dinsdag 1 maart 2011

Iran-Transatlantic Relations Need New Software

by Nabi Sonboli

Part 1: Past experiences and current realities

Foreign policy is a constellation of applicable ideas and behaviors raised and done by a political system. To understand the foreign policy of a country we need to know the real behaviors on the ground and the applicable ideas with enough support in the political system. Reading the news, especially those that may be distorted or targeted to specific audiences, does not contribute to understanding a country’s foreign policy. When a politician or researcher thinks about the foreign policy of his/her country (s), he takes into account at least two important factors: past experiences and current realities (both internal and external). Although, past experiences between Iran, the US and some influential European countries like UK are not promising, current realities require all sides to learn from the past and think about the future.

During the past two centuries, the number of negative experiences in Iran and its neighborhoods influencing Tehran’s threat perception, have been much higher than the positive ones. From early the 19th till early 21st century, we have witnessed the occupation of the northern part of Iran by Russia in early 19th and the 20th century and by the Soviet Union during the second world war; the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in early 20th century; the invasion of all regional countries from North Africa to Afghanistan by France, the UK, the US, etc. We experienced the long extended intervention of Russia, the UK and the US in Iranian internal politics; the military coup against democratically elected prime minister Mosadeq by US-UK; the support of the Shah dictatorship by western countries; regional and international support for the Iraqi war against Iran; the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the US and its allies; and three decades of unilateral and multilateral economic, military and technological sanctions; …. There is a long list of negative experiences that influence threat perception of Iranians with any political inclination.

To compare these with positive actions during the same period of time, we can find few cases that the US and main European counties have provided support for Iran. Europe’s limited support of the constitutional revolution in Iran in early 20th century; Germany’s support of Iranian resistance forces against the British occupation of the southern part of Iran; the US ultimatum to the Soviet Union to withdraw from Iran after the second world war, are among the few positive actions contributed to Iranian national security and desires. Despite the incomparable weight of negative to positive behaviors, the image of the West and even the US in Iran has not been so negative. Forgiveness and forgetting as some Iranian cultural characteristics have led them mostly to be optimistic and to think about the future. However, these historical experiences have contributed to a lack of confidence toward the West in general, and the US and the UK in particular. As transatlantic cooperation against Iran increases, the negative image and mistrust that were limited to a few countries in the past expands to include all.

The second factor influencing the decisions is current realities. Iran’s regional policy is based on regional realities surrounding the country and imposed on the region. During the past three decades we have been living in one of the most unstable and war-ridden regions in the world. The Iraqi war against Iran (1980-88), the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89), the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait with the subsequent clashes between the US, the UK and Iraq, followed by the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies (1990-still continues), the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the civil war in Afghanistan (1989-2002), the invasion of Afghanistan (2002- still continues), the war between Russia and Georgia (2008) etc. We have not witnessed any year without war or crises for three decades in the Iranian neighborhood. The background of all these instabilities and wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Caucasian region and the Middle East shows clearly that Iran has had no role in creating them. These instabilities have been the main obstacle toward regional economic, social and political development, and the root cause of the current problems. Iran has not benefited and will not benefit from these instabilities in its surroundings.

Naturally these wars and instabilities influence the threat perception of any nation living there and Iran is not an exception. This situation has shaped two elements of Iran’s grand strategy: independence and resistance. Iran’s efforts to achieve autarky and independence in different economic and technological fields including nuclear energy, nanotechnology, biotech, airspace, etc., have been evident during the past decades. Following such a policy with limited resources is difficult and costly, but the lack of confidence toward the US, the UK etc., and living in an insecure region have encouraged Iran to diversify its foreign relations and increase its independence in vital areas. Resistance has been the second element in Iran’s foreign policy, influenced by its historical experience. Resistance is a defensive policy, not an ambitious or offensive one. It has both historical and cultural backgrounds in Iran’s and Shiite history and geographical basis.

Culturally, Iran’s national and political culture has received more influence from mysticism as a peaceful worldview. The influence of mysticism on the works of almost all important writers, which have had deep impact on Iran’s culture, is visible. Shahnameh as the most important text for all nationalist and pan-Iranist groups is a clear example. It mixes nationalism and heroism with mysticism and rationality. Another reason for defensiveness of nationalistic tendencies is that Iran has always been a big country, and foreign domination or national disintegration has been the main concern. Shiite culture as minority culture among Sonny majority in Muslim word is defensive. In addition the influence of mysticism on Shiite history and political culture in Iran is also well known. Although Shiite have had a long history in Iran, but during the Safavid period it was announced as the official religion. The term Safavi means Sufis that is based on mysticism. The Safavid dynasty expanded Shiite as a defensive identity policy against the expansionist policies of the Ottoman Empire. This is why rarely we find expansionist ideas even among Shiites.

Furthermore, Iran - both as a multiethnic society and as a majority Shiite and Arian in a multiethnic and multi-religion context including Arabs, Turks and Sonnies, Christians and Jews - knows its own limitations in following any ambitious and expansionist policy. This is why historically Iran has tried to have good relations with all its neighbors, especially the minorities. Supporting different Shiite, Sonny and even Christian groups in the region, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Lebanon, stems from such an understanding. The existence of different minorities in Iran has also created a bridge between Iran and other countries in the region. This is why Iran has been able to play as an axis of stability. The official borders are not the real borders and any external instability has internal consequences for Iran. Immigration of millions of people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Azerbaijan during internal and external wars in these countries is a clear example.

Nabi Sonboli holds an M.A.in international relations. He is a Research Fellow at the International and Legal Studies section of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) in Tehran and is currently representing the institute in Berlin working on scientific cooperation.

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