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Who calls the shots in Iran's foreign policy offensive?

By Amir Ali Nourbakhsh, Editor
Iran Focus July-August 2004 (TIR-SHAHRIVAR 1383), VOL 17 NO 7
This article is from the political-economic monthly IRAN FOCUS, published by the UK based Menas Associates. For more on Menas Associates please visit

Since last month there has been a noticeable change in Iran's approach to foreign policy, with indications of a more confrontational attitude.


In mid June, the UAE resumed its usual claims on the three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf (Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs). Later, an Iranian fishing boat was seized by Qatari forces in the Persian Gulf. One fisherman was killed and two others were injured. This prompted Iran to seize some eight Emirati and Qatari boats and their crews in retaliation.

On 21 June Iran seized three British military patrol boats and their crew after the vessels had entered Iranian territorial waters on the Arvand River (Shatt al-Arab), which forms the border between Iran and Iraq.

The arrests were carried out by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, which are dominated by hardliners and accountable only to the Supreme Leader. After British sailors were shown on Iranian state TV humiliated and apologizing, they were handed over to British embassy officials in Tehran.

Analysts see a link between the detentions and the European Union's contribution to drafting the resolution rebuking Iran for past nuclear cover-ups only a week earlier, when EU officials met the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors.

On 24 July, Iran told three European nations that it would resume the production of its uranium centrifuge parts. This is considered a breach of the agreement that Tehran struck with the IAEA last February to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment, including testing of centrifuges. Last October, Iran signed the additional safeguards protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allowing snap inspections by the IAEA.

This article elaborates on the decision-making process that lies behind Iran's foreign policy, which may account for the Islamic Republic's recent behavior. In doing so, factors that are related to Iran's national, regional and international affairs are taken into consideration.


The national context

The identification of detailed processes in Iran's foreign policy has proved a challenge for observers for years. Although the decision-making process remains vague, there is general agreement that the majority - if not all - stakeholders are known to observers. What still remains unclear are the criteria according to which these state and non-state actors set their objectives and how the final decisions are made.


The official foreign policy decision-making process This process in Iran is extremely complex and involves multifaceted interactions between official and unofficial forces. From the moment an opportunity or crisis is identified by various agents until a policy decision has been made, an unknown number of players are able to influence the policy outcome. The more security-related the issue is perceived to be, the easier it is for radical forces to manipulate policy to their liking.

First, an opportunity or threat is perceived by diplomatic, military, intelligence, cultural, media or academic agents in Iran and/or overseas. The message is disseminated through foreign, intelligence, defense and culture ministries channels to the president, Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the Majlis, the Guardian Council (GC), the Expediency Council (EC) and the Supreme Leader.

Although the final say could lie with the Leader, all the other institutions might influence the decision through official or unofficial channels. It is the structure of these institutions, the personal influence of their members and the freedom of maneuver of pressure groups associated with them that make speculation about policy outcomes so difficult. The final decision-maker is not always the Leader since he might delegate his authority to other persons and organizations, or make the decision dependent on whoever emerges victorious from a factional debate.


The domestic power struggle Currently, the conservatives have the upper hand in Iran's political power struggle. First, the conservatives' undemocratic takeover of the Majlis did not face any major domestic or international resistance. No public uprising took place as bilateral economic agreements with other countries - mainly European states - remained intact as international accusations continued.

Secondly, the continuation of orchestrated US-EU pressure on Iran, even though Tehran had signed two agreements with the IAEA, has strengthened the mindset that distrusts the EU and is skeptical about its nuclear and human rights discourses.

Thirdly, the EU's sporadic support of the UAE's claim on the Persian Gulf islands further weakens the pro-EU lobby, justifying radicalization of Iran's relations with the West.

Fourthly, the rise of the military and paramilitary wing in Iran (Iran Focus, 17:6, June 2004, 1) could be symbolically compared to the prevalence of the Pentagon foreign policy mindset in Washington. It is a rule of thumb that the military elite has a military solution to all state crises and foreign ministry officials a diplomatic one. So once the military clique dominates the domestic scene it gets its way in foreign policy as well.

By the same token, the following phenomena account for the military's interference in foreign affairs. First, the US pressure and subversive terminology on Iran continues, based on Iran's "breach" of IAEA agreements. Secondly, Israeli accusations about Iran's regional policies are intensifying as Tel Aviv endorses the regime change discourse. Generally speaking, Iran's international relations are becoming more and more security-focused.


