Iran’s Security Policy: From Khomeini to Khamenei
Iran and Syria
Iran and Hezbollah
Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
Iran and Iraq
Since the revolution in 1979, Iran has become a key player not only
in Persian Gulf politics but also in Central Asia and the Middle East
at large. The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently at the centre of
a global push-and-pull due to its geostrategic position and its
interaction with local and global players. The main aim of the
current leadership in Teheran is to preserve Iran’s privileged
situation within a changing balance of power.
This paper assesses and analyses Iran’s regional policy since
the Iranian Revolution of February 1979, focusing on the last 10
years. It presents a brief historical background of Iran’s
strategy under the Shah and then looks at current Iranian foreign
policy as determined by the ideological map drawn by Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme
Leader of Iran. It also examines current Iranian policies towards
Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
My study is based on Middle Eastern sources mostly Iranian, Arab, and
Lebanese. Given the paucity of studies based on these sources I will
present what Iranian and other experts in the region have written on
the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I believe that
this will be of great value to researchers and observers in the West
who are not conversant with Arabic and Persian sources.
Summary of Findings
Over the past 30 years the Islamic Republic of Iran has become a
major player in the Middle East and the Gulf region. Ayatollah
Khomeini put his stamp on the country’s internal and foreign
policies inspired by his slogan Neither East, nor West, only the Islamic Republic.
The linchpin of Iran’s policy is to preserve its security and
project its presence and influence in countries with major Shia
populations, such as Iraq and Lebanon. Its desire is to take the
leadership of the Muslim world away from the hands of Sunni-dominated states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Iranian foreign policy is dictated by the need to maintain the
country’s sovereignty and independence in the light of past interventions by regional and global powers.
The country has developed a strong strategic relationship with Syria
and both countries have adopted policies supporting anti-Western and
anti-Israeli groups, such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in
Iran’s Regional Security Policy
Jean Bodin, the famous French political theorist wrote centuries ago
that a country’s foreign policy is determined by its
geographical location. This is the case of the Islamic Republic of
Iran, a relatively large country with a surface area of 81,648,000
square kilometres. In the north it is surrounded by the Caspian Sea
and the republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan; on the
east by Afghanistan and Pakistan; on the south by the Persian Gulf
and the Gulf of Oman; and on the west by Turkey and Iraq. One of
Iran’s major concerns is its security policy. Looking at a map,
it can be seen that the country is surrounded by both friendly and
unfriendly neighbours. Russia is one of Iran’s big neighbours,
the relationship between the two countries has been warm and Russia
has been one of the major suppliers for Iran’s nuclear
facilities. Moreover, Iran and Russia share a joint interest in the
export of their rich natural gas and oil resources to Western Europe.
The same applies to Iran’s policy towards two other important
neighbours: China and India. In Afghanistan, Iran has been a major
player in combating the Taliban’s regime while trying to warm
up to President Karzai’s rule in Kabul. Both Iran and Pakistan,
respectively Shia and Sunni dominated, have been jockeying for influence in the land of the Khyber Pass.
During the Cold War between the US and the former USSR, Iran became
an important player in America’s policy of containing the
Soviet Union. In the early 1950s the nationalist and elected Iranian
government of Mohammad Mossadeq was overthrown by a coup engineered
by the US and replaced by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled
Iran from 1941 until he was ousted in 1979. Under the Shah’s rule Iran became a major player in the Persian
Gulf with US support. Iran benefited from extensive US financial and
military aid as the policeman of the Gulf. This was highlighted by
Iran’s active role in the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)
created in the second half of the 1950s to contain the Soviet Union.
In addition to Iran, CENTO included Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq and the
UK, with the US as an associate member. Following the withdrawal of
British troops in 1970, Iran replaced the UK as the ‘guardian’
of the Gulf and occupied three small islands in the Gulf of Hormuz. In the 1970s Iran became the linchpin of Nixon’s policy in the
Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The Shah also consolidated his
country’s military and security relationship with Israel and
the white-dominated regime in South Africa. These two countries
played an important role in helping Iran develop its nuclear
The Shah’s demise and the advent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
in 1979 led to a total reshuffling of Iran’s foreign and
security policies, with major allies turning into major enemies.
Iran’s two major foes in the Middle East are the US and Israel.
Since it came to office, the Bush Administration has been
establishing a set of military bases to contain Teheran’s
expansion in the region. It is very clear that both Iran and the US
will be key players in any future settlement in Iraq. Current
negotiations between Washington and Baghdad regarding a security pact
will have to take Iran’s interests into consideration. Iran
fears that a US presence in Iraq will aim to destabilise the Islamic
Republic. Another enemy for Iran –perceived or otherwise–
is Israel. The Islamic Republic has emerged as a major competitor to
Israeli military and strategic hegemony in the Middle East and it has
made the conflict between Arabs and Israelis a major arena to
confront the latter. Another major objective is Islamic unity. Iran
would like to take away the leadership of the Muslim world from the hands of Sunni-dominated states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
In order to achieve these aims Teheran has consolidated its
relationship with Syria and the current government in Baghdad. It has
also become a major player in the Gulf, mainly by reaching out to its
Arab Gulf neighbours in both the diplomatic and economic spheres. To
achieve its aims Iran has created, trained and financially supported
what the experts call its indirect ‘strategic tentacles’,
ie, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine and
the Badr Brigade in Iraq. They act as non-state trans-national groups
that are flexible enough to implement Teheran’s objectives. Behind these moves (direct and indirect) is a clear message that
Teheran is sending to the US and its regional allies: that the
Islamic Republic of Iran is far more important than America’s
Arab allies and friends, that are now more of a liability than an asset to Washington.
