Devising a creative foreign policy for the Islamic State

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Hijjah 03, 1429 2008-12-01

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 10, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1429)

As an Islamic state, Iran’s policies — both domestic and foreign — are based on certain fundamental principles. The guidelines for these policies were laid down by Imam Khomeini during his lifetime. After he passed away in June 1989, his successor, the Rahbar Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei has adhered to these policies closely. Let us reiterate the principles that form the basis of Iran’s policies and evaluate whether Iran has adhered to them in its dealings with other countries.

The first principle of Iran’s foreign policy is that it would maintain good relations with states that follow Islamic laws. Regrettably, there is no state in the world today that falls in this category. Thus, Iran maintains close relations with movements following this principle. This explains Iran’s support for such movements as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine.

The second principle of Iran’s policy is to maintain cordial relations with states that are friendly towards it and with whom it can enter into mutually beneficially agreements. Countries like Russia, China, Syria, Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Pakistan and India fall in this category. Naturally, this list is flexible since all countries pursue their own national interests, clashing as they may with other pursued policies.

It depends on a country’s diplomatic skills to pursue contradictory policies at the same time and yet maintain cordial relations with all countries. Big powers do this all the time but only because smaller countries are at their mercy and cannot challenge them. This is most clearly evident in US behavior. It has very close relations with the Zionist State of Israel and is its principal backer and financier, yet Washington also maintains close relations with almost all the Arabian regimes. True, the Arabian regimes are not really opposed to the Zionist State; in reality they are part of the system created by the imperialist powers in the Middle East and these regimes and their rulers exist at the mercy of the US.

The contradictory but self-serving policies pursued by middle powers like India are more problematic and prove challenging for its practitioners. So far, India has managed to keep its feet in two or even three boats simultaneously but reality may be catching up with it. We will discuss this a little later.

The third plank of Iran’s policy is to ward off hostile powers. Two countries have been most hostile and have relentlessly attempted to undermine Iran’s position: the US and the Zionist State of Israel. In the past, Ba‘athist Iraq headed by Saddam Husain and financed by the Arabian regimes, and the Taliban in Afghanistan were also antagonistic toward the Islamic Republic. Both Saddam and the Taliban were supported by the US for a while, only so long as they served immediate US interests. When the US no longer considered them useful for its agenda in the region, both were overthrown. It is ironic that in the process of being extremely hostile to the Islamic Republic, the US has eliminated Iran’s enemies on either side, thereby greatly strengthening Tehran in the region. Washington’s plan was to march on Tehran via Baghdad. The resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan has frustrated these grandiose plans and led to US financial bleeding on such a scale that her entire image as a superpower is in apparent question.

US hostility toward Iran springs from two basic positions: the Islamic revolution whereby Tehran now pursues an independent foreign policy and refuses to surrender to American demands, and the US fear of Iran’s example influencing others that may ultimately put at risk the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region. Both concerns are real, as far as the US is concerned although from Iran’s point of view and that of a number of other countries, they have every right to pursue an independent agenda. After all, they were not created to serve US interests even if the Americans believe that the world and its resources were created to satiate their extravagant lifestyle. It is this clash of divergent outlooks that has made the Persian Gulf such a dangerous place in the world.

It is not only an important strategic region through which nearly 75 percent of the world’s oil flows, it is also a dangerous neighborhood. It has suffered more than its share of tyrants. The Shah of Iran and Saddam Husain of Iraq immediately come to mind. The Persian Gulf is also bristling with US, British and other Western warships, some of them nuclear-armed, that can engulf the region, indeed the entire world in flames at the slightest provocation.

Islamic Iran is the most important regional player, not only because of its oil wealth and size, significant as they are, but also because it is the only Islamic country that has a government that represents the will of its people. It is, however, surrounded by hostile neighbors; some of these neighboring countries are under American occupation. This poses an existential threat to the Islamic revolution. To survive in such a hostile environment is serious enough; to make progress and come out ahead is quite remarkable. This is what Iran has achieved in the last 30 years as it has warded off both internal as well as external challenges and threats.

Islamic Iran faces its most serious challenge from two primary sources: an aggressive, even if now somewhat chastened US, and Zionist Israel. Both have shown relentless hostility to the Islamic Republic and miss no opportunity to undermine its stability. The US has imposed sanctions that seriously hamper Iran’s ability to carry out trade, financial transactions or attract foreign investment for its energy and industrial sectors. The $40 billion of Iranian assets that the US froze in 1979 and has refused to hand over amount to nearly $400 billion in today’s terms. The level and intensity of US enmity toward Iran can be gauged from the fact that Washington refuses to sell even spare parts for Iran’s civilian aircraft, purchased from the Boeing Corporation in the 1970s under a contract stipulating the supply of all necessary spare parts. The US deliberately obstructs Iran’s acquisition of such parts.

Given the level of US antipathy, Iran has sought outlets through other countries. It has pursued a three-pronged strategy to break the US-Western economic and military blockade: first, it has cultivated links with such powers as China and Russia who are both trying gain a geo-strategic advantage over the US; second, it has expanded trade with such middle-ranking powers as Venezuela, Brazil, India, South Africa and South Korea. And finally, it has worked hard to lessen tensions in its immediate environment by assuring its neighbors on the western coast of the Persian Gulf that it has no ill intentions toward them.

