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Tehran's ambitions are becoming clear: Ironically aided by US intervention in the region

Militias controlled by Tehran are poised to complete a land corridor that would give Iran huge power in the region

October 9


London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 9 Oct 2016 - Guardian

More than 30 years ago the leading Iran historian James Bill argued, “America knows astonishingly little about Iran.” Unfortunately, they still have many things wrong. Contrary to conventional assumptions, Iranian foreign policy is not made by irrational clerics. Iranians are not seeking a nuclear program with offensive motivations. There is also no such thing as an “Islamic bomb” that could be passed to terrorist organizations and exploded in Western cities. Iran has long possessed chemical weapons, but it has never surrendered them to anyone. Fear-mongering is not a substitute for facts and a sober understanding of the situation we’re facing with Iran.

The situation we’re facing at this very moment is a much-needed opportunity to re-make a strategically vital relationship that has suffered for decades. Driven by an exaggerated threat, a faulty understanding of the challenges, the pressure of interest groups, and also by ideology and ulterior motives, we are seeing once again attempts to thwart progress.

For centuries, the dilemma facing Iran (and before it, Persia) has been guaranteeing national survival and autonomy in the face of stronger regional powers like Ottoman Turkey and the Russian Empire. Though always weaker than these larger empires, Iran survived for three reasons: geography, resources and diplomacy. Iran's size and mountainous terrain made military forays into the country difficult and dangerous. Iran also was able to field sufficient force to deter attacks while permitting occasional assertions of power. At the same time, Tehran engaged in clever diplomatic efforts, playing threatening powers off each other.

The intrusion of European imperial powers into the region compounded Iran's difficulties in the 19th century, along with the lodging of British power to Iran's west in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula following the end of World War I. This coincided with a transformation of the global economy to an oil-based system. Then as now, the region was a major source of global oil. Where the British once had interests in the region, the emergence of oil as the foundation of industrial and military power made these interests urgent. Following World War II, the Americans and the Soviets became the outside powers with the ability and desire to influence the region, but Tehran's basic strategic reality persisted. Iran faced both regional and global threats that it had to deflect or align with. And because of oil, the global power could not lose interest while the regional powers did not have the option of losing interest.

Whether ruled by a Shah or an Ayatollah, Iran's strategy remained the same: deter by geography, protect with defensive forces, and engage in complex diplomatic manoeuvres. But underneath this reality, another vision of Iran's role always lurked.

Iran as Regional Power

A vision of Iran — a country with an essentially defensive posture — as a regional power remained. The shah competed with Saudi Arabia over Oman and dreamed of nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad dueled with Saudi Arabia over Bahrain, and also dreamed of nuclear weapons. When we look beyond the rhetoric — something we always should do when studying foreign policy, since the rhetoric is intended to intimidate, seduce and confuse foreign powers and the public — we see substantial continuity in Iran's strategy since World War II. Iran dreams of achieving regional dominance by breaking free from its constraints and the threats posed by nearby powers.

Since World War II, Iran has had to deal with regional dangers like Iraq, with which it fought a brutal war lasting nearly a decade and costing Iran about 1 million casualties. It also has had to deal with the United States, whose power ultimately defined patterns in the region. So long as the United States had an overriding interest in the region, Iran had no choice but to define its policies in terms of the United States. For the shah, that meant submitting to the United States while subtly trying to control American actions. For the Islamic republic, it meant opposing the United States while trying to manipulate it into taking actions in the interests of Iran. Both acted within the traditions of Iranian strategic subtlety.

The Islamic republic proved more successful than the shah. It conducted a sophisticated disinformation campaign prior to the 2003 Iraq war to convince the United States that invading Iraq would be militarily easy and that Iraqis would welcome the Americans with open arms. This fed the existing U.S. desire to invade Iraq, becoming one factor among many that made the invasion seem doable. Alas the outcome was a disaster and handed over Iraq to Iran.

In a second phase, the Iranians helped many factions in Iraq resist the Americans, turning the occupation — and plans for reconstructing Iraq according to American blueprints — into a nightmare. In a third and final phase, Iran used its influence in Iraq to divide and paralyze the country after the Americans withdrew.

