The external relations of the Islamic Republic of Iran are, in large measure, dependent on politics within that country, and on the slow and often interrupted process of post-revolutionary change which Iran is undergoing two decades after the fall of the Shah. As has been widely reported over the past four years, politics in Iran has been dominated by events surrounding the rivalry of reformist and conservative forces in both the overt, electoral field and in the more hidden world of factional maneuver. The high points of this process have been the election in 1997 — and reelection in 2001 — of President Mohammad Khatami, the parliamentary elections of February 2000 and the rise and contraction of a freer and more critical press. Nothing has been resolved in the post-revolutionary process. Many Iranians hold that the reform movement, sustained by a very powerful and countrywide desire for change, will prevail in the end. But the conservative forces have not gone away: they are well entrenched in sections of the security forces, in the judiciary and in the constitutional bodies overseeing the government and Majlis, Iran’s parliament. The conservatives are not of one mind: while Ayatollah Khamene’i, the spiritual leader, has remained adamantly opposed to normalization of relations with the US, others favor a more pragmatic approach. For its part, the reform movement itself is diverse, if not divided, and lacks the political and organizational ability to defeat the conservatives.

The implications of domestic politics for foreign policy — toward the West, Russia and the Middle East as a whole — are several. First, the views of factions on domestic policy do not match up neatly with comparable views on foreign policy. Most, if not all, of the domestic debate in Iran is about domestic issues: the rule of law, liberalization and different interpretations of the 1980 constitution and of the Islamic tradition. There is a general wish to improve relations with the outside world, and change in Iran’s international relations is implicit in much of the domestic policy debate. Clearly, any improvement in Iran’s economic relations involves improved relations with the West and the international financial institutions, and this means a rapprochement with the US. But international issues are not so much on the minds of the population as are domestic questions. Second, there is no single center for the making of foreign policy in Iran. Within the government itself, the top decision-making body is the National Security Council, attended by both president and spiritual leader, but other bodies, including the security services, semi-independent foundations and the Majlis have their own priorities. The multiplicity of power centers and vigorous debate among the factions means that foreign policy is not formulated in one clear manner, as it would be in a dictatorial regime. Nor is implementation of foreign policies always clear. The Foreign Ministry is broadly aligned with Khatami’s reformist approach, but it is under regular attack from sections of the press and the Majlis, and from elements around spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamene’i. On the other hand, elements of the more conservative camp, associated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and through him with the bazaar merchants, favor improved economic relations with the outside world, but face opposition within the Majlis from reformists who want continued controls on foreign investment in the oil and gas industry, and a continued state role in the economy. Here again divergences within the conservative camp are relevant: those, particularly Ayatollah Khamene’i, who have a strong ideological commitment to the cause of Palestine, pay less heed than the commercial sector to the need to normalize relations with the outside world.

Most importantly, there is no simple correlation between reformist views on the domestic front and more moderate views on foreign policy. Analogies to the simultaneous domestic and foreign policy reforms of Gorbachev’s perestroika do not apply to contemporary Iran. Whatever its problems, the Iranian revolution is not in a terminal condition, as the USSR was in the 1980s. The reformist coalition led by Khatami — the Second of Khordad Front — includes some people who are influenced by Western liberalism, a current much disparaged in Iran in the past but now more respected. But it also includes people who were associated with the most radical moments of the revolution, including the establishment of state control of the economy, the cultural revolution in the university and the seizure of the US embassy. On some economic issues, the reformists are more resistant to change than the conservatives. As elsewhere in the Middle East, the issue of “globalization” has provoked widespread debate within Iran: there was even a dispute about how to translate the word into Persian, those opposed favoring jahanigiri (“world-grabbing”), and those less hostile preferring the now prevalent term jahanishodan (“world-becoming”). Many of the criticisms made of globalization are similar to those made elsewhere: that it is a hegemonic, imperialist trend, and a continuation of colonialism. Those with interests in the state sector of the economy, and the wider network of the elite who have access to oil rent for business purposes, are nervous about liberalization of the economy. Others stress the opportunities for Iran, and the strengths that Iran, with its mineral wealth, population and historic culture, has within the global system.

