Islamic Soft Power in the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Conversation with Peter Mandaville

By: Peter Mandaville

January 13, 2020

Major General Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander, was killed by a U.S. drone attack in Iraq on January 3, 2020, sparking global fears of a potential war between the United States and Iran. In response, Iranian forces attacked two American military bases in Iraq. President Donald Trump has said that the United States is “ready to embrace peace” but has also hardened sanctions against Iran, where such policies have stalled economic growth. The emergent conflict overlays deeper trends across the region, from the influence of political Islam to competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia to opposition against a continued American military presence in the Middle East.

This week the Berkley Forum sat down with Senior Research Fellow Peter Mandaville, director of the Berkley Center’s Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power Project, to discuss tensions between Iran and the United States in the broader context of religion and politics in the Middle East. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.  

Berkley Forum: What was General Soleimani doing in Iraq? How did his military activities and diplomatic work fit into a longer trajectory of Iranian attempts to influence geopolitics in the Middle East? 

Peter Mandaville: In his role as commander of the Quds Force, the overseas operational wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Soleimani was a key figure over the last two decades in designing and implementing Iran’s efforts to extend its reach and influence across the entire Middle East region. Consequently, over this period he had a hand in many of the major events and developments across Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arab Gulf region.

His role combined elements of a military commander, a spy chief, and a diplomat of sorts. So, for example, with respect to the Syria conflict, Iran has been a very close ally of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and has provided various forms of support to the Syrian regime including recruiting and mobilizing militia forces to travel to Syria to fight on behalf of the regime. Soleimani was the point person for organizing and implementing that plan.

He was also the chief Iranian envoy to various Shiite militia groups operating in Iraq. In the aftermath of the rise of ISIS in 2014, the senior Iraqi religious cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, called for the Shia of Iraq to rise up and resist ISIS through the formation of what are called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF are technically under the control of the Iraqi government. In practice, however, the situation is far more fluid, with several of these groups operating with high levels of autonomy.

Some of them, particularly one militia called Kata’ib Hezbollah, whose leader was also killed in the same drone strike that killed Soleimani, can be regarded as quite direct proxies for Iran in Iraq. In addition to fighting ISIS, these militias were also used by Iran to pursue its own agendas in Iraq up to and including targeting U.S. forces. And this was the most immediate pretext for Washington’s decision to kill Soleimani.

BF: The killing of Soleimani is just one episode in a longer history of tensions between the United States and Iran. How does the troubled relationship between the two shape the delicate balance of power in the Middle East? 

PM: The antagonism between the United States and Iran goes back to 1979 and the Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah, which rapidly transformed a geopolitical relationship that up to that point had been very positive, with Iran serving as a key regional anchor in U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of communism. That revolution also restructured power rivalries in the Middle East more broadly insofar as before 1979, the United States could count on both Iran and Saudi Arabia as being firm American allies. After the Islamic Revolution, however, Iran obviously became much more hostile towards the United States. It also inaugurated a new period of direct competition and rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is often portrayed as a form of sectarian conflict. That was certainly part of it insofar as Iran is a majority-Shiite country, and Saudi Arabia has seen itself as the leader of Sunni Islam.

But to my mind, this is more accurately described as a case of what Kamran Bokhari at the Center for Global Policy terms “geosectarianism”—that is to say the intersection of geopolitics and religious sectarianism. While there are certainly religious differences present, the fact that these countries are also political competitors and political opponents allows those sectarian differences to be mobilized in service of geopolitical interests. So to my mind, it’s as much about politics—I would say probably even more about politics—than it is about religious difference when you consider the fact that up to 1979, the two countries had far more cordial working relations even though those religious differences were present.

Since 1979, Iran has worked to cultivate its own axis of relations across the Middle East. The question of which countries are part of the U.S.-led alliance versus the Iranian-led alliance has been one of the organizing principles of the post-1979 security order. Iran focused on cultivating strong ties with Syria and the Syrian leadership where, again, there’s a religious dimension insofar as the ruling Alawi regime of Syria is sort of an offshoot of Shiism. Again, I think this was much more an alliance of geopolitical convenience than a case of religious affinity, although the latter helps to buttress and provide a cultural and symbolic warrant for the underlying political logic.

Iran was also able to project considerable influence into Lebanon to help build up and cultivate Hezbollah as one of its key regional proxies. Of course, Lebanon itself has a large Shia population, so there is a natural affinity there. Iran has also sought very directly to leverage religious affinities and co-religiosity with other Shia, but it has also done a fairly effective job of tapping into the strong religious discourse on resistance and dispossession that is part of the Shia tradition. Historically the Shia have been the minority sect within Islam, often living in difficult circumstances and experiencing oppression or suppression at the hands of Sunni rulers. Iran was quite successful in transforming that religious legacy of dispossession into a set of contemporary tropes and “usable narratives” about defending the oppressed and resisting neo-imperialism, particularly American neo-imperialism, in the Middle East.

