Iran’s engagement with regional and international politics


“Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops [in Iraq],” the American president declared. “We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
The Washington Post explained that “seek out and destroy” meant “kill or capture”.
The speech signalled that, far from talking to Tehran, as he’d been advised to do by the Baker-Hamilton commission, President Bush intended to take tougher action to counter Iranian behaviour in Iraq — and Iran’s efforts to play a more dominant role in the Middle East.
The new policy is not just rhetoric. US forces in Iraq, in December and again in January, captured Iranians they described as working for the Revolutionary Guards; five of them are still being held. At the same time, the US administration announced it was sending Patriot missiles and an additional aircraft carrier to the Gulf. And, on another front, the Americans are urging their allies to tighten the economic screws on Iran, for example by starving it of export credits and foreign investment.
Commentators have variously described this get-tough approach
1        as opening a new front in the war in Iraq,
1        as a diversionary tactic, i.e. an attempt to blame Iran for the mess in Iraq,
2        as an attempt to give muscle to American diplomatic efforts – the aim being to make Iran stop meddling in Iraq, suspend uranium enrichment and enter into negotiations on nuclear and other issues,
3        or – the most sombre interpretation — as marking the opening shots in a new escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran which will lead, sooner or later, to some kind of military clash between them.
This last view is becoming quite popular and seems to be widely believed in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. However, my own feeling is that the picture is a little more complicated.
I would argue that what we are seeing is the politics of frustration. For policy-makers in Washington, two issues – Iran’s nuclear programme and its regional ambitions — have become intertwined, and the administration feels that on both fronts it’s being thwarted by a determined enemy and unreliable allies.
The attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue at the UN Security Council has been wearisome and time-consuming. In order to bring the Russians and the Chinese on board, the Americans had to water down the sanctions resolution eventually passed by the Security Council in December. America now wants to move to progressively stronger sanctions, but there are already signs of some resistance. The problem lies not just with the Russians and the Chinese; the French, who had helped draft the original resolution, now seem to be wobbling.
In any case, few people in the Bush administration believe sanctions alone will force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
At the same time, there’s frustration in Washington because Iran’s regional position has grown stronger. The Iranians have shown they can intervene in three important Middle East arenas – Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.
4        In Iraq, the extent of Iran’s influence – political, economic, cultural, and religious – is considerable. The debate is not over whether it has influence, but what it intends to do with it.
5        In Palestine, Iran supports the Hamas government not just politically but with millions of dollars.
6        And as for Lebanon, last summer’s war with Israel served to boost the regional standing of Hizbullah and its allies Iran and Syria, while discomforting Israel and the United States.
In all these areas, Iran is sending a message to Washington that, if pushed into a corner over the nuclear issue, it has regional levers it is willing and able to pull. It’s threatening to make America’s position in Iraq even more uncomfortable. It’s threatening to use as proxies its regional allies (Hizbullah, Hamas, and, by implication, the Shi’ite minorities of the Gulf). It’s threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, the bottleneck through which oil flows from the Gulf. It is, in short, threatening to set the Middle East ablaze.
In my view, while there’s an element of truth in all this, there’s also an element of bluff. Iran may be bluffing when it invokes its ability to reduce or cut off oil supplies – after all, it has no interest in losing oil revenue. It may also be exaggerating the power of its regional allies, all of whom have minds – and interests — of their own.
So where is all this heading? To my mind, America and Iran are like two prize-fighters limbering up for the big fight, each strutting the stage and taunting his opponent — while at the same time carefully sizing up his capabilities. But what form will the confrontation take – and is it possible that a fight can be avoided altogether?
In Washington, as in Tehran, there are different factions with different preferences. There are those in the American capital – let’s call them the ideologues — who think the only way to deal with Iran is through military action. They despise the UN route; indeed they despise the UN. They have little or no faith in sanctions, and they are against the very notion of negotiating with Iran: in their philosophy, you don’t negotiate with evil.
