The conclusion of negotiations between Iran and six world powers plus the European Union on July 14th 2015 was marked with celebrations in both Iran and the west. Usually suspicious of large-scale popular activity the Iranian regime authorised and even encouraged jubilant expression to mark the event, and all in the absence of the Islamic Republic’s notorious Basij militia in charge of public “morals enforcement”. The deal struck appears constructive and certainly smacks of potential – in exchange for intrusive inspections of their nuclear and military facilities by the Americans, Iran will be welcomed back into the global market after a 36 year absence. It is hoped that this, along with diplomatic normalisation, will incrementally move Iran further towards western political practices before the deal expires in 15 years’ time.
However, the nuclear deal looks much less promising when set against the backdrop of Iran’s foreign policy which, despite all the progress in Vienna, is still aggressive and quite blatantly motivated by religious and expansionist sentiments. The deal is good, agreed, but the west needs to ensure Iran is not using the deal to obscure the objectives of its military action abroad or that radicals within Iran don’t seek to reinforce its presence in proxy conflicts across the region as an expression of its continuing strength and esteem despite the recent concessions it has made. Taking Iran’s history into account the nuclear deal could simply be a way for Iran to pursue its very long term objective of ending its regional insecurity.
This is what this short essay seeks to answer- what can we discern about Iran’s real motives from its historic and present political and military action. What habits and patterns betray Iran’s core motives and real trajectory and hence what can we possibly learn about the genuine nature of and reasoning behind the recent nuclear pact. Beginning with the first Iranian tribes and ending with Iran’s present ideals and intentions this essay aims to persuade people to take a sceptical and sadly critical approach to Iran’s goodwill and warn those relying on its success to reconsider their long term fortunes.
The First Iranians
To understand what is meant by Iran’s “long term objective” we must look back at Iran’s historic position and role in the Middle East. Iran is first and foremost a country of Persians surrounded on three sides by Arabs. Persians are descendants of the ancient Iranian tribes who emerged on the Iranian plateau in around 1000BC. These tribes used the term Arya as a collective definition recognising their belonging to a common ethnic stock. They spoke in closely related languages and shared a religious culture focused on the worship of the God Ahuza Mazdu. Throughout history we can trace a pattern of pulsating Persian empires- a manifestation of the Persian identity always growing and receding whilst constantly rubbing in friction against its neighbours. The Achamenid and Parthian Persian empires were destroyed by the predecessors of Arabs until the Sassanid Empire was finally destroyed by the Arabs themselves.
Persians have always, through their geographical, military, commercial and economic interpenetrations with their neighbours, intruded into and existed awkwardly with Arabs and their predecessors. Alone in the region,Persians have always had a profound psychological understanding of their alien form and unusual presence in a hostile environment even more so after they adopted the teachings of the prophet Muhammad’s cousin Ali Ibn Abi-Talib and became eternal Shia heretics in the eyes of the Sunni majority of the Muslim Ummah. Entering more modern history and Iranians still, just like their ancestors, felt vulnerable and insecure and longed for a solution to their unique predicament. Throughout the 20th century and to this day around 90% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni (opposed to the Shia sect that dominates Iran) and in addition Iran is the only predominantly ethnic Persian country in existence. It is easy to understand therefore why Iranians feel even (and especially) today so alone. Iranians have always strove to eliminate their anxiety and secure a better future by reconciling their neighbours to Iran or harmonising international relations in the gulf whether that is through religious expression, force or “friend-making” as they do now. Iran’s politics, no matter how conciliatory and accommodating it may appear, will always be engineered towards finding a solution to Iran’s fundamental problem because this is something axiomatically and cognitively engrained in Iranians by their history of isolation and conflict.