As a result of this manoeuvring, Iran achieved two goals. First, the Americans disposed of Iran's archenemy, Saddam Hussein, turning Iraq into a strategic cripple. Second, Iran helped force the United States out of Iraq, creating a vacuum in Iraq and undermining U.S. credibility in the region — and sapping any U.S. appetite for further military adventures in the Middle East. It also had the effect of minimizing the effects of sanctions on Iran, as Iraq quickly became the clearing house of Iranian trade.

I want to emphasize that all of this was not an Iranian plot: Many other factors contributed to this sequence of events. At the same time, Iranian manoeuvring was no minor factor in the process; Iran skilfully exploited events that it helped shape.

There was a defensive point to this. Iran had seen the United States invade the countries surrounding it, Iraq to its west and Afghanistan to its east. It viewed the United States as extremely powerful and unpredictable to the point of irrationality, though also able to be manipulated. Tehran therefore could not dismiss the possibility that the United States would choose war with Iran. Expelling the United States from Iraq, however, limited American military options in the region. This was not helped when General Wesley Clarke said:

“We’re going to take out seven countries in 5 years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran”

This strategy also had an offensive dimension. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq positioned Iran to fill the vacuum. Critically, the geopolitics of the region had created an opening for Iran probably for the first time in centuries. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union released pressure from the north. Coming on top of the Ottoman collapse after World War I, Iran now no longer faced a regional power that could challenge it. Second, with the drawdown of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, the global power had limited military options and even more limited political options for acting against Iran.

A low-point in U.S. diplomacy,  47 Republican lawmakers attempted to derail the ongoing nuclear negotiations. Although their letter was addressed to the leaders of Iran, it was also written for a domestic audience so as to garner support for what is, in fact, a counterproductive stance. The letter stated: “[W]e will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Barack Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen…” Secretary of State John Kerry found himself in “utter disbelief” over the “irresponsible” letter.

The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also commented on it.

He saw it as “a sign of… decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.”

If the issues are considered strategically, Iran is of indispensable value to the United States. Compellingly, this was demonstrated immediately after 9/11 when Iran allowed the use of its airspace for American military operations. Iran also provided intelligence and maps of bombing targets. Moreover, Tehran facilitated collaboration with the Northern Alliance which proved a central ally on the ground and in the defeat of the Taliban. It did much more and it was correct when one scholar wrote that “the under-reported story of the first episode of America’s war on terrorism is that it could not have succeeded as easily as it did without Iranian support.” Alas, in early 2002 the neo-conservatively dominated Bush administration began to rebuff Iran.

Since then, Iran has emerged as a central actor in the region’s major political and strategic dramas: the Palestine-Israel conflict, the challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and also Yemen, and the fight against extremist non-state actors, most prominently against ISIL. In effect, Iran has become the most pivotal country in the world’s most critical region. The country’s economic importance is also outstanding. Globally, only Saudi Arabia possesses more oil-reserves. Iran also possesses the second largest natural gas-reserves. Given the growing importance of energy resources for strategic and industrial purposes, Iran’s importance will continue to grow.

The United States cannot achieve any of its high-priority objectives in the Middle East without Iran. President Obama and his administration have been awfully poor in making their case for a nuclear deal. To be sure, nothing of what is said here implies that one should like Iran, but one must be strategic about it. There is also nothing here to deny that Iran has troublesome aspects to it, but these are best dealt with through engagement, not isolation as is favoured by Republicans and often also by liberal hawks.

China, Russia and Iran have a mutual interest in limiting US power in the Middle East and Central Asia. China and Russia hope that in the absence of US influence that the nations of Middle East and Central Asia will turn to the Chinese and Russians for hegemony and patronage. Iran sees Chinese and Russian leadership as preferable to US and European leadership because of restrictions the US and Europe wish to impose on Iran exercising regional hegemony in the Middle East as well as the West’s embargo of Iran and continued support of Israel.