“Dialogue of Civilizations”

Khatami has made some clear innovations in foreign policy. He has built on his own long-standing ties with Saudi Arabia and the Shi’ite community in Lebanon to improve Iran’s relations with a number of Arab states. He has made state visits to a number of developed countries — France, Italy, Germany and Japan, but not Britain. He has talked of the US in a more conciliatory manner. He has also, in line with his philosophic writings which engage creatively with Western political thought, espoused a view of greater openness towards the non-Islamic world, epitomized in his call for a “dialogue of civilizations,” a call taken up at the official level by the UN in 2001-02.

Yet whereas Khatami has clearly been engaged in rivalry with domestic factions over freedom of the press and reform of the judiciary, in external relations his views are not so open. He has not advocated a substantive dialogue with the US government; he is not Mao waiting to greet Nixon in Beijing in 1972. He reiterates Iran’s conditions for improved relations: restitution of military debts dating from the time of the Shah, calculated by Iran at $6 billion, a lifting of US trade and investment sanctions and US recognition of wrongs done to Iran in the past, through support for the Shah up to 1979 and backing for the Iraqi war against Iran between 1980 and 1988. On defense policy — something the US and many states in the Middle East watch carefully — Khatami has supported a strong line. Khatami backs the program Iran probably has for weapons of mass destruction.

The “dialogue of civilizations” itself indicates certain limits beyond which this dialogue should not go: the very framework of “civilizations” is an implicit rejection of debate based on universal standards, such as UN human rights covenants. It is clear that the participants in “dialogue” are to be representatives of states, not civil society: neither Amnesty Inter- national, to which Khatami is very opposed, nor representatives of the independent press or social movements within Iran. These limits are tied to a resistance, shared by reformers and their opponents, to any discussion of human rights violations in the early years of the revolution. The “dialogue of civilizations” is an alternative to the “clash of civilizations” and demagogic Islamic rhetoric about the West. It is also a statist project, designed to block the intrusion into areas of sovereign authority of universal criteria like human rights, and of representatives of an independent, critical trend within Iran itself.

Is Time on Iran’s Side?

Two other opinions on foreign policy cut across the internal factional divides in Iran. The first is a curious lack of urgency in the debate about international relations, particularly relations with the US. Despite much rhetoric, there is a sense that, whatever the problems it faces, the world should come to Iran rather than the other way around. Time is on Iran’s side, as the thinking goes. If the oil and gas deals are not done, the world energy market will rebound. If relations with the US are not restored for the time being, Washington will in the end come to its senses. The repeated insistence by Iranian officials on the need for the US to apologize for the past reflects this approach. President Khatami has, as in his “dialogue of civilizations,” called for a more open attitude to the West, and has condemned certain forms of violence, but this is offset by the continued insistence on Iran’s moral superiority within the international system. If the former Soviet republics in Central Asia are falling under the influence of the West, and its proxy Turkey, they will sooner or later come back to the state that was hegemonic in the region long before Americans, Russians or even Turks were in the picture. In modern times, Iranian leaders have often thought they had more time than they had: Reza Khan before being deposed by the British and the Russians in 1941, Mosaddeq before being deposed by the British and the Americans in 1953, the Shah before the 1979 revolution, Khomeini when Iraq was on the defensive in 1982. The Islamic regime is not in imminent danger, but it is losing opportunities and paying a long-term price by postponing major decisions on foreign policy. The postponement is, of course, made easier by factional disagreements and higher oil prices.

The second, widely shared outlook is an increased stress on Iranian nationalism. Throughout modern Iranian history, nationalism has been a very powerful force, whether directed at Britain and the US or at Russia. This was true of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and of the movement against foreign control of oil led by Prime Minister Mosaddeq in 1951-53. The Islamist movement that gathered force in the 1970s appeared to denounce secular nationalism, repudiate Mosaddeq and attribute the divisive impact of nationalism among Muslim nations to imperialism. Khomeini famously said that “nationalism has slapped Islam in the face.” But nationalist themes — against foreign intervention and the domestic clients of imperialism — were always present in the revolution. The war with Iraq reinvigorated Iranian nationalism. When it started, the media began playing nationalist music from the time of the Shah. With the waning of the belief in an international Islamic revolution, the Iranian state, like its earlier post-revolutionary counterparts, has turned more and more to emphasis on Iran as a nation. Quotes from Khomeini using the term in mellat-i bozorg (this great nation) are painted on the walls of Tehran, and repeated by today’s politicians. Nationalism has at least three consequences for foreign policy: a widespread sense of the need to resist US pressure, whether direct or through globalization, recognition of the need to build up Iran’s national security potential and a sense of disdain, sometimes bordering on arrogance, for other peoples of the region — Arab, Turkish and, above all, Afghan and Pakistani. During the confrontation with the Taliban in 1998, Ayatollah Khamene’i denounced the Afghan movement as juhul, a Qur’anic term meaning “ignorant.” On other occasions he has stated that Persian, not Arabic, is the “true” language of Islam.