The Pahlavi Era
The era that concerns our analysis of Iran begins in earnest with the reign of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi who ruled as the Emperor of Iran from the Soviet withdrawal in 1941 to the Islamic revolution of 1979. Shah Pahlavi came to power after the embarrassing and brutalising joint Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran during World War two. This, coupled with the ubiquitous understanding of Iran’s geographical, strategic and demographic insecurity (as described above) , persuaded Pahlavi that Iran must develop into the gulfs most powerful state and one that outsiders, Western and Arab alike, would fear to reckon with. The Bozorg Arteshtaran (Head of Warriors) sought to push Iran up the global hierarchy through the combined effects of the socio-economic modernisation of his White revolution and the material expansion of his army. Pahlavi understood that modernisation would elevate Iran’s perceived status and so his programme of secularisation, nationalisation of key industries, centralisation and expansion of suffrage all served to send a signal to Iran’s enemies that the government there had the imaginary capacity for reform that was so lacking in the region.
Iran’s place as a powerful westernised nation amongst the austere and often radical Arab regimes would, according to the Shah, bring Iran the support, security and the acceptance from its neighbours that she always desired through the inherent backing it would receive from the West, in particular America. However, Pahlavi’s open-mindedness and reforming trajectory meant that at times his intimacy with America was too excessive for a population that was still piously religious and which had a strongly constructed identity based on the values established in the Quran. Shah Pahlavi was after all installed by foreign powers who removed his more conservative father in 1941 and both the CIA and SIS engineered a coup in 1953 to reverse the nationalisation process which was threatening British profit from Iran’s vast oil wealth and to counter a suspected communist threat. The Shahs complicity in this western organised conspiracy helped confirm to many his detachment form Islamic principle.
There was a sense therefore that the politics of the Shah were undermining both the religious spirit of the nation and the sovereignty of God in Iran and that whatever path to security the Shah professed to be taking , it was certainly not the path for Iranians. Primary critics of the regime came from leading Shia clerics who particularly challenged friendly relations with Israel and female emancipation. This, and the economic shortcomings of his regime(including official hostility to the working class bazaar culture), confirmed to Iranians that they should reassert their Islamic credentials and install a government that was prepared to sever all ties to America and its religiously corrosive ways.
1979- The Rise of the Islamic Republic
The Islamic revolution of 1979 ushered in a new regime that felt more appropriate, relevant and correct to the Iranian populace and with it came a new truly Iranian strategy to bring about Iran’s habituation within the regional community. Paradoxically this strategy entailed sacrificing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran and its people to the synthesising force of Islam. Rather than corrupting the country by bringing it into line with the Western powers, Iran’s new leaders would satisfy the subconscious, fundamental agenda of Iranians by expressing to the Muslim world Iran’s commitment to global Islamification. The moral and spiritual stature of such a cause would ideally reconcile the Muslim world to Iran’s differences whilst Iran’s role in the formation of an Islamic mega-caliphate would submerge its people’s abnormal character beneath the powerful homogenising identity of the Muslim.
The Islamic revolution was therefore a revolution to remove a regime whose spiritual deficiencies necessitated that the new one be religiously and culturally sensitive i.e. Islamic. Inherent in this new Islamic government was a new Islamified conception of Iran’s insecurity and a transmutation of Iranian foreign policy from one of nationalist expression of strength to one of an internationalist rally cry for global Muslim cooperation and unity. Islam, with its ability to transcend tribal, national and political affiliations, would secure a peaceful future for Iranians. The security of Iranians would warrant the death of Iran and its inhabitants in their national context and the birth of a new Islamic republic to act as the epicentre of religious global sedition. The ugliest manifestation of Iran’s new strategy was the bloody Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) which was a result of Iran’s attempt to absorb Iraq into the new Islamic state. In fact the Iran- Iraq war serves as an excellent demonstration of the parallel dynamics of Iranian thought processes:
1. Iran has a security problem because it is a regional anomaly.
2. Islamic expression will eradicate the prominence of said anomaly.
3. Iraq is a core source of Iran’s regional insecurity.
4. The Islamification of Iraq will remove this core source.
It was not a panacea but the infiltration followed by the invasion of Iraq reveals the bare mechanics of the Iranian consciousness and the central reasons behind the Islamic republic’s existential justification, presence and trajectory.
