Iran knows how to use 'soft' power

Teheran's victory will come in the aftermath of battle, during the reconstruction stage.

lebanon damage 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanon damage 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
The losers in the war in Lebanon, at least in terms of global opinion, are Israel and those governments seen to have implicitly or otherwise supported the Jewish state's action. Lebanon is a major loser in terms of infrastructure, economy and the further undermining of its previously already slight territorial and political control. The damage to Hizbullah is difficult to ascertain - politically emboldened, no doubt, but militarily severely wounded in spite of the tactical successes it unexpectedly enjoyed especially against Israeli armor. The real winner in the war in Lebanon is Iran. But the extent of its victory is not yet public or clear. In the battle of public perceptions its victory was assured in the Islamic world, and even further afield, the moment Israel launched what many saw as a disproportionate military response to the abduction of its soldiers. But Teheran's real victory will come in the aftermath of battle, during the reconstruction stage. While the international community spends a fortune on inserting a massive peacekeeping force, Iran will fund the rebuilding of Hizbullah communities, dishing out aid, captivating communities and ensuring religious patronage. While the Iranians reportedly assisted in arming Hizbullah with advanced wire- and laser-guided anti-tank weaponry and large numbers of relatively crude ground-to-ground missiles, their real advantage will come after the sound of gunfire through the use of soft power. Where the West would have elaborate procedures to ensure that its aid money was being properly spent, the Iranians will resort to much blunter but likely more effective, and certainly faster tactics. While the West speaks of "effects-based operations" in post-conflict societies, in reality it conducts value-based operations - focusing on the delivery of assistance in a manner that adheres to Western liberal governance norms and standards of transparency and accountability. The term "soft power," as opposed to military "hard power," is American, created by those who wanted the US to better exploit its advantages of economic and cultural power in winning the global contest for hearts and minds. But while the phrase may be American it is others, notably the Iranians, who are showing mastery at putting it into practice, and not just in places like Lebanon. NEITHER ARE the Iranians alone in using soft power to win over communities. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, the Muslim Brotherhood has been doing it for years in Egypt. Where communities lack medical care, for example, the Brotherhood uses doctors to offer a number of free consultations as a condition of their membership. These opportunities are doled out within disadvantaged communities, strengthening lines of patronage and support for the Brotherhood's aims. It uses the lack of delivery of the government to its own advantage. Exploiting the government's failings and meeting, if only in part, social needs explains why the Brotherhood is such a feared and powerful political force in Egypt today. By comparison, aid delivery in a country like Afghanistan is a tortuous affair. Bureaucratic procedures and the delivery of security ensures that the ratio of expenditure (on security forces, consultants, administration and other forms of bureaucracy) versus aid delivered is both very much lower, and also very much slower. Because the West delivers according to its own rules, local actors are seldom able to use the money to their own advantage and in the manner in which their system operates and understands, as patronage and for political power as much as the goal of socioeconomic development. This is not, however, because all local politicians are venal and corrupt: It's the way the system works, and without it there would be a much greater likelihood of systemic instability. ANOTHER feature of so much Western aid is very often how little credit its donors receive from the recipients for what, whatever the problems, is genuinely massive assistance. The link between the new school or mini-power station and the white aid workers in their white four-wheel drives is rarely made, while many in the aid community regard aid as something that is essentially neutral. This is not how Hizbullah and their backers see it; they want and make sure they receive every drop of political credit going. Such effective use of soft power is also hard to object to, let alone counter. Arguing against the supply of guns to terrorist organizations is one thing, but, whatever their motives, if the Iranians also seek to influence societies by funding reconstruction, how can we protest? In the global contest for hearts and minds, policy-makers may be over-focusing on their opponents' guns rather than their butter. How Iran will use its victory remains to be seen. It is unlikely, however, to be encouraged to seek compromise with the West over its nuclear issues. It probably now fears less the military advantage enjoyed by Israel, the US and others. Whatever tactical damage they can mete out will pale by comparison to the public diplomatic advantage Iran would gain as a result - a David and Goliath contest, with the weak exploiting the enemy's strength. But the reality is that Teheran is not weak at all, just very astutely playing the game to its own rules. The writer heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation and is currently a special adviser with NATO in Kabul.