We are very pleased to present the following article, “The Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States, and the Balance of Power in the Middle East”, by our friend and colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Director of Tehran University’s Institute for North American Studies. The article is full of insights into Iranian thinking about some of the most important issues on Middle Eastern and international agendas—insights that warrant the widest possible circulation in the United States and other Western countries. The article is originally being published by our colleagues at the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum, and we are grateful to them for letting us also publish it on www.RaceForIran.com. The original can be accessed on their site, www.conflictsforum.org, which is well-worth visiting for this article and the range of other important materials there.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States, and the Balance of Power in the Middle East
by Seyed Mohammad Marandi, University of Tehran
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s interest in a stable Middle East is arguably greater than that of the United States—after all this is Iran’s neighborhood. For Iran to grow and prosper, it needs secure borders and stable neighbors. A poor and unstable Afghanistan, for example, inhibits trade and, potentially, increases the flow of refugees and narcotics into the northeastern part of Iran.
Arguably, stability in Iraq may be even more critical to Iran than stability in Afghanistan. The Iran-Iraq war caused enormous suffering to the people of Iran; Iranians will not forget it in the decades ahead. They will also not forget that their suffering was largely because of American and European support for Saddam Hussain—including Western support for his acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, which he regularly used against Iranian and Iraqi civilians. There was no condemnation from western governments or even the western media for these cruel and barbaric acts. Iranians believe that western leaders are just as guilty for these crimes against humanity as Saddam Hussain himself. It is critical to note that Iran never used or produced chemical weapons either during the war or afterwards, despite the technological capability to do so. This alone, Iranians regularly point out, is evidence that the Islamic Republic of Iran is honest when it states that it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.
Because of this history, it is understandable that Iranians say they will never again allow Iraq to be used as a platform to attack or destabilize Iran. Iranians will not allow their enemies, adversaries, or antagonists in the future to view Iraq as an asset in any form of conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The United States and Saudi Arabia persist in their attempts to intensify sectarianism and racism between Iran and its neighbors. I was in the Aljazeera studio in Doha when the American ambassador to Qatar used the race card on live television and said that for centuries the Persians have been little but trouble to the rest of the region as well as a constant threat. Nevertheless, a solid majority of Iraqis have strong religious, historical, and cultural ties with Iran. Many Iraqi leaders and intellectuals have lived in Iran for years and are fluent in Persian, and many have married Iranians during the dark years when only the Islamic Republic and Syria backed and recognized the opposition to Saddam Hussain.
In addition, while western-funded and western based Persian TV channels regularly make reprehensible and derogatory statements about Arabs, Iranians inside the Islamic Republic have remained remarkably sympathetic towards Iraqis who suffered under Saddam Hussain and, subsequently, the U.S. occupation of their country. Iranians also remain strongly sympathetic towards the mostly Sunni Palestinian Arabs suffering under the occupation of what Iranians see as the world’s only official apartheid regime.
Iran believes that fundamental change in Iranian-Iraqi relations is more than a future possibility. It has already been achieved.
This does not mean that Iran wants a weak government in Iraq. In fact, the dramatic increase of trade, tourism, and investment between the two countries since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been a major boost to the Iranian economy. The Iran/Iraq border, which was, for the most part, a dead-end until the year 2003, is now witnessing long lines of trucks and busses waiting to cross. Officials from both countries are busy building a border infrastructure which will allow this trade and investment to develop further, but they are constantly falling behind the increasing demands of businessmen and pilgrims. Hence, the Islamic Republic of Iran wants a strong and stable Iraq, but an Iraq that is on good terms with Iran and works to further the interests of the region’s population as a whole. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s recent statement that American troops must leave the country by the end of 2011 is a strong sign that this is actually happening.
The same logic applies to Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans share strong religious and cultural links with Iran; most speak the Persian language. Despite what Iranians believe to be the utter failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Iran has invested heavily in the relatively more stable north of the country, building roads and infrastructure. Trade has risen sharply and moderate Sunnis and Shias who were supported by Iran when the United States effectively allowed the then-Saudi- and UAE-funded Taliban to overrun the country, look increasingly to Iran for support, as people in the country feel that the United States has lost the war and that they will inevitably be forced to leave the country sooner or later.