Iran’s new rulers recognized the defensive credentials of a war with Iraq. Iraq was strategically vulnerable, its capital Baghdad lying barely within Iraq’s hinterland and perilously close to Iran’s border, the Hussein regime was rotting and Iraq was a majority Shia country and whilst Iran’s goal was Islamic unity not the particular dissemination of the Shia sect, it was assumed Shia would assist the Iranian advance more than would their Sunni compatriots. Importantly Iraq was also an Arab country and the home of a Baathist, Arab-nationalist regime. The Ayatollah understood that if Iraq fell it would emphasise the spirit of Islamification and its inherent removal of all identity but that of the Muslim man or woman. Iran aspired towards a purely Muslim world in which inhabitants of the Iranian plateau would survive purely because they had abandoned their Iraninaness and Persianness in conjunction with the global removal of all other national, tribal, class, political, ethnic and economic identities and the Iran-Iraq war was conceived as the ideal beginning to this world-wide Godly revolution.
The war did however fail. Iraqis at the time felt more stirred by their Arab loyalties as their Shia ones and so whilst there were some radicals who supported Iran’s cause it was Iraq with the defensive advantage which prevailed in the end. Iran emerged from the war battered, bruised and exhausted and its religious militias were to retreat back to their desert bases for years licking their wounds whilst the torch of expressive aggression and Islamic expansionism was passed to Iran’s scientists and their soon to be conceived nuclear programme.
However Iran continued to play a significant role in the region- it armed, trained and instructed Hezbollah, the political party cum radical Shia organisation in Lebanon, and it fostered a cosy relationship with the Islamists in Sudan even sending 2000 elite Revolutionary Guards to train the regimes military. In addition it maintained intimate relations with the Assad regime in Syria, constantly seeking to prop up the country ruled by a family from the minority Shia Alawite sect, and after the Americans and British toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran amicably embraced the Shia triumphalist government that replaced him. But Iran’s presence, whilst strong, was not pivotal and its supervision never translated into power partly because it lacked the economic clout to make important decisions for other countries.
Iran’s problematic 21st Century
Iran’s shadow over the region was to decline dramatically however. The Arab Spring that began in December 2010 and that rocked the Middle East’s dictatorships was superficially beneficial for Iran. As secular regimes collapsed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya Islam was by far the most tangible source of structure and esteem to draw upon and apply to their respective newly democratic systems. Islam helped make sense of this period of flux and change and helped give revolution a spiritual justification. For a period of months the interests of Iran and these new Islamist governments therefore appeared to align. But it was not to last. Soon it became clear that the populations who elected Islamist parties such as the Muslim brotherhood had no interest in the archaic expansionism espoused by Tehran but rather were interested in genuine democratic activity and who were possibly more hostile to Iranian nuclear ambitions than were the original despotisms. In addition the failure of the Arab Spring has galvanised the convictions of the radical Sunni Islamist fringe such as those of Sufi groups in the Sinai Peninsula who denounce Iran as a heretical realm.
The Arab Spring also partly led to the explosion of Sunni nationalist sentiment right on Iran’s doorstep in Syria and Iraq as Sunni populations in both countries became entirely dissociated from the states they lived in. Sunni in Syria caught the wind of the Arab spring and campaigned for democracy in a last ditch attempt to restore the authority and influence they once held over the country. In the event President Assad crushed these demonstrations and launched vicious reprisals against Syrian Sunni communities. Suddenly Sunni in both Syria and Iraq (who also longed for the power they once yielded) rebelled against their rulers. Faced with radical Sunni groups like Islamic State across its borders Iran has become ever more militarily involved in its neighbour’s politics. In Syria It sent the Shia Hezbollah militia in to lay siege to the town of Zabadani whilst recruiting and training groups of Afghan and Iraqi Shia to protect the Assad government alongside formal Iranian army units. In Iraq, General Soleimani of Iran’s elite al ’Quds division of the revolutionary guards has played a huge role in organising the civilian Shia resistance and transforming Baghdad into an impenetrable fortress. But these hasty interventions have weakened the Iranian regime on other fronts.
