Saturday, August 6, 2011

Understanding Iranian Pragmatism

Ever since its revolution, Tehran has been trying to strike a balance between Islamic values and national interests
By Marwan Kabalan
In March, Saudi Arabia led a coalition force from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into Bahrain to help the government there deal with the unrest instigated by forces believed to have close ties to Iran. ome analysts expected Tehran to take an aggressive stand as the forces moved into Bahrain.
Expectations on Iran's response ranged between putting the US 5th Fleet's base in jeopardy, to using its covert capabilities to threaten the stability of other Gulf Arab states, to direct military intervention.
For the Iranians, the events in Bahrain and the likelihood of it spreading into the Arabian Peninsula represented a golden opportunity for pursuing their long-standing interest of dominating the Gulf.
To the surprise of many, Iran's reaction did not pass the edge of rhetoric. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strongly condemned the intervention and so did other Iranian leaders. Iran's hardliners who usually dub the US as the ‘Great Satan' went merely a step further when they blamed Washington for giving the ‘green light' to crush the Shiite uprising, "threatening to jeopardise America's interests in the region".
In fact, the effects of ideological influences on the foreign policy of any state present a formidable political and intellectual challenge; and for a country like Iran, which is caught in the pangs of revolution and religion, the challenge is even greater. Ever since its revolution; Iran has been trying to strike a balance between its Islamic values and national interests. This balance has not always been easy to hold.
For instance, Iran has been one of the loudest opponents of the US policy in the Middle East and the Gulf region since 1979.
Oddly enough, however, the revolutionary regime in Tehran found itself — on many occasions — acting against the very logic of its existence and in accordance with US interests. One example in which national interests and the survival of the regime took priority over all other considerations was the relations with the US in the early days of the Iran-Iraq war.
Historians and analysts insist that despite the declared enmity between the two countries, US arms did not stop flowing to Iran, through Israel, even during the hostage crisis, which lasted for 444 days. Iranian cargo planes used Madrid as a refuelling station on the way from the US, carrying spare parts for the US-trained Iranian army.
This was the case not long before the Iran-Contra affair — in which the US agreed to supply Iran with arms, through Israel, in exchange for Iran's help to release the US hostages in Lebanon — was made public.
The Azeri-Armenian war presented another example in which Iran ignored the ideological tenets of the revolution and pursued its national interest instead. Iran surprised many indeed when it supported Christian Armenians against fellow Muslim Azeris during the Nogorno-Karabakh dispute. During the war in Bosnia, Iran and the US found themselves in the same trench again.
Overthrow of Taliban
Throughout that war the US equipped groups of Arab Afghans with weapons and ammunition to fight Bosnian Serbs. The weapons were transported from Iran to Turkey, and shipped by American Hercules planes to Bosnia. Arab Mujahideen were also transported to Bosnia and Kosovo on American airplanes with Iranian help.
Iran was also one of the beneficiaries of the September 11 attacks on the US. It rushed to denounce the attacks and despite its public position against the US invasion of Afghanistan, the US media spoke about US-Iranian co-operation to help overthrow the Taliban regime — a stubborn enemy of Tehran. Iran allowed US warplanes to use its national airspace and US marines were transported on Iranian cargo planes to the east and northern parts of Afghanistan.
Iran also viewed the US invasion of Iraq as a golden opportunity to fulfil a long-held strategic goal of replacing the regime of Saddam Hussain with a friendlier one.
Secret US-Iranian talks were held in European capitals to discuss how Iran could help in overthrowing the Baath rule in Baghdad.
Three decades after its revolution, Iranian foreign policy is getting increasingly influenced by national interest and the instinct of survival, not by Islam or the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran's mild reaction to the intervention in Bahrain must be understood within the context of this pragmatism.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 06/08/2011
-Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media in Syria

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