Of course, the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war is also relevant here since during that period, the U.S. relationship with Iraq was somewhat different. I think most Americans today think of Saddam Hussein as someone who was always America’s mortal enemy—certainly this is the view that was cultivated in the United States after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War, the ongoing hostilities throughout the 90s, and of course in the aftermath of 9/11, the Iraq War. However, the story we tell today tends to eclipse the fact that throughout the 1980s, the United States was quite well aligned with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in large measure due to the war that that country was fighting with Iran. It was sort of an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of arrangement.

But the complex Iran-Iraq relationship goes back much further than the more recent events we tend to focus on right now. And this is where religion comes back into the picture quite squarely because what you have in the case of Iraq is a country whose population is majority-Shiite but where up until the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq had been ruled by minority Sunnis for almost 500 years. So, while Iraqi Shia generally do not support the Iranian model of theocracy, there are nonetheless centuries of close ties between religious communities in the two countries. Perhaps the supreme irony we face today is the fact that while Washington may view Iran as its primary threat in the Middle East, Tehran’s ability to project influence across the region was greatly enhanced by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. That action made Shia the dominant force in Iraqi politics and, by extension, provided Tehran with new platforms of influence.

BF: So, Iran has transformed religious narratives into a sort of Shiite brand of Islamic soft power. How do Sunni-majority states employ Islamic soft power in the Middle East, especially in response to the continued American military presence in the region? 

PM: Well, not really in quite the same way as Iran. There are certainly Sunni-majority states in the region that have incorporated various forms of religious outreach into their broader diplomatic relations and soft power projection. Not least of all, Saudi Arabia, which continues to export Wahhabism—a very specifically Saudi variant of Salafi Islam that is the official religion of state there. The Saudi export of Wahhabism is something that we’ve been discussing and debating for decades now. 

What’s interesting there in terms of how it aligns with U.S. interests in the region is that for the first 20 or 30 years of Saudi Arabia exporting and funding transnational religious activities such as proselytization, mosque-building, religious scholarships, and the dissemination of Saudi religious textbooks, the United States didn’t pay too much attention to it. If anything, the United States actually welcomed Saudi religious activities in many contexts around the world during the 1960s through the early 1990s. During the Cold War, the United States welcomed these religious activities because it viewed Islam as a potentially useful counterbalance to the spread of communism.

After the Cold War, and after the emergence in the 1990s of various conflicts in places like the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Southeast Asia where Muslim insurgency groups were prominent, the United States started to be more concerned about the extent to which Saudi support for transnational Islam might actually be starting to work against U.S. security interests around the world.

The story of Sunni religious soft power, however, shouldn’t be confined to Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia is not the only Sunni-majority state that engages in this kind of activity. Certainly, other States in the Arab Gulf region such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait have also been involved in supporting religious causes throughout the Muslim world. Their levels of funding haven’t been quite the same as that of Saudi Arabia. They don’t have quite the same prominence as Saudi Arabia, but they’ve certainly been involved in this kind of work.

But if we look further to the west in North Africa, there are other countries that have been involved in this as well, including right up to the present, countries like Morocco. By virtue of its historical religious legacy in North Africa and the broader Sahel region of Africa, Morocco has been able to serve as an important hub and source of religious authority, a seat of religious organization across North Africa. Some scholars have even seen this as a kind of counterbalance to Saudi influence. So, it’s not always necessarily Sunni versus Shiite religious influences competing against each other. There is just such an enormous diversity within Sunni Islam that there are often different variants of Sunni Islam that operate transnationally and bump into each other across these regions.

BF: Do you have any advice for policymakers writing American strategy on Iran, especially based on your research into religious soft power and past work at the U.S. Department of State? 

PM: I think it’s important for policymakers and just the general public to realize that when it comes to religious soft power, the Iranians have, in my view, something of a comparative advantage vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia because their approach has not been one of trying to impose or shove particular interpretations of religion down people’s throats, as the Saudi religious export activity has often been perceived to do. Rather, I think the Iranians have been very smart and sophisticated in recognizing that in the minds of local populations across the Middle East, across much of Africa, South Asia, and the Global South more broadly, people’s concerns really have a lot more to do with sharp inequalities in the way that political and economic power are distributed in the world. So, the way that they managed to translate religious discourse into a set of narratives about resistance, social justice, and combating inequality makes it easier for them to find purchase in some of their transnational soft power activities across a wide range of regions.

Traveling across the Muslim world, I have encountered various forms of very effective Iranian religious soft power activity, including in Sunni-majority countries. The Iranians are very smart at knowing their audiences and much more sophisticated in how they do this kind of work, often much more so than public diplomacy as undertaken by the U.S. State Department and other American foreign policy agencies. If you’re interested in learning more about Islamic soft power as employed by countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others, I co-authored a report last year with Shadi Hamid called "Islam as Statecraft: How Governments Use Religion in Foreign Policy."

We often forget that when the United States engages in public diplomacy work around the world, we’re not the only ones operating in the realm of soft power. There are other players today—Iran certainly, but also China, Russia, Turkey—and, increasingly, they are more sophisticated at it. Frankly, I think they’re beating us at this game in many places. 

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Islamic Soft Power in the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Conversation with Peter Mandaville