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Democrats: Dueling Moves on Iran Sanctions

On January 26, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) introduced a resolution in support of ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers. It also “affirms that support for the prompt reimposition of suspended sanctions as well as the imposition of additional sanctions against Iran would be strong and widespread in the Senate” if talks fail or Tehran does not fulfill its commitments. The resolution, cosponsored by nine other Democrats, is intended to “provide an option in support of diplomacy” and contrasts with another bill under consideration, according to Feinstein.

The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, co-sponsored by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), would automatically impose sanctions if a deal is not reached by the June 30 deadline. On January 27, Menendez and nine other Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Obama in support of the bill, introduced the same day. They also expressed skepticism that Iran is “committed to making the concessions required to demonstrate to the world that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful by March 24 – the deadline agreed upon for a political framework agreement.” 
 
Senator Feinstein and her colleagues, along with the Obama administration, have repeatedly warned that passage of such a bill could jeopardize diplomacy and compromise the international consensus on the Iran nuclear issue. The following are statements by Feinstein and Murphy on their resolution followed by the letter from Menendez and his colleagues to the president.
 
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
 
“Enacting new sanctions before the end of the negotiating period would gravely undermine our efforts to reach an agreement with Iran. For those who agree that the sanctions bill in the Banking Committee is detrimental, this resolution provides an option in support of diplomacy. The resolution states that if negotiations fail or if Iran violates any agreement, then it is appropriate for Congress to swiftly pass sanctions.
 
“Whether or not Iran is willing to make the compromises necessary to rejoin the community of nations remains to be seen. But we have an obligation to give our negotiators the time and space needed to test that possibility. We must see this diplomatic opening through.
 
“This is not just a matter for the United States, it’s the major world powers that have come together in negotiation with Iran. With the international community united and a temporary accord in place, this is the best chance we have to resolve this matter peacefully. The opportunity is there. To torpedo it would be reckless and dangerous.” 
 
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)
 
“There should be no doubt that the United States Congress stands ready and willing to pass new sanctions if Iran fails to live up to its end of the bargain in these negotiations. Senator Feinstein and I introduced this resolution because we strongly believe that a comprehensive diplomatic agreement is the best way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and that passing new sanctions legislation at this time would be counterproductive.
 
“But this resolution makes clear that if Iran walks away from the table, or if talks fall through because they’re no longer negotiating in good faith, the United States will not hesitate to respond with debilitating new sanctions.”
 
In addition to Senators Feinstein and Murphy, the resolution is cosponsored by Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Angus King (I-ME), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), John Tester (D-MT) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
 
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Gary Peters (D-MI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Coons (D-DE), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
 
Dear Mr. President:
 
We remain hopeful that diplomacy will succeed in reversing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability, in accordance with the timeline that the P5+1 and Iran negotiating teams have set for themselves: March 24, 2015 for a political framework agreement and June 30, 2015 to conclude negotiations on the technical annexes of the comprehensive deal. 
 
Congress has always been a partner in the shared goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon capability.  We remain appreciative of your leadership in seeking to protect the United States, and our allies and partners, from the threat of a nuclear Iran.  For more than two decades, the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. Government have worked together in a bipartisan way to implement sanctions legislation that successfully ratcheted up pressure on Iran’s nuclear program.  This pressure proved to be decisive in compelling Iranian leadership to enter the latest round of nuclear negotiations in September 2013. 
 
We remain deeply skeptical that Iran is committed to making the concessions required to demonstrate to the world that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful by March 24 – the deadline agreed upon for a political framework agreement.  Considering Iran’s history in nuclear negotiations and after two extensions of the Joint Plan of Action, we are concerned that Iran is intentionally extending the negotiations to improve its leverage at the negotiating table.
 
We are Democratic supporters of the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2015 – a bill that would impose sanctions on Iran only if Iran fails to reach a comprehensive agreement by the June 30 deadline.  This bill also includes monthly waivers after June 30 to provide additional negotiating flexibility.  We believe that this bill, as introduced, is reasonable and pragmatic, respects the nuclear negotiating timeline, and sends a strong signal to Iran and to the international community that endless negotiations under the interim agreement are dangerous, unacceptable, and could leave Iran with a threshold nuclear weapon capability. 
 