Efforts toward integration of Middle East and Central Asian nations into international organizations by the Russian and Chinese governments so as to more formally influence these regions have been largely successful. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which stresses military, economic and cultural cooperation, currently has as members Russia, China and the majority of Central Asia with observer status granted to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. The SCO has been seen as a reaction and counterweight to the US-dominated NATO, which has included and considered as members former Soviet Union nations like Ukraine and Georgia and has sought partnerships with Eastern and Central Asian nations. For China however, Iran and the Persian Gulf hold much more significance. In 2011, Chinese oil imports from nations exporting through the Strait of Hormuz amounted to 42% as opposed to the 24% imported by the US. China, whose growing economy is fuelled by imported natural resources, is more susceptible to the negative effects of a war in the Persian Gulf than the US and thus has a greater interest in peace. Ideally for China, there will be a drawdown of tension in the Persian Gulf along with increased US alienation of the Arab Middle East’s populace providing the necessary political will in Arab nations to distance themselves politically from the US and eventually move toward a more Sinocentric world order which has the added benefit of providing energy security for China. Russia on the other hand has little incentive against war in the Persian Gulf beside its potential escalation into war against the US or the replacement of the Iranian regime with a pro-US, pro-business Iran because Russia would stand to benefit immensely as the world second largest oil-producing nation from increased global prices and a virtual monopoly in the areas of Europe, where it does not already exercise such authority.

Iran holds a position of immense strategic importance for the three major powers in the world today as well as a regional importance among the nations of the Persian Gulf both militarily and geopolitically. It is, in effect, a border between interests of East and West that will serve as either a catalyst for war and use of traditional hard power or as a conduit for economic, political and cultural soft power.

For Iran, Russia is a strategic ally in supporting Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, and Russia is also a potential partner in shaping the global gas market as the two countries with the largest reserves. But there are still important differences between Moscow and Tehran. Even though Russia is contracted to Iran over nuclear energy – the provider of Bushehr, Iran’s only operating station, and in talks over eight more – it blocked neither Iran’s referral to the UN security council in 2006 nor the subsequent sanctions.

In 2005 Larijani began his first of two years as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council pursuing a ‘tilt to Moscow’ that he believed could stop both referral and UN sanctions. Russia has taken a cautious stance amidst heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, even though it seems that relations with Riyadh have deteriorated over Syria while cooperation with Tehran is developing quickly. However, Moscow did not support either party and only stated that it was "seriously concerned" by the escalation of the situation involving major players in the region. The Russian Foreign Ministry urged all Gulf countries to exercise restraint and avoid any actions that could increase the tensions, "including interdenominational issues."

Moreover, Russia criticized Iran for allowing attacks on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran and its Consulate in Mashhad. The statement of Russia's Foreign Ministry emphasizes that, "Under no circumstances shall attacks on foreign diplomatic missions be considered a legitimate means of protest and a way of expressing political beliefs."

It is quite remarkable that the Russian authorities did not comment on the execution of Shia preacher Nimr al-Nimr in spite of it being widely criticized in the West. This reluctance on behalf of the Russian government can be interpreted as the desire to avoid further complications of already strained relations with Saudi Arabia.

Moscow does not need any more problems After the execution of al-Nimr, some Russian observers were quick to claim that a serious crisis (and better yet, a war) in the Persian Gulf would benefit the Kremlin because it would drive oil prices up. Therefore, Moscow should welcome the escalation.

However, such a scenario would realistically cause more problems than it would solve. Any economic advantages would be short-lived, with other exporters quickly making up for the possible decline in production and bringing prices back to the current level. Moreover, the Kremlin's political plans for the region would be in jeopardy.

Russia is already involved in two conflicts with uncertain outcomes in Ukraine and Syria. While there is no quick way of ending the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow sees the Syrian conflict as a tool for improving its relations with the West and believes that since the issue cannot be resolved without Moscow, the U.S. and its allies will have to deal with Russia. However, the Syrian puzzle cannot be solved without a compromise between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which means that Moscow is not interested in new altercations between Riyadh and Tehran.

It is also too early to speak of a possible deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations due to the new tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Formally, Moscow is now in the Shia camp because of its support of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is friendly towards Iran, while the U.S. positions itself as an ally and a guarantor of Saudi security. It appears that confrontation is quite possible, but in reality Moscow is not strategically allied with Tehran.