Drafting Hezbollah into the Syrian Civil war has alienated Hamas a traditional (albeit Sunni) client of Tehran and pushed the group towards a new base in the Sunni Arab Kingdom of Qatar. Hamas, which operates in Gaza, is the internationally most famous brand of Palestinian resistance against Israel and its decision to ditch the Iranian regime is a mighty loss for the Islamic Republic’s status as the leading advocate of Islam’s holy message. Elsewhere in the Sunni world Iranian interests are under assault. The Taliban are becoming increasingly bold once again in Northern Afghanistan whilst in Sudan the government expelled an Iranian diplomat and closed an Iranian cultural centre in August 2014.
On the other hand all this sectarian turmoil has sucked Iran into positions of influence within the governments of its various Shia clients. The civil war in Yemen is a prime example of a beneficial eruption of conflict for the regime. The Houthi militia (which practices a form of Shia Islam) waging war against the internationally recognised government and also extremist Sunni groups linked to al-Qaeda, has catapulted Iran into the Yemeni political sphere especially after its advances into Aden, a major port on the Arabian peninsula.
Waging a small proxy war in Yemen however is nothing compared to the unprecedented influence Iran now holds over Iraq and Syria. It is believed many units of the broad alliance of Shia groups fighting Islamic State (IS) in Iraq take their orders directly from Iran and many of these were crucial in the operation that retook the city of Tikrit. In Syria too Iranian help was essential for the development of the paramilitary National Defence Force (NDF) which musters around 100,000 men. Iran also coordinates the fluid and dynamic cooperation of the Shia militias operating in the two countries, facilitating geographical transfers of men, resources and Knowledge. Hezbollah for example was encouraged by Tehran to send its explosive experts to Shia groups in Iraq to help defeat IS.
In addition recent normalisation of relations with the West may well just revive Iran’s attempt at constructing some form of loose Shia crescent by reversing Sunni gains in the region. Iran will finally possess the financial resources required to spearhead a foreign policy that truly reflects its conscious convictions about its security in the region. The recent deal will unfreeze $100 billion in assets and let Iran sell its oil worldwide. Iranian officials believe it can double its oil exports within just six months and unleash the potential of its spectacular gas reserves to help target 8% average annual growth. This, and the profitability of renewed Islamic tourism, will fill the regimes coffers for sure and much of this will indefinitely go towards sustaining the fronts Iran now holds spanning from Mosul to Aden.
Iran’s expansionist foreign policy may well be revitalised and given a new lease of life by the removal of sanctions on its exports. Iran’s engagement in current regional conflict must be seen as a continuation of the foreign policy it has directed since the revolution of 1979. Iranian phycology, this fear of isolation and loneliness, dictates that intervention and expansion are necessary for the long term welfare of Iranians. This continuous, axiomatic cycle cannot be ignored when analysing Iran’s recent diplomacy with the West and we must not hesitate to view Iran in the context it has operated in for centuries and which necessitates that it’s every action somehow goes towards a culturally and religiously appropriate achievement of security.
The signs of this continuation are obvious- Iran’s foreign policy today is moulded in this psychological cast and they pursue it openly for the entire international community to see and interpret. The fact that the negotiation of the deal happened in conjunction with Iranian aggression in other countries is surely ample evidence to reveal their real motivations. Indeed even whilst discussions ensued many conservative Iranian’s openly called for the overthrow of the House of Saud which it sees (rightly) as the main financial source of Sunni militarism. Iran still aspires towards security and a financial stimulus will go towards the incremental creation of the pan-Islamic caliphate it has desired for the best part of four decades, beginning with the Shia nations and moving on to the majority Sunni Muslim world later.
Taking Iran’s history into account therefore, is the nuclear deal all that it is been promoted as? Rather than ushering in an end to an era of fundamentalist aggression, the deal will serve to facilitate and enhance this very aggression in a more venomous form. Iran will use the influx of money to make tactical adjustments to its long term strategy of achieving an eternal goal- safety. Unfortunately for the West Iran’s conception of security will make relations between the two interest groups frosty and could initiate the return of sanctions and the hostile relations emblematic of the last 36 years.