Another of Iran’s key neighbours is Turkey. Both countries
share a similar interest in stabilising the Middle East. The
difference, though, is in style. Turkey, on the one hand and
according to regional observers, respects the regional equilibrium
and, unlike Iran, has no intention of extending Turkish hegemony. On
the other hand, and in order to justify and legitimise its strategic
reach in the Middle East, Iran has relied on policies and actions
that have sometimes been ‘brutal’. This is due to the
lack of legitimacy of a Shiite-dominated power in a region populated by a majority Sunni population.
Most Muslims are Sunnis, defining themselves as the People of the
Sunna, who respect the teachings and norms set out by the Prophet
Muhammad. Following the death of the Prophet a row developed between
Muslims as regards the identity of his legitimate successor. Sunnis
believed that any qualified and respected Muslim could be a leader.
Unlike the Sunni community, the Shiites –who form the majority
of Iran’s population– believed that the leadership of the
world-wide Muslim community, or umma, ought to be in the hands
of a member of the Prophet’s family: Ali, the Prophet’s
cousin and son-in-law.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran adopted on 24
October 1979 states in Article 152 that the ‘foreign policy of
the Islamic Republic of Iran is based upon the rejection of all forms
of domination, both the exertion of it and submission to it, the
preservation of the independence of the country in all respects and
its territorial integrity, the defence of the rights of all Muslims,
nonalignment with respect to the hegemonist superpowers, and the
maintenance of mutually peaceful relations with all non-belligerent
Essentially, Iranian foreign policy is dictated by the need to
maintain the country’s sovereignty and independence in light of
past interventions and interferences by regional and global powers.
Another dimension, which is unique to any constitution, is the
insertion of the religious dimension emphasised by Iran’s
advocacy and protection of Muslims around the world. Last but not
least, Iran is keen to maintain sound relations with countries that
are not perceived to constitute a threat to the Islamic Republic.
Khomeini’s views of international relations can be subsumed in
the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West, only the Islamic
Republic’ (nah sharq, nah gharb, faqat jumhuri-i islami).
Khomeini rejected the notion of non-alignment as he believed that no
country could be non-aligned –as exemplified by Cuba and other
countries that are members of the Non-aligned Movement–.
Regarding Iran’s relations with the superpowers, Khomeini said
that ‘we must settle our account with great and superpowers,
and show them that we can take on the whole world ideologically,
despite all the painful problems that face us’.
Thus, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian foreign policy was
and still is guided by the following principles: (1) support for the
oppressed peoples of the world and their struggle for justice; (2)
solidarity with Islamic groups and support (both financial and
military) for movements fighting for self-determination, such as the
Palestinian Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Badr Brigade and Mahdi
Army in Iraq and the Army of Muhammad (Sipah-I Muhammad) in Pakistan;
and (3) total opposition to the US (‘the Great Satan’) and Israel.
In a speech in June 2005 Khamenei said his country’s aim was
not the destruction of Israel but the defeat of Zionism and the
dissolution of the Jewish state. The solution he proposed is ‘to
hold a referendum with the participation of all native Palestinians,
including Muslims, Jews and Christians, the Palestinians who live
both inside and outside the occupied territories. Any government that
takes power as a result of this referendum and based on the
Palestinian people’s vote, whether it is Muslim, Christian or
Jewish government or a coalition government, will be an acceptable
government, and it will resolve the issue of Palestine. Without this,
the Palestinian issue will not be settled’ (Sadjadpour, 2008, p. 20).
Khamenei’s solution does not totally coincide with either the
policies followed by the Palestinian Authority or with those of the
Israeli government. Iran’s major concern in this respect is
that a possible peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians and
between Syria and Israel would undermine Iranian influence and
meddling in the Levant. This explains Iran’s current policy of
tightening its grip and control over the proxy groups it supports, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Khamenei is also keen on maintaining Khomeini’s vision
regarding Iranian influence in the Islamic world. In all the major
conflicts now affecting Middle Eastern and Muslim countries –Iraq,
Afghanistan, Lebanon, security issues in the Persian Gulf and the
Arab-Israeli peace process– Iran is keen to assert its
influence through its support of locally-raised militias and the teachings of Shia religious leaders in the region.
For Khamenei, the Islamic Republic of Iran ‘has now attained
such a high status that its role in regional equations is quite
decisive. This is something admitted by the world’s arrogant
powers themselves, who are acknowledging that the important issues of
the Middle East region cannot be solved without Iran’s
cooperation and contribution, and that the Iranian nation’s
views on those issues should be heard and taken into consideration’ (Sadjadpour, 2008, p. 22).
The Iranian leader’s words reflect the growing Shia influence
in the region. In a sense, the return of Persian influence in
Mesopotamia is something of a revenge for the long war and occupation
suffered by Iran at the hands of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s.
Moreover, the Islamic Republic has positioned itself to be a key
player in any possible normalisation within Iraq or the region at
large. Another important issue facing Iran today is the status and
future of its nuclear programme. For Khamenei, Iran’s quest for
being technologically and scientifically self-sufficient is of paramount importance.
By developing and enhancing its nuclear capabilities Iran will be
able to be a major player at the regional level and assert its
deterrent capabilities against potential enemies in the region, such
as Israel. Khamenei is critical of the US and Israel because of their
staunch opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. ‘They are
opposed to the progress and development of the Iranian nation. They
do not want an Islamic and independent country to achieve scientific
progress and possess advanced technology in the Middle East region, a
region which possesses most of the world’s oil… They
want Iran’s energy to be always dependent on oil, since oil is
vulnerable to the policies of world powers. They aim to control other
nations with invisible ropes’ (Sadjadpour, 2008, p. 23).
Iran’s current security and strategic concerns were expanded
upon by Sayyid Hussein Al-Musavi, a former advisor on the Middle East
and Arab World for the Iranian Foreign Ministry and General
Supervisor for the Iranian-funded quarterly Sh’un al-Awsat. In an interview he conducted with this journal, Musavi tackled the basic challenges facing his country’s regional and global policies. In 2001, and following the terrorist attacks in New York and
Washington, US troops invaded Afghanistan and in 2003 it occupied
Iraq, leading to Iran’s eastern and western borders being encircled by US troops.
