Etemad Newspaper's Interview with Kayhan Barzegar, Professor of International Relations and Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran on the regional developments and its link with a prospective nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 group.
Q: We are currently facing a new phenomenon in the region in the form of the ISIL terrorist group. While having commonalities with many other similar terrorist groups, it is said that this group also has the support of some certain state actors. What threat may ISIL pose to the national security of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
A: Such groups as ISIL usually thrive in places which lack a strengthening state. ISIL came about in the region between Syria and Iraq at a time that the state in Syria had been totally weakened as a result of the crisis following the Arab Spring developments. This group took advantage of the chaotic conditions to capture swathes of land and announce a self-proclaimed Islamic state in the Arab territory. On the other hand, the ideological frustration caused by the failure of the Arab Spring, not achieving its perceived goals, also provided a good ground for ISIL to recruit radical forces that were in limbo in the region and the world mobilizing them toward Syria on the verge of becoming a failed state. In the next stage and in Iraq, we had a country, which was grappling with the difficult process of state-building and power transformation following the U.S. troops exit. Under conditions when the state in Iraq had been weakened as a result of internal rivalries within the country's political power-sharing, the ISIL saw its chance to consolidate its presence in this country.
I don't think that ISIL could impose any meaningful threat to Iran's national security. Because historically and traditionally our country has had a powerful state at all times. Presence of such a strengthening state, combined with the national solidarity, will never allow such groups as ISIL to find enough maneuvering room for expression of their presence. Besides the existence of strong ideological grounds in opposing extremist trends as well as the high capacity of the central government to establish political order throughout the country will not allow the group to find the space for activity. Of course, it is believed that some foreign forces lent their support to ISIL in order to meet their own geopolitical interests at a time that the region was going through a phase of political power vacuum. However, this should not cause us to underestimate the support lent to this group by certain local groups because a major factor here is that in order to continue its presence in a country, ISIL needs to recruit local forces. Due to reasons I mentioned above, it is rather infeasible for ISIL to recruit any forces in Iran. Such an extremist trend will never gain legitimacy under the political atmosphere of Iran. Therefore, given the fact that the continuity of a trend like ISIL depends on the strength or weakness of a state in the region, ISIL for sure is not a serious national security threat. The government of Iran will lose no time for the suppression of this group and, if needed, will even join hands with other countries for the purpose of containing and preempting the threat posed by this group. Iran, if needed, would even consider transregional cooperation in order to put an end to this threat.
Q: Considering the existing differences in viewpoints among, for example, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia over their approach to deal with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, do you think that such a sense of common threat would finally lead to regional cooperation?
A: Achieving this point is very complicated and difficult, but it is by no means impossible. Every one of these states has their own definition of preserving their interests and security totally different and independent of one another. For instance, the approach taken by Turkey to deal with ISIL is more a function of Ankara's focus on the Kurdish politics as well as achieving the geopolitical and ideological goals of the current Turkish government in handling the regional issues. As for Saudi Arabia, some analysts believe that Saudi Arabia has been one way or another involved in the emergence of ISIL because Riyadh believed that it can use this trend as a good means to sustain Iran in the region. However, we see that even Saudi Arabia is feeling dangers arising from this group mainly targeting the pillars of its state and political institutions of its neighboring countries. It is now participating in the fight against ISIL. Iran, on the other hand, sees the issue in the context of geopolitical and ideological threat and containing the foreign threat in the broader region, which should be stopped at all cost.
This is why the Islamic Republic believes that the problems resulting from the ISIS' presence in Iraq and Syria are somehow linked and is calling for simultaneous fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, the three countries have their own different perceptions of dealing with the ISIL threat from the viewpoint of the national interests and security. But despite all of these differences, the good news is that they at the same time, agree to certain common concepts and principles such as strengthening the state system and keeping the territorial integrity of all regional countries including Iraq and Syria. They also oppose with spreading terrorism and extremism and that it should be denounced, rejected and fought within the international community. They have reached the conclusion that all regional states should attempt to stop war and further tension as instability will first of all serve to undermine states' institutions and political structures in an already volatile region. Again despite all of these a regional cooperation needs a powerful diplomacy and to some degree self-sacrifice is needed to get these perspectives closer.
