Iran and the Middle East

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.

Iran’s Perspective

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.

Regional Outlook

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.

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  1. For average Americans, the non evangelical Christian pro Israelis including the 60 million people who get their paychecks from the DOD (veterans and families included), who were supposedly voting for an anti establishment America first candidate, it will be a while before they realize that they have been taken for a ride by the same neocons who brought us the other wars in the Middle East all to satisfy Israel. Obama during his 2008 campaign clearly said that the jobs are never going to come back and for a rookie pro Israeli to claim that he has a major formula and sell it to the public, that public has to be extremely gullible to digest it at this point in time where the outlook on the economy looks unfavorable for average citizens because wars are priorities for the US.

  2. Thanks for that post , It should be noticed , that the agreement itself , consist of the commitment of Iran , not to seek whatsoever , nuclear enrichment for military purposes . It is emphasized over and over all along the way in that agreement , here I quote from the ” Preface ” :

    ” Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek , develop or acquire any nuclear weapons …. ”

    On the other hand , it is agreed in this agreement , that ,and I quote the relevant part of article VII to the ” Preamble and general provisions ” here :

    ” …..the NPT remains the cornerstone of the nuclear non – proliferation regime …..”

    That is to say , that whatsoever , even if Iran , would be in the future in breach of their commitments , they can only go back to previous state or phase before , that is to say , nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes , under the NPT agreement . So , there is no sense and logic , to violate this agreement ,since it makes things only better . The ballistic missiles issue , has nothing to do with it , because , they lack capacity to minimize any nuclear bomb , on the warhead of such missile , and anyway , they are totally committed to not seek whatsoever , any military nuclear capacity as mentioned above .

    It is understandable , that Obama has screwed up Trump , with an agreement , so bad from his personal view , but why to dig senseless pretexts ??


  3. Just correction to my comment :

    Should be : NPT convention , and not : ” NPT agreement ”


  4. Thanks for the very good article.
    As you mentioned Iran has been surrounded by the US military bases, which was initiated by Reagan, following the defeat and unsuccessful invasion of Iran by the US’s dear friend Saddam Hussein!
    Then Iran’s defensive strategy and its goals became obvious. The Iranians’ decision was to keeping everyone away from the country by flanking the US forces in its neighborhood as well as having indirect outreaches to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran implemented part of its plans by establishing proxies so it doesn’t have to facing off its enemies being the US, Israel and SA directly!

  5. It really doesn’t matter how much more money Saudi Arabia or the UAE spends on its military. The only purpose of that spending is to recycle petrodollars back to the USA and, in the process, ingratiate those states with the US military-industrial-complex.

    The end result is fighter planes they don’t know how to use, and tanks they don’t know how to maintain.

    By way of marked contrast: the Iranians don’t spend as much, but they will only spend money on weapons that they actually build themselves or, failing that, weapons that they can maintain and repair themselves.

    If the Americans turned off the spigot today the Saudi “war machine” would grind to a halt in a week. Nobody can do that to the Iranians: either they make it all themselves, or they make the spare parts themselves.

    A war between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be a one-sided affair indeed.

    A war between Iran and the USA would not: the Americans would prevail, no doubt about it, but the cost would be horrendous.

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