The regional context

Iran's position in the Persian Gulf region is ambiguous and indefinite. Although there is no common understanding among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states towards Iran, the potential threats and opportunities that Iran could open up for these countries obviously set the tone for the nature of future cooperation in this area. The general question is whether these states will move closer to Tehran or favor Washington.

On the one hand, Iran is aware of these states' fear that Iraq might no longer be a strategic counterweight to Iran. And beyond that they are concerned that pro-Iran Shiites might obtain a major share of power in the new Iraq.

On the other hand, they are also aware of the possible consequences of the pronounced US tilt towards Tel Aviv with regard to the Palestinian issue. Moreover, post 9/11 security considerations, which have precipitated the US to push for human rights and democracy reforms in the region, make these states question the benefit for them of US policies. GCC states face the question as to whether the continuation of Washington's policies or Iran's regional ambitions pose a more dangerous threat to their states. The following observations shed light on this notion:

  • There has been some unrest and uncertain leadership transitions in a few GCC states. Some states have been forced to open up their political processes;
  • Since 9/11, the US has heightened its attention to the public attitudes of these states, concluding that citizens of some of them are sympathetic to some of the goals of Al Qaeda;
  • Some of these states have become more critical of the US policy in the region.

The political liberalization of the Middle East, perceived by the Pentagon as a policy to ensure regional stability, has registered in the region as an initiative that could backfire by empowering Islamic extremism. In short, the Bush administration's promotion of civil society in the Persian Gulf through, for example, judicial reforms in Bahrain, political participation in Kuwait and Qatar, parliamentary development in Oman and independent journalism in Saudi Arabia, are sources of concern to these Arab states. Interestingly, Iran is also aware of this discrepancy. The question, however, is whether Iran can take advantage of this state of affairs.

So far, Washington has been more successful than Tehran in encouraging these states to cooperate, despite their reluctance. The GCC states are starting to open up their economies, passing laws allowing foreign direct investment. Some of them, such as Oman, are being assisted by the US in moves to join the World Trade Organization and others, such as Saudi Arabia, are in negotiations.

The GCC states are driven by a number of incentives and disincentives to cooperate with the US. What could possibly tilt the balance against Iran and towards the US are GCC states' defense considerations. There is a disincentive for GCC states to cooperate with Washington because the fall of Saddam Hussein encourages some of them to distance themselves from the US and move closer to a broad Arab consensus on the Palestine-Israel issue.

On the other hand, Washington's arms sales and security assistance to GCC states present them with an incentive to cooperate with the US. The majority of these states are heavily dependent on US training, spare parts and armament codes. This not only prevents any use of these devices against Israel but also keeps them away from any reliance on Iran.

For instance, Bahrain and Oman receive significant amounts of US assistance, while Saudi Arabia obtains a nominal amount of the International Military Education and Training fund (IMET). Either way, none of the pro-US or anti-US arguments favors Iran's strategic relation with GCC states.

Hence, the GCC states' decision to opt for one strategic partner between Tehran and Washington has to be founded on the following considerations:

  • The fall of Saddam has tilted the regional balance to Iran's benefit;
  • The rise of Iran as a regional hegemonic power will enhance the possibility of Shiite domination in the region;
  • Iran is more likely to assume hegemony if it accommodates US priorities;
  • With the rise of conservatives in Tehran and Washington, the likelihood of a rapprochement between the two states is rapidly diminishing. Besides, intensified accusations against Iran from the US - whether these are well founded or not - make a pro-Iran choice for a bloc that is itself prone to similar accusations risky;
  • Although the US is pursuing policies that propagate human rights and democracy in the Middle East, the GCC states are dependent on the US from an economic, military and security point of view. Besides, the political liberalization has been a gradual process that has partly added to internal legitimacy in these states.
With the gradual domination in Iran of the conservatives - especially forces close to the Revolutionary Guards (Sepah) - the chances that Iran's foreign policy might continue within the framework set out by President Mohammad Khatami are becoming slimmer. Although the pro-Sepah mindset would prefer a pro-Arab approach as Iran's neighborhood policy, the Islamic Republic has a historical record of hostility towards over-US friendly GCC states, and there are historical hostilities and border issues with some Arab states. The Gulf islands issue and the regional boats confrontations will definitely tip the balance against these Arab states among the Sepahi mindset.


The international context

The same clique is also becoming dominant in Iran's approach to the nuclear crisis. From Tehran's perspective, the continued US pressure on Iran despite its recent cooperation with the IAEA only shows that the US is using the nuclear issue to pressure Iran and ideally change the regime. This does not only fit with the conspiracy-minded mindset dominant in the Islamic Republic but also makes more sense than ever before, and may as well be true.

