by Richard Dalton
President Trump has complained publicly that only cosmetic changes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA also known more informally as the Iran nuclear deal) and some side agreements are being offered to him.
As Mike Pence said on March 13:
President Trump has called on the Congress and our European allies to enact real and lasting restraints on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions…… make no mistake about it: This is their last chance. Unless the Iran nuclear deal is fixed in the coming months, the United States of America will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal immediately.
This is bullying language directed at close allies, inspired not by sober determination of US interests and capabilities, but by hatred of President Obama and disdain for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its protocols. Worse, Trump and Pence know that what they demand, notably unilateral indefinite extension of limits on Iran’s enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, is unachievable without parallel concessions on matters of significance to the other side that they have no intention of even considering. Such language is used only because such people live in a parallel universe in which US desires are by definition right and require no negotiation, just submission.
Let us hope against hope that the president changes his mind before May 12.
Having fought off Western interference in recent history and Western-backed Iraqi enemies in Saddam’s time, Iran still feels threatened.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has revealed how many regional countries asked Washington to bomb Iran during the nuclear crisis. “Every leader I met with in the region …, personally, to my face, said, ‘You have to bomb Iran, that is the only thing they understand,’” Kerry stated in November 2017.
Iran faces serious threats on its borders. These threats are from terrorist groups, weak states such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and nuclear-armed states such as Pakistan. As one Iranian military officer has said, roughly 60 percent of Iran’s borders are not controlled by the neighboring country.
Meanwhile, the restraining international rules that might help them are weak and unreliable. The Shia, alongside the Sunnis, are massive victims of Islamic extremism. In addition Iran has been a victim of terrorism—for example, Israeli killings of five Iranian scientists from 2007—and of the “unlawful use of force” by Israel and the US in the cyber realm, especially the Stuxnet virus attack in 2010.
Iran believes that it is as entitled as any other state to work at home and overseas to deter enemies, to counter actual threats, and to protect its independence, sovereignty, and interests all the while seeking and strengthening alliances. Iranians maintain that their ideology—religious democracy—is worthier and more significant for mankind than that of their Western opponents.
Finally, the country is convinced that conventional military power is stacked against them. For example, Iran’s air force is very weak. And not only has the United States surrounded Iran by military bases, but the United States and its allies have flooded the region with advanced weapons. Meanwhile, Iran spends one-fifth of what Saudi Arabia spends on its military, despite having over twice the population. The UAE, with a native population of 1.4 million, spends twice as much as Iran.
So much for the convictions that motivate Iran. What is the nature of its regional behavior? Some, including me, believe that except toward Israel, Iran’s foreign policy is primarily pragmatic. Others say that Iran is a cause, a revolutionary power, not a state. The only way to answer the question whether Iran is more revolutionary than pragmatic is to break the question down and to look at different areas of policy and behavior.
Iran’s goals are familiar ones. It is committed to regime survival. It wants to be accorded international respect. It wants to project power and extend influence in the region and, at the same time, avoid interstate war and be part of solving the region’s conflicts. Finally, it aims to promote its growth and development—especially to increase its non-oil exports to its neighbors, obtain the full extent of the advantages promised in the JCPOA, and increase productive investment.
Iran says that it is revolutionary. And, yes,the ideals of the original revolutionaries, especially Ayatollah Khomeini, continue to be relevant both to understanding the Islamic Republic and to decisions by the authorities on public affairs and private conduct. Also, according to the ruling system (nizam), Iran’s revolutionary character must be maintained in the domestic sphere to preserve the power of the Islamic Republic.
But Iran has no intention to dominate the region. No state, including Iran, can do so, and Iran recognizes that. It is not possible for Iran to take over other countries, as anti-Iran propaganda alleges. However, Iran does wish and act to change the status quo in the Persian Gulf, that is, the external alliances between Persian Gulf countries and the United States that Iran perceives to be in large part directed at it. It has also continued to refuse to accept Israel’s existence. But it would also drop such a fruitless policy in the face of a settlement that results in a Palestinian state.
In practice, Iran does not pursue a regime-change goal, or it does so only to a limited extent, as in its support for the opposition in Bahrain or in its push for a settlement in Yemen that will include all parties.
Of course, Iran will act overseas, as other countries do, to influence the outcome of conflicts that are significant for their interests, such as in Syria and Iraq, and to influence the actions of foreign governments so as to protect its interests.
But this does not mean that Iran will try to make states to its west into revolutionary states in its own mold.
Iran’s policies will continue to antagonize Arab countries. Many Arab countries are reluctant to admit that states with a lot to lose behave competitively in relations with other states. They stress their grievances against Iran and insist that a Persian state should not intervene at all in Arab affairs.
An emerging alliance of a Trump-led America, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates faces a loose association of Iran, Russia, Iraq, an Assad-led Syria, Hezbollah, and forces such as the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and the Syrian Defense Forces. The competition between these opposing sides, suggests Hossein Moussavian, a former Iranian ambassador, is between the consolidation of a US-led regional security order and those states that, despite their interests not wholly aligning on all fronts, have the overlapping strategic aim of fostering a multipolar order in which regional states themselves determine forms of coexistence and cooperation.
Hostilities between the two camps will continue until such time as all involved, near and far, turn away from their zero-sum approach. Both camps should endorse the concept, as Iran says it has, of open-ended discussions across lines of enmity to find cooperative solutions. Eventually, they would be able to promote long-term security through mutually agreed-upon rules and monitoring of conduct.
The international community, otherwise, is going to continue to fail to manage regional crises or eliminate conflict.
Richard Dalton was British ambassador to Iran from 2002 to 2006. He spoke to the Harkness Fellows Association in London on March 14 about Iran’s regional policies and domestic affairs. This is an edited extract from his remarks. Photo: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks with President Hassan Rouhani and members of his cabinet.