In acknowledgement of your concern regarding congressional action on legislation at this moment, we will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24.  After March 24, we will only vote for this legislation on the Senate floor if Iran fails to reach agreement on a political framework that addresses all parameters of a comprehensive agreement.  This deadline is the critical test of Iranian intentions.  We expect that your Administration will consult closely with Members of Congress in the coming months, and look forward to working with you to achieve our shared goal of reversing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability.
 
 

Iran & Region V: Yemen's Houthis

On January 22, Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi resigned under pressure from the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004. The Houthis have controlled the capital city Sanaa (left) since September 2014. In Yemen, Iran is widely seen as the main backer of the Houthi movement. University of Tehran professor Nasser Hadian told The Iran Primer that the Iranian Qods force has likely been advising the Houthis militarily, but that Iran’s influence in Yemen is not as strong as many believe. The following is an excerpt from Hadian's interview on Iran's goals in the region followed by key quotes by Iranian officials on Yemen.

In Yemen, the Houthis have emerged over the last 6 months as a dominant player. They now control the capital. What is Iran doing in Yemen? What does Iran want to see happen?
 
I cannot imagine that Iran is not involved in Yemen, especially since the Houthis seized power so quickly. But it’s probably not to the extent that the West believes. Iran is probably advising the Houthis militarily, likely through the Qods force. But Iran’s plate is already full dealing with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Iran cannot play a very active role in Yemen. And the Houthis actually don’t need that much help. They are probably receiving money, but not arms – they are already well armed. The point is that they have their own grievances, their own organization, and their own reasons to rebel. So Iran is probably not spending that many resources in Yemen.
 
Iran is not concerned about who is in power in Yemen as long as the government has a good, friendly relationship with Iran. Iran is not necessarily looking for an Islamic government or a Houthi government – it realizes the Houthis are a minority.
 
The rise of the Houthis is more an indication of the failure of Saudi Arabia’s influence than the success of Iran’s policy. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are linked to one another, and the Saudis have channeled a lot of resources to Yemen.
 
Iran does not consider Saudi Arabia a threat, but the Saudis felt threatened by Iran even under the shah. Since the revolution, they have taken all sorts of measures to contain Iran’s influence. They are spending money in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, principally to counter Iran. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council was part of that as well. They want to contain Iran and limit its resources. For the Saudis, the cost of that action is what’s going on in Yemen.
 
Key Quotes by Iranian Officials
 
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani
 
“Misunderstandings among Yemeni political groups need to be removed through talks.”
 
“Iran always tries to help establish stability in all countries. As for Yemen [the Islamic Republic] will tap into all its potential to help establish lasting peace [in the Arab country].”
 – Jan. 21, 2015, according to Iran Front Page

Chief of the Joint Staff of the Revolutionary Guards Corps Lieutenant Gen. Hossein Salami
 
After noting that the Houthis are inspired by Iran's Islamic Republic: "The Iranian Islamic Revolution is not only working on spreading the culture that wakes up and develops the mentality of the Muslim world, but it is also working toward activating confrontation, which has pulled the rug from under the foreign forces in the region."
 
The region is still searching for "a new political and security order. The Islamic Republic of Iran is contributing to producing this order. We have advanced on the enemy in this regard and we have the initiative in shaping this order."
– Jan. 1, 2015, according to the press

Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham
 
"Full implementation of the approvals made in the national talks and the Peace and Partnership Agreement can bring tranquility and stability back to Yemen.”
 
"We again want all signatories of the agreements to remain committed to what they have undertaken.”
 – Jan. 21, 2015, according to the press

The Supreme Leader's Representative in the Qods Force and Revolutionary Guards Ali Shirazi
 
“The Houthi group is a similar copy to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and this group will come into action against enemies of Islam."
 
“The Islamic republic directly supports the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the popular forces in Syria and Iraq...officials in the country have reiterated this many times.”
 
“A coup against Ansarallah [also known as Houthis] means a coup against the people. Ansarallah is not a small group or a special party as it represents the Yemeni people and its awakening.”
 
“Hezbollah was formed in Lebanon as a popular force like al-Basij. Similarly popular forces were also formed in Syria and Iraq, and today we are watching the formation of Ansarallah in Yemen,”
 – Jan. 26, 2015, according to the press
 
Photo credits: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Mosque Minaret, Sana'a) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 

Iran & Region III: Goals in Syria

Alireza Nader

What is Iran doing in Syria? How important is Iran in the ground war?
 
