As the United States and other world powers rushed to complete the framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran last April, a naval confrontation loomed in the Gulf of Aden.
Iran had sent a flotilla of nine cargo ships toward Yemen, where Saudi Arabia had recently imposed a naval blockade as part of its efforts to beat back a military campaign by Houthi rebels that had forced Yemen’s president to flee the country. The Iranian ships’ cargo was unknown, but their approach to Yemen was a direct challenge to the Saudi blockade.
“I was on the phone in an instant to my counterpart, and made it very, very clear that this could be a major confrontation, that we were not going to tolerate it,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the Council on Foreign Relations last month. “And he called me back, indeed, within a short span of time and said, ‘They will not land, they are not going to unload anything, they are not going to go out of international waters.’”
Just to be sure, the U.S. dispatched an aircraft carrier, the USS Roosevelt, to the area.
A month later, Iran again diverted a freighter that had been bound for a Houthi-held port after the U.S. publicly warned against breaking the Saudi blockade.
We have an ideological obligation, based on the constitution, to support all the oppressed. And, second, to support Shiite groups all over the world.
Ali Bigdeli, Iranian National University
A leading Iranian foreign affairs analyst cites Iran’s diversions of its ships as recent evidence that 36 years after the Islamic revolution brought the ayatollahs to power, Iran has become a nation more interested in preserving stability and the status quo than in driving revolutionary upheaval.
“How can this not be a status quo power?” said Kayhan Barzegar, the chairman of the Institute of Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. “You see the pragmatism.”
As the U.S. Congress debates the nuclear deal with Iran, with a yay or nay vote expected by Sept. 20, one issue remains at the forefront of the discussion: Can Iran become an accepted member of the world community or will it be an outlier, bent on disrupting the international order? A related question: Will the financial benefits from sanctions relief, assuming the accord is fully implemented, go to support far-flung military causes or will it facilitate Iran’s return to international life?
A week of interviews with experts and government officials in Iran reveals a complex answer. World recognition of Iran as a serious negotiating partner will weaken Iranian hardliners who thrive on having the U.S. as an enemy, chiefly by reducing fears of a U.S. plot to overthrow the Islamic regime. Yet Iran’s most controversial foreign engagements are grounded in the principles of the 1979 revolution and aren’t about to go away.
Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the unelected Supreme Leader, set the tone shortly after the accord was signed July 14.
One of the thorniest of the issues is Iran’s long-standing engagement in Lebanon.
He lavished praise on the government of President Hassan Rouhani for leading “these long and breathtaking negotiations” but said also said Iran’s “policy toward the arrogant government of America will not change a bit.” Iran, he said, “will not stop supporting our friends in the region.” They included the “oppressed nation of Palestine, the oppressed nation of Yemen, the Syrian nation and government, the Iraqi nation and government, the oppressed people of Bahrain.”
In Iran, the statement is seen as a balancing act between different factions.
The uprising of Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are Zaydi Muslims, a branch of Shiite Islam, shows that Iranian leaders can’t easily strike the balance on their own.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahlan, scorns Saudi Arabia’s “incorrect approach” of airstrikes and a blockade on Yemen. Noting that Iran has neither troops nor advisers in Yemen, he urged the Saudis to accept an Iranian peace plan that calls for a cease-fire, negotiations, national talks and a national unity government. Yet Iran’s initial eagerness to test the Saudi blockade suggested Iran has not entirely given up on its support for the rebels.
Iran’s “policy toward the arrogant government of America will not change a bit.”
Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors as well as Turkey and Israel see Tehran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen as a low-risk challenge to Saudi Arabia, its major Gulf rival, Saudi Arabia. Riskier for them, and more threatening to regional peace, is Iran’s domination of Lebanon through the Shiite Hezbollah militia and its backing of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
One of the thorniest of the issues is Iran’s long-standing engagement in Lebanon. Hezbollah has thousands of fighters under command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which reports to Khamenei, not to the elected government.
“Hezbollah is a puppet of Iran,” said Ali Bigdeli, a professor of international relations at the Iranian National University. “And as long as Khamenei is alive, nothing can happen” to it.
Since Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, Iran has resupplied the militia with 100,000-plus sophisticated rockets and missiles, by Israeli estimates. “Hezbollah can destroy all of Israel in one hour,” boasted Hamid-rezi Taraghi, the international affairs spokesman for the Islamic Coalition party and a former member of Iran’s parliament. But he said Iran holds the trigger. “Hezbollah is not seeking to do this,” he said. “But if it comes to a point where Israel threatens Iran or Lebanon, maybe it could come to that.”
Iran helped create Hezbollah after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to rid the country of forces belonging to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, then set up a zone of occupation in southern Lebanon that it held onto until the year 2000. At the time, Lebanon’s Shiites were at the bottom of the country’s multi-ethnic totem pole, though Hezbollah now is Lebanon’s dominant political and military force.
The problem for great regional states is that they cannot back off their decisions because of domestic politics.
Kayhan Barzegar, Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies
Today, Iranian experts justify Iran’s continued support for Hezbollah by pointing to Article 155 of Iran’s constitution. The passage calls for “non-interference in other countries’ affairs,” but also pledges support “for the just struggles of the downtrodden against the oppressors in every corner of the globe.”
“We have to support all of the voiceless and the oppressed,” said Taraghi.
“We have an ideological obligation, based on the constitution to support all the oppressed,” Bigdel echoed. “And, second, to support Shiite groups all over the world.”
That position is questioned by some prominent Iranians. “Iran doesn’t have vital interests in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a prominent political scientist and retired diplomat who holds a doctorate from American University in Washington. “Iran has no vital interests in Lebanon.”
Still, debate rages within Iran’s intellectual and foreign policy circles, “about how far Iran’s regional policy should go,” Bazergar said.
Some would like to support a revolution in Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim monarchy often accused of oppressing its Shiite minority. “Definitely. This kind of revolution will take place sooner or later,” Taraghi said. “We have to support all the voiceless and the oppressed.”
Others are trying to determine how to back down gracefully.
“The problem for great regional states is that they cannot back off their decisions because of domestic politics,” Barzegar said. “The Saudis cannot, Iranians cannot, and Turkey cannot.”
But finding a way back from rigid positions is essential, he said, because only “regional cooperation,” with all countries making concessions, will resolve the Middle East’s conflicts.
Iran’s own interests require cooperating with other regional powers to preserve the status quo, Barzegar argues. Iraq is one major example. While many Middle East experts see Iraq as destined to come apart following the collapse of its army, Iran, which has considerable influence in Baghdad, is determined to prevent that from happening, particularly the separation of the Kurdish provinces now governed by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
“Iran never wanted to have three smaller states on its western borders. That would bring conflict and tensions,” said Barzegar, referring to predictions that Iraq would eventually be separately governed Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni states.
He calls the creation of a Kurdish state “a fantasy now.”
“No one wants the change of state borders or a state’s collapse,” he said.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc