icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Iran Navigates the World
Iran Navigates the World
Table of Contents
  1. Foreword

Iran: What Does Ahmadi-Nejad's Victory Mean?

The surprise election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is being sworn in as president this week, has given rise to dire predictions about Iran’s domestic and foreign policies and relations with the U.S. and the European Union. There are reasons for concern.

I. Overview

The surprise election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is being sworn in as president this week, has given rise to dire predictions about Iran's domestic and foreign policies and relations with the U.S. and the European Union. There are reasons for concern. Based on his rhetoric, past performance, and the company he keeps, Ahmadi-Nejad appears a throwback to the revolution's early days: more ideological, less pragmatic, and anti- American. But for the West, and the U.S. in particular, to reach and act upon hasty conclusions would be wrong. Iran is governed by complex institutions and competing power centres that inherently favour continuity over change. More importantly, none of the fundamentals has changed: the regime is not about to collapse; it holds pivotal cards on Iraq and nuclear proliferation; and any chance of modifying its behaviour will come, if at all, through serious, coordinated EU and U.S. efforts to engage it.

Ideologically, Ahmadi-Nejad remains somewhat of a mystery, not so much because he conceals his beliefs as because they are strikingly abstract. His campaign utterances, much like his mayoral tenure, were dominated by lofty phrases about economic justice, Islam, national dignity and the need to protect the national interest against foreigners. Arguably the best indicator of his views are the positions of his allies -- the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the basij militia, and the Abadgaran movement, all of which have embraced socially conservative and internationally confrontational outlooks, and some of which have supported violent activity abroad.

But presidential change is unlikely to signify fundamental policy change. Ironically, the same U.S. observers who before the election argued a reform victory would make little difference because unelected officials make decisions, have been quick to express alarm at a threatened rightward turn. Given Iran's political system, earlier assessments ring truer. Domestic changes may come at the margins, not spectacular enough to provoke international opprobrium, albeit serious enough for those affected. On the foreign front, the style likely will be more confrontational and less appealing to Western audiences, and in the short run at least, Ahmadi-Nejad's surprise victory is likely to aggravate tensions with Washington and perhaps with Brussels. A diplomatic newcomer, Ahmadi-Nejad brings a less sophisticated approach than his predecessor; alone among the candidates, he did not broach improved relations with the U.S. during the campaign and, since his victory, has been at best indifferent about them. But bottom line positions -- on Iran's nuclear program, regional interests, Iraq policy -- almost certainly will not budge in the foreseeable future.

The new president is dismissive of the need to improve relations with the U.S., and his election strengthened those within the U.S. administration who have long believed engagement would only further entrench a hostile, undemocratic regime and who wish to pursue a strategy of "delegitimisation". But though both sides might take short-term comfort from continued estrangement, this posture is unsustainable. On at least two burning issues -- Iraq and the nuclear question -- the U.S. and Iran inexorably must engage, collide or both. While Iran has turned a page on the Khatami era, President Ahmadi-Nejad faces the same situation and President Bush the same dilemmas as before.

In short, and for all their flaws -- hundreds of candidates, including all women, were disqualified by an unelected body, and there were serious charges of irregularities --the election clarified some core realities of Iranian politics, with significant implications that the West cannot afford to ignore:

  • The current regime is not about to collapse, and any reform movement will need time to revive. In an election that by regional standards was competitive, had strong participation, and offered a broad choice, Iranians voted on the basis of economic rather than political needs. There is little doubt a vast majority wants genuine reform but at this point is more interested in its well-being, and Ahmadi-Nejad spoke to that issue best. In contrast, the reform movement is in disarray, unable to find a way to participate in the political system without ultimately being stymied and discredited by it. Reformers are disorganised, lack a strong leader, have a desultory eight-year record and are failing to connect with voters' everyday concerns. In other words, for all the dissatisfaction, the regime is not nearing collapse. For the U.S. to assume that popular anger will translate into an organised opposition and that the regime is ripe for a fall would be a risky gamble that virtually nothing in Iran appears to validate.
     
  • Serious, coordinated U.S.-EU engagement with Iran on the nuclear issue is required to avert a full-blown crisis or, at a minimum, genuinely test Tehran's intentions. Renewed Iranian threats to resume work at a uranium conversion facility in Isfahan are only the latest indication that the current process is not working. More creative proposals -- allowing Iran to operate a small enrichment capacity under strict international surveillance or joint Iranian/international management of nuclear sites -- should be put  on the table, along with discussion of Tehran's security concerns, before taking the uncertain step of Security Council  referral.
     
  • On Iraq, Washington eventually must have   a dialogue with Iran to maximise chances of stability. Even with enhanced regional cooperation, in particular from Tehran, the U.S. will continue to face a resilient insurgency and a tenuous Iraqi political process; without it, the tasks will be considerably more difficult.
     
  • Engagement by  the  U.S.  and  the  EU  does  not mean appeasement, and certainly not indifference to human rights abuses. A first test will be the status of Akbar Ganji, a political prisoner whose health has deteriorated dangerously as a result of a hunger strike. His release would constitute an important symbolic gesture by the Ahmadi-Nejad administration.

Tehran/Brussels, 4 August 2005

Iran Navigates the World

In his prologue to The Geopolitics of Iran, edited by Francisco José B. S. Leandro, Carlos Branco, and Flavius Caba-Maria, our Middle East expert Joost Hiltermann says policymakers should come to grips with the country's lived experience to understand why dialogue and diplomacy are the best way to deal with the Islamic Republic.