The Iranian leadership closely monitored the evolution of the
situation in Iraq and Afghanistan in order not to allow these two
countries to become bases for US troops to launch attacks against
Iran. For this purpose, Iran has devised a political and a security
strategy in order to thwart potential threats. The strategy is based
on helping and participating in the reconstruction process in
Afghanistan. Iranian aid is being monitored by Europe and the US,
aware of Iranian activities in respect to border controls and
fighting against drug smuggling from Taliban-controlled areas in Afghanistan.
The security dimension is the most important element of Iran’s
strategic thinking. Iran must have the capabilities to thwart and
confront any military threat that could emerge from Iraq first and
Afghanistan second. Iran’s policy is thus based on deterrence
to disrupt any potential attack, although the most important element
is the creation of a strategic equilibrium between the political and
security dimensions and ensure the country’s readiness in the event of an attack.
Following the US military intervention in Iraq (2003) some Arab
regimes have accused Iran of facilitating the demise of Iraq’s
dictator and Iran’s bitter foe, Saddam Hussein. To these
accusations, Iranians reply that unlike some Arab countries that have
facilitated the deployment of US troops against Iraq, Iran and to a
lesser extent Turkey have refused to help and condemned the use of force against a member of the United Nations.
For the current Iranian regime it is of the utmost importance to
maintain the unity of Iraq as a territory and as people. A divided
Iraq is not in Iran’s interest as it would lead to instability
and have dangerous consequences not only for Iraq but for its
neighbours. Iraq should not become a launching pad for US troops to
threaten Iran’s national security. Moreover, the Iraqi
leadership ought to avoid legitimising plans that would expand US hegemony in the region.
Last but not least, Iran would like to see the immediate withdrawal
of all foreign troops from Iraq. This will have a positive impact and
will open new horizons for economic development and cooperation
between the countries of the region.
To sum up, the current Iranian leadership is concerned by three
fundamental factors: (1) the current situation in Afghanistan; (2)
the future of Iraq and its stability; and (3) the presence of US and NATO troops on Iran’s borders.
In Afghanistan, the Iranians have tried to play a stabilising role,
while controlling the borders with Afghanistan and funding groups
that were opposed to the Taliban regime in Kabul. Nevertheless, the
active US and NATO military and humanitarian presence in Afghanistan
has done nothing to dispel Iranian fears of a possible countering of
its security interests. This fear is also linked to the US military presence in Iraq.
The US military intervention in Iraq was a relief for the Iranians.
On the one hand, it eliminated one of their bloodiest foes, Saddam
Hussein. On the other, the presence of American troops is a reminder of the deep mistrust and fear Iranians have of US intentions.
Since 2003, Iran has taken advantage of US military and political
challenges to pacify Iraq. Teheran has expanded its presence by
supporting the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and provided
economic and logistic support to the Shia population of southern
Iraq. Iran is against the partition of Iraq as it would impact on its fundamental vision to stabilise its neighbourhood.
The search for stability and security in the Gulf and Afghanistan has
led Iran to play its nuclear card as a potential deterrent even if
the Islamic Republic is still years away from developing nuclear weapons.
As mentioned above, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei,
justified his country’s nuclear programme on the basis of
‘scientific advancement, self-sufficiency, and political
independence’ (Sadjadpour, 2008, p. 22). The perception in the West, Israel and among Arab Gulf countries
close to the US, is that Iran will not limit its nuclear activities
to purely civilian uses but that it is striving to build nuclear
weapons. Strategically, if Iran’s becomes a nuclear power this
would alter the balance of power in the region and constitute a
challenge to Israel’s nuclear supremacy. It would also lead to
another arms race in the Middle East, with countries trying to obtain
nuclear weapons at any cost. Moreover, a nuclear Iran would pose a
direct threat to the presence of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and neutralize US attempts to isolate Iran.
Basically, the current Iranian leadership believes that it is being targeted by the US and Israel because of
the unpredictable nature of politics in Teheran. This, however, goes
counter to Iran’s self-perception as a country that is a major
player in the Gulf and in south-west Asia and that the era when
Washington could dictate its policy –as it did under the Shah–
is long gone. Lastly, Iranian leaders believe that if their country
succeeds in building its own nuclear arsenal it will play a major
role in resolve pending conflicts in the region, especially between Israel and the Palestinians.
Iran and Syria
Since the advent of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, regional
politics in the Middle East have changed. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
wanted to export his brand of fundamentalist Islam throughout the
Middle East and the Muslim world. Lebanon, with its large Shia
community, became a prime target for Teheran’s entreaties.
Following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Iranian regime
took advantage of the mistakes committed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to consolidate its influence in the Land of Cedars.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 consolidated Iran as a major player
in the region. The Shiite arc of influence now extended all the way
from Teheran to Beirut. The Iranian regime took advantage of the
fragmentation of Iraq to extend its influence and presence in southern Iraq.
Teheran is waiting to see how the Administration of President-elect
Barack Hussein Obama will play its cards (both as regards Iraq and
the Iranian nuclear weapons programme) to determine its behaviour in
Iraq and the Middle East. Hezbollah and Hamas and the alliance with
Syria are a convenient instrument for Iran’s disruptive
policies against US interests in the region. Despite the fact that
Syria has a majority Sunni population, the current Alawi minority in
power is closely related in doctrine and faith to Shia Islam.
In the last few years, economic relations
between Syria and Iran have deepened to include cooperation in the
trade and cultural sectors. Joint Syrian and Iranian investments have
reached a total of US$3 billion. Currently, the two countries are
involved with several joint ventures including the construction of a large oil refinery together with Venezuela and Malaysia.