Iran is playing a crucial role in buttressing President Bashar Assad, through military advice, provision of weapons, and funding of the cash-strapped Syrian government. The Assad regime might not survive without support of Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah.
 
Where are Iranian forces concentrated? How many are there? What are they doing exactly?
 
Some Iranians have been killed in Syria, including Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mohammed Allahdadi in January 2015. But Iran does not appear to be committing major ground forces to the conflict. Tehran instead prefers to recruit Shiite militias from across the Middle East and even Afghanistan to fight in places like Damascus and Aleppo. Iran’s profile in Syria is lower than its profile in Iraq.
 
What are the stakes for Iran in Syria?
 
 
Iran has sought to protect the dozens of Shiite holy sites in Syria, especially the Zeinab Shrine near Damascus. Tehran used the holy sites to recruit fighters to aid Assad. More importantly, Syria is the geopolitical lynchpin for Iranian influence in the Levant and the wider Arab world. If the Syrian regime fell, the flow of arms and aid to Iran’s most important Arab ally — the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah — would be affected. Hezbollah, which has thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, is the main Iranian deterrence against Israel.
 
 
 

How does Iran's role in Syria today differ from its earlier activities before the war?
 
Iran and Syria have been close allies since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Each has provided the other with critical assistance at various times. Syria was one of only two Arab nations (Libya was the other) to support Iran during the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. It was an important conduit for weapons to an isolated Iran.
 
Over the last decade, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have trained, equipped, and aided Syria’s security and military forces. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims and tourists visited Syria before its civil war, and Iranian companies made significant investments in the Syrian economy.
 
But in the past few years, Iran has played an active role in Syria that few could have imagined before the civil war. “The deep, strategic and historic relations between the people of Syria and Iran ... will not be shaken by any force in the world,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saidshortly after his 2013 inauguration. Tehran appears to be willing to spend billions of dollars to prop up the Assad regime despite its own floundering economy. For now, Iran is fully committed to the fight.

How do Iran's actions and goals in Syria differ from the United States?
 
Iran has opposed U.S. policies on Syria since the conflict broke out. In 2013, Tehran condemned the U.S. move to provide non-lethal aid to rebels for the first time. Iranian officials criticized U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State (ISIS) targets in 2014, despite a shared interest in defeating the militants. Rouhani said the bombardments were illegal because they had not been sanctioned by the Syrian government.
 
Tehran has also argued that the best way to defeat ISIS is to support the Assad government. It has challenged U.S. support for anti-government rebels. “You cannot fight ISIS and the government in Damascus together,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in reaction to the airstrikes.
 
Tehran generally opposes any type of foreign intervention in Syria. But officials have warned the United States in particular not to deploy its forces in the region again.

Tehran welcomed the Assad’s reelection to the presidency in June 2014, while the Washington dismissed the poll. “The elections are non-elections. A great big zero,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. But Tehran may not be fully committed to Bashar Assad as the only leader for Syria, although it wants a pro-Iranian regime in Damascus.  

How are U.S. and Iranian actions affecting each other's strategies?
 
The divide between Iran and the United States in Syria appears to be unbridgeable, but Iran may be flexible in Syria as long as its interests are protected. This may not be palatable for the United States and its allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have long sought to overthrow the Alawite-led regime.
 
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 
Photo credits: Leader.ir, Grave of volunteer by Robin Wright
Tags: ISIS, Syria

Iran & Region II: Salvaging Iraq

Alireza Nader

What is Iran doing in Iraq? How important is Iran in the ground war against ISIS?
 
 
The Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, is playing a huge role in helping the Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State, especially in Diyala. The Guards are working with the Iraqi central government but they are reportedly heavily reliant on Shiite militias with close ties to Iran. Iran is now arguably the most influential foreign actor in Iraq.
 
 
 
Which Iraqi militias is Iran supporting - and how?
 
Iran is supporting many different militias. Some of the biggest and most prominent are the Badr Organization, Asai’b Ahl al Haq (AAH), Kataib Hezbollah, and various Sadrist elements. They are all Shiite. Certain militias such as the Badr Organization and AAH appear to be taking direct orders from Tehran. The Sadrists have had tensions with Iran before, so they may not be the most reliable of the militias.
 
