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IRI in 2009: A Year Filled with Ups and Downs

By Dr. Mahmoud Reza Golshanpazhooh (Source:  Iran Review)

The year 2009 was a very significant and decisive year for the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, on the 30th birthday of the Iranian revolution (1979-2009) some kind of transformation or rebirth occurred in the scene of internal developments so that for the first time over the past three decades, domestic politics overshadowed foreign policy. In other words, the events before and after the June presidential elections caused many of the conceptual frameworks in the IRI establishment's interactions with the internal and external environments to be revised, transformed or reconsidered. In the meantime, during the same period of time, Iran's foreign policy faced its own ups and downs like the previous years.

Among Iran's foreign policy priorities in 2009 mention can be made of the nuclear issue, relations with the US, relations with the EU, interactions with neighboring countries, continued hostility with Israel, regional role in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, expansion of ties with various corners of the world including Latin America, and efforts to play an effective role at international organizations through promotion of multilateral diplomacy.

The following report discusses some prominent points and significant events and interactions Iran went through and experienced in 2009.

Domestic Policy

The presidential elections began to overshadow all internal issues and developments in Iran from the early days of the spring 2009. Nonetheless, no domestic analyst ever predicted that within a period of just two months the elections would become the hottest issue in the entire society. The kind of programs given by the candidates who had made their ways into the final stage, radio interviews and heated TV debates by the presidential hopefuls and their repercussions in the society which in turn caused street lineups by supporters of the candidates that sometimes continued until the early hours into the morning had brought a climate of excitement reminiscent of the early days of the 1979 revolution though it came as a big surprise and sounded very unusual to those who were too young to remember those days. The presence of nearly 85 percent of eligible voters in the polls demonstrated the great impact of the competition climate as well as the importance Iranian people attached to their inalienable right in the field of democracy.

However, the post-election days were not peaceful days and in fact marked the outbreak of incidents which continued towards the end of 2009 and well into the year 2010. This trend will most probably continue in the coming months.

Irrespective of all peaceful and violent protests and clashes, position-takings, commentaries, rifts, patch-ups, unifications, transformations and many other developments that have occurred in the domestic scene in Iran, the nation and the ruling establishment gained experiences which would take years to acquire under normal conditions.  
In the meantime, it would be a superficial analysis to say that the IRI establishment has been shaken after the presidential elections and that its collapse is near. Likewise, it would be wrong to say that no changes have occurred in the IRI policies and approaches and that Iran is the same Iran before June 2009. If we leave behind the attractive media propaganda and spot news reporting, it would be possible to reach a deeper analysis of this trend.

Nowadays, although many state officials and experts, particularly those who have left behind the difficult years early after the revolution as well as the hardships of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) are not happy with the status quo yet they maintain that the revolution has gone through much more difficult days before. These officials and experts are convinced that despite the extremisms shown by certain individuals from the opposing camps after the presidential elections, the IRI establishment has displayed and will display high tolerance, forbearance and compatibility. They opine that all these incidents will eventually lead to a better and deeper understanding and more dynamism on behalf of the IRI system. In other words, by accepting criticisms from within, the IRI would identify and mend its vulnerable points, would have a more comprehensive and more thoughtful look at internal and international issues and take stronger strides in compliance with the conditions and requirements of the day with knowledge about the demands and potentials of the nation and civil society.

In reality, what is important for an expert in Iranian affairs here is the capability to distinguish superficially changing trends from the profound and reflective developments within the establishment and the society. As mentioned before, it is inevitable that the climate of Iran's interactions with the internal society as well as the international community will be quite different from the past. But to expect Iran to turn into a bankrupt state engulfed with internal riots and become internationally weak is so inappropriate that even many of the current protest leaders would not agree with.

Foreign Policy

Although the scene of Iran's international interactions was to a great extent influenced by domestic dynamism in the last months of 2009, the events and as a result Iran's reactions fell mostly within the framework of the policies formulated by the Islamic Republic system. Some of the most important interactions and developments in key areas were as follows:

1. Nuclear Issue

On the whole, Iran received three reports from the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency on June 5, August 28 and November 16, 2009. In all of these reports, as had been the case before, the IAEA chief adopted an ambiguous approach by saying there was no evidence to prove Iran's intention to use nuclear energy for military purposes. At the same time he said Tehran had not suspended enrichment activities and failed to implement the Additional Protocol.

In his November report, Mohamed ElBaradei voiced concern over existence of other secret nuclear sites in Iran and took stance by adopting a harsher tone. Also in the last meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors in Vienna, the draft resolution proposed by P5+1 was reviewed and in the voting which took place on November 27, a resolution was passed under the pressure of Western countries against Iran's peaceful nuclear activities.

The Iran-IAEA dispute over the way the news about Fordo nuclear installations (near Qom) was disclosed, was among issues which helped adoption of this resolution.
Failure of Iran and P5+1 to come to an agreement on ways of supplying fuel for Iran's nuclear research reactor, which has not been finalized so far despite negotiations and fluctuations, also overshadowed Iran's nuclear case and its interactions with the West.

2. Ties with the United States

Although some Iranian experts still believe that there is a better chance for interaction with Barack Obama than with George Bush, what happened in 2009 raised the number of advocates of the viewpoint in the Iranian society that Obama has an iron fist in a velvet glove. Increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan, the little difference in the policies adopted by US administrations towards the Middle East peace process, and continuation of the US policy of "everyone except for Iran" in the political and economic interactions in the northern and southern spheres of Iran were among signs that further supported this perspective among Iranian experts.

Yet, the US position vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear case and the kind of stance Washington adopted towards the post-election events have further escalated the existing tension.

