A new perspective is required to understand Iran

Iran has never been a strategically blind country. Its foreign policies and domestic policies are perfectly synchronized. With the coming of a conservative president to power at this juncture, clearly conveys that the nuclear deal does not mean regime change in in Iran. It is a purely autonomous and domestic choice of the Iranian public.”

By Dr. Zakir Hussain

Almost all analyses about the victory of conservative Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential election look like obituaries of reformist Iran, choking off liberals, worsening the common Iranians life. Hassan Rouhani was neither the first liberal-reformist nor will be the last. However, what has been striking in all these pieces is like missing the woods from the trees. Any political system is chosen and implemented in a country which ensures the wellbeing, security and prosperity of its citizens. This applies to Iran as well. This intermittent ‘on and off’ between liberal and conservatives will continue in Iran.

A popular revolution like the Islamic Revolution that occurred in Iran cannot be said to be ‘engineered’ overnight, especially by those (western) countries which gave asylum to its leader – Ayatollah Khomeini, whose ideology and objectives was very much clear to the world from the beginning. His fight against liberal Shah was also very well known to the world.

While the reformist Hassan Rouhani was also given enough time, who has been in power since 2013 to secure the world’s confidence. The Islamic Republic had been transforming and moving towards reform. However, the ascension of conservatives in Iran can be explained in the context of domestic, regional and international developments keeping West Asia, particularly Iran in focus. Iran waited for more than seven years with a reformist-liberal president (Hassan Rouhani) but Tehran got nothing tangible to satisfy its citizens. So, again Iran was bound to bounce back to its conservative shell.

Secondly, Iran has never been a strategically blind country. Its foreign policies and domestic policies are perfectly synchronized. With the coming of a conservative president to power at this juncture, clearly conveys that the nuclear deal does not mean regime change in in Iran. It is a purely autonomous and domestic choice of the Iranian public.

Therefore, those who view the coming of Ebrahim Raisi to power as a reverse gear or regression to Iran, they perhaps fail to read the aims and objectives of Iran’s government on the one hand and the goals and motives of the US and its regional allies on the other. The US and its allies want a weak, submissive pro-Israeli government in Tehran. They want a perfectly pro-Israeli solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict with full endorsement from the Ayatollahs. However, Iran would not let this happen. Everything has a price. Now, the interests of Russia and China are also aligned to a stable, strong Iran which makes the situation a bit more complicated for the status quoist powers. In the past and occasionally even after revolution, Iran has acted as a gendarme (agent) of the West.

Though Tehran too had its interests served in supporting and cooperating with them. For instance, Iran gave asylum to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who laid down the foundation of ISIS and later on, with the help of its asymmetric Shia forces (Shabiha) [1], Iran helped the US forces to destroy the group headed by Abu Bakr Al Bagdadi. Similarly, Tehran also played an important role in defeating and removing the first Taliban government/rule in Afghanistan in 2001 but later on it also gave asylum to the fugitive families of the sons of Osama Bin Laden, when the US forces chased them. In Syria and Iraq too, the Iranian-backed militia worked with the US forces to defeat the anti-terrorist forces. Iranian General Qassim’s role is well known.

How Iran ensnared to make the ‘Shia Crescent’ a reality and psychologically dwarfed Washington?

Iran also helped the US to destroy Saddam Hussein as well as clear Iraq from ISIS insurgents. In return what Iran got is now self-evident. Iran made strategic gains by ending the minority Sunni rule in Iraq. The adoption of democracy in Iraq disturbed the balance of power in the region and made sectarian politics a deep reality of the Gulf. Some experts called it the rise of the “Shia Crescent” and Iran was successful in securing its western border with a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad.

With the end of Saddam Hussein, not only the US but the Gulf Arab monarchies too lost their leverages over both Shia population in their respective countries and Iran. They had used Saddam Hussein time and again to control both Shia and Iran in their respective countries and the region. In 1990, Iran did not miss the opportunity when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait. Tehran consolidated its power and set up a wide network of asymmetric forces and revived its nuclear ambition which was declared ‘un-Islamic’ by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution. However, post-Khomeini Iran desperately wanted a deterrent weapon as well as networking the Shiites to expand and deepen its strategic depth in the region which Tehran had realized during the eight years’ of war (1980-88) with Iraq.