Moreover, together with Syria and Iraq, Iran
has initiated a joint project to build an oil and natural gas
pipeline linking Iran with Iraq and Syria. Iranians and Syrians are
waiting for the situation in Iraq to settle down to initiate the
project. Iran and Syria are also involved in a joint project to enlarge and expand the railway system linking Iran to Iraq and Syria. The
railroad will be like the old Silk Road linking Eastern with Western
countries. For instance, at present, most of the trucks, buses and
cars leaving Iran have to go through Istanbul to reach Syria. If the
situation settles down in Iraq then the latter could serve as a point of transit between Iran and Syria.
The visit in early August 2008 of the Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad to Teheran was a major demonstration that the strategic
alliance between the two countries is firm. Almost 29 years have gone
by since the previous Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, decided to
support Iran’s war against Iraq and the US military
intervention in Kuwait. This was the third visit by President Bashar
al-Assad to Iran since the election of the former Teheran Mayor,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Damascus and Teheran see eye to eye on many issues, including their
strong support for anti-Western and anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas
and Hezbollah and their opposition to American policies in the
region. The Syrian President’s recent visit to Paris has
brought his country out of isolation and Syria is now reaping the
results of the failures of US and Saudi policies in the Middle East.
Several issues were discussed in Teheran between the Syrian and Irani
leaders. The agenda included items such as bilateral relations, the
current indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel, Iran’s
nuclear programme and the situation in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
Regarding Iran’s nuclear programme and the ongoing negotiations
with the West, President Assad wanted to make sure that he was not
playing the role of mediator. During his last trip to Paris, Assad
was asked by his French host, Nicolas Sarkozy, to explore possible solutions to narrow the differences between the West and Iran.
‘First of all, Syria’s objective is to understand Iran’s
perspective, then determine the role we might play’, al-Assad
said. The Syrian President had heard from Sarkozy that if Iran
decided not to suspend its uranium enrichment programme even for a
short period (six weeks to six months) then France and the EU would
be unable to stop Israel from launching an attack against Iran’s
military and nuclear facilities. If Iran decided to play along, then
the West, including the US, would be ready to accept Iran as a major regional player.
The Syrian and Iranian leaders also expressed their unflagging
support for Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In their
joint statement the two sides ‘expressed their satisfaction
with the situation in Lebanon since the signing of the Doha
Agreement’ (at the end of May) and reiterated their support for
‘the right of the Lebanese people to resist constant Israeli
violations of Lebanese sovereignty’. Ahmadinejad and al-Assad
called for reconciliation between Palestinian factions and the for
the need to establish national reconciliation in Iraq and the
withdrawal ‘of all foreign forces from Iraq to guarantee the unity of its land and people’.
The Syrian President’s visit to Iran has also put an end to all
the speculation that Damascus was ready to shed its close alliance
with Teheran as the price for a possible peace treaty with Israel. In
the final communiqué, Iran expressed ‘its support to the
right of the Syrian people to regain control of its occupied territories in the Golan’.
Syria and Iran are major players in the Middle East and will be
important factors in any attempt for lasting stability in the Gulf
and the Near East. Both countries are playing for time, consolidating
their strategic cooperation and waiting for the new rulers in the
White House... unless Israel strikes first. But this eventuality
looks increasingly remote in view of the current political crisis in Israel.
Recent developments, though, portend a possible cooling down in
Iran’s relations with Syria, due to events such as the
assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah’s chief of military
operations, Imad Mughniye, and the Syrian regime’s approaches
to Israel and the West. Nonetheless, strategic relations between the
two countries are still solid and hinge on regional and global changes, including the US presidential elections.
As regards Iran’s logistical support to its ‘strategic
tentacles’ –Hezbollah and Hamas–, this paper will
now focus on Iran’s relations with Hezbollah, given the key
role this group plays in Iran’s indirect strategy towards the
countries of the Levant and the importance of the Shia community in Lebanon.
Because it plays a less significant role than Hezbollah and because
Hamas’s military leadership resides in Damascus, Iran has
deferred to Syria the onus of supervising and managing the
Palestinian Islamist group. This does not mean that the Iranian
leadership does not directly interfere in internal Palestinian
politics, but its weight and direct influence are less relevant than Syria’s.
Iran and Hezbollah
In order to understand Iran’s relations
with Hezbollah it is important to provide a brief overview of the
creation of the Lebanese Shia militia-cum-political party. In the
early 1960s, Lebanon witnessed the beginning of a new clerical
movement that served to reinvigorate Islam’s key principles in
both clerical and political terms. The three leading Shia clerics
were Imam Musa al-Sadr (who founded the ‘Movement of the
Oppressed’ and the ‘Ranks of Lebanese Resistance’
–Amal–), Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddine (who devoted
most of his life to intellectual work as well as to leading the Shia
community) and Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (Hezbollah’s
spiritual guide). Each of them had their own approach, practical
logic and plan of action, but they all shared a belief in the
necessity of taking action to trigger a change in the prevalent
living conditions of Lebanese Shiites.
During the early years of Hezbollah (the ‘Party
of God’), the name of Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah was
closely associated with the Party. He was a symbol of many
ideological concepts within the Party, guiding Hezbollah through a
mature vision of Islam and of the Islamic movement and supporting
Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Revolution’s leader in Iran.
Even though he was often considered by both
local and international media and political observers as Hezbollah’s
Lebanese spiritual leader, Sayyed Fadlallah always refused any
participation in organised Hezbollah activity and opted to remain
simply a cleric, supporting those Party directives that he deemed in
harmony with his views. Lebanese Islamists divided their allegiances
between Amal (the only political movement at the time), the various Islamic committees, the missionary faction and the independents.
The Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini triumphed in 1979, in tandem with a rising and
insistent need for political revitalisation in Lebanon. Soon
Ayatollah Khomeini was being considered the leading religious
authority within the Shiite community (where ‘interpretative
is possible and where subjects are required to follow the religious
interpretation of the more learned among the living clerics) and the
concern for a need to build a united Islamic organisation emerged.
