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What Does Iran Really Want?

ARTICLES - 10 August 2021

For over a decade, Iran has been deploying militias in several Arab countries. It uses violent rhetoric toward Israel and the West, ramps up uranium enrichment to make it clear to the world that it will pursue its nuclear program at all costs and it will not allow anyone to force it into accepting new conditions by a capricious America (guilty of reneging on the agreement signed in 2015). It also blames Western sanctions for the ills of its society. It also installs military bases on the borders of Israel, and boasts about its missiles being capable of reaching the heart of Israeli cities at a time when no Arab country would think of challenging the military of the Jewish state anymore. Last month, it pushed out a moderate president and his government in a sham election, in favor of the new, uncompromising, chosen representative of the Supreme Leader, Ebrahim Raisi. The new president summarily announced that there is little to discuss in Vienna, as if to preempt any upcoming pressure from the West and silence anyone who would want to expand the negotiations to address regional issues. 

The Trump strategy of smothering Iran with sanctions and isolation has had consequences far beyond the risk of a shortened nuclear breakout time. It has altered the relationship between ideologues and pragmatists within the Iranian political class, to the detriment of the latter. Months before his election, Joe Biden spoke of resuming the negotiation with Tehran on the JCPOA as a priority; now he is facing a discouraging intransigence. So what does Iran really want? And, which Iran are we talking about? The Iran of the doctrinarian conservatives or that of the liberals, with Javad Zarif as the most comforting face for the West?

While the Vienna negotiations have been led by Iran’s liberals over the last eight years or so, the so-called "Endurance Front" was working to extend the Islamic Republic’s influence outside its borders, taking advantage of the increased fragility of Arab regimes grappling with domestic unrest. Whether Iran is out to implement a Grand Shia design, or crafting a defensive sectarian shield for itself amounts to one and the same. In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, those who were seen as advocating openness were violently purged before resurfacing under Presidents Khatami and Rohani. They are in favor of more peaceful relations with neighboring countries, which would imply abandoning the military-sectarian shield that Iran maintains throughout the region at great expense. Their vision appeared to be consistent with the population’s demands as expressed during the 2017-2018 protests. From then on, the representatives of this group within the ruling elites became an existential danger and an enemy to crush for the conservative establishment. Their influence on any major policy decision has now been all but eliminated. 

The election of a radical conservative brought back the original spirit of Khomeini’s revolution. Given the likely disappearance of Khamenei from the scene during Ebrahim Raisi’s term in office, it was urgent to tie the offices of President and Supreme Leader together in order to preserve the regime in the long term.

A solid national consensus on defense

None of this is likely to change Iran’s negotiation strategy for the renewal of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). In fact, Iran’s political elites are in full agreement on the strategic aspect of their country’s military program-including its nuclear and ballistic capabilities. Regardless of their differing views, they share a collective memory of having suffered from quasi-total isolation during eight years of war against Iraq, and the vision of a military program that symbolizes their nation’s greatness. As a spokesperson for the Supreme Leader said, "Once we master the fuel cycle, all our neighbors will draw the appropriate conclusions." The liberal pragmatists have never disputed this objective.

Iran’s political elites are in full agreement on the strategic aspect of their country’s military program-including its nuclear and ballistic capabilities [...] They share a collective memory.

What’s more, Iran is engaged in a negotiation that mobilizes the six major world powers. Intransigence can only reinforce the government’s image in the eyes of the Iranian society as guarantor of the country’s greatness. The negotiation is not dominated by the conservatives; it is likely to remain the hard face of Iranian foreign policy whatever the internal balance of power. The style might differ as the Endurance Front cultivates a hostile and radical tone toward the West as a value in and of itself. "The diplomacy of smiles is not appreciated in Iran," says Ebrahim Raisi, openly criticizing the former foreign minister Javad Zarif.

In essence, it may not be clear if the different factions are really divided between advocates and opponents of the development of nuclear weapons, or if Iran - conservatives included - intends to exploit the advantages it can gain by merely threatening to develop them. One thing is certain: the benefits Tehran is currently reaping from the negotiation itself are of great value. They help maintain the image of a powerful Iran in the eyes of the Iranian people, which in turn justifies continued massive spending on the conventional arsenal.

The military-sectarian shield 

Through a diverse set of military resources, including bases for missiles of various ranges, drones, cyberattacks, and Shia proxy militias, Iran is allegedly waging preventive battles on advanced fronts, against any hostile forces seeking to destroy it. Within this vision, the countries where Iran is directly or indirectly present are all theaters of confrontation, each with a different function: Lebanon for the fight against Israel, Syria to confront Sunni jihadism and Israel, Iraq to drive out the American invaders, and Yemen to protect the Shia-related Houthi community.