Where are Iranian forces concentrated? How many are there? What are they doing exactly?
 
Iranian forces have tried to keep a low profile in Iraq, so estimating the number of active Iranians is difficult. But since late 2014, the “martyrdom” of Iranian soldiers and officers has become more common, as has Iran’s publicity about its role. Senior Iranian generals—including General Qassem Soleimani, the Qods Force commander—are not only advising Iraqi forces and militias, but also visiting the front lines and allowing photographs near warzones.
 
What are the stakes for Iran in Iraq?
 
Iran does not want the Islamic State or Sunni jihadi and nationalist groups to take over Iraq. Tehran is particularly concerned that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be replaced by a regime hostile to Iran, as was the case during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the subsequent eight-year war, which produced more than 1 million casualties, has always been a major factor in Tehran’s strategic thinking. Many politicians and military commanders now in power were part of the war generation.
 
Iraq and Iran share a 910-mile border that is mostly porous. Iraq’s territorial integrity is critical for Iran too. Shortly after ISIS took significant territory in northern Iraq, President Hassan Rouhani told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi that Iran “considers Iraq's security and stability as its own.”
 
Iran is also concerned about the safety of Shiite holy sites in Sammara, Najaf, and Karbala. The rise of the Islamic State presents Iran with the opportunity to demonstrate to the Iraqis, the Arab world, and the United States that it is an important power in the Middle East and should be recognized and treated as such. From Tehran’s perspective, its intervention could even provide more leverage on other issues, including the nuclear negotiations. “The world has understood the reality that the first country to rush to the help of the Iraqi people in the battle against extremism and terror was the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in December.
 
How does Iran's role in Iraq today differ from its earlier activities during the U.S. intervention?
 
After the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iran played a prominent but largely behind-the-scenes role in Iraq. Tehran armed, trained and funded a variety of militias, mostly Shiite but some Sunnis as well. Iranian-backed militias attacked both U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Iran also reportedly funded and advised candidates and brokered alliances, although with mixed success.
 
The dynamics shifted when the U.S. withdrew in 2011. After the Islamic State’s sudden seizure of a large chunk of Iraq in 2014, Iran and the United States actually shared the goal of driving the Sunni extremists out of Iraq. Tehran’s goals were to defeat ISIS, ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity, and maintain Shiite allies in the central government. By early 2015, Iran’s role was much more public than in the past. Tehran actively sought to make sure the world knew it was playing a major role.

How do Iran's actions and goals in Iraq differ from the United States?
 
Both the United States and Iran also share an interest in preserving the Iraqi state. But their goals are not totally aligned. In neighboring Syria, the Islamic State poses a serious threat to the Assad regime, which Iran supports and the United States opposes. Tehran has also pursued a sectarian agenda in its support of Shiite militias, which contributed to greater Sunni dissatisfaction and complicating the fight against ISIS.
 
In contrast, Washington has pushed for an inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian government in Baghdad to address Sunnis grievances.
 
How are U.S. and Iranian actions affecting each other's strategies?
 
Secretary of State John Kerry has acknowledged that the net effect of Iranian strikes on ISIS “is positive.” But U.S. and Iranian officials have denied rumors that they are coordinating their activities directly, preferring to deal only with Iraqi security forces.
 
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

 

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

Photo credits: Abadi and Rouhani via President.ir

Tags: Iraq, ISIS

Iran & Region I: Search for Stability

Nasser Hadian

What is Iran’s role in the region?
 
For at least the next 10 or 15 years, the orienting principle of Iran’s foreign policy should be stability. Instability in neighboring countries can create security problems for Iran, so the overarching objective is to act as a stabilizing force in the region. This possibly guides U.S. policy as well, since the United States would also like to see a more stable Middle East.
 
Look at what is happening in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is in transition. Iran is getting frightened. Considering the multi-ethnic nature of Iranian society, no matter how strong the state is, there is a reason to be concerned. Instability in the region might have a trickle-down effect on Iran’s security. So stabilizing the region will be the main guiding principle of Iran’s foreign policy for the next several years.
 
