My Iranian friends take great pride in the enormous global influence of their cultural heritage. From the Taj Mahal in India to American greeting cards with quotations from Rumi, the markers of Persian civilization are ancient and modern, sublime and ridiculous — but above all, ubiquitous.
The current theocratic dispensation in Tehran regards much of Persian culture with undisguised disgust, proscribing as impure any expression of Iran’s pre-Islamic history and condemning as sinful anything that doesn’t conform to the regime’s dour worldview. Instead, it has patronized murder and mayhem as its instruments of influence, at home and abroad.
The attempted murder of Salman Rushdie, 33 years after Iran’s then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a religious edict calling for his death, is only the latest manifestation of the Islamic Republic’s debased soft power.
Khomeini himself once aimed higher: He had a grand plan to internationalize the Shia revolution that brought him to power in 1979. When that failed — the ayatollah was admired by many in the Sunni-majority Arab states, but he never won their fealty — his successors settled for exporting sectarian discord by financing and arming a network of Shiite militias and terrorist groups across the Middle East.
The task of setting up this matrix of menace was assigned to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which evolved over the decades from Khomeini’s personal militia to the Iranian state’s most powerful security arm. And no IRGC commander did more to expand its influence than Qassem Soleimani, leader of a unit known as the Qods Force, who came to be designated a terrorist by the US and sanctioned by the European Union and the United Nations.
Under his supervision, the IRGC and its proxies seeded chaos in Arab nations from Syria and Lebanon to Iran and Yemen. By 2020, when he was taken out by an American drone strike, Soleimani had his sights farther afield, with an assassination campaign against dissidents and detractors — and especially Israelis — in Europe and Asia.
Taking a leaf out of the post-9/11 Al Qaeda playbook, the IRGC also began to recruit sympathizers living in the West to target high-profile figures like the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Since Soleimani’s death, it has grown more ambitious and reckless, targeting top American officials like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, as well as prominent anti-regime activists based in the US, like Masih Alinejad.
So it is no surprise to learn, from Vice News, that Rushdie’s attacker, a New Jersey resident and admirer of Khomeini, had been in direct contact on social media with members of the IRGC. Hadi Matar, US-born and of Lebanese ancestry, was also sympathetic to Hezbollah, the primus inter pares of all proxy groups in the IRGC’s network. The name he used on his fake driving license is an amalgam of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and a slain commander, Imad Mughniyeh.
The attack on Rushdie is unlikely to be the last. As an instrument of a regime that defines itself by what it opposes — America, Israel and the West, generally in that order — the IRGC has a great deal to gain from such assaults, whether they are directly controlled or merely inspired and encouraged. The triumphant coverage of the attempt on Rushdie in the Iranian media, much of it controlled by the IRGC or its acolytes, has drowned out the foreign ministry’s denial of any involvement.
In the days ahead, expect IRGC commanders to heap praise on Rushdie’s assailant. This is the dog whistle they use, a way not just of claiming credit without taking responsibility, but also of hyping their soft power, defined by Joseph Nye in another context as “the ability to influence others by attraction rather than coercion or payment.”
The sotto-voce message is that the IRGC has both a long memory and a long reach. Even though Matar failed — Rushdie is, thankfully, alive — the signal from Tehran is that enemies of the regime can be attacked anywhere, even in the US, and at any time, even decades after the regime first put a target on their backs.
The IRGC will count on this to enhance its image — among its own ranks, its proxies and potential recruits — as an international player, inviting comparisons with America’s CIA and Israel’s Mossad. That, more than the quatrains of Omar Khayyam or the gorgeous rugs of Kerman, is the soft power that matters to Tehran.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
Biden Should Show Iran What “Plan B” Would Look Like: Editorial
Biden’s New Gang of Four Targets Iran and China: James Stavridis
Iran Can’t Afford to Avenge the Death of Soleimani: Bobby Ghosh
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion