(Informed Comment) – The US-Iranian relations remain conflictual forty years after the revolution and with an uncertain future. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that Poland will host an international conference on Iran in February has angered Iranian officials, prompting foreign minister Javad Zarif’s tweeting the upcoming summit as America’s anti-Iran “circus.” Secretary Pompeo on a tour of the Middle East pushed for the US-backed initiative to form what some have termed an “Arab NATO” to bring the region together in a military alliance to counter threats from Iran. The question remains: Is Iran really a threat to its neighbors or the United States? Why is Iran such a threat, given that the country is tackling with serious sociopolitical and economic issues internally and is facing a great degree of hostility from abroad? Perhaps, the source of an Iranian threat rests elsewhere?
The United States’ narrative of a hostile Iran is in line with the historical Western domination of the region that favors weak and dependent states, bounded by the parameters of a patron-client relationship that almost always prioritizes the interest of the former at the expense of the latter. As such, no ‘client’ state must challenge the patron’s hegemonic presence, interest, and control, even to the detriment of its own national interest. Among the central U.S. grievances are Iran’s pursuit of nuclear and missile technology, its ‘obstruction’ of the supposed Middle East ‘peace process,’ its intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, its past involvement in the Beirut attacks of the 1980s and the 1996 Khobar Towers (Saudi Arabia) bombing of an American troop residence and providing lethal aid to non-state actors in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Afghanistan. The list of US complaints against Iran fails, however, to address the root cause of the Iranian state behavior: how Iran’s foreign policy doctrine and behavior is fundamentally defensive in nature, reflecting its lesser military capabilities and the state insecurity in the face of persistent external hostility and threats at regime change. Iran utilizes anti-Americanism and Islamic revolutionary rhetoric as ‘soft power’ to mobilize transnational popular support and militia groups in the neighboring countries, where U.S. and Israel are perceived as enemies and the source of instability and discord. The Islamic Republic, contrary to the Arab States, is challenging the historical patron-client parameters and is, thus, designated as a ‘regional threat.’ Iran has legitimate national and regional interests. The removal of serious external threats can leave wider room for diplomacy and rapprochement with the West and the United States.
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French President Emmanuel Macron (R) meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters on September 25, 2018, in New York. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP/Getty Images).”
Iran’s Military Power
The transformation of Iran into an apparently regional power is largely the consequence of Iran’s national progress and events that followed September 11, 2001, including the US expensive and unwise invasion of Iraq. Iran’s participation in regional affairs has been, except for Lebanon, defensive in nature. Its involvement in Lebanon dates to the early 1980s when ‘volunteers’ traveled to Lebanon to fight alongside the Shi’a fighters against their rivals. (Recall, Lebanon’s civil war (1976-1990) saw foreign intervention by many countries, including Israel, Syria, Iraq, the United States, France, the UN, and Iran.) The intercession was a controversial issue for Iranian decisionmakers since Ayatollah Montazeri, and not Khomeini, championed support for Lebanese Shi’a. Otherwise, Iran was fighting Iraqi forces at the time for its territorial integrity and regime survival; a war that the US and its allies and the entire Arab World, except for Libya and Syria, supported.
Iran’s ‘asymmetric warfare doctrine’ means that it principally focuses its military doctrine on defense, deterrence, and asymmetric warfare. Iran’s harsh rhetoric in foreign policy is not a reflection of its actual capabilities and intention for open aggression; it is a defensive posture stemming from serious external threats to its regime survival and national sovereignty. The list of US grievances of Iran’s behavior does not address this point. A recent study argues that “Iran’s military is beset with structural, organizational, and capacity problems that prevent it from completely operationalizing Tehran’s doctrinal ambitions for asymmetric warfare, and that these problems are likely to persist over the next five to ten years. The bifurcated nature of the Islamic Republic’s security structures continues to create institutional friction that stunts the development of a truly integrated force. Bureaucratic inertia and other features of Iran’s defense establishment will likely keep Iran’s military capability mired in industrial-age conventional warfare, even as Tehran aspires toward an asymmetric warfighting doctrine.” The study, however, also confirms that in the long run, Iran’s efforts to attain self-sufficiency in military equipment is bound to make it stronger and a major player in the regional affairs.