I believe that at the end of the day, regional cooperation should be strengthened in order to bolster the position of states as well as political institutions in the region and this can only in my view be achieved by strengthening regional diplomatic efforts and initiatives. I think the current diplomatic equation in the region should change from its dominant traditional form that is that the foreign players, mostly Western always have the initiative and the regional players are positioned in the sidelines in a condescending manner, like what it is being done right now in the context the international anti-ISIL coalition. I think this should be reversed to the degree that the regional players take the initiative in diplomatic efforts while taking advantage of the support accorded to them by the trans-regional players and the international community. This change in terms of policy implications will bring about a lot of positive exchanges at the regional level. I mean, experience shows that no regional crisis can be solved without the existence of a political consensus between the regional players at the first stage. I believe that the current diplomacy or force equation is rather unlikely to thoroughly solve the ongoing crisis in the region.
Q: What is your view about Iran's efforts in strengthening its regional relations in more than a year that the new government of moderation took office? Basically speaking, what is the logic underlying invigoration of Iran's regional interactions?
A: I think the new government did good and can do even better. Serious steps have been taken in this period for the strengthening of Iran's regional relations with the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf as well as Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. [Iran's Foreign Minister] Dr. [Mohammad Javad] Zarif has been present in any place where there has been even the slightest hope for improvement of relations. Some positive steps have been taken to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. Of course, inability to totally improve relations with Riyadh should not be solely blamed on Tehran, but Saudi Arabia is also to blame in this regard. Pursuant to its regional strategy, Iran has been constantly trying to promote cooperation with Saudi Arabia, but Saudi officials have not appeared very enthusiastic in this regard. Of course, regional variables have been also playing their parts in this regard. Such variables include the ongoing crises in Iraq and Syria, which have driven a wedge between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But as to the logic underlying the expansion of Iran's regional interactions, I think the added value and strategic commodity of Iran's foreign policy is to have an active and constructive role in all regional issues. I believe that Iran's global status is mainly measured by its regional role. Iran has a number of regional advantages which are important for the international community.
Firstly, Iran's geopolitical characteristic is such that the country can easily adjust with any new geopolitical developments. For example, following the Arab Spring developments, some analysts predicted that Iran's regional standing would falter. However, the country's geopolitical role and status is such that it managed to adjust with the new situations in the region. An example of this is Iran's consent to Iraq's recent power transition. The second characteristic relates to its good understanding of the region's politics relating mostly to Iran's historical presence in regional developments, the country has close ties with various political groups and therefore plays a decisive role in various issues. As for the case of ISIL, for example, Iran entered this case with no hesitance, confident that it can handle it showing that it is determined and follows its interests in strategic terms. The third characteristic is Iran's coalition-building power as a result of which it is able to make connections among various political forces. Take in Iraq for instance and in the recent case. I would say no country has this potential.
Taking all these facts into consideration, I think the present time is a momentous time for President Rouhani's administration to rely on Iran's active and constructive regional role for strengthening its international status. Of course, regional countries have also come to the conclusion that this is a real opportunity for them too to get closer to Iran. I am sure, moderate political forces in Saudi Arabia are willing to withdraw from the current rivalry situation with Iran because the country is an important power in the region. The moderate discourse of Rouhani's administration is primarily based on the economic development. A government, which seeks economic development, is strongly willing to see stability in its neighborhood. Economic or even political development is only possible through establishing relative security for the country. You cannot talk about moderation and development inside the country without trying to establish stability in your surrounding environment because in case of instability, a large part of the country's resources should be spent on tackling the security threat and other similar issues.
Q: During the past year we have seen frequent visits to Iran by European officials. Is this diplomatic traffic in line with the nuclear negotiations and represents an effort to make those negotiations bear fruit? Or, as like they did with former Iranian reformist government, the European sides are thinking about further expansion of relations say for the sake of political reform and so on with Iran on the sidelines of the country's nuclear case?