Thus, a number of representatives of the main
Islamic groups began discussions about their perceptions of Islamic
activities in Lebanon. The results of these discussions were
summarised in a final document, the ‘Manifesto of the Nine’,
which declared the following three objectives: (1) that Islam is the
comprehensive, complete and appropriate programme for a better life;
(2) resistance against Israeli occupation through the jihad (holy
war); and (3) the legitimate leadership of the Jurist-Theologian (wilayat al-faqih),
who is considered the successor to the Prophet and the Imams. This
document was presented to Ayatollah Khomeini, who granted his
approval, thereby bestowing upon himself custodianship as the
Jurist-Theologian. Various Islamic groups then adopted the manifesto,
thus dissolving themselves and setting up a new group which later came to be known as Hezbollah.
All of these developments took place at a time
of Iranian solidarity with Lebanon and Syria. Syria agreed to the
passage of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran)
into Lebanon, and training camps were set up in the Western Bekaa Valley district.
Throughout the rule of the late Syrian
President Hafez al-Assad, Syria adopted a policy of holding back
Israel’s projects, promoting Arab solidarity, supporting
resistance against occupation and cooperating with all allies towards this end.
After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982,
Iran declared its support for Syria and its readiness to carry out
the orders of Imam Khomeini and dispatch its Islamic Revolutionary
Guards to support Lebanon in its opposition to the occupation.
President al-Assad agreed to this, and the Iranian Guards passed via
Syria into Lebanon to train the youths who were to form Hezbollah and
fight the Israeli occupation. Thus the relationship between Hezbollah
and Syria was initially restricted to coordination on security
issues, facilitation of the movement of activists and their arms and
handling any emerging problems. It did not extend to a political relationship.
The first ideological and political discussion
between Hezbollah and Syria, which took place after the clashes
between the Amal militia and Hezbollah in June 1988, led Syrian
forces to infiltrate Beirut’s southern suburbs under the guise
of separating the fighting parties and re-establishing security. In
the meeting requested by the Hezbollah leadership, President al-Assad
reassured the Party leaders that its deployment of forces in the
region was only for security reasons and that there was no intention
for Syrian troops to side with Amal, as Hezbollah feared. This first
meeting between Syria and Hezbollah’s leaders laid the
foundations for continuing political discussions over common issues,
primarily related to the conflict with Israel.
A very important account of Iran’s direct
involvement in the creation of Hezbollah and Iranian-Syrian relations
was recently provided by Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, a former Iranian
Ambassador to Syria. Akhtari was interviewed last May by the
London-based Saudi newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat. Akhtari, who is also known as the ‘Operational Father’ of
Hezbollah, detailed the origins and evolution of the Lebanese Shiite
militia-cum-political party. The idea to create Hezbollah initially
came from Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Iran’s Ambassador to Syria
between 1982 and 1985. During the Iran-Iraq war, elements from
Hezbollah, trained by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
(IRGC), fought with Iranian troops against Iraq. At that time,
Ayatollah Khomeini decided to dispatch to Lebanon a large contingent
of Revolutionary Guards to help in the creation and training of
Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in
1982, Khomeini decided to stop sending Iranian contingents to
Lebanon. The main obstacle was related to logistic reasons given the
unsafe lines of supply. On their way to Lebanon, the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards were supposed to go through Iraq and Turkey. The
former was at war with Iran and the latter was a member of NATO. The
best solution was to train young Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon
itself. More than 100,000 young members of Hezbollah were trained by the Revolutionary Guards.
Through its embassies in Damascus and Beirut, Iran has played a crucial role in supporting Hezbollah as
a political and military Islamist group in Lebanon. During the summer
2006 war between Israel and the Party of God, Teheran dispatched
several high-level diplomats to assess the possibility of a ceasefire
and determine the level of aid needed by the Shia population in Beirut and South Lebanon.
Since 1987 Iran has been a major source of financial
support for Hezbollah. In the aftermath of the summer 2006 war, and
with Iranian support, Hezbollah has disbursed more than US$0.5
billion for the reconstruction of destroyed homes and infrastructures
in the southern suburbs of Beirut and south Lebanon. Hezbollah has
established a large network of schools, health clinics and hospitals
to provide free medical care. In addition, Hezbollah has set up four
major communication outlets to spread its message. With Iranian
funding, Hezbollah also provides support for the families of its
fighters who have died. This gives the Iranian-supported group the
wherewithal to be a state within a state in Lebanon.
Following the summer 2006 war, Sayyid Hasan
Nasrallah emerged as a major player on the Lebanese and regional
scene. Strengthened by his ‘victory’ against the Israeli
army, Hezbollah began to assert its power on the Lebanese political
scene. This led to confrontations in May 2007 between the
Iranian-supported militia and other Lebanese groups, mainly the
Sunni-dominated Future Movement and the Druze-dominated militias of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).
Iran feared that a possible sectarian
Shia-Sunni conflict was in the offing and did its utmost to rein in
Hezbollah’s fighters. Iran does not want Lebanon to enter
another civil war that would severely damage the Shia community both in Lebanon and the region.
Consequently, Iranian diplomacy was very active
coordinating with Saudi, Qatari, Syrian and French diplomats to end the fighting.
Since then, Iran has been very active playing a
direct role in monitoring Hezbollah’s activities and urging it
to follow a more moderate and conciliatory tone with other political
groups in Lebanon. The Iranian leadership has also adopted a decision
to open up to other political groups in Lebanon. It has invited
Michel Suleiman, the recently elected President of Lebanon to visit
Teheran. The visit is due to take place before the end of 2008.
Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
Relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran
and its Arab Gulf neighbours can be described as being a mixture of
fear and pragmatism. The fear is due to the Iranian leadership’s
vision of exporting the Islamic revolution to neighbouring countries
and its respect for what it considers true teachings of Islam. There
are geopolitical and economic factors to consider when assessing the
relationship between the two sides of the Arabian/Persian Gulf.