Iran’s support for the Palestinian cause and its rhetoric of an ongoing war against Israel should be read in this context. If it was up to the Iranian people, a large majority would be in favor of normalizing relations with the Jewish state. And if seen from a sectarian perspective, Jerusalem is mostly a holy site of Sunni heritage and is not central to the Shia tradition. It is true that Ayatollah Khomeini was an early champion of the Palestinian cause, but in retrospect, that stance seems to have served more as an alibi to hide the narrowly Shia nature of his project. Iran’s anti-Israeli militancy serves multiple purposes, the most important of which is to argue that the Jewish state’s military power and behavior justify Iran’s own military and nuclear program. As to Iran’s arming of the Sunni movement Hamas in Gaza, it serves to maintain an indirect presence on Israel’s southwestern flank while driving a wedge into the Sunni front of Arab countries. 

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) enterprise of creating proxies across the region started in Lebanon. Hezbollah appeared in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion of the country in 1982. Its birth remains associated with the deadly attacks against the French and American contingents of the multinational force deployed there at the time. But it was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that marked the beginning of a new dimension for the project. Building on the success of their Lebanese creation, the IRGC called on Hezbollah to form armed Shia groups in other countries, starting with Iraq, to fight the American occupiers and later the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State organization. Soon, these militias became the spearhead of a multifaceted Iranian strategy throughout the Arab world. Hezbollah’s role evolved accordingly to become the chief operator of the Revolutionary Guards and the connecting agent between the various militias. The network thus formed is waging a borderless war, and has changed the course of the various conflicts in the region. 

Iran’s multiple footholds were set in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen following a similar pattern: creating militias that evolve over time into hybrid groups, gradually incorporated into the state’s military and security apparatus. The political system is subsequently infiltrated by planting representatives of these same militias in the main centers of power. In the four countries, no decision can be made, let alone implemented, if it threatens Iran’s influence. The network of proxy state and non-state actors that Iran maintains gives it veto power over the resolution of any domestic dispute.

Iran’s anti-Israeli militancy serves multiple purposes, the most important of which is to argue that the Jewish state’s military power and behavior justify Iran’s own military and nuclear program.

In both Iraq and Lebanon, where popular demonstrations against the government and only implicitly against Iranian influence have been ongoing for the last two years, Tehran has used its allies in government, parliament and on the streets, to drown the movement in violence and undermine its legitimacy. 

In Syria, Hezbollah launched its fighters directly into the fray as of 2013 when the regime was seriously challenged by the opposition on the ground. It paid dearly to prevent Assad’s defeat because his downfall would have meant losing the main land route for the transit of strategic weapons sent from Iran. Once Assad’s power was stabilized, Syria, and more recently Iraq started to serve as trial grounds to test the range and accuracy of ballistic missiles, which in turn led Israel to expand the scope of its own raids to include Iraq, in addition to Lebanon and Syria. 

Syria has been a precious learning arena for Shia fighters. As it became short of combatants, Iran also widened the scope of its recruitment to include Shia fighters from Afghanistan (many were refugees in Iran) and Pakistan. For their part, the Sunni jihadists were also expanding their recruitment, thus fueling a deadly spiral of two jihadisms feeding off each other. All of this has weakened the position of those within Iran who advocated appeasement, and strengthened the hand of the radical ideologues who believe that the original blame lies on the United States. "To those who ask why we went to Syria’, says a commander of the Revolutionary Guards in Damascus, ‘ask them who authorized the Americans to occupy countries," 

Bled white

With this relentless regional expansion, Iran is being bled white. No doubt the sanctions are partly responsible for the country’s difficulties, but the protesters’ slogans in 2017 were "leave Syria alone, think of us." The brain drain in Iran, a country endowed with considerable resources, is the highest in the world. When faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, the state proved unfit to handle the situation. Religious sites and places of worship became symbols of the pandemic, and doubts about the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic have started to affect the regime’s social base. The six powers trying to renegotiate the JCPOA in Vienna will likely be confronted with representatives of an Iranian regime which is domestically contested and on the defensive externally.

A new source of concern for the Islamic Republic has emerged with the United Arab Emirates’ signing of the so-called Abraham Accords. The agreement reached with Israel jeopardizes Iran’s efforts to gain strategic hegemony thanks to its regional military-sectarian shield. Israel has in effect gained a foothold in Iran’s immediate neighborhood, exposing it to high risks of espionage and infiltration. 

The day after Joe Biden’s election, Saudi Arabia made an initial overture of appeasement toward Tehran. Whether this was out of a desire for detente, or out of fear that the Vienna negotiations would ultimately leave Riyadh unprotected is unclear. What we know for sure is that Saudi Arabia is eager to negotiate a withdrawal of its forces from Yemen without losing face, which for Iran is a sign that its policy of intimidation is bearing fruit. But Iran also has an important reason to cooperate: it needs to deter the Kingdom from normalizing relations with Israel, as the Emirates have done, or else its military-sectarian shield will be further obliterated. 