Looking Eastward

Regional and Western analyses of Iranian foreign policy often mistakenly see it as determined by one particular issue: Iraq, the Gulf or Israel-Palestine. Iran is faced with not one, or two, but with several interlocking regional security concerns. To the southeast lies Pakistan, a nuclear power since 1998, and one with regional aspirations, in Afghanistan and in Central Asia, that conflict with those of Iran. Disparagement of Pakistan, as a corrupt, unstable, historically pro-American and basically artificial nation-state, has become much more common in Iran in recent years. Iran has tried to work with various Pakistani regimes, but does not trust them and pays scant heed to any Pakistani use of the “Islamic” dimension to explain its actions. Khomeini used to refer to the Pakistan-backed guerrillas in Afghanistan as islam-i amrikai (American Islam). As a result of its concerns about Pakistan, Iran has developed a substantial alliance with India. There is considerable trade between the two, and India will import Iranian gas in large quantities. Notwithstanding the apparent expectations of Islamic solidarity, Iran has refused to become involved in the Kashmir issue.

The point of greatest Iranian-Pakistani conflict is Afghanistan. Iran bears a particularly heavy burden as a result of the ongoing Afghan war, with over 2 million Afghan refugees based on its territory. Because of concerns about intelligence operatives using refugee assistance as a cover, it has not sought assistance for the Afghans from the UNHCR. It also faces a daily low-level conflict on its Afghan frontier because of attempts to export drugs into Iran: several hundred Iranian security personnel have died along the frontier in recent years. The rivalry that existed between Iran and Pakistan during the war against the USSR and the communist Afghan regime has become much more acute since the rise of the Taliban in 1994. Iran recognized, and continues to support, the government of Rabbani, whom the Taliban ousted from Kabul in 1996. Although the northern coalition now controls only around five percent of Afghan territory, Iran and Russia continue to supply arms to it, while Pakistan backs the Taliban. The Taliban are militant Sunnis who have terrorized the Shi’ite parts of Afghanistan. Iran has been greatly angered by the massacres committed against Shi’ites and speakers of Tajik, a form of Persian, in the northern plains and in the Hazarajat region. The high point of conflict came in the summer of 1998 when several Iranian diplomats were murdered by the Taliban when the latter took the northern capital of Mazar-i Sharif. Amidst great popular indignation in Iran, many called for an Iranian invasion of Afghanistan (something permitted, in international law, under the 1857 Treaty of Paris). Perhaps the most difficult decision taken by the Iranian leadership in foreign policy in recent years was to refrain from retaliating against the Taliban at that time. (Any invasion, even one designed only for punitive purposes, would have been militarily difficult, and would have aroused widespread opposition in Pakistan and in the Sunni world as a whole.) Since 1998 tensions have eased somewhat, and there is now some cross-border trade around Herat. But the two radical Islamic regimes remain in overall conflict, fueling the distrust between Iran and Pakistan.

Looking Northward

To the north lies the former Soviet Union, scene of the greatest change in Iran’s external environment since the revolution of 1979. At the end of 1991, Iran found itself with three new neighbors in the Transcaucasus and five in Central Asia. Initial hopes that they would turn to Iran as an ally and mentor, on grounds of Islamic solidarity and history, proved unfounded. Ironically, the only former Soviet republic to form a close alliance with Iran is Armenia, a Christian country which shares a frontier with Iran and needed a counterpoint to Azerbaijan’s alliance with Turkey. As with Kashmir, strategic interest took precedence over Islamic solidarity. Within a few years of the collapse of the USSR, Iran had given up hopes of forming alliances with the Central Asian states, preferring instead what one Iranian expert termed siasat-i dast-i gol (policy of the bunch of flowers): whoever turned up at Tehran’s airport on an official visit would be welcomed. All of this is made more difficult because throughout the region Iran’s opponents — the US and, in a junior role, Turkey — are active in trying to counter Iranian influence. This applies particularly to US efforts to prevent the Asian republics from helping Iran break out of its economic isolation.