Relations between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbours are affected by
the following sources of tension: the Iranian nuclear programme,
Iranian involvement in Iraq and Lebanon, the adversarial relationship
between Iran and the US, border conflicts and the sharing of oil and
natural gas resources, bilateral relations, the issue of minorities, and, last but not least, security in the Gulf.
In May 1981, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the
United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia decided to create the Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC). A few months after its establishment the
GCC adopted a Unified Economic Agreement that provided for the free
movement of people and capital among member states, abolished custom
duties, made banking and financial systems more compatible and
improved technical cooperation between member states. In 1984, the
GCC began dealing with security matters by establishing the Peninsula
Shield Force, a rapid-deployment unit of 22,000 troops. The GCC
became active in mediating various territorial disputes between its member states: Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain.
According to R.K. Ramazani (1986, p. 26) the
main reasons behind the creation of the GCC included ‘the
threat of the Iranian Revolution, particularly the threat of
subversion; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the superpower
competition, including unilateral American military intervention; and
the threat of spillover from the Iran-Iraq war’. Today, the GCC
is mostly concerned with the situation in Iraq, Iran’s growing
intervention in internal Arab affairs (Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon)
and terrorist threats from various Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda.
Until the Iranian revolution of 1979, the
relations between the two sides were more harmonious, as monarchist
regimes were one of the common factors on both the Arab and Persian
sides of the Gulf. Moreover, the Saudis were glad to be under the
US-supported Iranian umbrella to help maintain stability in the Gulf.
With the fall of the Shah and the advent of Ayatollah Khomeini things
have changed. The Iran-Iraq war highlighted the ambiguous
relationship between Arab Gulf states and Iran. Most Arab countries,
especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, helped Saddam Hussein financially
in his war effort against Iran. When the war ended with the survival
of the Iranian regime, the Gulf Arab states shifted to a policy of
enhanced economic and trade relations while being wary of the
messages coming out of Teheran, especially since the advent of the conservatives headed by President Ahmadinejad.
Major sources of tension include the ongoing
occupation of the islands of Abu Musa and the Great and Little Tunb
islands –that belong to the United Arab Emirates–, Iranian attempts at overthrowing the regime in Bahrein and fomenting
dissent and revolt among the Shias living there, in Kuwait and in
Saudi Arabia. Last but not least, there is the current situation in
Iraq where Iran, taking advantage of American mistakes, has consolidated its grip and influence in Shia-dominated Mesopotamia.
The Arab Gulf states, because of their close
subservience and links with the US, were considered ‘mini-Satans’
by Ayatollah Khomeini. In January 2007, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tried to calm down the fears of Arab leaders who had expressed their fear
of a growing Shiite crescent going all the way from Teheran to
Beirut. In fact, King Abdullah of Jordan had warned about the
ascendant Shia crescent while President Mubarak of Egypt was quoted
as saying that Shiites living in Arab countries have a primary
allegiance to Iran rather than to their respective countries.
Khamenei assured Arab leaders that Iran had no intention of extending Pax Iranica throughout the region.
In order to understand the Arab Gulf elites’
perspective on Iran, mention should be made of an important report
issued by the London-based Gulf Institute for International and
Middle East Studies (GINIMES, http://www.cogir.org/ginimes.htm).
Here are some of the conclusions and recommendations made in this
report. Iran, under its home-grown ‘neo-conservatives’,
such as President Ahmadinejad and his political allies, has succeeded
in exporting the principles of its Islamic revolution. It is now
ready to export its revolution, especially after the fall of the
Ba’ath regime in Iraq and the predominant role the Shias are
playing in Iraqi politics. This will give Iran a foothold in the Arab Gulf countries.
According to the GINIMES report, the
‘political, media, religious, cultural and ethnic confrontation
between the Gulf Arabs and the Islamic Republic is inevitable’.
The political confrontation stems from Iran’s belief that it is
a pre-eminent regional power. More precisely, Iran has, on the one
hand, the dream of not only being the policeman of the Gulf but of
the whole Middle East. On the other hand, the Arab Gulf states are
firmly intent on thwarting Iranian hegemonic designs and opposing
Teheran’s policies. The GINIMES report underlined that the GCC
states were closely allied with the US and in the event of one of the
two sides deciding to be more radical in its policies this would
inevitably lead to a confrontation between Iran and its Arab Gulf
neighbours. The GINIMES report made the following three recommendations:
Arab Gulf leadership: the coming confrontation
arising from Iran’s capacity to foment sectarian troubles in
the region will lead to the settling of accounts between radical takfiri Shia and Sunni groups. The confrontation between pro-Iranian groups (those that are funded and supported by Iran’s
neo-conservatives) and their opponents (ie, al-Qaeda, the Taliban
and the Afghan Arabs) will lead to civil strife in the Gulf. The
Arab Gulf states should use an iron fist with these radical groups.
Regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, the
Arab Gulf states ought to adopt a neutral stance in the event of a
confrontation between Teheran and the West and avoid being involved in any mediation efforts.
Regarding Iran’s support for Hezbollah
in Lebanon, the Arab Gulf leaders are called upon to emphasise to
the Lebanese militia-cum-political party that it is an Arab and
above all else a Lebanese organisation. Hezbollah’s total
obedience to Iranian policies will be in the best interests of neither Hezbollah, Lebanon or the Arab countries.
The GINIMES report underscores the ambiguous relationship that exists
between the Islamic Republic of Iran and GCC members.
Iran and Iraq
The history of the relationship between Iran
and Iraq is that of two Shia-dominated countries, one of which is
Arab and the other Persian. It is also an example of the ongoing
Shia-Sunni struggle that came to the fore following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Arab resentment of the Persians goes as far
back as the early days of the spread of Islam. One of the main causes
of this resentment is the Arab view that the Iranians succeeded in
creating a cohesive empire and then a nation-state without the heavy
involvement of outside powers. Arab countries, on the other hand,
were carved up by colonial powers and were under foreign domination
–mostly British, especially the Arab Gulf countries–
until the early 1960s.
