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Is Iran on the march?

The Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States have come a long way since the start of their enmity after the Iranian revolution 36 years ago. They are now availed a valuable opportunity to move towards a rapprochement to repair their ruptured relations and contribute to stabilising a region that cries out for stability and security.

When Iran signed the historic nuclear agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1) on July 14, 2015, after nearly two years of intense negotiations, many skeptics in the United States, Iran and the region seriously doubted Tehran's good intentions. Not only American, Iranian and regional hardliners, but also many academics and observers on Iran around the world echoed this sentiment.

Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year in a photo issued by the Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader.
Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year in a photo issued by the Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader. Photo: AP

However, all the skeptics and opponents missed three points in their assessments. The first was that the Iranian Islamic regime had all along insisted that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes, and Iran's powerful religious and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, without whose support no major Iranian domestic and foreign policy can materialise, had insisted that a nuclear bomb was "unIslamic". Instead Tehran had pursued the acquisition of nuclear know-how, technology and infrastructure, which it has now achieved. It does not need to cross the threshold to produce nuclear weapons.

The second point was that mutual need and vulnerability finally drove both the Iranian Islamic government and the Barack Obama administration to negotiate. International sanctions, particularly those by the US-led West, accelerated from mid-2012, and the mismanagement of the Iranian economy, especially under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, imperiled Iran's economic situation savagely. The Iranian economy and aging oil industry have badly been in need of structural reforms and an overhaul.

This could not be achieved without the lifting of sanctions and inflow of foreign investment and high technology. Moderate President Hassan Rouhani was largely elected on the promise of achieving something substantial on this front. If he and his able Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had failed to overcome the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, they would have had little to show to their hardline domestic Islamist opponents – something that could only perpetuate the latter's dominance in the Iranian power structure and state institutions.

On the other side, President Obama, who had all along preferred diplomacy over a military confrontation, could clearly see that the sanctions had affected Iranian society, but had done little to weaken the Islamic government's survivability or to diminish its capacity to be an influential regional player. Tehran has been successful in building strong leverages in various zones of conflicts – from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria to Yemen – and in rivalling Saudi Arabia and its allies as well as Israel in geopolitical and strategic terms. In other words, President Obama and his aides have clearly sensed that in the event of improved relations with Iran, Washington could be in a position to play an important role in securing a resolution of some of the regional conflicts, and to arrest the declining US influence in the region.

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The third point was that the critics could not read perceptively the changing Iranian national and regional environment. The Iran of today is not that of the early 1980s, when the revolutionary fever propelled the country's Shia religious establishment to power to transform Iran into a Shia Islamic Republic in defiance of the prevailing regional and international order. Despite its theocratic nature and many of its shortcomings, the Iranian Islamic government has grown to be more pragmatic than ideological in both its domestic and foreign policy behaviour.

On the domestic front, whenever it has found it necessary or expedient, it has allowed for political contestation within the unique Islamic framework established by its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As a result, while the hardliners have controlled many levers of power, they have not allowed their power ambitions and ideological stance to blind them totally to the need for reformation by their moderate and pragmatist factional opponents in order to preserve the Islamic system of governance.

In its foreign policy conduct, Iran's government has rarely lost sight of pragmatism when its interests have dictated. It has projected a revolutionary anti-hegemonic stance, but has not shied away from making compromises and alliances in order to boost its security and that of Iran in the region and beyond. In this context, it refrained from standing in the way of the US invading Iraq in 2003 (which deposed Iran's arch enemy, Saddam Hussein), intervening in Afghanistan in 2001 (when the anti-Iranian Sunni Extremist regime of the Taliban was toppled), and leading the international coalition against Islamic State, just to give a few examples. Lately, Tehran has also found it advantageous to compromise Khomeini's foreign policy of neither East nor West but pro-Islamic by making a common cause with Russia in a co-ordinated military operation to save the allied regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Having said this, the resolution of the nuclear dispute and the lifting of sanctions does not necessarily mean that from now on the Islamic Republic is set to sail smoothly towards a more prosperous, stable and secure future. It will still have many formidable domestic and foreign policy challenges. However, the republic is now at the crossroads, with an opportunity to reintegrate into the international system as an influential player in what is a highly volatile region, and at a time when the price of its main source of revenue, oil, is plummeting.

Amin Saikal is distinguished professor of political science, Public Policy fellow and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of Iran at the Crossroads (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016).