (perhaps at UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute)? Where are the conferences, symposia, and special-issue journals on Iranian imperialism? The Council on Foreign Relations hosted an event dedicated to Iran’s imperial foreign policy in February, but if any similar event occurred at an American university in 2019, it wasn’t advertised and remains well hidden.

The 21st century began with a frenetic deluge of articles and books decrying a new American “imperialism” in the Middle East that had begun after 9/11. But books decrying the rise of Iranian imperialism have not even come in a trickle.

So what exactly are the Middle East specialists up to?

On the fringes of the profession, where the activists lurk, a counteroffensive is under way. Iran apologist Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University wrote and published a “Letter Against US Imperialism” on December 7 objecting to “the current U.S. imperial project,” aided by the IMF, that “seek[s] a return to neocolonial governance in the form of a U.S.-backed regime.” Dabashi somehow persuaded 38 academics (12 from colleges in California) to join with an odd assortment of artists, activists, lawyers, and podcasters to sign the desperate and bizarre letter that completely misunderstands the protests in Iran in November.

Even the socialists at New Politics find fault with Dabashi’s letter for its “dismissal of the Iranian regime’s oppressive and violent influence in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq” and its shallow “conceptualization of imperialism [which] does not include and condemn the sub-imperialisms of Iran.”

Mainstream Middle East specialists prefer to pretend that there is no Iranian imperialism, “sub” or otherwise. When hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them assembled in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last month, the topic seems to have escaped them. Over the course of four days they convened 20 academic sessions, each comprising between 18 and 24 topics, for a total of 304 events: panels, round tables, thematic conversations, conference papers, and special current-issue sessions. In each of these events at least a half dozen experts presented, chaired, or refereed. And not a single event was devoted to Iran’s colonial influence in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen. There was nothing about the ascendant Iranian empire. The Qajar Empire, on the other hand, was covered in multiple sessions. Also popular were events about someplace called either “Palestine/Israel” or “Israel/Palestine,” depending apparently on the whims of the moderator.

The Iranian colonial project is among the most significant events in modern history, and its contours coincide with the interests and deeply held beliefs of the professoriate. But most academics are remarkably uncurious about Iran’s colonialism. Talk about wasting the moment.


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