Under the Shah, relations between Iran and
Saddam Hussein were peaceful despite tensions due to the Kurdish
question and border issues. With the advent of the Islamic Republic
and Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraq’s relations with Teheran worsened
and ended in a deadly war between the two countries that lasted eight
years (1980-88) and caused the death of more than one million victims on both sides.
There are currently six issues that need
attention in order to consolidate and normalise the relations between
Teheran and Baghdad.
First, there is the border dispute over Shatt al-Arab, or Arvandrud in Persian, a narrow waterway that forms the southern border between Iraq and Iran. This was one of the main flashpoints during the war
between the two countries. Saddam Hussein had abrogated the 1975
Algiers Agreement which demarcated the thalweg (middle) line along Shatt al-Arab as the border between the two
states. The Algiers Agreement also called on the Shah to halt his
support for Iraq’s Kurdish opposition groups, such as the
Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in return for which Iran would
obtain land and sea rights in Shatt al-Arab. The border dispute was
again raised in 2007 when Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s President,
stated that his country did not recognise the Algiers Agreement. He
later backtracked but the Shatt al-Arab issue is still one of the major disputes between the two countries.
Secondly, there is the issue of compensation to
Iran for the first Gulf War. UN Resolution 598 had placed the blame
on Iraq for initiating the war and asked Baghdad to compensate the
Iranians. Teheran is asking for US$1 trillion while UN estimates
speak of US$169 billion. The current Iraqi government is working very
hard to evade its debt, while the US is attempting to convince
several countries to condone Iraqi debt. Nevertheless, it is still a pending issue between the two countries.
The third issue between Iran and Iraq is the
fate of prisoners of war in both countries. Iraq claims that there are more than 20,000 Iraqis in
Iranian gaols while Iran claims that more than 5,000 Iranian
prisoners of war are still in Iraqi detention centres.
The fourth issue relates to the presence of the
Iranian opposition group Mujahidin e-Khalq that is still operating
inside Iraq and waging ‘terrorist’ attacks inside Iran.
Iraq’s President Talabani has promised to look into this
question but so far no concrete action has been taken by the government in Baghdad to get rid of the Iranian group.
The fifth issue is related to the Iraqi planes that were sent to Iran
on the eve of the Second Gulf War in 1991. Despite the fact that the
planes are outmoded and inoperable Baghdad would still like to get them back.
The last issue is related to the kidnapping of Iranian diplomats
within Iraq and the arrest of Iranian representatives by US troops.
This is still unresolved despite bilateral efforts to reach a resolution.
There were several causes for the Iraq-Iran
War. According to the Iranian-born scholar R.K. Ramazani there were four motives and conditions that sparked the conflict:
‘First, the Iraq-Iran war was not an inevitable result of the Iranian
Revolution. Had the second revolution, against the Bazargan, not occurred, there is every reason to believe that the two revolutionary regimes wound have been able to settle their
differences peacefully. Second, Iraq’s own socio-political
conditions made the Khomeini regime’s ideological crusade appear even more ominous’.
The third cause of the Iraq-Iran war can be attributed, always according to Ramazani, to Saddam Hussein’s
ambitions to play a prominent role in Arab and Third World politics.
The fourth and related motivation was Saddam Hussein’s desire
to contain the Iranian Revolution and ‘project Iraq’s power into the Gulf region and the Arab world’ (Ramazani, 1986, p. 68).
With the fall of Saddam Hussein and the US military intervention in Iraq in 2003, Iran saw an opportunity to
extend its influence in Iraq, relying mostly on the Shiite religious
and political leaderships. Moreover, the end of the Sunni-dominated
Taliban-Pakistan-Saudi axis on Iran’s eastern flank has been a
golden opportunity for Shia Iran to extend its influence in the
region. According to Vali Nasr, Iran’s fundamental objective in
Iraq is ‘to ensure that Ba’athism and Arab nationalism
–Sunni rule in an altered guise– do not return to power’
(Vali Nasr, 2008, p. 223). Throughout the Ba’athist’s rule in Iraq, Iran had been very active in politically and financially supporting Shia-based religious and political
organisations such as the Badr Brigade, an Iraqi military
organisation, that was created during the Iraq-Iran War to act as a
‘counterweight to the the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq’ that carried out attacks against Iran.
The Islamic Republic was also instrumental in promoting and strengthening the power of the Supreme Council for the
Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, Al-Majlis al-Áala li al-Thawra al-Islamiyya fi-l-Iraq).
The SCIRI’s leadership emerged from one of the most prominent families in Iraq’s Najaf –the Hakims– and is
currently headed by the Shiites’ highest religious authority,
the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In 2007, the SCIRI dropped the
word ‘revolution’ from its official name. Iran also established strong ties with another prominent Shiite
religious leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who became the
head of the Sadrist movement. Following his assassination in 1999 by Saddam Hussein’s regime, his son Muqtada took over the
movement’s leadership and created the Mahdi Army which is very
strong in the poorer Shiite areas of Baghdad. The Najaf-based Badr
Organisation and the Baghdad-based Mahdi militia have, since the US
occupation of Iraq, battled each other both politically and
militarily for the control of the Shia community in Iraq.
As a result of the January 2005 elections, the SCIRI rose to power and became a major player in Iraqi politics
together with the Kurds. In fact, the two main Kurdish formations,
the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan (PUK), joined efforts with the SCIRI to form the two
successive governments in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Relations between
President Jalal Talabani’s PUK and Mustafa Barzani’s KDP
and the Shia-dominated Badr Brigades (the SCIRI’s military arm)
go as far back as the Iran-Iraq war. Both Shia and Kurdish groups
enjoyed the backing and military support of the Iranian Islamic
Revolutionary Guards in their fight against Saddam Hussein. A senior
SCIRI official described the relationship between Shia and Kurds as
follows: ‘Racism prevented the Kurds from joining the political
system, sectarianism prevented the Shiites, while tyranny repressed
Kurds and Shiites alike’.
