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    Middle East
     Feb 1, 2006
Playing to Iran's strengths
By Sanam Vakil

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Editor's note: The permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council agreed on Tuesday that this week's meeting of the UN's nuclear watchdog should report Iran to the council over its nuclear program. The decision was reached after a meeting among the foreign ministers of China, Russia, the United States, France and Britain, as well as Germany and the European Union's foreign-policy chief.

History always repeats itself. This old axiom is ever pertinent in

examining Iran's regional alignments and positioning as it jockeys for power as a regional contender in the Middle East. For the Bush administration to understand the theocratic regime's ambitions, Washington need only open the history books to deconstruct Tehran's regional aspirations.

Indeed, the decision to exclude Iran from a regional security framework after the 1991 Gulf War marginalized the regime and led Tehran to strengthen its subversive regional networking strategies. Ironically, this same pattern can be witnessed today. After a decade of war and isolation ending in 1989, the Iranian regime made an about-face and sought a neutral policy of accommodation with the US in its war with the irredentist Saddam Hussein. No longer able to curry favor with its war-weary population or stimulate its war-torn economy, the clerical cadre calculated in favor of realpolitik.

For the more moderate elements driving Iran's foreign policy, this strategy of temperance was a gamble as the factional hardline ideologues were stridently opposed to bargains with the "Great Satan". Ultimately, Iran's newly elected president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, sought to guarantee Iran a role in the postwar regional security framework. In doing so, Iran would not only be flush with revenue but also would assume its innate position as a regional power.

Events, however, did not unfold as Rafsanjani had anticipated. In the postwar reconstruction, US anxieties over Iran's nefarious activities prevented cooperation between the two countries. Specifically, Iran sought an invitation to participate in the US-sponsored 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, while Washington had no intention of including Tehran in the Arab-Israeli peace process, thereby demonstrating its irrelevance to the entire negotiations.

This clerical exclusion was a profound rebuff, especially to hardliners who were unconvinced about the moderation in Iran's foreign-policy position. In response, Iran, which had taken on the banner of Palestinian nationalism in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, lashed out against this rejection ferociously.

Indeed, as known sponsors of Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, patronage for these groups and their activities increased. Throughout the decade of the 1990s there were intensified activities linking Iran to bombings in Buenos Aires at the Jewish community center, the Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and even the Mykonos restaurant attack in Berlin against Kurdish dissidents. This implicated the highest echelons of Iranian leadership and led to the withdrawal of all European ambassadors from Tehran in 1997.

At such volatile times Iranian support also extended into Alawite, Syria. The Assad regime had pledged mutual allegiance to their clerical comrades during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War as the sole Arab state supporting the "fire-worshipping Persians". In return, grand ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Shi'ite brethren enabled Hafez Assad in his atavistic quest to lay claim to Lebanon through Hezbollah. In effect, one facilitated the other and together they could strike back at the "Little Satan" - Israel.

The events of September 11, 2001, were a catalyst for regional change in the Middle East. The traumatic events presented a unique opportunity for cooperation between the US and Iran, while also permitting Iran to alter its regional alignments. The momentous shock to the American empire was bound to have after-effects on the Middle Eastern landscape.

For Iran, the "war on terror" was a blessing and a curse. As Pax Americana came knocking on Tehran's door, Washington first sought to eradicate the cleric's nemeses. Initially, there were signs of cooperation between the two nations. However, news of Iran furnishing the Karine A vessel bound for Palestine with armaments terminated all such dreams of rapprochement and immediately returned Iran to its notorious role as a triumvirate member of the "axis of evil".

With the United States commencing operations to oust Iran's enemy, Saddam, Iran nonetheless would soon bear the fruit of the US campaign in Iraq. The consequences for the Islamic Republic, though, lay in its enclosure as the democratic winds of Pax Americana would blow from the south, east and west encircling the Iranian frontier.

Reminiscent of 1991, this isolation of Iran has yet again reproduced Tehran's regional balance of power schemes as a way of pre-positioning itself to fend off any threat from Washington.

This time, however, Tehran is better situated, having extended its foothold to threaten US interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and the Persian Gulf.

In Iraq, Iran has allies among the Shi'ite victors in the recent parliamentary elections. In Afghanistan, both President Hamid Karzai and warlord Ismail Khan in Herat cooperate with their Iranian neighbors. Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal Sayyed has promised to retaliate if Israel strikes Iran's nuclear sites. Lebanon's Hezbollah, while on the road to a democratic transition, still receives considerable financial support from Iran.

Most significant to this group, though, is Syria, which signed a mutual defense pact with Tehran last spring. Indeed, both alienated countries continue to support each other in their domestic and international crises.

Ultimately, with Iran's nuclear crisis coming to a head, Iran's regional alignment only seeks to protect the Islamic Republic in the face of the looming military campaign whispered in the corridors of power in Israel and the US.

Most interesting has been the recent bout of support from Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who suggested that "the West is partly to blame for the current nuclear standoff with Iran because it allowed Israel to develop nuclear weapons". Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit, meanwhile, called for a continuation of dialogue.

Additionally, the Russian and Chinese reluctance to sanction the clerical regime signifies the converging commercial and strategic synergies that override the importance of this nuclear issue. Clearly, the Iranian clerics have cleverly pre-positioned themselves with regional and international allies willing to support the Iranian position or thwart a crisis in the event of a military strike.

For the administration of US President George W Bush, which is in a unique position to manage this nuclear crisis, understanding and managing Iranian regional objectives is crucial to mitigating this tenuous aperture. Ultimately, the Iranian clerics continue to seek a role in the Middle East's regional security.

Indeed, the clerical elite consider Iran to be located on the precipice of global power in the region and thus cannot be neglected. This writer's research and interviews in both capitals concluded that Washington and Tehran have mutual interests of regional stability and security. These interests can be brought together under the umbrella of the pressing issue of regional security.

If the Bush administration included rather than alienated Tehran in these regional security arrangements, the converging national interests of Washington and Tehran could result in the further co-optation of the Islamic Republic.

Sanam Vakil is an assistant professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

A high-risk game of nuclear chicken
(Jan 31, '06)

Iran's challenge to the UN
(Jan 28, '06)

Covert ops and disinformation aimed at Iran
(Jan 27, '06)


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