Tehran has been most successful in its dealings with Russia and China, entering into trade and strategic agreements. These have helped Iran overcome some of the negative consequences of US sanctions. On the other hand, Moscow and Beijing also consider Iran as the most important regional player that can help neutralize American moves to frustrate their emerging status as assertive powers — the neocons in Washington may have suffered defeat because of their failed policies but they are not about to give up their mischievous ways. Iran’s importance is also underscored by both Russia and China stating they would support its admission into the Shanghai Cooperation Orga-nization (SCO) comprising China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakistan and Russia.

While Moscow is forming a gas cartel with Iran that will be the largest in the world, Iran is concurrently being offered membership in the Black Sea Union. Given the importance of energy in today’s world, such a development cannot be underestimated. Further, Russia is also moving aggressively to assert itself on the global stage following America’s decline as a financial colossus. Last October, the Gorbachev Institute invited a number of scholars from the East and West for a roundtable discussion in Vienna. In one panel, a Russian commentator candidly stated, “We must assist America in its decline.” What better way to back somebody over a cliff! Such thinking, now widespread in a Russia that has nearly a trillion dollars in reserves, is infecting the rest of the world amid America’s financial woes.

Equally important has been Iran’s success in convincing members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) —Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran — about its peaceful intentions and good neighborly behavior. Exactly a year after President Mahmoud Ahmedi-nejad’s historic attendance at the GCC summit in Doha, Qatar in December 2007, the GCC secretary general Abdurrahman bin Hammad al-Attiyah followed-up in Tehran to further consolidate these contacts. President Ahmedinejad had proposed a “new chapter of cooperation” between Iran and the GCC member states. While it would be premature to conclude that all members of the GCC have given up their hostility toward the Islamic Republic, the fact that the GCC secretary general was in Tehran at the beginning of November indicates that the group is opening up to Iran. Further, while these sheikhdoms remain closely aligned with and under the influence of Washington, they feel sufficiently emboldened to refuse to buy the canard that the Islamic Republic poses a threat to their existence.

During his visit to Doha last year, President Ahmedinejad had said, “We are proposing the conclusion of a security agreement.” This was meant to assure the GCC member states that there was no need for external powers to interfere in the affairs of the Persian Gulf region. The security of the region should be the responsibility of the littoral states. While these states, especially Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, are not likely to break loose of Uncle Sam’s deathly embrace, collectively they are beginning to chart an independent course. Al-Attiyah told reporters during his visit to Tehran that “Ahmadinejad’s proposals on security issues are also practical and some working committees are considering them.”

The GCC States were also infuriated by the US raid into Syria on October 26. Such brazen disregard for the sovereignty of a fellow Arabian state has convinced many in the Arab world that the US is the source of most of the instability in the region, guided as it is by arrogance and imperial hubris. There was further good news for Iran when al-Attiyah announced, “We support Iran’s nuclear program, which is completely peaceful.” Such a categorical statement in support of Iran was augmented when he added that he was “surprised” the world had turned a blind eye to Israel’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. America’s policy of creating a rift between the conservative Arabian states and Iran lies in shambles. This also opens better prospects for economic cooperation between Tehran and the GCC. Already, Tehran’s trade with the UAE is thriving and prospects for a regional free trade look particularly promising. Such developments will speed up the banishment of Uncle Sam from this strategic waterway.

The third pillar of Iran’s relations with other countries, the middle level economic powers — Brazil, India, Venezuela and South Korea et al — is a little more problematic. While Brazilian President Lula de Silva was in Tehran recently for the much-anticipated Iran-Brazil summit, India has been playing a duplicitous role vis-à-vis Tehran. The foreign ministry has been slow in reading India’s true intentions. For instance, India established diplomatic relations with Israel in the early nineties yet Iran overlooked this alarming development. New Delhi also successfully played both sides of the fence even as Delhi-Tel Aviv military, economic and strategic relations deepened. Three years ago, under pressure from the US, India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency over its peaceful nuclear program. Again, reaction from Tehran was quite mute.

It would appear that Iran is at last waking up to the threat it faces from India. Not only is India pursuing a brutal policy of repression against the people of Kashmir, Delhi has also now expanded its strategic and security cooperation with the US and Israel to such a level that in October, Israeli general Avi Mizrahi and US general George Casey visited the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. This was a sharp departure from past practice and clearly indicated India’s readiness for direct US and Israeli involvement in the disputed region of Kashmir. Iran’s inveterate enemies, the US and Israel, are now in league with an India that is facilitating their encroachment on another strategic terrain. Should this diabolical plan succeed, the US-Israel encirclement of Iran would have taken a quantum leap forward.

India has been involved in other hostile acts as well. In mid-October, Delhi deployed for the first time ever a warship in the Persian Gulf. It will operate in close coordination with the Western navies under the aegis of NATO. Instead of assuring Iran that such deployment was not hostile, the Indian External Affairs Minister Parnab Mukherjee while visiting Tehran from October 31 to November 2, arrogantly asserted, “India has a natural and abiding stake in the safety and security of the sea lanes of communication from the Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf.” Further, at the end of October, India held naval exercises off its western coast with the US Navy and its nuclear retinue of aircraft carriers, submarines and frigates. Iran clearly views all US-NATO deployments in the region as hostile and has made its position clear.

Iran announced the opening of a new naval base at Jask in the eastern part of the Strait of Hormuz in response to these hostile acts. Tehran needs to conduct a more robust diplomacy as well and not be lulled to sleep by the sweet but forked-tongued of New Delhi. There is an urgent need to understand the duplicitous nature of India and its close alliance with the imperialist US and Zionist Israel. Tehran must add India to its list of enemies. The sooner it is done the better for the defence of the Islamic State. Lowering its guard against India may prove costly for Iran.

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