After the initial uncertainties accompanying the collapse of the USSR, Iran has tried to engage with these states at three levels. First, it has sought economic ties, a policy limited by US trade and investment restrictions. Nonetheless, Iran has, for example, built rail and gas pipeline links with Turkmenistan. Second, Iran has tried to keep out of, and help to mediate, the ethnic and other conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya and Tajikistan that have blown up in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. In none of these conflicts has Iran supported the obvious “Islamic” candidate. Indeed, Iran has shown concern to limit the spread of conflict, not only because of the implications of such disputes for its own multi-ethnic society, but also because it fears for the long-term stability of Russia itself. While neither Moscow nor Tehran entertain great illusions about each other, cooperation on defense, strategic and economic issues is a shared interest.

Iran’s big hope rests on a resolution of the complex problems surrounding the Caspian Sea. Not only do US sanctions prevent the oil and gas pipelines of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan from running along the geographically natural route, through Iran to the Indian Ocean, but Iran has found itself in dispute with the other four Caspian littoral states (Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan) over jurisdiction in the sea itself. Iran insists the Caspian is a lake, not a sea; hence its resources should be shared equally among all the states. Russia used to support this position, but has recently shifted to the “sea” position, by which each country would have its own zone of exploration. Iran, whose offshore waters are believed not to be rich in oil and gas, would lose access to the resources that lie nearer other states. For Iran, the Caspian is of immense economic, strategic and symbolic importance. Inclusion would give Iran a stake in this region, and symbolize its acceptance by the West and the regional states. Exclusion is seen as an ongoing result of US enmity and denial of Iran’s just and historical place in the region. For US-Iranian relations, the Caspian Sea is among the issues of greatest importance and continued US support for Azerbaijan is all the more enraging in the light of conflicts between Iranian naval forces and Azerbaijan over oil exploration in disputed territorial waters.

Looking Gulfward

To the west and south, Iran faces the Gulf. Iran is the most populous state in the Gulf. The revolutionary regime promoted revolution in neighboring states, but very soon after it came to power insisted that the Gulf be termed the “Persian Gulf ” as the Shah had done. The biggest challenge was, and remains, Iraq, with whom Iran fought an eight-year war, losing over 100,000 dead. Two decades after the Iraqi attack on Iran, Tehran remains nervous about the Iraqi regime, which is now more confident and prosperous than at any time since 1980. The twin objects of US dual containment always judged it wiser to portray the other as the real enemy of international stability rather than to band together, and each continues to support opposition groups committed to the overthrow of the other’s regime. Iranian pilgrims and traders now visit Baghdad and Shi’ite shrines in Iraq, but the rhetorical war continues: in recent months, Saddam Hussein has stepped up propaganda about Iran as the enemy of Iraq. Iran knows that, in the longer run, a revived Iraq may turn on it again, as it did in 1980. Because Iran has tried harder than any other regime, Arab or Western, to overthrow the Ba’thist regime, it does not underestimate the difficulties involved. It would not associate itself with Western pressure, via sanctions, but there is a broad convergence of Iranian and Western policy to keep Iraq contained and, in the long run, to change the regime. This has more or less been the case since August 1990, and Iran was careful to resist very direct overtures from Saddam to join him in a common war at that time. But this could change over time, especially if US pressure on Iran, through ILSA and other means, continues. The Iranian fear is that, as in the 1980s, the West — and particularly the US — may decide that Iraq is a preferable ally to Iran. Already Iran finds itself under an oil export ban imposed by the US, while Baghdad is the fifth largest exporter to the US.

Hence Iran has pursued improved relations with the Arab world. Khomeini refused to use the term “Saudi Arabia,” referring to it as “the so-called Kingdom of Najd and Hijaz,” but there has been a significant improvement in relations with Riyadh. Diplomatic ties with Egypt and Algeria, hitherto denounced as secularist oppressors, have been renewed. Yet there are limits, on both sides, to this realignment. The Saudis remain concerned about Iran’s long-term intentions, and the rise within the Peninsula, particularly in Saudi Arabia, of a Sunni fundamentalist salafi movement has brought anti-Shi’ite sentiments to the fore. There is considerable sympathy in the Peninsula for the Taliban and for Osama bin Laden, all of which feeds into not only anti-American but also anti-Iranian feeling.