Similar thing Tehran did in Afghanistan. During the initial years, Iran provided ‘measured support’ to the Taliban. In a study Rand pointed out, “But Iran has not relied on political intrigue and soft power alone in pressuring the United States and the Afghan government. The Iranian government has also provided measured military support to Afghan insurgents fighting U.S. forces, including members of the Taliban.”, while later on it helped the US forces to defeat the Taliban government in 2001. Iran’s ‘on and off policy’ (call it charm offensive) was both circumstantial as well as driven by long-term strategic vision and goals. Strengthening Taliban in Afghanistan was not good for Tehran as it would have given enough oxygen to the Sunni insurgent groups fighting against Iran in Sistan-Baluchistan province, while its policy towards the US was guided by both weakening the US forces so it may not threaten Iran on its eastern border as well as convince Washington that its support is crucial to defeat Saddam Hussein and terrorist forces in Iraq. Except Hamas, Iran helped all forces fighting to destroy the Sunni insurgent groups in the region, while Shia militia became battle-hardened, mature and powerful.

What US Felt?

Although, with the help of Iran the US succeeded in some of its missions, somewhere it felt cheated and perhaps suffered from psychologically defeated or dwarfed by the Iranian strategic maneuverability. Iran emerged as the most beneficial player in the region. Israel also sees this as a big problem as its limited ‘strategic depth’ does not allow any country to emerge powerful, including Iran, in the region and threaten it.
The Trump administration tried to weaken Iran both militarily and reach-wise in the region. The assassination of General Qassim Soleymani and nuclear scientists (reportedly by Israel), bombing the nuclear sites were part of that project. Sanctions were aimed at snatching Iran’s economic ability to fund that asymmetric force, which works as Tehran’s extended brotherhood limbs in the region. Relooking at JPOA (Joint Plan of Action) on 2015 nuclear talk was perhaps an attempt to empower IEA (International Energy Agency) either to delay or get time to destroy the Iranian nuclear installments.

However, with the coming of President Biden, there was some hope that the new admiration would speed up the negotiation process and help resolve the issue, including ending the sanctions. Although some progress has been made, again the same dilly dallying tactics appears to be on board. The US and its regional allies are not satisfied with deal. They feel that once Iran is out of sanction, nothing will stop Tehran from its strategic missile building, including the missile program, economically assisting the asymmetric forces and Hamas which is proving a diehard force. Perhaps the US allies want something more to clip Iran.

Iran’s rivals in Catch 22

Now the question arises what kind of Iran the US-West and the regional allies want. In the 1950s, Iran experimented with democracy, but it was not liked and subverted by the West. After the Revolution Iran turned to Islamic governance, it faced sanctions. Perhaps, a simple mind understands that the problem for the West-regional allies is not Iran’s ideology but its size and strategic and demographic depth in the region. However, the more pressure built upon Iran, the more it became nationalist and self-sufficient. Sanctions are counted as a normal way of life in Iran.

Sanctions have harassed the public, delayed its progress but it failed to crush the will power of Iran and its ruling elites, which is using religion and sectarian ideology to keep the common public united. Only a big direct intervention can bring the desired changes in Iran but it will be too costly to afford, especially for its regional Arab Gulf allies which are defenseless despite spending billions of dollars for the last several decades. The rag tag Houthi fighters and their homemade missiles have sufficiently shown this. Even Israel too realized the limitation of its defense power during the recent fight with Hamas.

So, what one can do when its rival is too shrewd and too manipulative! A fair negotiation, equal status and addressing of the issues in true sense rather than threat of using hard power, including economic sanctions, seems the best possible solution and option to resolve the problems in the region. Hope all come on a negotiation table and sign some binding agreements. It also looks funny that there is not a single regional country in the nuclear talk, while it is entirely concerned to them.

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(Dr. Zakir Hussain is Political Analyst on the Middle East. Views are personal. His recent book on Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia in a Mutlipolar World: Changing Dynamics, Routlage International, US IVLP alumni)

[1] State sponsored militia
[2] Ayatollah Khomeini abandoned the nuclear project started by Shah on the ground that it is anti-human and Islam does not permit to pursue or acquire any weapon which has mass destruction capacity.

Source: Muslim Mirror

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