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Iranian protesters hold a portrait of the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, during a demonstration in the capital Tehran on December 11, 2017, to denounce US President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Iranian ‘threat narrative’ only help legitimize the presence of US and Western military troops and arms sales to the region and consequently heightening regional tension. The United States has over 54,000 troops in more than a dozen Middle Eastern countries and is maintaining military bases in seven of them. According to the Pentagon’s quarterly reports on US military personnel, published in November 2018, the number of US soldiers and civilians working for the Department of Defense in the Middle East was 54,180, up from 40,517 during the first two quarters of 2017. Indeed, the number of US soldiers and civilian support staff deployed to Syria and the broader Middle East had surged by
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Iraqi protestors burn a US flag during a demonstration in Baghdad on April 15, 2018, opposing the joint Western air strikes against Syria’s regime. – The United States, Britain and France took military action in response to an alleged chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Douma a week ago that killed at least 40 people. Iraq warned that Western air strikes on Syria were a ‘very dangerous’ development that could fuel a jihadist resurgence in the region (Photo by Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP) (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images).
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has renewed its age-old colonial presence in the region, setting up a new military base in Kuwait and advancing its naval presence in Bahrain. Previously, on February 22, US Navy and Coast Guard units had joined Iraqi Navy and Kuwait Naval Force and Coast Guard vessels for a trilateral exercise(TRILAT) in the Persian Gulf that was the third of its kind since March 2017. Not to fall behind, France opened its naval base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009 that also stations troops and planes at Al-Dhafra Air Base, home to some of the 5,000 American troops stationed in the country.
The US and European states are the main arms exporters to the region and supplied over 98% of weapons imported by Saudi Arabia in 2017.” Arms imports to the Middle East doubled between 2013 and 2017: The US, the UK, and France were the main supplier of arms to the region, with the UK exporting nearly half of its arms to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the top 10 arms importers in the world. Iran, in contrast, only accounted for 1% of arms imports to the region. Its military expenditures remain minuscule compared to its ‘rival states,’ amounting to only $14.6 billion dollars in 2017 for a country of 84 million and neighboring 7 (14, including regional neighbors in the Persian Gulf) countries. There is a major power with a historical bellicose relation to Iran’s north, the Russian Federation, and a NATO-member competitor in the West, Turkey, and less friendly and even hostile Saudi Arabia and some of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. Others in the region also outpace Iran’s military expenditures per capita and in real numbers by far, including Saudi Arabia ($69.5 billion), Israel (16.5 billion), Turkey (18.2 billion), and Kuwait (6.8 billion). Overall, the Arab World spent close to $120 billion on military in 2017, augmented by support from major Western countries, including the United States with a military budget of nearly $610 billion in 2017.
Iran Under Threat or as a Threat?
The new ‘Islamic Republic’ soon after the revolution declared its ‘neither East nor West’ doctrine in foreign policy, but soon found itself with countless enemies and few friends on the world stage. The voice of support from some ‘revolutionary corners’ remained mostly symbolic and without much tangible support. The new leadership has regarded the United States and the West in general as hostile, still refusing to accept Iran’s legitimate stance as a pivotal state. The list of grievances is long: The US is viewed as hostile and interventionist with intention to topple the Iranian republic, indicated by its role in the 1953 coup d’état of the legal Iranian government, vehement rejection of the Islamic Revolution, disregard for Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane, imposing economic sanctions, freezing of Iranian financial assets, resistance to Iranian nuclear progress for clean energy, and threats to invade or attack Iran.
The September 1980 Iraqi invasion challenged Iran’s declared policy of independence and ‘self-reliance.’ The overwhelming material cost and the psychological impact of the Iraqi invasion lasted well into the following decades. The Iraqi invasion occurred when the Mujahidin-e Khalq’s violent acts of terrorism and insurgency had already shaken the foundation of the new state. The Iraqi military use of chemical weapons and Western countries’ silence, the bombardment of major Iranian cities and its oil terminals, the Western arms embargo, and the Arab countries’ vast financial support of Iraqi invasion verified external hostility. The mass flow of war refugees and internal migration into major cities, including Iraqi and Afghani refugees (after the 1979 Soviet invasion) and the material cost of war meant the devaluation of the national currency, the rial, and runaway inflation. Further, the United States’ sanctions have meant the denial of the Iranian economy and society from access to Western technology and investment, including spare parts to its airlines and access to medical equipment. Incidentally, Iran’s pursuit of missile and nuclear technology began in the early to mid-1980s.