The Question of Palestine

On top of all these concerns lies the Palestine question — a major, but not the only or predominant, concern of Iranian foreign policy. The Islamic republic has a record of strong rhetorical, and some material, support for the Palestinian cause, and for factions opposed to the Oslo accords of 1993, which are seen as another sellout by secular nationalists. An initial alliance with the PLO fell afoul of the Iran-Iraq war when Arafat sided with Saddam. Iran’s main influence on the Arab-Israeli conflict is through Syria and in Lebanon, where Iran has since 1982 acted as a supporter of Hizballah. Iran saw the ejection of Israel from southern Lebanon in July 2000 as a great victory for its strategy.

Iran’s other main concern is to use its support for the Palestinians, and for the second intifada, for political mobilization, within Iran and within the Middle East and the Islamic world as a whole. Yet here clear differences emerge which, for once, do run along more or less the same lines as on domestic politics. Not surprisingly, the conservatives in the Majlis and around spiritual leader Khamene’i have pushed for the most militant line on Palestine, refusing to accept any compromise with Israel. In April 2001, against the wishes of the Foreign Ministry and the reformists, they organised a major conference in Tehran on the intifada. Those sections of the security forces who oppose reform at home and compromise abroad — who have carried out violent actions in the Middle East and assassinations of Iranian opposition politicians in Europe — calculate, rightly, that support for a militant policy on Palestine will weaken any possible dialogue with the West as a whole.

Iranian diplomats, when asked about Iran’s policy on Palestine, argue that Iran’s words should not be confused with its actions, and that Iran would, in the end, accept a peace agreement that was acceptable to the Palestinians. But unless and until there is such a peace, Palestine, like the seizure of the US embassy in 1979, or the denunciation of Salman Rushdie in 1989, will serve as one of those symbolic issues around which to mobilize international Islamic radicalism and isolate domestic reformers and moderates.

“Rogue State” Under Review

All of these regional concerns feed into the broader strategic context, that of relations with the West and the US. The Iranian state is now aware that in its early years of power it paid a high price for its repression at home, and also for its export of revolution to other states. In private, officials recognize two large mistakes: the seizure and occupation of the US embassy in November 1979, and the failure to make peace, on favorable terms, with Iraq in July 1982. The US embassy compound in Tehran is still used by the revolutionary guards, its wall covered with anti-imperialist posters. Yet henceforward, the officials imply, interest will prevail over ideology.

But time may not be on the Iranian side. Regionally, developments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine all pose challenges to Iran that are difficult to ignore. Most importantly, the advent of the Bush administration to office held out the prospect of serious improvement in relations with the US. Bush ordered a review of US policy on Iran — recommending that the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act be renewed for two years instead of five — but current signs point in the opposite direction. Despite the voices calling for dialogue with Tehran, there is a strong lobby in the US — particularly in Congress — against thawing relations with Iran. Israel is pressing for a hard line on Iran, in light of Iran’s Palestine policy and its development of intermediate-range missiles. On July 19, the US delegation blocked Iran’s application to join the World Trade Organization. More to the point, Bush needs an enemy to justify his national missile defence (NMD) program. While the real enemies are Russia and China, as everyone knows, the formal justification for NMD is that smaller “rogue states,” such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran, may try to attack the US. North Korea and Iraq are implausible “rogue states” under present circumstances, which leaves Iran. Deployment of sea-based anti-ballistic missiles could take place in the Gulf by 2003. If Bush needs a threat, he is likely to find it, and possibly promote it, in Tehran. US policy is, of course, a result of conflicting pressures: the oil and gas supermajors, with an eye to the overall strategic picture in west Asia, want improved relations with Iran. But, especially in the context of developments in Palestine, Congress is resolutely anti-Iranian, as its renewal of ILSA for five years in August demonstrated. The consensus emerging within US security and foreign policy circles seems to be that there is no benefit in working to improve relations with Iran, and, indeed, that it may be better to wait for the conservatives to get the upper hand again. The omens are not that good. The Great Satan, it would seem, never sleeps.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Iran and the Middle East," Middle East Report 220 (Fall 2001).

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