Both Kurds and Shiites have floated the idea of
a federal system for Iraq. While the Kurds enjoy a large amount of
autonomy, guaranteed by the US no-fly-zone in the early 1990s, the
Shiites, feeling strong due to their recent electoral victory,
floated the notion of federalism in southern Iraq. This idea went
nowhere, however, given Iran’s opposition to a possible
partition of Iraq and Ayatollah Sistani’s lack of enthusiasm for the idea of creating a ‘Shiastan’.
All these issues are still pending until the
current adversarial relationship between the US and Iran are
resolved, among them security in the Gulf and Iran’s nuclear
ambitions. However, on his recent official visit to Teheran in June
2008 –his third visit to Iran since becoming Iraq’s Prime
Minister– Nuri al-Maliki tried to consolidate the relationship
between the two countries and dispel Iranian fears regarding his
country’s intentions. The visit occurred amidst Iraqi and US
accusations that Iran was supplying weapons to certain
anti-government groups in Iraq. Moreover, al-Maliki wanted to give
assurances to his Iranian counterparts that the security treaty being
currently negotiated with the US will clearly state that Iraqi
territory will not be used to launch attacks against neighbouring
states –ie, Iran–. Al-Maliki was walking on a tightrope trying to satisfy his two masters, who are at loggerheads: Iran and the US.
Daoud Hormidaz Pavand, an Iranian Professor of
International Relations at Allama Tabatabai University, has said that
al-Maliki realises that Iraq’s fate lies with the US and Iran
and this is why he is trying to curry favour with both sides. Pavand
went on to say that ‘relations between Baghdad and Washington
are not considered by Iran as a red line’. He underscored the
good relationship the Islamic Republic enjoys with Turkey, which is
host to US military bases. ‘We do not expect the Iraqis to
sever their ties with the US but we ask them to respect Iran’s
Al-Maliki’s trip also had an economic
dimension. Trade relations between the two countries are flourishing
and the balance is in Iran’s favour. Moreover, Iran’s trade relation with Iraqi Kurdistan amounted to US$1 billion, with more than 120 Iranian businesses operating in Kurdistan.
The picture that emerges from this overall assessment of Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East and the
Gulf is that the Islamic Republic has become a major player in the
region. Ayatollah Khomeini has put his stamp on his country’s
internal and foreign policies, as illustrated by his famous slogan Neither East, nor West, only the Islamic Republic.
This message was pursued by his successor,
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The linchpin of this
policy is to preserve and enhance Iran’s security, extend and
project, whenever possible, Iran’s influence –especially
in Shia-dominated countries such as Iraq and Lebanon– and relentlessly pursue the country’s nuclear programme.
Regarding its nuclear policy, Iranian policymakers always stress the peaceful nature of their activities.
Certainly, this does not convince Iran’s neighbours, especially
the Arab Gulf countries, Israel and the West. It is becoming very
clear that Iran’s nuclear programme will be one of the main
items for the new occupant of the White House next January. A period
of uncertainty prevails, however, given the current power vacuum in
Washington and a possible Israeli attack that could take place up to
20 January (when the new President will take over the White House).
However, there is no consensus yet between Washington and Tel Aviv on which course to pursue towards Teheran.
In Syria, and mostly in Lebanon, the Islamic Republic succeeded in mobilising, funding and training one of its
major ‘tentacles’ in the region, Hezbollah. Today, the
party of God has become a leading player in Lebanese politics and has
a power of veto on the current government of Fuad Siniora. Iran will
not let go of this card easily even if the price is cooling down its
strategic relations with Syria. In Palestine, Iran is playing a less
prominent role, leaving to its Syrian friends the onus of managing the current split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
In Iraq, Iran can claim that it has become –along with the US– a major player in the country’s
future. Teheran was helped in its quest to project its influence in
Iraq by the wise guidance of Ayatollah Sistani, the highest Shia
religious leader in Iraq. Moreover, Iran is banking on the long and
historical relationship it has with Iraq’s Shia community to
guarantee its long-term influence and impact in Mesopotamia. Since
the US military intervention in 2003, Iraq has become a testing
ground in the battle of wills between Teheran and Washington. It is
interesting to underline that pragmatism has defined the approach of both countries towards Baghdad.
The current Iranian leadership has a clear vision on where the country’s strategic and political interests
lie. Iran is taking advantage of the failure of the Sunni-dominated
axis (Saddam Hussein, the Taliban and Pakistan) to assert its vision.
This vision is of concern to Iran’s Arab neighbours as they
fear for their internal and regional stability. In this case also,
the GCC’s approach towards Iran is a mixture of fear and
engagement. Teheran has been sending mixed messages, both calming its
neighbours and threatening them when it comes to its immediate
interests (the border disputes, Iran’s meddling in the region’s affairs and the nuclear stand-off).
The coming months will be crucial to tease out what direction the current Iranian leadership will follow. The
results of the elections in Iran, Iraq and the US might well indicate
whether the Gulf and the Middle East will be headed towards a more
peaceful era or that confrontation will become the name of the game.
No one has an interest in destabilising the current status quo in the
region. In the end, pragmatism and cooler heads should prevail.
However, there is a transnational network of small terrorist groups
(supported by Iran and its neighbours) that could make the Shia-Sunni
confrontation flare up. Only time will tell in which direction the winds will blow.
In 2009 Iran will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. This will be the time for
the leadership in Teheran, current or new, to decide on which course
Iran will follow. So far the Iranian factor has become a significant
part of the regional equation. The question is: will there be another
war in the Gulf in the event of a US or Israeli attack against Iran or will accommodation be the name of the game?
George Emile Irani
Visiting Professor, CEU Universidad San Pablo-Madrid