Iran's previously good relations with the EU are going through a rough patch. The reasons for this are, first, Iran and the EU's dissatisfaction with the developments and results of the policies but, more important, the fact that the Iran-IAEA face-off is failing to satisfy Pentagon officials and the White House.
Another reason for the prevalence of the military wing over diplomats in Iran's foreign policy decision-making might be Iran's failure in playing one side of the Atlantic against the other to its own benefit. Diplomats under Khatami commercialized Iran's ties with Europeans and other potential "allies". Later they capitalized more on non-European states, mainly members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), including such states as China, India and Malaysia.

To Tehran's disappointment, both blocs, despite their pro-dialogue discourse, are becoming discouraged about politically backing Iran as US pressure mounts. Paradoxically, and perhaps surprisingly to ruling groups in Tehran, European states and NAM member states maintain their economic and trade ties but move at the same time more in line with US policies, at least in the political arena.

All this provides the Iranian military forces with a pretext to take over foreign policy as diplomatic efforts and Khatami's détente have failed in a situation of high security risk.



Iran's recent offensive course of action in foreign policy can be understood in the context of the combination of national, regional and international challenges that Tehran is facing.

Domestically, the rise of the conservatives in the Majlis places Iran in a unique situation. The forceful takeover of the parliament marks a unique era even in the history of the Islamic Republic. It would fit with the conservative mindset that under such international pressure, it would be more secure for Iran to speak with one voice.

Simultaneous with Iran's domestic and nuclear crises comes the opportunity to become the regional superpower in the light of Iraq's decline. This is a chance the Islamic state cannot forgo because of its domestic or nuclear problems. Consequently, the conservatives' seizure of the Majlis might have been in the hope that a "unified" Islamic state might encourage the US to abandon its regime change discourse. The notion is that security concerns in Iraq would make Iran the most stable Middle East option for the US to side with.
But with the handover of power from the coalition administration to an Iraqi government, the regime change discourse for Iran is becoming louder, if still highly unlikely.

Nevertheless, it seems that neither containment nor engagement is an acceptable option to the Washington hawks. This leaves a regime change or the continuation of the status quo the only two foreign policy options in Washington vis-à-vis Iran.

The post 9/11 decisions in Washington show that foreign policy has been shifting from retaliation against the perpetrators of 9/11 over stopping terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, to preventing states from supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. Comments of US officials indicate that a link between members of the "Axis of Evil" and terrorism is not absolutely necessary for the hawks to adopt a coercive policy. The Iraqi case proved this, if nothing more.

The Pentagon's "New Security Strategy" of 2002 called for preemptive action, and underlined the notion of an unchallengeable American superpower. It also made it a US priority to promote American democratic values abroad.

However, Iranians still tend to misread Washington. The US antagonistic discourse not only continued, despite the rise of the conservatives in Iran, but Washington also stepped up pressure on Tehran and won more support from the EU, the NAM and some GCC states whose national interests might be at odds with those of the US.

Although the Islamic state is historically accustomed to operating under pressure, without allies, Tehran was disappointed at the failure of its efforts to commercialize ties with Arab, European and NAM counterparts and collect the political dividends.

The failure of Iranian pragmatists' diplomacy on the nuclear issue plays into the hands of the hardliners, who always argued that Iran should not trust the US, EU and the UN. The mindset that promoted withdrawal from the NPT is now gaining more influence in Iran's foreign policy apparatus.

It has taken Iran too long to understand that US hostility is against the conservatives' ideology, and that US foreign policy is based on Washington's post Cold War world view, which sees America as a military superpower with the authority to use force whenever it sees itself in danger.

The recent US and EU reactions have conveyed this message to Iran. In this light, Iran's conservatives have decided to pursue the role of a regional superpower with little reliance on other regional powers and the EU. If a rapprochement between Washington and Iran's conservatives is impossible, then so be it. This will not encourage the conservatives to hand over power to the reformists. If the US will not recognize Iran's sovereignty, then Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment activities which are not a violation of the NPT and have helped Tehran maintain the status quo so far.

At the same time, Iran will not give in to GCC provocations in order to prove that Tehran's regional ambitions are not threatened by US unilateralism in the region, and that GCC states could not seize the opportunity to their own ends.

All this shows that US policies and the regional chaos rising from them have stabilized the conservatives' position in Iran, as Washington has overlooked Iran's potential as a regional player and sets the stage for more regional tension. Such a militarized regional situation would encourage military officials anywhere in the world to seize power. Iran is no exception.


... Payvand News - 8/5/04 ... --

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