Media Link: Iran as a strategic actor.

datePosted on 12:00, February 5th, 2020 by Pablo

Unhappy with the demonisation of Iran in Western media, I was fortunate to have the Australian Institute of International Affairs invite me to write an alternative analysis for their on-line journal Australian Outlook. I did, and they serialised it into two parts. The essays are short, so I did not get into the fraught history of Iran-US relations dating back to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Emperor of Iran or the alliances that contemporary Iran has with China and Russia (which complicates any attempts to attack it). My main objective was to provide a counter to the notion that Iran is a rogue actor run by religious extremists hell-bent on sowing chaos on the world stage.

The essays are here and here.

16 Responses to “Media Link: Iran as a strategic actor.”

  1. Görkem on February 5th, 2020 at 21:05

    I think all reasonably well informed people know about the broad history of Iran-west relations. It’s the present that is murky and requires illumination by experts in Iranian internal politics like you, Pablo.

  2. Pablo on February 6th, 2020 at 08:33

    Gorkem:

    I make no pretence of being an expert on Iranian internal politics. What I try to do is use the analytic tools I have acquired over the years to examine the characteristics and dynamics of contemporary events, regimes and situations. I spent a fair amount of time reading about Iranian strategic culture and whether it was a rational actor (including in US military journals). I tied those readings to writings about the Iranian regime, which among other things was far more militant in the 1980s than it is today (as could be expected). When used in combination, prior knowledge and experience plus focused reading on contemporary issues allows me to feel pretty confident about offering objective light on a given subject. Or at least that is what I try to do.

  3. Görkem on February 6th, 2020 at 23:37

    I think you are being too hard on yourself Pablo… what is expertise if not the application of analytical tools by a skilled and experienced professional, in order to produce a layered and nuanced result – as displayed by your two medium-form blog posts. If this doesn’t make you an expert, it is hard to imagine what expertise would look like!

  4. Tom Hunter on February 9th, 2020 at 16:32

    Hi Paul

    Good to see. Decided to comment on and link your two pieces as a contrast to what I’ve written about the Iranian situation post Soleimani.

  5. Pablo on February 9th, 2020 at 17:57

    Thanks Tom.

    It was nice of you to reflect on the posts and although I once again, inevitably, will have to disagree with your subsequent analysis, it is good to match thoughts on the matter. TBH, you have added much to the value of that blog. Now, if you can drop the racist and soften the visceral partisanship of some of your colleagues, then you should give KB a run fo the money when it comes to Right-leaning NZ blog commentary. Cheers.

  6. Görkem on February 10th, 2020 at 08:28

    Hey Pablo, considering your personal connection to Argentina, what is your thoughts on the Revolutionary Guard’s involvement in the Buenos Aires Jewish community centre bombing? How does this fit into Iran’s strategic ambitions as a rational actor?

  7. Pablo on February 10th, 2020 at 12:28

    Gorkem:

    Interesting question. The bombings of the Jewish Community Centre (AIMA) in 1994 and Israeli Embassy (1992) in Buenos Aires were retaliation for the killing of Hezbollah leaders in what was then a tight tit-for-tat cycle of violence between Israel and Hezbollah (allegations that the 94 bombing was because Argentina suspended a nuclear exchange deal with Iran are wrong because those talks were never suspended even after the 92 bombing). In both cases Iran provided the explosives and provided diplomatic cover for their transfer as well as some operatives, Hezbollah sent operatives (both were suicide van bombings), the event was planned in the Tri-Border region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, and right-wing Argentine neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists with military and police connections provided the final logistics, including the vans. The latter included individuals tied to the infamous “Carapintadas” movement led by Aldo Rico and Mohamed Ali Seineldin, both Army officers deeply associated with the human rights abuses of the 1976-83 dictatorship (In spite of his name, Seineldin was a covert to Catholicism from his native Lebanese Druze origins, although he maintained ties to individuals from the Levant in the Tri-Border area who were suspected of being Hezbollah agents (Hezbollah still has a significant presence in that region).