A: I think the visits are more aimed at better understanding of Iran's regional role and how Iran can help battling ISIL terrorism which is really an urgent issue for the European countries. We know that many ISIL fighters are European citizens and the real concern arises from the precarious prospect of their return to home some time in future. Here I think, a positive role by Iran can greatly bolster the country's position in the region and will be also of very importance to the international community. During the past year, the Iranian government did its best to eliminate or at least minimize tensions resulting from the regional divergences. This issue is of significance to Europe. Of course, it is also natural for European countries to seek confidence building with Iran and pursue a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear issue as a prelude to rapid restoration of economic ties. Of course focusing on political reforms is always on the European agenda. And that Europe would like to build trust with Iran in the context of the West on the ongoing nuclear negotiations. But again I think the significant matter right now is boosting regional cooperation with Iran in order to battle ISIL.
Q: If Iran and the P5+1 group fail to achieve a comprehensive agreement by the 24 November deadline, what would be its negative consequences on Iran's role and regional relations?
A: A major point which is usually missing in our analyses is that the most important outcome of a nuclear deal for Iran would be redefinition of the country's powerful status regionally and globally. We should pay due attention to this aspect of the issue and note that if the negotiations end up in a comprehensive deal, Iran's regional and global status would be immediately strengthened mostly due to the new situation that the Islamic Republic has been able to resolve an important international issue through its own independent approaches based on its national power and on an equal term with major world powers. This situation will immediately increase respect for Iran in the world and boost the country's political status. However, if such an agreement is not reached by the November 24 deadline, I believe that nothing important will happen because in Iran, the government seeks interaction with the world. This is the official line of policy taken by the current government which has reached the conclusion that if the agreement is not reached, we should explore other channels of interactions with the West.
On the other hand, further extension of the negotiations will not have a negative impact on Iran's regional cooperation. And I believe that it can even have a very positive effect on that cooperation because both cooperating parties would have to find other ways to continue their interactions. Of course, the official policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to first wait for the final result of the nuclear negotiations and then if needed, expanding regional cooperation with the United States. At any rate, I believe that regional cooperation will ultimately expand further because there is political will in Iran to boost that cooperation. Of course, insistence of the United States on its conventional unilateralism in dominating the regions political- security trends can still prove to be a stumbling block. European countries, however, are trying to take their own independent policy towards Iran through a multilateral approach.
Q: Syria continues to remain the Gordian knot of relations between Iran and some regional and even transregional countries. Do you believe that Iran will think about transfer of political power in Syria in medium term?
A: There have existed two groups of analyses in this regard since two years ago. Some analysts believed that the incumbent government in Syria will remain in place because the geopolitical circumstances in the region are such that when you enter a geopolitical game between states, it is impossible to determine beforehand who is the winner or the loser. There were, however, other analysts who connected the Syrian crisis to human security issues across the globe, noting that the international community would show a strong reaction by toppling the Syrian regime. This, however, never took place. Of course, I should point to the fact that when it came to choosing between human security and state's security, the international community and especially America choose the second one because protecting state's system and government institutions are still the main priority to uphold the regional order which in turn of great significance for the international security. At present, Iran's role in Syria's developments is seen from a different viewpoint because the situation in Syria is under the influence of terrorist groups such as ISIL and Al Qaeda. As a result, this situation is being seen as a major threat both for regional states and the international community.
I think Iran is playing its role within the framework of the current developments and the realities on the grounds. Such a role is greatly dependent on how the foreign players see position themselves. I believe that a transfer of political power is quite possible in the context of the current Syrian state in which moderate Syrian opposition groups participate in the government. Some redlines have been drawn by certain players involved in the Syrian crisis. Perhaps time has come to initiate new solutions. What I know is that Iran should be involved in any peace agreement so that it can play its role in the process of accommodating the crisis. This is key to convince Iranian decision makers in the context of preserving Iran's national security. Leaving Iran out of the international peace negotiations on Syria was a strategic mistake. Just in the same way that Iran can't be driven out of Afghanistan and Iraq. The region and its situations is important for Iran and as I said is the advantaging point of Iran's foreign policy conduct at the global level. But Iran should take advantage of the opportunity provided by this possible power transfer process and play its constructive role. This issue will be of utmost importance to future of Iran's regional status preempting any anti-Iranian justification before regional and trans-regional players. This is true as playing such a constructive role will boost Iran's legitimacy within the international system both in theory and practice. I believe that the role Iran played in Iraq has been very on time, important, successful and resolute sending a serious message to the region and the world. Iran, likewise, should make timely use of the opportunity when time comes to play an accommodative and constructive role in Syria.
... Payvand News - 03/25/16 ... --