Other Americans – let’s call them the realists — know full well that military action would be fraught with risk. It would rally Iranians behind the regime, invite an unpredictable military response, tempt Iran to make mischief in Iraq, further destabilise an unstable region — and perhaps not even achieve its objective, since experts are unsure how far a military strike would set back Iran’s nuclear programme.
A case can be made – and Henry Kissinger and Richard Haass, among others, have made it — that talking to Iran is the least bad option. Some refer to negotiations-across-the-board as a “grand bargain” — a term that sticks in some American throats. Kissinger prefers to speak of a “geopolitical dialogue”.
Whether this particular American administration is ready to go down that path is not clear. While in principle the administration has left the option open, President Bush has shown no enthusiasm for it.
Tehran too has its hardliners and its pragmatists. And there have recently been signs that the president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, is not having things all his way. Pragmatists such as the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani are pushing for a less confrontational approach on the nuclear issue – and are suggesting that it was not very smart, at such a critical time, to hold a Holocaust-denial conference.
In theory, it’s possible to imagine negotiations between America and Iran which would lead to an eventual trade-off. The issues might turn out to be less intractable than they seem — given the political will, on both sides, to solve them.
But right now the omens are bleak, not just for Iran but for the region. Some are speaking of a new Cold War – a Cold War with sectarian overtones – as Iranian policy lends credibility to what seems to me a rather mythical “Shi’a crescent”, and as the United States seeks to bring together a coalition of Sunni Arab states as a counterweight to Shi’ite Iran.
Some seasoned observers are warning that America and Iran may be heading for a clash even if they don’t really want one.
The stakes are high; a miscalculation by either side could have catastrophic consequences.
*Roger Hardy has been a Middle East and Islamic world specialist with the BBC World Service for the last twenty years.  He has made a number of radio programmes about the Muslim world, most recently a series about Islam in South East Asia.  A graduate of Oxford, he worked in book publishing before joining the BBC in 1985. He is the author of "Arabia after the Storm", a study of the impact of the Kuwait war on the Gulf monarchies (Chatham House, 1992).
Dr. Abdelwahab El-AffendiAbdulwahab El-Affendi: When the Americans decided to invade Afghanistan then Iraq I commented that the Iranian revolution had been trying to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then America comes and does the business for them.
This meant that at the end of the day Iran would become the dominant power in the region. I said this on the eve of the attack. The Americans apparently did not understand the consequences of toppling the taliban and Saddam and Saudi Arabia has fallen into trouble because of 9/11 this means that Iran would inevitably become the dominant power in the Gulf.
The sensible thing would have been for the Americans to understand this and deal with the reality of the situation. Now four years after the fall of Saddam there is a slightly different picture. There is the threat of an ugly, very bloody  sectarian divide in the region.
If the sectarian divide results in a regional clash between Arabs on the two sides of the Gulf I would say it is the calimat of Sharon. It is the worst case scenario. Some  cynics would say that the Americans have been playing a game in Iraq by  stirring up sectarianism so as to create animosity against Iran. When the strike against Iran comes they will have some Arab countries on the side and the issue will not be a cold war as Roger had hoped for or feared but a real hot one. It will be fed by ugly sectarianism stoked by suspicious characters and regimes who talk about the Shia crescent. Then we will witness sectarian wars in Lebanon, we have already witnessed the political collapse in Palestine.
What we had hoped would be a positive change in the region is now going to be reserved. Instead of letting powers in the region to have their  power balance there is going to be, as usual, the external factor. When the attack on Iraq came they were worried, not as some would say, about Shias in the region but about democracy.  They thought that if the American design of having a democratic regime in Iraq worked they would try to move to Syria and other countries in the region. So the Americans wanted to change the regimes in the image of the new Middle East.
Now the language is being used is sectarianism. They are using the code-word Iran to mean Shia and Iranian influence in Iraq and in the region is seen as a danger and a threat. To counter this threat everybody is now playing the sectarian game.