Iran is not necessarily looking for Islamic governance in any country. Iran would prefer a country with a revolutionary Islamic government, challenging the U.S. and the world order. But Iran is also realistic enough to know that’s not always a possibility. Iran basically wants a non-ideological government, whether it has an Islamic tone as in Turkey or under [former President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed] Morsi in Egypt, or a secular regime like Bashar Assad.
 
What are the top foreign policy issues for Iran today?
 
The nuclear issue is number one. The next priority is Iraq, followed by Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, which are equal priorities. After that, Iran is worried about Pakistan.
 
Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain are not top priorities right now. Iran doesn’t feel the same urgency to deal with those issues.
 
What is Iran’s role in Iraq?
 
Iran’s view is that the territorial integrity of Iraq should be preserved, so Iran is helping the central government logistically, financially, and politically. That’s exactly what Iran did by helping the transition process from Prime Minister Maliki to Prime Minister Abadi. And there’s a famous saying that Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani called the Americans for help, and they didn’t come. They called the Turks, and they didn’t come. But when they called Iran, [Qods Force commander General] Qassem Soleimani was there eight hours later. The Qods Force and Revolutionary Guards are in Iraq in an advisory role, but they are not engaged in fighting.
 
Iran is also mobilizing Iraqi forces to fight ISIS. Iran is in contact with Sunni tribesmen to get their support for the central government. Iran also persuaded the Kurds to remain part of Iraq.
 
The Qods Forces are in close contact with a number of Iraqi militias. Those links are so strong that Iranian forces don’t need to fight in Iraq. For instance, the Badr Brigades brigades were organized in Iran. It’s not just up to Iran to order them around; they are very much within the Iranian power structure. They can influence and shape Iranian policy towards Iraq.
 
Where does Iran share interests with the United States?
 
Iran makes its policy decisions in Iraq independent of the United States. They can cooperate with one another on some issues. For instance, they have a shared interest in fighting ISIS, so they coordinate through the Iraqi government, but not directly with each other. Neither wants to create the impression among Sunnis that Shiites are cooperating with the West to suppress ISIS. So the United States and Iran are very careful to take a strong position against each other.

What is Iran doing in Syria, and to what extent is it wedded to the Assad regime?
 
One of Iran’s goals in Syria is reducing the power of the presidency. Iran is not committed to keeping Assad in power. It’s entirely feasible to see Assad stepping down when he finishes his term, if he can be persuaded to make a face-saving exit. But he would be allowed to finish his term, as a practical measure.
 
The sudden removal of Assad as a figurehead would mean there is a good chance the whole regime would collapse, which neither the United States nor Iran wants. It would make the situation even more chaotic. Finding a way for the regime to be preserved, but for Assad to leave, is one proposal Iran is considering. This could include reducing the power of the presidency, decentralizing power, and allowing the rational opposition to participate in government. Realistically, there are only two options: ISIS or Assad. It is wishful thinking that the Free Syrian Army could succeed, so adopting these measures is more practical and would help isolate and defeat ISIS.
 
The four key regional and international players – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States – have to deal with the issue. If the Saudis are reluctant, they could be replaced by the Turks. If they agree on a plan, Iran and Russia are in a position to persuade Assad to accept it, and the United States and Saudi Arabia are in a position to gain cooperation from the Free Syrian Army.
 
In Yemen, the Houthis have emerged over the last 6 months as a dominant player. They now control the capital. What is Iran doing in Yemen? What does Iran want to see happen?
 
I cannot imagine that Iran is not involved in Yemen, especially since the Houthis seized power so quickly. But it’s probably not to the extent that the West believes. Iran is probably advising the Houthis militarily, likely through the Qods force. But Iran’s plate is already full dealing with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Iran cannot play a very active role in Yemen. And the Houthis actually don’t need that much help. They are probably receiving money, but not arms – they are already well armed. The point is that they have their own grievances, their own organization, and their own reasons to rebel. So Iran is probably not spending that many resources in Yemen.
 
Iran is not concerned about who is in power in Yemen as long as the government has a good, friendly relationship with Iran. Iran is not necessarily looking for an Islamic government or a Houthi government – it realizes the Houthis are a minority.
 
The rise of the Houthis is more an indication of the failure of Saudi Arabia’s influence than the success of Iran’s policy. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are linked to one another, and the Saudis have channeled a lot of resources to Yemen.
 