True, during the negotiations on Iran's nuclear problem, Russia played the part of a "good policeman," and currently Moscow and Tehran see eye-to-eye on a number of issues (first and foremost, on Syria), but it is an alliance of convenience. The economic ties also leave a lot to be desired. Tehran is definitely interested in Russian weapons and nuclear technologies, but Europe with its financial opportunities and technologies is a lot more important. So, the Kremlin will not go out of its way to defend Iran, especially since that could lead to a further deterioration of its relations with the West. Even if we imagine the worst-case scenario — a military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran — we should not expect Russia to interfere. Suffice it to recall the details of the 1980s war between Iran and Iraq. At that time, Soviet leaders preferred to stay out of the conflict, but made money by supplying weapons to both parties.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliamentary speaker, has long been an advocate of better relations with Russia and his recent interview with TASS, in which he spoke of Iran’s “eastern orientation, first of all towards Russia…[as] the country’s strategic choice”, is no surprise. But Iran’s relationships with all international powers are becoming more nuanced as the result of changes in the region. Last July’s nuclear agreement with world powers, including the ‘Great Satan’, has helped produce a diplomatic palate with many shades of grey. There are few steadfast allies or implacable enemies.

Iran's Opportunity

Iran now had the opportunity to consider emerging as a regional power rather than solely pursuing complex maneuvers to protect Iranian autonomy and the regime. The Iranians understood that the moods of global powers shifted unpredictably, the United States more than most. Therefore it knew that the more aggressive it became, the more the United States may militarily commit itself to containing Iran. At the same time, the United States might do so even without Iranian action. Accordingly, Iran searched for a strategy that might solidify its regional influence while not triggering U.S. retaliation. Anyone studying the United States understands its concern with nuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War it lived in the shadow of a Soviet first strike. The Bush administration used the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear program to rally domestic support for the invasion. When the Soviets and the Chinese attained nuclear weapons, the American response bordered on panic. The United States simultaneously became more cautious in its approach to those countries.

In looking at North Korea, the Iranians recognized a pattern they could use to their advantage. Regime survival in North Korea, a country of little consequence, was uncertain in the 1990s. When it undertook a nuclear program, however, the United States focused heavily on North Korea, simultaneously becoming more cautious in its approach to the North. Tremendous diplomatic activity and periodic aid was brought to bear to limit North Korea's program. From the North Korean point of view, actually acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons was not the point; North Korea was not a major power like China and Russia, and a miscalculation on Pyongyang's part could lead to more U.S. aggression. Rather, the process of developing nuclear weapons itself inflated North Korea's importance while inducing the United States to offer incentives or impose relatively ineffective economic sanctions (and thereby avoiding more dangerous military action). North Korea became a centerpiece of U.S. concern while the United States avoided actions that might destabilize North Korea and shake loose the weapons the North might have. The North Koreans knew that having a deliverable weapon would prove dangerous, but that having a weapons program gave them leverage — a lesson the Iranians learned well. From the Iranians' point of view, a nuclear program causes the United States simultaneously to take them more seriously and to increase its caution while dealing with them. At present, the United States leads a group of countries with varying degrees of enthusiasm for imposing sanctions that might cause some economic pain to Iran, but give the United States a pretext not to undertake the military action Iran really fears and that the United States does not want to take.

Israel, however, must take a different view of Iran's weapons program. While not a threat to the United States, the program may threaten Israel. The Israelis' problem is that they must trust their intelligence on the level of development of Iran's weapons. The United States can afford a miscalculation; Israel might not be able to afford it. This lack of certainty makes Israel unpredictable. From the Iranian point of view, however, an Israeli attack might be welcome.