The spread of Wahhabism and militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the 1980s posed, and continuing, another serious threat to Iran’s national sovereignty. Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan and is vulnerable to the presence of ‘hostile’ US and NATO troops so close to its border. It has also lost thousands of its border guards and soldiers in countering narcotrafficking, terrorism, human trafficking, and smuggling. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan led to some limited cooperation, but mutual complaints remained throughout the years. Today, Iran’s participation through dialogue and economic cooperation with the Afghan government or the Taliban or in support of the minority Shi’a Hazara is indispensable to the cause of its own security but also that of Afghanistan’s and regional stability. Undoubtedly, Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq would have remained limited, without the US invasion of these countries in 2001 and 2003.
Iraqi nationalists have raised serious concerns about Iran’s involvement there, but Iran’s relation with Iraq is as ‘natural’ as is the US relation with Canada. It involves shared mutual security, religious, economic and commercial interests. Many of the Iraqi opposition personalities and groups have deep connections with the Iranian ruling elites and religious establishments, with the Iranian-born Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as the most senior Iraqi religious leader. Despite differences in approach and tactics, religious seminaries in Qom and Najaf mobilize vast popular support for their common cause of ‘Islamic unity’ in Iran and Iraq beyond differences in political setup and the Sunni-Shi’a divide. The Iranian mobilization of troops and involvement in Iraq after the Daesh capture of Mosul in June 2014 was, therefore, predictable. Recall, By mid-2014 Daesh controlled “a taxable population of some seven or eight million, oilfields and refineries, vast grain stores, lucrative smuggling routes and vast stockpiles of arms and ammunition, as well as entire parks of powerful modern military hardware.” Iran today remains concern about the terrorist threat of radical Wahhabi-inspired militant groups, while Iraq provides Iran with a significant level of strategic depth in thwarting militant terrorism. But, it was the US invasion in 2003 that helped Iran afford to extend its influence deep inside Iraqi society and the state structure. Iran has since expanded its influence and presence in Iraq through networks of political, security, economic and commercial venues, including Shi’a militia groups.
Iran’s increasing involvement in Syria is the result of the destabilization of Syria since 2011. The ‘easy’ NATO overthrow of Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi prompted the United States and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and (until recently) Turkey and Qatar, to pursue regime change in Syria. But, Iran and Syria had already signed a mutual defense pact in 2006 and formalized the establishment of a joint Iranian-Syrian Supreme Defense Commission to institutionalize long-term military cooperation. Syria’s uncompromising stance against Israeli occupation of its territory, its support for the Palestinian cause, its proximity to Lebanon, its access to the Mediterranean Sea, and its overall ‘anti-US’ posture in foreign policy made it a ‘natural ally’ for Iran. Syria also was one of only two Arab states that supported Iran in its war with Iraq. Iranian leadership keenly perceived the US-back attempt at regime change in Syria as a prelude to the downgrading and the destruction of Lebanese Hezbollah, and military action again Iran itself. That is, regime change in Iraq, Libya, and then in Syria would sniff out Iran’s regional influence, making it a much softer military target. Iran’s involvement in Syria, as in Iraq, is defensive and aims to extend its strategic depth to further (along with the help of Hezbollah in Lebanon) deter Israeli preemptive attacks on its nuclear and strategic assets without fear of reprisal.
Iran’s recruitment of Afghanis to fight in Syria has attracted serious criticism. However, Iran is not the only external force in Syria, as foreign fighters from Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and the Arab world have been fighting on opposite sides in the Syrian war theatre. This is not to justify the Iranian recruitment efforts, but to argue that the power vacuum created by the US and its Arab allies’ policy of regime change compelled the Assad regime to ask for a more entrenched Iranian participation. Iran’s involvement in Syria would have remained limited to military and economic cooperation, short of its current (and future) military presence. and foreign-fighters recruitment and sponsorship. The US and its regional allies’ intervention in Syria only incited Iran’s fear of regime change in Iran after Syria. The Russian Federation’s intervention was also predictable after the result of NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, and the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
The extent of Iran’s involvement in Yemen is highly overstated. The ‘Shi’a Houthi opposition to the corrupt central rule in Aden was and remains primarily a political movement, seeking structural change in the distribution of political power and socioeconomic resources. Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh experienced widespread corruption and mismanagement of the country. At the onset of the 2011 uprising, Yemen was one of the poorest countries in the world, with widespread unemployment and persistent inflation, and with billions of dollars in oil revenues embezzled or wasted. Forty percent of Yemen’s population lived on less than $2 a day. Whatever influence Iran may exert on the Houthi movement today, it is no more drastic than Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of anti-Iranian-Shi’a antagonism in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia has a legitimate concern about the unrest in Yemen. However, the long term menace to the Saudi regime derives from its gathering domestic popular discontent with the ruling royal family and the political elite. Saudi Arabia has thus far encountered the Arab Spring by throwing money at the problem, but as the Jamal Khashoggi affair highlights, there are deeper issues within the Kingdom’s crippling prospects for political legitimacy, accountability, and good governance. Recall Saudi Arabia’s previous intervention in Yemen in the 1960s, then fearing Egypt’s Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s pan-Arabism.