Iran does not consider Saudi Arabia a threat, but the Saudis felt threatened by Iran even under the shah. Since the revolution, they have taken all sorts of measures to contain Iran’s influence. They are spending money in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, principally to counter Iran. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council was part of that as well. They want to contain Iran and limit its resources. For the Saudis, the cost of that action is what’s going on in Yemen.
 
Tension has defined relations with Saudi Arabia for some time. What does Iran want from Saudi Arabia?
 
Iran wants a normal relationship with Saudi Arabia, and it wants a Saudi government that is not against Iran in principle. It does not want Saudi Arabia to challenge Iran economically, politically, and militarily. Take Syria, for example. Iran supports Assad and Hezbollah as a way of deterring Israeli attacks against Iran. It’s not about the Saudis.
 
But why do the Saudis want Assad removed from power? It’s not because Saudi Arabia is democratic and Assad’s regime is not. It’s about reducing Iran’s influence. They want Assad to step down because he has a good relationship with Iran. Iran is not challenging the Saudis, but they are challenging Iran.
 
What does Iran want in Lebanon?
 
Iran would like to see a friendly and working government there, but it doesn’t matter if the government is being controlled by Sunnis, Christians, or Hezbollah – as long as Hezbollah remains a strong military force to deter Israeli attacks.
 
Iran has two modes of defense against Israel. One is conventional missiles, which are not very precise. The other is Hezbollah. So Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles have a far more reliable deterrent capability than Iran’s own missiles. If you want to see Iran support a different Hezbollah, or a different Syria, the Israeli threat has to be reduced. In the beginning, after the revolution, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah was ideological. But now it is more pragmatic.
 
Iran does not want to see another confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah – it would be crazy to want that. Hezbollah’s position within Lebanese society would be jeopardized if it was perceived as fighting a proxy war. Iran is spending a lot of money there, not just for military purposes, but also for building infrastructure, schools, and roads. These efforts have been perceived positively by Christians, and even a small minority of Sunnis. Many of them have their own grievances against Israel. Thus Iranian support of Hezbollah has been welcomed by many in Lebanese society.
 
An Iranian general was recently killed on the Golan Heights – what was he doing there? What does Iran want from Israel?
 
The general was helping the Syrians, but that does not include attacks on Israel. Iran has basically been building infrastructure against the Israelis for deterrence. But Iranians and Israelis have both been very careful not to directly engage one another. The confrontation began only a few years ago with the killing of Iranian scientists. The Iranians attempted to retaliate in a very unwise and unsophisticated way in operations abroad. They were an indication that Iran never thought that Israel was going to take direct action against Iran. That’s why they were not prepared.
 
There is not a unified Iranian view in terms of what to do about Israel. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has proposed a referendum [among both Israelis and Palestinians] on the Palestinian issue. But former President Mohammad Khatami proposed de facto acceptance of two-state solution. There is actually not that much debate going on in Iran about what to do in Israel. There is so much urgent discussion about other issues that Israel is not as much of a priority as it once was.
 
What does Iran want in Bahrain?
 
What Iran wants is not necessarily a democratic Bahrain, but a fair government that respects the rights of Shiites and gives them more participation in the political process. It’s not about regime change. If Bahrain improves its treatment of Shiites, relations with Iran could improve.
 
It was very humiliating for Iran when the Saudis sent forces into Bahrain. The Bahraini government claimed that Iran was involved there, but it was not – so Iran was made the scapegoat. Iran engaged in the propaganda war very late, after the Saudis and Bahrainis, who took a strong position against Iran.
 
Iran is about to celebrate its 36th anniversary of the revolution. How is Iran’s foreign policy different than it used to be?
 
In the beginning, Iran’s view of the world was idealist, and in action it was principlist. As time passed, Iran became more realist. Iran was idealist throughout the hostage crisis, but in the end acted pragmatically. In the war with Iraq, Iran was still idealist and acted with principlist tendencies. But by the end of war, Iran was realist – no longer idealist. And Iran acted pragmatically to end it.
 
So in terms of foreign policy, Iran was idealist and acted principlist, and as time passed, Iran became realist in its views and then acted pragmatically. The trajectory of both has been moving from idealism and principlism to realism and pragmatism.
 
Nasser Hadian is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 
Photo credits: Leader.ir, Syria-Iran by RonenY [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, Bashar al Assad by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr [CC BY 3.0 br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
 

 

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