Foreword

Imagine the view from Tehran. It is early 2021. You are an Iranian, with inherited memories of empire and conquest, yet also of foreign invasions and defeat; a citizen of a country isolated in the world, yet also a rising power accused of hegemonic ambitions, one that may be poorly managed but also has accumulated and deployed remarkable technical brainpower; you’re part of a population kept down by harsh economic sanctions but that has proved doggedly resilient; you’re saddled with a leadership that champions a revolutionary ideology, now fading, even as it projects its power across the region; and you belong to a society that veers between forbearance and protest, but is kept in check by a security apparatus that uses an effective blend of co-optation and naked repression to stay in power. 

This is Iran today – located on a geopolitical junction between the Asian and European continents, hemmed in between former Soviet republics, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Arab world, and commanding a strategic chokepoint – the Strait of Hormuz – through which flow one fifth of the world’s global oil consumption and a quarter of its LNG trade. The country is a magnet for foreign interests as it strives to escape its containment and attain its full potential, which it deems an entitlement after four decades of isolation.

For centuries, Iran has fought for its security and survival by warding off outside threats. For the same length of time it also has forged critical alliances with external powers to better insulate itself against such threats. It has had experience of foreign powers vying to partition the country into spheres of influence. Yet in the process it has perfected the art of divide and rule in confronting both internal and external challenges. Ever since its Islamic revolution, it has attempted to project its power into its neighbourhood, initially in Lebanon but also, in the more recent past, in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where it succeeded by capitalising on the weakness and mistakes of its adversaries. The 2011 Arab uprisings, and their destructive aftermath, proved a turning point as Arab states collapsed, creating a vacuum into which Iran, among others, was keen to step before one of its rivals would. It thus spread or deepened its influence partly by design but mainly by default, either way terrifying its enemies.

Its main strategy in the region, from the days it established Hezbollah in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has been to court local non-state allies, and to arm and train them. For this it used the Qods Force, an expeditionary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pasdaran, commanded by Qasem Soleimani until his killing in an American drone strike in January 2020. 

That attack was part of an unremitting U.S. effort to keep Iran leashed, which started with the Islamic revolution and hostage crisis more than 40 years ago. Even the Obama administration, which sought to overcome the bitter legacy of the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup that overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the embassy hostage-taking, and ongoing sparring in the Middle East and beyond, remained intent on keeping Iran contained. 

The next administration, led by Donald Trump, went back to the old way, throwing the nuclear accord President Obama had negotiated out of the window, re-imposing sanctions, and endeavouring to clip Iran’s regional power projection through economic coercion and military deterrence. This campaign, dubbed “maximum pressure”, further impoverished a population already stressed by a badly run economy while failing to achieve any of its stated objectives: further limiting Iran’s nuclear program, reducing its footprint in the region, destabilising the country, and forcing its leadership back to the negotiating table on far less favourable terms.

To the contrary, Iran appeared undeterred, if perturbed, by sanctions and setbacks, which merely re-empowered the hard-line elements of its political class. It lashed out at the U.S. and its allies in the region, displaying an astute sense of how close to the limit it could take an escalation short of precipitating a full-throated U.S. military response. On the nuclear front, it countered new U.S. sanctions by incrementally violating the nuclear deal, but it made clear its steps were reversible and that indeed it would reverse them should the Trump administration or its successor come around or the Europeans decide to compensate Iran. The arrival of the Biden administration seemed to offer a new opening. 

The experience of both the Obama and Trump years shows that the Islamic Republic is here to stay unless one of two things happens: a violent overthrow by the United States and its allies, or its collapse in a popular uprising. Neither scenario appears likely. The 2003 Iraq invasion showed the limits of U.S. power in the region, and even laid bare its vulnerabilities through the consequences it unintentionally unleashed: the empowerment of jihadist groups. The U.S. learned an important lesson, which it heeded in subsequent discussions about the wisdom of using American power in the pursuit of regime change and state rebuilding in Libya and Syria. And while a significant segment of the Iranian population may be thoroughly fed up with the clerical leadership – there is every indication many people are – they appear to have neither the means to effectively counter a deeply entrenched repressive security apparatus nor a viable alternative.

It is an axiom of international relations that one negotiates with one’s enemy. As long as the notion that the Islamic Republic will somehow disappear remains as fanciful as it is today, Iran and its adversaries will have to find ways to accommodate one another. This requires dialogue and diplomacy. From their side, the Iranians have proved to be as capable as diplomats as they have been in military affairs, and have shown they can effectively combine the two. The United States, by contrast, has shown inconsistency and, at least in the last four years, an unhealthy resort to coercion as the only way of dealing with Iran. A return to such an approach, during the Biden administration or the one succeeding it, might well deliver a self-fulfilling prophecy: the further rise of a vengeful power, nurtured by the resourcefulness that its long isolation forced it to develop, now with explicitly hegemonic ambitions and an ability to disrupt an oil-dependent global economy.

There is much to recommend the volume in front of you. Its main objective is to show why and how Iran has been and remains a relevant actor in the international order, and particularly in the context of the Middle East – a regional power we ignore at our peril. To accomplish this, this volume: addresses Iran’s intertwined interests and perceptions, basing the country’s foreign policy-making on its religion-inspired ideology and four-decade enmity with the United States; examines Iran’s relations with states in its wider neighbourhood, as well as with world powers – China, the European Union and Russia, in addition to the United States; and offers an array of scholarly views on the many and various aspects of Iran’s durability in an unsparing world. 

In doing so, this volume offers a window on Iran looking in, providing a glimpse of a nation’s lived experience. It is as close as we can come to a firm grasp of how such an experience can be lived in the first place. May it serve a global audience that values the importance of reciprocal understanding as the foundation for sound decision-making in the management of inter-state relations.