Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Unexpected gifts

Iran's regional influence has never been stronger. And all, writes Ibrahim Nawar*, thanks to the United States

Iran is a well-endowed developing country that was once the centre of an empire and which has never lost its aspiration of becoming one again. Iran's power is based on its natural resources -- mostly oil -- its military strength and the high quality of its diplomacy which, compared to the rest of the region, can draw on a highly educated population. Such power is reflected in Persia's determination to remain a regional superpower.

But Iranian foreign policy has always been circumscribed by a very particular triangle. Iran, though it is a Muslim country, is Shia, i.e. it represents a minority, not a majority, of Muslims. It is also a non-Arab state in a predominantly Arab region. Thirdly, Iran is an eastern country, however much it dreams of joining the Western club. The three sides of the triangle, comprised of the factors just noted, constitute what I call the Persia trap.

Iranian foreign policy, understandably, is calculated to serve Iran's national interests. Throughout its modern history -- certainly from the end of World War I -- Iran's leaders have reacted to political events in a more or less consistent manner. When communist Russia was established in 1917, Iran sought to build alliances with opposing powers. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain emerged as its great ally, and the stage was set for Iran to modernise in a Western fashion. When British power was superseded by that of the US, the latter became Iran's closest ally. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, removing one of the principle threats to Iran's national security, Iran was presented with a golden opportunity to extend its sphere of influence well beyond its northern borders.

Westernised Iran maintained good relations with Israel and conservative powers in the Middle East. Its foreign policy was shaped by two factors after World War II; the threat of the Soviet influence and the threat of radical political movements, Nasserism in particular. The Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), sponsored by the US and Britain, brought Iran together with Turkey and Pakistan in an attempt to guard against these perceived threats. To be effective, though, the treaty needed an Arab component. Iraq, under Nouri Al-Said, joined CENTO, though this was the spark that led to Abdul-Karim Qasim's military coup and the overthrow of the Hashemite king.

Iran withdrew from the treaty after the revolution in 1979. In order to turn its foreign policy away from Israel and to champion the cause of the liberation of Palestine Iran severed relations with Israel and turned the headquarters of the Israeli mission in Tehran into the PLO's representative office.

Iran's new approach to the Middle East became increasingly aggressive. Tehran was, however, able to create a new alliance with Syria in 1982, and maintained close ties with both Algeria and Libya, largely on the basis of their shared radical stand against Israel. Yet it remained an open secret that throughout the war with Iraq, Iran was buying Israeli weapons.

Attempts to export the Islamic revolution have always played second fiddle to Iran's perceived national interests. When late president Hafez Al-Assad of Syria crushed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s he received the blessing of Tehran. Al-Assad, by way of thanks, closed the Iraqi oil pipeline. Relations between Iran and Syria were further cemented when Tehran gave Al-Assad 20,000 free barrels of oil per day in compensation for lost transit oil revenues from Iraq. Iran also agreed to sell Syria undisclosed quantities of oil at a heavily discounted price. This new alliance allowed Iran, for the first time since the end of WWI, a degree of influence in the Arab world. It was Syria that opened the door for Tehran to enter the Palestinian question, the one issue that lies at the heart of Arab foreign policy.

Although the fall of the shah brought about a dramatic change in the nature of the regime, Iranian national security interests have remained consistent, though now they are pursued under an Islamic, rather than a Westernised, banner.

Iran's strategy to establish itself as the region's uncontested leader is based on three elements that mirror the Persian trap. The first is the attempt to promote Arab Shias as the revolutionaries of the Arab and Muslim world, thus eliminating the problems that ensue from Iran being a Muslim Shia country. The second is to champion the pre-eminent Arab and Muslim cause, the Palestinian question, in order to gain the sympathy of Arabs, and in particular nationalists who might exert pressure on their governments. The third is to acquire a nuclear capability, thus joining the Western club.

In the immediate wake of the Islamic revolution Iran's new leaders established the Liberation Movements Office (LMO), which initially operated under the umbrella of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then in coordination with the ministries of foreign affairs, information and security. The LMO was the command centre for the export of Islamic revolution, and its agents have been actively operating in Arab and Muslim countries, either undercover, using false identities, or as employees of Iranian embassies, missions and companies. The LMO has also recruited hundreds on non-Iranians to serve the goals of the Islamic revolution.

In December 1983 a series of explosions occurred in Kuwait, threatening to destabilise the country. Several of the captured bombers, whose targets had included the American and the French embassies, admitted to being members of the Iraqi Addawa Islamic Party, based in Tehran. In May 1985 an attempt was made to assassinate the emir of Kuwait, while in 1987 Iran mobilised its pilgrims to Mecca to demonstrate against the US and the "corrupt" rulers of the Arab Gulf States. More than 400 pilgrims lost their lives during clashes with the Saudi security forces during the demonstration.

Iran's political leaders, though Shia, are trying to use every possible means to portray themselves as the representatives of all Muslims, especially the disadvantaged. They do, however, insist on complete loyalty from their collaborators. When Imam Moussa Al-Sadr embarked on the politicisation of Lebanon's Shia community Iran supported him, but only conditionally. The imam was not a great supporter of the Iranian model of government and clashed with the leaders of the LMO and others within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran could well have played a role in the mysterious disappearance of Imam Al-Sadr, who established the Amal movement.

The story of Iran's role in Lebanon is revealing, not least when it comes to the dynamics of Iranian foreign policy towards the Arab world. Since Imam Al-Sadr had opposed the Iranian style of government, Iran began to build a more loyal political movement among Lebanon's Shia community. Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard helped establish the Islamic Action Organisation, and Hizbullah. Syria helped, allowing hundreds to cross the borders to Lebanon and establish bases in the South and the Beqaa Valley. It was also through Syria that Hamas established links with Iran. Syria, in addition, provides Iran with access to organisations in other Arab countries, notably ultra-Arab nationalist groups that are moving towards political Islam. The Iranian role in Sudan is one such example.

Iranian foreign policy has been presented with several gifts on a plate, thanks to miscalculations in Washington. The break-up of the Soviet Union served Iran by removing the Soviet threat. The US invasion of Afghanistan removed the Taliban, long a thorn in Iran's side. The occupation of Iraq and the removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein cleared the major threat Iran faced beyond its Western border.

Hardly surprising, then, that Washington now sees Iran as the main challenge to US foreign policy in the Middle East. The irony is that the US, in invading Iraq, cleared the stage for Iran's foreign policy-makers: Washington claimed the invasion was in response to Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Now it may well have to face real, and not virtual, WMDs. Iran has hijacked what Washington trumpeted as its victory in Iraq and in doing so it was lent every possible help by policy-makers in the Pentagon and the White House.

* The writer is chairman of the Arab Organisation for Freedom of the Press and has worked as an adviser to the United Nations mission to Iraq.

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