I wrote the “then-Saudi-” funded Taliban, whereas I should have written simply “the Saudi-funded Taliban”. According to leaked documents on Wikileaks, Saudi Arabia is still the largest financial supporter of the Taliban. In fact, almost all of the undemocratic Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf region are still funding the Taliban. This has always been an open secret in this part of the world. Indeed, not only are these states funding the Taliban, they are effectively funding the Taliban ideology, which has strong similarities to that of Al-Qaeda, throughout the world. Many wonder how Americans presume that their alliance with the Saudi regime is in the long term interests of the United States. Is the spread of the Salafi ideology in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Europe, and elsewhere unrelated to the yearly multibillion dollar ideological investment by these regimes, led by the Saudis?
Iranians believe U.S. foreign policymakers, by closing their eyes to Saudi support for hardliner Salafi groups worldwide, are making things more difficult for themselves. This is in addition to the tragic situation brought about as a result of what Iranians see as the foolish invasion of Iraq and the failed American strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is also in addition to what Tehran views as America’s blind support for the world’s final apartheid state, which jails and abuses women and children from the indigenous Palestinian population and kills rock-throwing young men trapped in concentration camp like conditions. All of this is making current U.S. policy in the Middle East unsustainable in the long run. This is especially true as America’s emerging strategic and economic competitors, such as the “BRIC” countries (China, India, Brazil and Russia) make gains at all levels while the United States continues to bleed.
Furthermore, this is playing out as mainstream Sunni and Shia organizations are under pressure throughout the region, as despotic regimes allied to the United States try to ensure their own survival. Under such conditions, hostility towards the United States increases and, ironically, Saudi-funded extremist ideologies thrive. For the time being, this “investment” buys stability for the Saudi royal family, but not for most of the rest of the world, including the United States. Of course, whether these American-backed regimes can actually survive or not is another question. If these regimes do not survive, how will the people in these countries react to America’s past policies of oppression?
Hence, choosing Arab despots as allies—whether in Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive or, for the most part, can’t even have an independent bank account, or in Egypt and Jordan—can have serious consequences for the United States in the future. The irony of this is not lost upon Iranians who live in a country where 63 percent of the undergraduate student population is female. Most of my own PhD students are women and the head of my faculty at the University of Tehran is a woman, too.
Iranians also watched how the United States responded to Egypt’s farce elections, yet simultaneously accused Iran of being undemocratic, even though all Iranian leaders are chosen directly by the public or by publicly elected bodies. In the case of last year’s Iranian presidential election, there is no doubt that Ahmadinejad won by a landslide; conclusive evidence of that has even been provided in the English language by scholars, academics, and pollsters. Given this reality, in the eyes of the vast majority of Iranians, the United States effectively supported and advocated mob rule on the streets of Tehran.
The United States accused the Iranian government of stealing the elections without providing any credible evidence whatsoever to back up this claim. The U.S. position is uncritically based on claims made by well-funded, so-called Iran “experts” in the United States who know little about the country and, for the most part, have a deep and unreasonable hostility towards the Islamic Republic. These people have been making claims and predictions about Iran for many years; a review of their past work reveals that they have a very poor track record. However, since they say what the American political establishment wishes them to say, there is no accountability for their misjudgments and flawed analysis, and they continue receiving generous funding. Interestingly, those among them who can speak in Persian use a very different language and tone when speaking on Western-funded or government-owned Persian language TV stations than when speaking in American think tanks or on American television. Basically, this is because they don’t wish to sound absurd to an Iranian audience.
Those commentators who venture to say something different and more reasonable to a western audience are severely attacked by the U.S. media and the so-called Iran experts, who continue to live in their fantasy world. Nevertheless, despite the threats, accusations, and slander, these commentators continued to tell the truth to Americans and Europeans, in order to prevent a foolish or even tragic miscalculation by western governments. But they have done so at a very high personal price.
Of course, after the massive and unprecedented protests against Mousavi that were held throughout the country following the Ashura riots in December 2009, some people in the west finally began to open their eyes to the reality on the ground. Then came February 11, 2010, the anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution, when the western media pinning their collective hopes on claims made by the so-called green movement. Green partisans claimed they would bring millions to the streets of Tehran and take over Azadi Square on live TV. However, when millions of people took to the streets in Tehran (simultaneous rallies were held throughout the country), there was no sign of Mousavi supporters anywhere. Western analysts grudgingly began to admit that they may have misread events in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ironically, in the long run, last year’s events have made Iranians more unified than at any time since the early days of the Revolution. Most critics or opponents of President Ahmadinejad were outraged at Mr. Mousavi’s actions after the election, especially after he failed to show any meaningful evidence of fraud and effectively aligned himself to western-based and western-funded organizations, including ruthless terrorist organizations like the MKO or MEK (which served Saddam Hussain as mercenaries for over two decades), U.S.-based supporters of the former Shah, and violent rioters who killed, maimed, and humiliated police officers and disciplinary forces on the streets of Tehran. That is why, on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the size of the pro-Islamic Republic demonstrations held throughout the country were unprecedented and so highly emotional.
