Iran’s foreign policy: A bundle of complexities

By K.N. Pandita

Iran is different from other Middle East countries. Iranians are descended from the Aryan and not Semitic stock. The Shia-Sunni sectarian divide is an important factor in assessing Iran-Arab relations. Though Shia Islam is Iran’s state religion and she has made a valuable contribution to the enrichment of Islamic civilization, yet ethnic divide obstructed harmonizing of relations. Iran never forgave the Sunni Arabs for denying Ali (Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law) and his progeny the right of succession to the Islamic caliphate after the demise of the Prophet of Islam.

Victimhood is a compelling component of the Iranian Shia psyche. To them, Shia Islam is a religion of protest. The roots of Khomeini’s twin-concept of (a) rejection of a monarchical regime for an Islamic state and (b) Iran’s dominance as the legitimate leader of the Muslim world, both are rooted in this very psyche.

The foreign policy of theocratic Iran is not hinged only on politics and economics. Iran is the third largest oil producing country of the world. The sectarian factor conspicuously determines the contours of her foreign policy. Conscious of her inability to wresting the leadership of the Muslim world from the hands of Saudis, Iran aspires for the global espousal of the Shia leadership. Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, some pockets in North Africa, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat regions of north-western Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia are on her radar. For the Indian sub-continent, Iran uses a different trajectory.

Iran’s anti-Saddam hostility sprang from the suspicion that Iraq was trying to overshadow the significance of Iran’s Shia status by promoting Iraqi Shia shrines of Kerbala and Kazimeen. Saddam’s oil diplomacy had also posed a challenge to Iran’s self-styled supremacy in the region. This hostility was deep-rooted to the extent that theocratic Iran secretly accepted arms supplies from Israel via Pakistan during an eight-year-long Iran –Iraq war. To Israelis, Saddam was more dangerous than Iran.

Iran supports President Assad against Saudi Arabia. He is a Shia by faith. In Bahrain, Iran opposes the Sunni ruler but covertly supports the majority Shia population. As Khomeini’s export of the “Iranian Islamic Revolution” ideology proceeded after the revolution of 1979, the Saudi monarchy reckoned it a threat to its influence and predominance. It responded with the unleashing of Wahhabi Islamic ideology across the Sunni world, hence the rise of Sunni Islamic terror.

In 2011, Iran had cut financial support to the Hamas for its failure to garner public support in favour of Bashar al Assad of Syria. Iran has not so far recognized the State of Israel and calls it “Palestine under Occupation.” Khomeini had said that the road to Palestine lay through Al Qods meaning Jerusalem.

Iran does not hide her hatred towards Israel though no tangible reasons warrant it. The theocratic state considers denouncing Israel its religious duty while the Middle East Sunni Muslim States are either lukewarm or indifferent on the issue. Iran is sore why the American Congress with considerable Jewish strength patronizes the Saudi monarchy as well as Israel. To Iranian policy planners, the US, Saudi and Israel form a vicious triangle becoming a source of strength to the Saudi monarchy and also to the “pernicious” State of Israel.

Iran’s hostility towards Israel is almost a reproach to the Arab Islamic States, Saudi in particular, for failing to respond to the injunctions of the faith and not rising against Israel unanimously. Iran wants to be recognized as more Islamic than the Arabs.

Theocratic regime’s hostility towards the US hinges on two perceptions. One is that the US had allegedly torpedoed Iran’s Musaddegh-led socialist revolution of 1953. The second is that by taking the Saudi monarchy under its protective wing, the US is covertly subverting the rising democratic movements (Arab Spring) in the Middle East. Iran believes that by patronizing Saudi monarchy, the US is subtly extending its predominance over the rich hydrocarbon reserves of the Gulf. Secondly, acquiring a foothold in the strategically sensitive region of the Arabian Gulf means the US influences the course of events in the entire region. Three-fourth of world oil supplies pass through the Gulf. Iran takes it an insult to her ego. Khomeini had said that Islam rejects monarchy and the illegal Saudi monarchs had no right to claim the guardianship of the twin-holy shrines (Harmain-i-Sharief) of the Mecca and Madina.

Trump and the hawkish circles believe that Iran’s nuclear deal is too time-constrained; that it is unrelated and does not deal with any of Iran’s other malevolent actions in the Middle East. Trump’s two main charges are (a) Iran’s compliance of JCPOA is doubtful, and (b) Tehran is providing covert and overt support to terror and violence in selected regions to further her political ambitions.

