As Iran celebrates the 35th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution, British Prime Minister Palmerston’s apt phrase rings truer than ever: Iran has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.The main question facing the leadership is how, at three and a half decades, can its revolution remain relevant?
As always with Iran, its international relations and domestic politics intricately overlap, and its interests impact each other. Towering above the others, its primary interest is to reduce the draconian weight of international sanctions, which are squeezing its economy and threatening the legitimacy of its clerical regime.
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Second, Iran needs to patch up relations with Saudi Arabia to stem the dangerous politics of sectarianism that is ratcheting up conflict within the Islamic world.
Third, Iran’s support of Syria needs to lead it to the international negotiating table, since its aim, much like Russia’s, is to ease Assad out so conflict declines, while retaining a dominant position inside a post-Assad Syria.
Each of these interests represents huge challenges, and their entanglement means the game must be played on all fronts simultaneously. What is more, in no instance is Iran engaging with a friendly state – its interlocutors are either outright foes (the US and Saudi Arabia) or dangerous, if demanding, neighbours (Russia, Syria).
For most of its history, the Islamic Republic has suffered US sanctions, something it has learned to live with more effectively than Washington or its allies might ever have imagined. However, as the web of sanctions, in the words of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, turned “crippling“, not least because the UN and EU added in their own, Iran’s ability to sidestep them has narrowed. Its oil income has plunged, its inflation stands at 36 percent (55 percent for food), its currency is down 80 percent in two years, and poverty is growing.
Turning the US into “The Great Satan” 35 years ago evolved into a crushing enmity that, in addition to a sanctions regime similar to the one against Saddam Hussein, which hollowed out Iraq in ten years, exposed Iran to cyber warfare, and international diplomatic isolation.
Turning the US into “The Great Satan” 35 years ago evolved into a crushing enmity that in addition to a sanctions regime similar to the one against Saddam Hussein, which hollowed out Iraq in ten years, exposed Iran to cyber warfare, and international diplomatic isolation.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s support of Hassan Rouhani’s election to the presidency in June 2013 signalled that Iran’s government credibility needed a makeover both at home and abroad in the toxic wake of President Mahmoud Ahamadinejad.
Nuclear arms negotiator Saeed Jallili, the clerics’ presidential candidate, was publicly criticised for letting negotiation opportunities pass. The centrist, Rouhani, a previous nuclear negotiator and insider, has since moved quickly. With government backing, he pushed forward November’s Geneva Interim Agreement, and joined with six world powers in January 2012 to start the “joint plan of action” (JPA), which has frozen Iran’s nuclear programme for six months in exchange for monthly instalments of $4.2 billion in Iranian assets held in Western banks and the suspension of some financial sanctions.
Though Western observers darkly predict that Iran will use this agreement to buy time through a series of six-month extensions, more likely is an Iranian commitment to the terms so as to avoid further sanctions, already threatened by a dubious US Congress, so as to obtain real relief for its struggling economy – a domestic necessity. Rouhani himself negotiated a two-year freeze in 2004 with the Europeans, which Iran respected, even as negotiations floundered. It was also Rouhani who negotiated the original “additional protocol” under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the tool used today – though incorporating even stronger safeguards – by the international atomic watchdog for on-site inspections.
The alacrity with which states such as Turkey and India have responded economically to Iran since the Geneva Agreement indicates that Iran has more to gain from abiding conscientiously with the inspections, than going rogue. The other side of the sanctions coin is opening global markets – the real prize for Iran.
Reduce the curse of sectarianism
Iran’s direct negotiations with the US signalled an important shift in revolutionary discourse away from that of the Great Satan. The test of the revolution’s relevance 35 years on involves attaining economic and political robustness, not hunting enemies. Yet the negotiations between Tehran and Washington have, on another front, exacerbated tensions with Saudi Arabia, raising rapprochement with Riyadh to a second priority interest in Iran’s strategic game.
The Saudi regional rhetoric of Sunni-vs-Shia (e.g. in Bahrain, and latterly in Syria and Lebanon) has, Tehran is realising, become accepted as dogma in Washington. This is despite Iran’s studied avoidance of using Shia-vs-Sunni language – its view being that Islam must be unified to fend off Western cultural and military threats, Islam’s own divisions being secondary. Islamic inclusivity, along with its success in ousting a foreign-supported Shah, is what earned the Iranian revolution its initial inspirational role on the Arab street.
Since then, however, the revolution’s interpretation of clerical power has tarnished its reputation across the region, from the monarchies – which see it as a dangerous model for the Muslim Brotherhood, to the military-backed regimes of Egypt and Algeria, and the Constitutionalists of Tunisia.
Instead, Saudi’s sectarian rhetoric has dominated – and it can only be lessened by rapprochement between the two power-houses of each sect. To that end, Rouhani is courting the Gulf sheikhdoms and Oman, and is returning the contested islands of Tunbs and Abu Musa, which Iran seized years ago, to the UAE.
With Saudi’s regional clients appearing increasingly concerned, and as relations with the US have stumbled, the opportunity appears ripe for a warming between the Gulf rivals, the result of which could soften Riyadh’s sharp anti-Iranian, anti-Shia rhetoric, to the benefit of the region as a whole, not just Iran. Reducing tensions with the Guardian of the Two Holy Sites to bolster Islam, is therefore critical for the ongoing relevance of Iran’s revolution.
Removing Assad while keeping Syria
Being Bashar al-Assad’s main regional supporter is not a political position Iran relishes, and its own population loudly condemns it. Key to both Russia and Iran is to keep Syria territorially intact and reduce the sectarian conflict – a task they see best achieved by the regime, once Assad is gone. Iran has invested heavily in Syrian infrastructure and economic support with an eye on the long game. Negotiations with the US, and rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, offer the chance, long sought by Tehran, to join the Syria negotiating table – a place it almost attained at the Geneva II talks for the first time last month.
Supporting old allies is a point of honour in the region; supporting them past their due date is not, particularly in the face of rising bloodshed. Iran’s interest in Syria is to use it as a platform to become a recognised regional player, work as one of the key five powers (with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Russia) to ease Assad out, and to ensure that the regime remains in place and friendly. Being part of the solution will not only bolster its regional clout, but its domestic credibility. The conundrum is how to fulfil its permanent interests but equally, show the maturity of its 35 years and develop friendships so the game becomes less of a revolutionary battle.
Dr Roxane Farmanfarmaian is a specialist on Iran and Western policy toward the Persian Gulf region, including issues of oil, media, terrorism and political Islam.