Indeed, contrary to what is widely believed in the west, most mainstream reformists have condemned Mousavi’s actions; from early on, they recognized the legitimacy and validity of the election results. Reformist members of parliament that I know and respect have repeatedly said this publicly and privately. The head of the reformist faction in parliament Mr. Tabesh has consistently stated this on numerous occasions. Reformist MPs such as Dr. Kavakebian, Dr. Khabbaz, and Dr. Pazeshkian, as well as many other reformists such Professor Aref, have also taken this position, despite their strong opposition to President Ahmadinejad. Nevertheless, western politicians and the western media for the most part only hear what they want, or need, to hear.
This does not mean that police brutality did not exist or that some government officials did not mismanage the situation. However, a very solid majority of Iranians put the bulk of the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Mousavi for his actions and baseless accusations.
Indeed, the U.S. response to the election, which, as pointed out, was largely conditioned by dependence on ill-informed and agenda-driven “Iran experts”, has significantly decreased chances for any form of meaningful rapprochement between the two countries in the foreseeable future. Not that there was much chance in the first place; as the Wikileaks documents reveal, Iranian suspicions were correct and Obama’s claims to be interested in redefining U.S.-Iranian relations were, from the start, not really honest. This is also reflected in Obama’s written support for the Brazilian Turkish efforts and then his incredible about-face immediately after the signing of the Tehran Declaration. The Wikileaks cables also reveal how ill-informed the United States is about Iranian affairs. U.S. embassies in Iran’s neighboring countries, like most western embassies in Tehran, receive information from likeminded Iranians or those who tell their hosts what they wish to hear for practical purposes.
Miscalculations regarding Iran are not anything new and they are not limited to elections. U.S., policy regarding Iran’s nuclear program has been based on what is widely judged among Iranians to be a major miscalculation. Not only is the nuclear program seen by the general population as linked to Iranian national sovereignty, it is also a multibillion dollar investment that involves tens of thousands of Iranians and goes back decades. Consequently, it’s something that almost all Iranians support. Indeed, one of the reasons why Ahmadinejad won both presidential elections was because, in the eyes of most Iranians, he was unwilling to appease western powers on the nuclear issue. This was a key issue that hurt the legacy of President Khatami, who was often seen as weak in the face of western pressure.
Wishful thinking in some western countries about the state of Iran’s economy and its supposedly imminent collapse are exactly that—wishful thinking. In recent weeks, it has been repeatedly claimed by these so-called Iran experts and the western media that the Iranian subsidy reform program is a sign that sanctions are “biting”. This again shows a deep misunderstanding of reality in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iranians well recognize that, contrary to claims made by Americans and European officials, the “crippling” sanctions have been put into place in order to make the Iranian people suffer. The imposed sanctions have, in fact, increased anger and hostility toward the United States.
Moreover, the subsidy reform program, which is by far the most significant economic reform program in contemporary Iranian history, is, in reality, a clear sign that the current Iranian government is strong and self-confident. While the subsidy reform program has been discussed for years, successive governments have been afraid to implement it. The current administration, after much planning, has now begun its implementation. There is no sign of unrest and most Iranians believe that the reforms will lead to a much stronger economy in the future. Critics of the government, whether Principlist or Reformist, support the program, for the most part. Significantly, Iranian currency and gold reserves are at an all-time high, as well.
This does not mean that Iran isn’t looking for a resolution to the nuclear standoff, but there is no doubt that, for something positive to happen, western countries must make the first move and recognize Iran’s rights to enrich Uranium for peaceful purposes. Contrary to western claims, this is the position of the international community, as Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) member states along with member countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference officially support Iran’s position.
For roughly two years, Iran did more than halt the enrichment of Uranium; it effectively halted almost the entire nuclear program and implemented the Additional Protocol. It allowed the IAEA to carry out intrusive inspections, many of which had nothing to do with the nuclear program and looked more like intelligence-gathering operations on behalf of the U.S. government. The fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency, an undemocratic body largely under western influence, has not found any evidence whatsoever to show that Iran’s nuclear program has ever been anything but peaceful, yet continues to oppose Iran’s nuclear program, is another reason why Iranians have little trust in western governments. U.S. relations with the Israeli regime, India, and Pakistan, which all have nuclear weapons, are strong—even though, in the case of Pakistan, for example, a weak central government has called into question the army’s ability to prevent these weapons from falling into the hands of the Taliban or Taliban-like groups.