The Obama administration's persistence on suspension of Iran's nuclear activities including uranium enrichment, giving a month-long deadline (until January 1, 2010) to Iran to accept a plan on supply of fuel for Iran's nuclear research reactor through uranium exchange (of course based on their conditions, that is first to send uranium out of Iran and then receive the fuel in intervals, which faced Iran's opposition) prompted Iran to propose a simultaneous exchange of fuel inside its own territory or a third country. This made the complicated relations between the two countries to become even more complicated. Here, the adoption of Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act and the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act by the US Congress on December 15 targeting Iran's oil products further aggravated the climate.

Meanwhile, the US administration's position vis-à-vis Iran's post-election events - considering the fact that based on historical experience, any foreign intervention in domestic issues is considered despicable and disagreeable -  is reminiscent of the bitter era of colonialist rivalry between Russia and Britain and later the United States in Iran. This has considerably reduced the possibility of improvement in Tehran-Washington relations and paving the way for an atmosphere of fair talks on issues between the two countries.

However, the increase in the number of American experts and researchers who have admitted in their Iran analyses that no interference should be made in this process indicates that the process of having a better knowledge about Iran is a process forward that can be used in creating better opportunities for acquaintance, interaction and fair relations between governments and communities of both sides.

3. Relations with Europe

Ties between Iran and the EU in 2009 were greatly influenced by human rights issues and post-election developments besides the nuclear issue. Release of numerous statements in condemnation of death sentences carried out in Iran, as well as objection to the existing procedures in the judicial system in probing into charges of some political activists during the election protests were among Europe's interactions with Iran which escalated after the June presidential elections and arrest of a number of local staff of certain European embassies as well as that of a number of European nationals in street riots in Iran.

Although the Swedish prime minister, whose country took over the EU chair as of July 2009, called on his partners to show self-restraint and warned that Europe should refrain from pitting Iran against other world countries, yet 27 member states of the European Union summoned their ambassadors from Iran on July 3 in protest to the detention of staff of the British embassy in Tehran. The decision was made following a meeting of the EU member states in Brussels. According to an official affiliated to the EU, participants in the meeting agreed to take gradual punitive measures against Iran.

In continuation of these developments, an EU spokesperson said on August 6 while justifying these negative position-takings that Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory in the elections was open to question and the Iranian people were suspicious about its authenticity. The spokesperson made these statements under conditions that some ambassadors of the EU countries such as France, Britain and Sweden had taken part in the swearing-in ceremony of Mr. Ahmadinejad after his reelection.

On the whole, ties between the two sides in 2009 were full of ups and downs and in fact nothing occurred to reduce future ambiguities in these relations.

4. Iran-China Ties

Stability and growth are among characteristics of mutual relations between Iran and China, which also continued in 2009. In fact, with respect to the vague prospects for improvement of relations with the United States and the European Union, and also the kind of interaction of China and Russia with issues related to Iran, Iranian officials are unintentionally more inclined to promotion of ties with China, particularly in economic fields. The conclusion of a three billion dollar contract between Iran and China to expand Abadan refinery, a five billion dollar deal to develop phase 11 of the South Pars gas field which led to the replacement of French Total Company with the Chinese National Oil Company in this project, increase in trade exchanges between Iran and China to more than 25 billion dollars, an agreement between the two countries to construct Tehran-Isfahan railway and turning Iran to the third biggest oil exporter to China were among important developments in Tehran-Beijing ties in 2009.

5. Iran-Israel Encounter

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu announced during his election campaign that countering Iran's nuclear program was on top of his priorities in case of coming to power. He even announced after formation of the new government that he might launch an air strike against Iran to destroy its nuclear installations because he called Iran the biggest threat against the Zionist regime ever since its inception. On the whole, not ruling out a military strike against Iran's nuclear installations has been one of the most important conflicts in bilateral relations.

The regime in Israel follows this policy by intertwining the Middle East peace process with Iran's nuclear issue and all-out efforts to show that Iran's peaceful nuclear program is a threat and in return diverts public attentions from its tension escalating policies and nuclear arsenals, which are the main source of insecurity in the Middle East. Nevertheless, this policy seems to have lost its efficiency with respect to the current realities and its propaganda dimension has outdone its executive one.

Also, the Israeli regime's use of psychological warfare tactics to create political crises against the Islamic Republic, such as accusing Iran of building A-bomb and magnifying the political events after the June 12 elections, has prompted Israel to intensify its media attacks to undermine the establishment and reduce public loyalty and acceptability. However, experience has shown that no matter how big the differences of Iranian people may be on domestic issues, they will certainly not be inclined towards two things: Israel and the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO).

6. Relations with Neighbors

Iran's efforts to improve ties with the neighboring countries and restore calm and tranquility towards security of its borders continued in 2009. In this respect, relations with Afghanistan, Turkey and other Central Asian and Caucasus countries continued its growing trend at different paces. However, expansion of ties with the Persian Gulf countries experienced more ups and downs.

As for Iraq, along with some fluctuations in relations, termination of presence of MKO garrisons along Iran's borders after 24 years was among important developments in Tehran-Baghdad bilateral ties.

On the whole, the ups and downs in international relations as well as domestic dynamism in Iran in 2009 were in some cases more than what was expected at the beginning of the year. In the meantime, the international dynamism has had its special impact on the way Iran has acted. The heavy recession in world economy, the fall in oil prices, the global impacts of environmental pollutions on the climate cycles in Iran and the world, the changing global trends in the area of armaments, human rights, globalization, internet media, etc. all left their impacts on the developments in Iran.
Therefore, it can be said that irrespective of their possible consequences, the year 2009 was a year marked with profound experiences for the Iranian society and the Islamic establishment.

About Iran Review: Iran Review ( is the leading independent, non-governmental and non-partisan website - organization representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran's political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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