by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 3, Ramadan, 1443)
As global policy centers, analysts and international relations scholars continue to study the geopolitical struggle between NATO powers and Russia in Ukraine, the analysis, not surprisingly, is framed within the western civilizational worldview. The voice reflecting the Islamic movement’s understanding of international relations and current events is deliberately smothered.
This is not surprising. Most Muslim governments lack Islamic legitimacy, popular support and are indebted for their hold on power not to their societies, but to external powers. Thus, for most governments in the Muslim world, Islam is not their guiding framework in policy-making. The purpose of this analysis is, therefore, to attempt to put forward a Muslim perspective on an important geopolitical event in Europe. It will examine how Islamic Iran avoided falling into a precarious state that Russia finds itself in today.
Prior to delving deeper into the comparative analysis of the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine, let us outline the basic theoretical parameters of what Islam’s outlook is on foreign policy and state-to-state interactions.
Islam, like all other ideologies, secular and non-secular, has its own value system and aims to operate within its framework. Islam has a detailed legal system which has been developed over centuries by Muslim scholars from across the globe. Thus, Islam has a concrete systematized theoretical and practical system within which its adherents aim to operate, on the individual and collective levels.
In contemporary domineering theories of international relations, states pursue policies to maximize influence and power, often for power’s sake. Ideals and international organizations and so on, are mainly means to that goal. However, to be objective, different schools of international relations prioritize power differently, but power is the end goal.
On a practical level, one of the key differences in the Islamic system of state-to-state interaction is that an Islamic state is a state of law, meaning a state entity identifying itself as Islamic is not free to pursue every goal and every objective as it deems fit. Its pursuits must be within the Islamic legal framework and power can be sacrificed for the sake of higher goals. For example, many Muslim and non-Muslim political analysts fail to understand that the primary reason Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons is because it has been declared Islamically prohibited.
The office of the Guardian-Jurist in Iran deems it forbidden due to a conviction factor, and for no other reason. For domineering theories of international relations, since convictions are secondary, most regimes opposing Islamic Iran cannot fathom the idea as to why Tehran would not pursue nuclear weapons when it can.
Muslims believe that adherence or non-adherence to Islam’s laws will have concrete ramifications in this world and the hereafter, for a state, individuals running the state and those obeying the state’s authorities. The last part might sound controversial, but it is not. It is not drastically different from other contemporary political systems. For example, part of the reason NATO regimes are imposing collateral sanctions upon the entire Russian population is because they want to impose a cost on ordinary Russian citizens for obeying and tolerating the rule of Vladimir Putin’s government.
If a reader has got to this point, it might be assumed that this analysis aims to argue that in Islam, power politics plays no role. This is not the case. Every state has geopolitical, military and economic interests. Just like the objectives of most business entities is to make profit, one of the primary aims of a state entity and state institution is to increase influence. This has been so for all states, whether ruled by despots or by the Prophets of God and their successors. The fundamental difference being that each state entity will justify and explain its influence increasing policies within its philosophical paradigm and worldview. Some of those paradigms and worldviews are driven by power politics and wealth acquisition, but we believe that in Islam this is not the case.
The more coherent, reasonable and to a certain extent utilitarian the policies of a state entity are, the greater prestige, appeal and power a state entity is likely to gain. Continued incoherence and hypocrisy are the primary opposites of this. When practical policies begin to regularly and systematically clash with the ideals preached, a state entity goes through turmoil and sometimes even collapses.
The Soviet Union is a good example of the collapse factor where communist slogans and ideas had very little to do with the lifestyle of the leadership or the country’s internal and external policies. The United States of America is also an example of incoherence and hypocrisy factor. With vast soft-power mechanism, a powerful political system, the US soft-power is declining and it is one of the few countries viewed unfavorably globally.
Another key commonality between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union is that for both attractive slogans are means to attaining naked power. The primary difference being that the US is more sophisticated in its mechanisms in pursuing dominance and power than its contenders.
Prior to comparing Russia’s peculiar circumstances as a result of its actions in Ukraine and comparing how Islamic Iran avoided finding itself in a similar situation in its foreign policy conduct, we do not claim that Iran’s foreign policy is perfect. We are analyzing the advantages of having an Islamic-centered state system led by God-centric Muslim jurists. To make it clear to Muslim leaders, let us draw a more relatable parallel within an Islamic framework. In daily conduct of life when people argue that so and so Muslim is an example of an exemplary Muslim, no one argues for his or her infallibility, that would be blasphemous.
When it comes to the current situation in Ukraine, the Russian narrative is that NATO’s constant expansion eastward is a threat to its national security. This is a plausible narrative if one remembers the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and Washington’s belligerent reaction to it. Imagine how the US would react if Russia established military presence in the Caribbean or Mexico. These examples are not hypotheses but based on reality. Remember the Monroe Doctrine? How the US overthrew the socialist government in Chile in 1973 to maintain the Monroe Doctrine? These examples are not listed due to the “WhatAboutism” factor, but as an explanation to the reality that most state entities have strategic interests for which they fight wars and battles.