Iran does not have nuclear weapons and may be following the North Korean strategy of never developing deliverable weapons. If they did, however, and the Israelis attacked and destroyed them, the Iranians would be as they were before acquiring nuclear weapons. But if the Israelis attacked and failed to destroy them, the Iranians would emerge stronger. The Iranians could retaliate by taking action in the Strait of Hormuz. The United States, which ultimately is the guarantor of the global maritime flow of oil, might engage Iran militarily. Or it might enter into negotiations with Iran to guarantee the flow. An Israeli attack, whether successful or unsuccessful, would set the stage for Iranian actions that would threaten the global economy, paint Israel as the villain, and result in the United States being forced by European and Asian powers to guarantee the flow of oil with diplomatic concessions rather than military action. An attack by Israel, successful or unsuccessful, would cost Iran little and create substantial opportunities. In my view, the Iranians want a program, not a weapon, but having the Israelis attack the program would suit Iran's interests quite nicely.

The nuclear option falls into the category of Iranian manipulation of regional and global powers, long a historical necessity for the Iranians. But another, and more significant event is under way in Syria.

Syria's Importance to Iran

As we have written, if the Syrian regime survives, this in part would be due to Iranian support. Isolated from the rest of the world, Syria would become dependent on Iran. If that were to happen, an Iranian sphere of influence would stretch from western Afghanistan to Beirut. This in turn would fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Middle East, fulfilling Iran's dream of becoming a dominant regional power in the Persian Gulf and beyond. This was the shah's and the ayatollah's dream. And this is why the United States is currently obsessing over Syria.

What would such a sphere of influence give the Iranians? Three things. First, it would force the global power, the United States, to abandon ideas of destroying Iran, as the breadth of its influence would produce dangerously unpredictable results. Second, it would legitimize the regime inside Iran and in the region beyond any legitimacy it currently has. Third, with proxies along Saudi Arabia's northern border in Iraq and Shia along the western coast of the Persian Gulf, Iran could force shifts in the financial distribution of revenues from oil. Faced with regime preservation, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states would have to be flexible on Iranian demands, to say the least. Diverting that money to Iran would strengthen it greatly.

Iran has applied its strategy under regimes of various ideologies. The shah, whom many considered psychologically unstable and megalomaniacal, pursued this strategy with restraint and care. The current regime, also considered ideologically and psychologically unstable, has been equally restrained in its actions. Rhetoric and ideology can mislead, and usually are intended to do just that.

This long-term strategy, pursued since the 16th century with the resurgence of Persian nationalism in the form of the Safavid Empire, now sees a window of opportunity opening, engineered in some measure by Iran itself. Tehran's goal is to extend the American paralysis while it exploits the opportunities that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq has created. Simultaneously, it wants to create a coherent sphere of influence that the United States will have to accommodate itself to in order to satisfy the demand of its coalition for a stable supply of oil and limited conflict in the region. Iran is pursuing a two-pronged strategy toward this end. The first is to avoid any sudden moves, to allow processes to run their course. The second is to create a diversion through its nuclear program, causing the United States to replicate its North Korea policy in Iran. If its program causes an Israeli airstrike, Iran can turn that to its advantage as well. The Iranians understand that having nuclear weapons is dangerous but that having a weapons program is advantageous. But the key is not the nuclear program. That is merely a tool to divert attention from what is actually happening — a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East.

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  1. Aaron

    What do you mean? Both China and Russia are being extremely even-handed in this - both support non-nuclear proliferation. You wouldn't see any sanction against Iran if either of them are not on the same page with the US/EU on this, since both have veto power. In fact, both would want to see the whole Middle-East to be nuclear-free, and that means Israel should get rid of its nuclear weapons or at least come clean about them and/or allow international inspections as well. 

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  2. Larry

    Your presumption is false as neither country "supports" Iran. They each have some shared interests they cooperate with Iran on, but the main difference when compared to US or EU is that they are not hostile towards Iran. Maintaining a neutral position has allowed them to work for the benefit of their own nations, something the west has fallen way back on, pushed into the aggression fuelled by the backwards Saudis and Israel's war-mongering Likud coalition.

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    • 10 Oct 2016 Jamie

      The US view of this is simple: Both Russia and China are more favourable to Iran than Western governments because Iran stands in opposition to US policies on almost every issue.  Supporting Iran is a basically no-cost way to indirectly block US interests.  For China, there is the additional motivation of securing significant oil (and perhaps, eventually, natural gas) supplies.

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