On another level we find that all this is apparently the confrontation between America and Iran or more actually between Iran and Israel. The Americans are not worried that Iran is giong to come and bomb their country (some say Iran has missiles that could hit Europe). The real warning is about Israel. Iran may attack Israel or at least threten Israel and this is the red lion.
Unfortunately President Mamoud Ahmadinejad was making the same threats as Saddam Hussein until everything came collapsing around his head when he said he was going to burn the house of Israel. Anybody who makes these threats had better be able to back them up otherwise there is no point in making threats If you make the threats the enemies will take the threats very seriously and behave as if you can implement them. So if you can’t implement them it is no good making these kinds of threats.
From the point of view of regional engagement there could have been two ways of dealing with the situation : that Iran needs to go forward, it needs to be in good relations with its neighbours in the Gulf, Pakistan and Turkey in order to first of all avoid the more immediate threat – that of sanctions.
There is a lot of sabre rattling about America going to attack Iran. I don’t think America or Israel would dare to attack Iran very soon. If they want to attack Iran as the attacked Iraq, they would have to weaken it and to weaken it you have to implement sanctions. Sanctions against Iraq lasted about 13 years and then it was attacked.
 The sanctions against Iraq were implemented by Iraq’s neighbours, including Iran, of course. You cannot have sanctions against a country unless its neighbours co-operate because the neighbours, if they are shrewd, will benefit from the sanctions by busting them and using them for profit.
At the moment there is tension between Iran and its neighbours. Some of this tension is created by the Arab side. At the moment Iran is not threatened by any of the Arabs but the regimes, their leaders, the press and the media are talking all the time about the Iranian threat or the Shia threat or making sectarian allegations.
There is little Iran can do about this at the moment but I think something has to be done about this. What is more worrying is the internal situation in Iran. The president has come up with promises of economic prosperity. Now this has been over shadowed by the nuclear issue which needs to be weighed against all sorts of  possibilities.
Iran has made it clear it does not want to go down the nuclear weapons road. If it does not want to go down the nuclear weapons road, a  confrontation is not the best way of doing it.  The countries which are developing their nuclear programmes, like Pakistan or North Korea have to create a ‘quiet’ around them. They have to act in a way that people will be reassured and not pose a threat,. Even the countries which are friendly to Iran, like Russia and China are singing the same tune. They are saying that Iran should not go down the nuclear road. Some are saying it should not go down that road and we should negotiate with it. Others are saying let us impose sanctions while others are saying let us go to war, not at the momemt but a some time.
So at the moment among the big actors there is no one who is saying let Iran have this. Unless they can get someone to agree with  Iran’s point of view then the path towards confrontation will continue.
As I said the internal situation is also a determinent. If you want to go towards confrontation you need to keep your internal house in order. Again the lesson from Iraq is quite clear: going towards confrontation with an internal front that is weak or divided is going to have consequences.
What the Americans are doing at the moment is trying to play on this. They have broadcasting stations and satellites for the opposition and they have a list of terrorists who are supplying arms to Iraq. They are trying to stir trouble.
So there is a regional challenge: a diplomatic challenge to deal with the neighbours, a faith challenge to deal with the neighbours, the confrontation with Israel which is the heart of the matter and the talk which is coming from Iran is not helpful at the moment. My greatest worry is the sectarian divide. It does not come directly from Iran. They are a victim of propaganda that Iran is spreading Shiism in some countries but this is not the issue.
The issue is Iraq, the ugliness of the sectarian conflict in Iraq is the greatest threat to Iran. They have to do something to avoid the worst case scenario: a region-wide conflagration. As Roger hinted, American policies by their current direction, either they want it or they could lead to it even without wanting it. I think that is clear.

** Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and co-ordinator of the Centre’s Democracy and Islam Programme.  Educated at the Universities of Khartoum, Wales, and Reading, he was a member of the core team of authors of the Arab Human Development Report (2004) and the author of several books and many articles. El-Affendi was the 2006 winner of the Muslim News Allama Iqbal Award for Creativity in Islamic Thought.

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