The choices facing the West 

Would Iran conditionally give up the considerable power it has acquired through its regional scheming? In the view of many Iranians and of Western experts, the Islamic Republic attaches greater strategic importance to the militias it has deployed throughout the region than to its nuclear, or even ballistic program.

If we assume that the nature of the regime and its obsession with survival are the reasons for its predatory behavior, what does that imply for the West in terms of managing relations with Iran? Should it continue the strategy of suffocation led by Donald Trump and assume that the regime is on the brink of collapse? Should it comfort itself with the idea that the Iranian regime is sowing the seeds of its own destruction? The fact is that no one, and certainly not the West, can produce the antidote that will end the rule of the doctrinarian clergymen. 

No one, and certainly not the West, can produce the antidote that will end the rule of the doctrinarian clergymen.

In fact, Trump’s policies have allowed hardliners to triumph over the pro-overture figures. To be sure, Iran’s locking up of the political system in response to domestic protest resembles the moves made by many Arab regimes who were unable or unwilling to reform and eventually collapsed. But that is another matter, one that the West cannot reference in its dealings with Iran. 

The other option of appeasing Iran’s millennial siege-mentality in the hope that this might diffuse its offensive strategy which Tehran claims is defensive has been tried by the Obama administration. But avoidance of any friction with Tehran became an objective in itself and led Iran to expand and enhance its presence in the region in an unprecedented way. Both Trump’s and Obama’s strategies failed.

The contention that it will be easier to discuss Iran’s behavior in the region once a nuclear deal is in place has proved ineffective. The largest offensives by Iran-led militias in Syria took place while the United States was still committed to the JCPOA agreement. Aleppo was besieged and then devastated by a ground offensive led by Shia militias with air cover from Russia and the regime only one a year after the conclusion of the JCPOA accord. Hezbollah’s budget had quadrupled two years after the agreement was signed. Iran has almost never curtailed its interventions in the region, neither before nor after President Trump’s denunciation of the agreement and the tightening of sanctions. 

Since Joe Biden’s election, it has once again become possible to focus on Iran’s behavior and stop the crusade against the regime itself. But with much of the Obama team once again in charge of the relationship with Iran, many in Washington fear that the administration might over-reward Iran in the re-negotiation of the agreement simply to ensure that the regime recommits to not crossing a threshold which it may not intend to cross anyway. Having acquired the technological capability to produce nuclear weapons, like many countries before it, Iran would gain more from receiving international recognition of its status as a threshold power, than it would if it developed its nuclear program further. So far, this posture, which it frames as a concession, has allowed it to pre-empt discussion about its interference in the region. 

Iran’s view of itself and of the world is unlikely to change, but it is legitimate to demand of Tehran to recognize the existing regional order as legitimate before coming to any agreement with it on its nuclear program. In any negotiation, the parties - whether armed groups, resistance organizations such as the IRA or PLO, or states - start by recognizing the legitimacy of the other side in the case of a civil conflict, or the sovereignty of their neighbors in the case of a state-to-state conflict. Iran should be made to understand that by claiming to protect the Shia minorities in Arab countries, it will inevitably be perceived by its neighbors as pursuing an expansionist project, reminiscent of Hitler’s Sudetenland alibi.

Iran should be made to understand that by claiming to protect the Shia minorities in Arab countries, it will inevitably be perceived by its neighbors as pursuing an expansionist project.

Some Arab governments may be intimidated or frightened by Iran’s Shia agenda, but Sunni jihadists are not. On the contrary, Sunni jihadism is flourishing, and the Islamic State will continue to create offshoots. It is already doing so with the emergence of a new generation of young jihadists recruited mainly in the Central Asian republics bordering Iran and Russia. 
Iran’s nuclear program is certainly a long-term strategic threat, but the actions of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are creating mayhem now and poisoning the Middle East for decades to come.

When pressed to respond to this argument, American diplomats involved in the Vienna negotiations reply that the negotiations are complex enough as they are and cannot be cluttered up with regional issues. But the fact remains that Western silence on these issues, denounced by all countries in the region - from Israel to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt and Syria - can only further undermine the credibility of the United States and Europe as partners in building security. Nothing would please Iran more than seeing America and Europe disengage from the region. To do so without a diplomatic strategy to accompany the disengagement risks prolonging the curse of the American intervention in Iraq. The Iranian negotiators are wily, but they are essentially operating according to the classic zero-sum game. With this mindset, their perception of the West’s resolve will determine the future stability of the Middle East. The blind approach that sees no threat requiring international attention other than Iran’s nuclear program is wreaking havoc across the region.


Copyright: ATTA KENARE / AFP


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