The Real Threat to Regional Stability
As I have previously argued, most Arab regimes lack legitimacy to rule and are marred with insecurity. The Arab governments in the past one hundred years have done a poor job in their attempts at building viable nation-states, the shortfall rests with ‘political underdevelopment’ that is destined to catch up with the ruling elites sooner or later. Arab regimes have relied on different strategies to dominate political power and to endure their authoritarian rule, relying on: foreign security and financial assistance, as in Egypt and Jordan; neo-Patrimonialism, Rentierism and foreign immigrant workers, as in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states; state largesse and sheer brutality, as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi’s Libya, and Syria under the Assad family; corruption, nepotism, and Patrimonialism as in Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia under Ben Ali, and Morocco’s King Hassan, or a combination of these.
The absence of political democracy, corruption, absence of transparency and accountability in the political arena, and the presence of a weak civil society impede active citizen participation in governance. This situation has resulted in the humiliation of Arab peoples dignity, al-hogra or ihtiqaar, and culminated in the still-unresolved Arab Spring movements since 2011. Some Arab societies like Tunisia and Egypt have embarked upon a desperate journey for political freedom, economic opportunity, and human dignity. This has happened while Islamic movements, e.g., Muslim Brotherhood, have been unable to fill the political/ideological void in gaining the trust of popular support in national movements for freedom, prosperity and dignity. Western military interventions have not brought security and democracy and have failed to resolve the deficit of good governance in places like, among others, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia.
Outside the Arab world, Turkey and Iran have demonstrated relative national congruence between the rulers and the ruled. Both countries are facing the daunting challenge of integrating political Islam within the broader cultural, sociopolitical and economic structure of society. Post Erdogan Turkey may abandon its experimentation with Islam in politics and return to its traditional republican ideals and nationalism. There is also much to speculate about the future direction of Iran’s experimentation with an ‘Islamic Republicanism.’ Iran has experienced a sociopolitical revolution in the past forty years, transmuting from a patrimonial, rentier state in the late 1970s into a welfare state with a dynamic society and well-established legal framework and social and political institutions. Its accomplishments in the nuclear, defense and scientific arenas are well documented, with major successes in education, medical biotechnology, and the health industries, while tackling an imposed eight-year war with Iraq in the1980s and almost non-stop UN and US sanctions since the revolution. Far from being a true republic, Iran’s journey away from monarchical dictatorship and toward a more open and dynamic society, however, must be recognized.
Iran’s experimentation with Islamic Republicanism raises many questions and concerns about the nature of state-society relation and the future shape and nature of democracy in modern Iran. The future will demonstrate if Iran will abandon republicanism for the sake of a ‘theocratic Islam,’ or will be forced to abandon political Islam for the sake of the separation of the mosque and the state and republicanism, or will succeed in approximating a ‘desired’ balance, where individual freedoms can be realized in a republic but where religiosity and matters of beliefs are also respected. Regardless, Iranian society is resilient, and, absent a major war or calamities, the future of national development is promising. Iran’s success in national development is more menacing to its rival Arab regimes than its nuclear or missile program.
Iran’s foreign policy since the revolution has championed ‘national self-reliance.’ This has been to the detriment of US military and political presence and interest in the Persian Gulf and the wider region. The rise of Iranian power is also at the heart of Arab regimes’ hostility towards Iran. The Arab political elites view Iran as a threat to their own existence, and not as a source with potentials for positive regional security cooperation and development. However, Iranian rise in power can be funneled toward regional peace, stability, and cooperation; Iran’s participation can serve the cause of Persian Gulf security and reduce U.S. military presence in line with a ‘Trumpian America First’ slogan. As a recent survey points out, majorities polled in Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq want either to see the Iran nuclear deal kept in force or want to see Iran brought into a larger diplomatic settlement. The November 2018 Zogby poll also reminds us that, “people in the region for the most part (outside of Saudi Araba and the UAE) really dislike US policy.” Most people reject US policy in the region that has protected Arab regimes at the expense of civil society and democracy. The historical ‘patron-client’ relationship between major powers and countries in the region must come to an end. This will not happen, however, so long as regimes in the region remain autocratic and authoritarian.
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