Moscow’s narrative on the absolute importance of a neutral Ukraine looks somewhat plausible on paper, but the methodology of how Putin went about addressing Russia’s strategic geopolitical interests was a tragic miscalculation. Strictly from a cost-benefit approach, whatever gains Moscow will achieve in Ukraine, its long-term negative ramifications are likely to outweigh the benefits for Russia.
Thus, we are coming to a central topic of this assessment, how did Islamic Iran avoid a similar miscalculation in its conduct of foreign policy in its regional theater of operations?
Prior to answering this question, a reader might pose another legitimate question: did Islamic Iran ever find itself in a similar situation? Yes, it did and on three crucial occasions.
In 1998 when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Their fighters killed eleven Iranian diplomats and kidnapped several others in their consulate in Mazar-i Sharif. In response, Islamic Iran amassed a significant military force on the Iran-Afghan border, but did not go to war with Afghanistan.
From a purely Machiavellian perspective, war on the Taliban in 1998 could have won Iran some political praise abroad. It might even have brought some economic backing of the west. Western regimes are always happy to subsidise a divide and conquer policy. By striking the Taliban, Iran would have also pleased its domestic nationalist political groupings. Also, Tehran’s decisive action against the Taliban in 1998 would probably have been appreciated by the sectarian-minded segment of Shia Muslims.
Islamic Iran, however, did not make this mistake in 1998 because it would have ignited an intra-Muslim conflict which the western powers would have immediately framed as a Sunni-Shia war. This would have further divided the already fragmented Muslim Ummah. The decision not to take military action against the Taliban was taken not because of calculations, but because Iran’s leadership understood the harm it would inflict upon the broader the Muslim Ummah and the wider region.
It is no secret that Islamic Iran’s regional foreign policy objective is the empowerment of Islamic movements throughout West Asia. One of those places is Bahrain. When the popular uprising began in Bahrain in 2011, Islamic socio-political organizations leading the mass peaceful protests were brutally supressed by the western-backed autocratic regime and the US armed Saudi forces. Once Saudi forces invaded Bahrain and began murdering Iran’s ideological allies, Tehran could have easily put emphasis on hard-power and convert Bahrain into mini-South Lebanon for the Saudi regime and its western backers.
Considering the regional events of 2011, Iran could have presented its actions in Bahrain as assistance to an oppressed population standing up to tyranny. However, Islamic Iran did not pursue this policy. Had this approach been adopted, it would have be a gift to external regimes and would have ignited another intra-Muslim Sunni-Shia conflict at the doorsteps of the Haramayn.
Again, from a purely Machiavellian perspective, Iran’s emphasis on hard power in Bahrain would have entangled its opponents in yet another conflict far more than Iran itself, especially considering the regional political climate of 2011. Yet, this scenario was avoided, as it would divert the energy of the Islamic Awakening (Arab Spring) towards an intra-Muslim conflict. Iran could benefit, but the wider region would lose.
In the Palestinian theater of operations, it is no secret that Islamic Iran is the only Muslim state that provides Palestinians with the means of self-defence. It is also not a secret that among the Palestinians, there are Saudified anti-Iranian trend camouflaged as Salafis. Yet, Islamic Iran continues to provide unconditional military and political support to the Palestinian resistance at a great political and economic cost to itself.
This position was reiterated by a senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar. Iran derives no economic or political benefits from backing the Palestinian cause which has been betrayed by most Arabian regimes. Iran could easily have imposed stiff political conditions on the Palestinians for its multifaceted support just as the Saudis deal with their allies in Lebanon.
At this point, depending on one’s level of consumption of western corporate propaganda, Iran’s stance in Syria may pop-up. So, let us take up the question: what about Iran’s support of the Syrian government? Events in Syria have clearly shown that if the Syrian government were to fall, it would not be ruled by independent-minded, election-oriented Muslims whose primary concern would be the welfare of the Syrian people. Head-chopping Western backed militias would be running Syria like a warlord county. One can look at Idlib to see what would happen. Even though it is run by ideologically allied militias, they are constantly at each other’s throats.
They even persecute their hardcore supporters, as was the case with Bilal Abdul Kareem, the head of ‘On the Ground News’ platform, known for its support of militias running Idlib today. While not popular in 2011-2012, Iran’s rational policy in Syria stands vindicated.
Thus, the reason for Iran’s successful conduct of foreign policy against immense odds lies in the fact that the reigns of power and the governing system’s core are in the hands of leaders driven by Islam’s hereafter accountability paradigm. Minus this factor, and Islamic Iran would miscalculate its conduct of foreign policy like Russia did in Ukraine.
Leadership not constructed upon systemic principles is driven by naked ambitions and becomes drunk with power. A drunkard cannot reason in a sober manner. Drunkenness is forbidden in Islam, be it with wine, power, wealth or ego.
Thus, if Islamic Iran continues to stick to this Islamic prohibition, the ulama will continue to out-CIA the CIA and out-Mossad the Mossad, as they have done for the past 42 years. The men with turbans on their heads and prayer beads in their hands have proved to be way more prudent statesmen than KGB officers or graduates of Harvard University.