Saudi Arabia had cited the attack on its embassy in Tehran as retaliation to the execution of a Shiite cleric. In an abortive coup of 1981, Iran is alleged to have planned to install a Shia cleric exiled in Iran, Hujjat al-Islam Hadi al-Mudarrisi, as supreme leader heading a theocratic government in Bahrain. Iran is reported to be providing a hundred million US dollars annually to Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party, for weaponry to fight Israel. In 1981, Iran had cut off relations with Morocco for giving shelter to the deposed Shah of Iran. Tehran provides substantial financial assistance to the Hamas government in Gaza. It blatantly supports Yemen in her conflict with Saudi Arabia. On 20 February 2020 Aljazeera reported the Saudi kingdom saying it had intercepted and destroyed several ballistic missiles launched by the Hauthi rebels of Yemen towards Saudi cities, in the latest cross-border attack. The missiles were fired from the capital city of Sanaa. Saudi state news agency SPA said that the missiles were aimed at cities and civilians.

Quds Force, also called Iran’s terrorist force and a wing of the Iranian Republic Guards Corps (IRGC), operates with Hizbullah in Lebanon, with a pro-government militia in Syria and with the Huthi in Yemen against Saudi pressure, and finally, the Gaza Strip, where it has backed Hamas. Many of those groups are among U.S-designated terrorist organizations. Trump says that for these reasons he wants to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

Nevertheless, the accusation of Iran’s non-compliance with JCPOA remains a contentious issue. European partners with vast commercial interests in bef – riending Iran are uncomfortable with Trump’s threats of tearing the deal apart. William Burns of Carnegie Institute, who was part of the negotiating team, said Iran could not be pushed for anything more because “our European allies did not agree.” French President Macron tried to mediate but Iran’s President Rouhani declined to meet with Trump as long as sanctions remained in place. Renewed sanctions are bound to cripple Iran’s economy and reduce her oil exports considerably. Defiant Iran says it would continue enriching the uranium to a higher degree.

Former President Obama was confident that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would prevent Iran from secretly building a nuclear program. Iran was not averse to an inspection of nuclear sites by IAEA.

Sanctions previously imposed by the UN, US and EU had crippled Iran’s economy, costing the country more than $160 bn in oil revenue from 2012 to 2016. Under the deal, Iran had gained access to more than $100 bn in assets frozen overseas and was able to resume selling oil on the international market.

President Trump told the US Congress and the European allies to “fix” the agreement by May 12, 2019, failing which he would “rip it up”. Several European foreign ministers boycotted the Warsaw summit on the Middle East.

The US went on bringing one after the other accusation against Iran and tension between the two took a sharp upward trend. On April 8, 2019, the US designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. On the following day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran would install a cascade of 20 IR-6 centrifuges at Natanz. National Security Advisor John Bolton declared that the US Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force are being deployed to the U.S. Central Command region to “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” Iran retaliated saying it will no longer be bound by stockpiles limitations on enriched uranium and heavy water reserves in the JCPOA and could restart construction on its unfinished heavy water reactor and resume higher-level enrichment. In a joint statement EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the French, German and UK foreign ministers urged Iran to continue to meet its commitments under the JCPOA and rejected “any ultimatums”.

On September 14, 2019, officials in Saudi Arabia alleged that Iran carried out the September 14 attack on Saudi critical oil infrastructure. The United States hurried to deploy additional troops in Saudi Arabia in response to the Aramco attack. The US banned the entry of Iranian officials into the US.

Interestingly, on October 2, 2019, Iranian President Rouhani conceded that, with the support of French President Macron, he and President Trump had agreed upon a four-point document at the United Nations General Assembly in September. It outlined a lifting of re-imposed U.S. sanctions in exchange for Iran’s agreement to remain a non-nuclear weapons state in perpetuity and to pursue negotiations on regional peace. Nothing was heard of it later.

Amidst the exchange of threats and counter-threats, Iran’s top Quds security and intelligence commander Qassim Suleimani was killed on January 2 in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport that was authorized by President Trump. Washington held him responsible for killing many American and Afghan national army personnel in Afghan war. Iran retaliated by firing eight ballistic missiles on an American airbase near Baghdad. The world wondered if the war was in the offing. The stalemate continues.

The situation in the Middle East is tense. Its escalation cannot be overlooked. Iran-US conflict is fraught with a threat to the entire region and the world at large. Besides the European powers, Russia and China are closely watching the situation. They have stakes. This explosive situation cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely. World powers owe responsibility to the humanity. Responsible countries do not hate but sit down and talk. Iran needs to talk and the US needs to listen. Options of resolving the logjam have to be explored. Hostility and hatred against the neighbors must cease and sanctions against Iran have to be withdrawn. Iran has to return to the global mainstream as an independent, equal and responsible partner.
(The End).

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