American leaders are deceiving themselves if they believe the Wikileaks cables describing the hostility of a number of Arab leaders towards Iran and its nuclear program actually strengthens the U.S. position regarding Iran. In fact, these documents do the exact opposite, as they diminish these already unpopular despots in the eyes of their own people. This becomes clear when one looks at the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, which reveals that a very strong majority of Arabs support Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, the poll shows that, while 88 percent of Arabs view the Israeli regime as a threat 77 percent view the United States as a threat, only 10 percent view the Islamic Republic of Iran as a threat. (By way of comparison, 10 percent also viewed Algeria as a threat).
Regarding Palestine and Lebanon, it is a also a major mistake for western experts to believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s support for the people of these countries, especially the people of Palestine, is in any way cynical. If one looks at the pre-Revolution statements of current Iranian leaders, one will see that the issue of Palestine was a central grievance of the opposition to the Shah. Indeed, one of the many mistakes of the so-called green movement was to miscalculate deeply the depth of public sympathy in Iran for the Palestinian people during last year’s riots in Tehran on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan. The kidnapping and murder of Iranian scientists and former government officials by Israeli agents has added further anger.
Iranian support for Palestine, Lebanon, and the Resistance movements is unwavering and any expectation in the west that, under certain circumstances, Iran will end this policy is unfounded. However, official Iranian policy has also always held that, while Iran will not recognize Israel, because it is an apartheid state (the same as its South Africa policy during apartheid), it will respect any decision made by the Palestinian people in this regard. From the Iranian perspective, any decision will have to include all Palestinians living both inside the country and outside it; that would include the millions who continue to live in refugee camps. With regard to Lebanon, the Islamic Republic of Iran supports the country’s independence and sovereignty and it believes that Lebanon and Lebanese civilians can only be protected from Israeli aggression through the Resistance in southern Lebanon. Therefore, the Islamic Republic of Iran will support Hezbollah at all costs.
In Tehran, there is a strong belief that the region is changing dramatically in favor of Hezbollah, the Palestinians, and the Resistance. The rise of an independent Turkey, whose government has a worldview very different from that of the U.S., German, British, and French governments, along with the relative decline of Saudi and Egyptian regional influence, signals a major shift in the regional balance of power. Saudi military incompetence during the fighting with Yemeni tribes along the border between the two countries, the general decline of the Egyptian regime in all respects, and the almost universal contempt among Arabs as a whole for the leaders of these two countries and other pro-western Arab regimes and their corrupt elites, are seen as signs that the center cannot hold. The fact that the Iranian president and the Turkish prime minister are so popular in Arab countries, while most Arab leaders are deeply unpopular, is a sign that the region is changing.
Some speculate that as the so-called axis of moderation declines alongside the declining fortunes of the United States, Washington may be tempted to move towards limited military confrontation with the Islamic Republic before the U.S. presidential election in 2012. Iranians believe this to be highly unlikely. But Iranians also believe that stability or instability from the Mediterranean to the boarders of India is inextricably linked to peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region. A look at a map makes clear that Iran has the ability to respond to threats throughout region and even beyond. If there is no security for Iranians, then, in the eyes of Iranians, there will be no security for Iran’s antagonists in the region. Under such conditions, the United States should not expect oil or gas to flow out of the Persian Gulf, northern Iraq, or Central Asia. Iran is increasingly confident in the face of regular US military threats. It is also increasingly convinced that western governments recognize that it has the ability to protect its citizens. Western governments must recognize that Iran is looking for peace, but it is not intimidated by the threat of war; in fact, such threats make western governments look crude and uncivilized. The stunning defeat of the Israeli regime against the much smaller and much less well-equipped Resistance in Southern Lebanon is something that is remembered with pride in Tehran.
Iran is prepared to continue living without relations with the United States in the years to come, and more and more young Iranians and businessmen are looking to Asia and countries like China, India, Brazil, and South Africa for higher education, business, and trade. Nevertheless, there are those who still wonder if there is a potential partner in the United States, who can rethink U.S. foreign policy and bring about real change in U.S.-Iranian relations.