Iran’s politics: constants and variables

Hazem Saghieh
11 May 2006

It is a pity that in the middle east we can never think about the slightest event going on around us without dredging up the past. Current affairs, which have a bearing on the future, are as closely tied to the past as a newborn child is to its mother.

Whether recent or remote, the past is always more than a mere background to events. This is as true of Iranian politics as it is of anything else. Thus, whenever Arab-Iranian relations undergo some development or other, there are always scholars reminding us of the Safavid dynasty established in 16th-century Iran. At that time, the Safavids embraced Shi'ism, not from religious zeal but because they wanted to distinguish themselves within the Islamic world from the Sunni Arabs.

This is the latest article in a growing openDemocracy debate about how war with Iran can be avoided:

Kaveh Ehsani, "On the brink: the Great Satan vs the Axis of Evil"
(3 May 2006)

Mary Walsh, " The Iran crisis: a United Nations solution" (8 May 2006)

Trita Parsi, " The United States's double-vision in Iran" (9 May 2006)

Raymond Barrett, " Iran through Arab eyes"
(10 May 2006)

Scilla Elworthy, "If diplomacy fails"
(11 May 2006)

For an overview of the debate, click here

However, Iranian history is also characterised by great suspicion towards the country's European neighbours to the north, first the Russians and later the British. Moscow and London eventually managed to divide Iran into spheres of influence before the first world war, and again during the second world war. When the United States emerged as a player on the international stage, there was initially terrible friction between Tehran and Washington. This took the form of General Fazlollah Zahedi's 1953 coup – sponsored by the US Central Intelligence Agency – against prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq (or Mossadegh), who had nationalised the Iranian oil sector.

The Iranian subconscious

There are two constant features of the Iranian collective subconscious. One is a sense of difference from, and superiority to, the Arabs. The other is a mixture of caution and popular hostility towards the west. In recent decades, both have manifested themselves in different ways. The late shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, feared the Soviet Union and went to great lengths to cosy up to the US. However, he also wanted to use his county's oil and its position in the region to turn Iran into a major ally of the west, rather than just a minor hanger-on. He therefore set about trying to fill the vacuum left by the British withdrawal from the Gulf in the early 1970s, and occupied three Arab islands – Greater and Lesser Tanab, and Abu Musa.

The revolutionary period of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began in 1979 with the occupation of the US embassy, the first such violation of international and diplomatic norms. Furthermore, for all Khomeini's preaching about "Islamic unity", Iran – under his rule and the rule of his followers – did not return the three occupied islands to the Arabs. When the regime spoke of "exporting the revolution", it was clearly targeting the Arab countries on the other side of the Gulf. In the protracted and costly war between Iraq and Iran, the regime in Tehran drew out the hostilities for all it was worth: the idiotic eight-year conflict started by Saddam Hussein allowed the ayatollahs to get rid of their opponents and critics and tighten their unrivalled grip on the country.

Iran's triple boost

The Iranian attitudes outlined above are also powerful factors in Tehran's current policies, which were made even more populist with the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran is seeking western recognition of its influence, which extends from the middle east to Afghanistan. The country has firm allies in this area, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Shi'a parties in Iraq and the ethnic Hazara in Afghanistan.

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat

Among Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy:

"Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes" (June 2004)

"Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?"
(February 2005)

"How to make Israel secure" (August 2005)

(with Saleh Bechir) "The 'Muslim community': a European invention" (October 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (December 2005)

"The cartoon jihad" (March 2006)

However, Tehran has three other aces up its sleeve. The first is its oil wealth, especially given the astronomical rise in crude prices over the past two years, combined with ever increasing demand from giants such as China and India. The second consists of the gross errors that the United States has made in Iraq, and which continue to create a void which Iran is seeking to fill as its neighbour descends into sectarian conflict. The third card is the fact that, since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has posed no threat to Iran. This has allowed Tehran to devote more energy to "western imperialism" (or, in Khomeini's rhetoric, the "Great Satan" and "Lesser Satan", Israel).

Iran's approach to the Arabs is two-pronged, embracing both close ties with radicals and intimidation of conservative governments.

As far as radicals are concerned, Iran has inherited the mantle of their opposition to the west, first from Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the fall of Saddam's regime and its replacement by Shi'a parties, the Syrian government – thrown into crisis by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and its subsequent withdrawal from Lebanon – has become an adjunct of Tehran.

The same can be said of the Palestinian organisations, which were once united under the leadership of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The groups which controlled Lebanon's southern border until 1982 were replaced by the Iran-backed Shi'a Hizbollah (which was established by the Iranians in the early 1980s through their ambassador to Damascus, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi). In Palestine itself, Hamas has taken over power from Arafat's Fatah, while Islamic Jihad has become the most radical opposition faction; both organisations are ultimately closely linked to Tehran.

At the same time, Iran seeks to intimidate the conservative Arab regimes. It hints at using the oppressed Shi'a minorities of the Gulf to tear the region apart. The Gulf states will also find themselves faced with stark options, having to choose between the cost of acquiring nuclear weapons or seeking protection from the US. The latter would entail explicitly renouncing the Arab-Israeli conflict, or what remains of it. Of course, with radicals in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon proclaiming their sympathy for the Iranian nuclear programme just as the Gulf states declare their alarm at it, there is nothing much left of pan-Arabism. And this, quite simply, is another gain for Iran.

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