    The AIMA bombing is Argentina’s worst terrorist act, which is saying a lot. But it turned Argentine public against the perpetrators because the Argentine Jewish community, which is large and deeply embedded in Argentine society over many generations, was and is not seen as the type of enemy that it is often portrayed as in other Western societies. The Argentine governments then (Menem) and to this day have placed the blame for both bombings squarely on Iran and for a long while suspended diplomatic relations with it. However, the Fernandez de Kirchner government (2007-2015) sought to restore full ties with Iran, something that prompted a backlash from judicial sources still seeking extradition and compensation from Iran over the bombings. The main prosecutor of the AIMA case, Alberto Nisman (a Jew), was murdered in 2015 just as he was about to present documents linking Fernandez de Kirchner to Iran and the cover up of its involvement in the bombings (Argentina was pursing a trade deal with Iran at the time).

    There are much more murky doings involved, including the role Argentine intelligence (SIDE) played in the bombings, subsequent attempts to thwart the investigations, the covert overtures to Iran during that period and Nisman’s death. Let’s just say that although Argentine society has for the most part embraced the Jewish side of its common heritage, there are those in the security services who to this day have not. And unfortunately, as elsewhere, the rise of the Argentine alt-Right has seen a rise in anti-Semitic episodes in recent years in spite of official and societal condemnations.

  8. James Green on February 10th, 2020 at 19:55

    A good summation of the facts given the allotted space I thought. You mentioned the gap that could be filled with the prior history but after reading it I find that it begets the question of what the heck the motivations of the United States are in their manoeuvres against Iran? Seems to me they would be far better served by switching sides from Saudi to Iran.

    That comment about the Argentina bombings was great by the way.

  9. Di Trower on February 11th, 2020 at 15:50

    Thank you, Pablo, for a really interesting and informative essay. It helps make the way the world really works much clearer, even through all the murk. This may not be an appropriate place to post this link (please let me know if it is not) but I have just read the following and I’d be very interested in your thoughts on it – I’ve been trying to make sense of the Trump administration and matters around the Deep State. This essay by David Talbot (founder of Salon) has clarified a lot of things for me, but I wonder what your take on this might be? https://www.facebook.com/david.talbot.9440/posts/2807796499264203

  10. Görkem on February 12th, 2020 at 03:06

    Hey Pablo, thanks for the summary of the events of 1994. I was wondering though less about the specifics and logistics of what happened then, or the subsequent ramifications on Argentinian domestic politics, but how it fitted into Iran’s strategic culture and the strategic priorities that Iran seeks to strategically achieve in its strategic actions, strategically.

    Specifically, you have mentioned that Iran wants to be seen as a legitimate regional power – how do tit-for-tat assassinations on civilian targets on the other side of the world fit into that? It doesn’t speak to legitimacy or regional identity – quite the opposite, in my (admittedly uneducated) view.

  11. Pablo on February 12th, 2020 at 07:42

    Gorkem:

    The tit-for-tat iteration occurred when the Iranian regime was far more hardline in overall orientation. Through its actions it signalled to Israel that it had global reach (when in fact at the time it only had reach on places like Argentina because of the Hezbollah presence in the Tri Border area). The response was disproportionate given that it was responding to the killing of individual Hezbollah leaders, but it did serve its purpose because Israel slowed its extrajudicial killings of Hezbollah operatives (although it continued larger scale military operations in Southern Lebanon and against Hamas in Gaza). Interestingly, as the tit-for-tat diminished in overt intensity, pragmatists began to emerge in parts of the regime, including the military, diplomatic corps and economic management sectors. Some of this was concidental and required because of societal pressures and international sanctions and demands, but some was due to a realization that a straight hardline apporach was a road to nowhere and needed to be balanced with a more non-ideological defense of national strategic interests. After all, Iran would not be able to secure reliable dilomatic, economic and military aid if it was seen as run by a bunch of bug eyed zealots hell bent on continuing an ideological fight without regard to consequence for their society as a whole.

    What that evolved into is a more even balance between moderates and militants in the regime, which is why US efforts to bully Iran only serve to undermine the positions of the former at a time when Iran should be treated as a major regional counterweight to the Arab oligarchies and Wahhabist/Salafist extremism.

  12. Görkem on February 12th, 2020 at 10:42

    So it would be fair to say the description of Iran in your articles is a description of its current strategic thinking, but during the early-to-mid 90s its strategic thinking was quite different, and perhaps more similar to the crude stereotype of “Iran as a terrorist state” that exists in the western media to this day?

    Do you think Iran might ever revert to such a strategic culture, whether as a result of external pressure or some domestic dynamic?

    You mentioned that Iran moved away from a globalist, terrorist strategy in order to secure reliable diplomatic, economic and military aid. Do you think that was successful? My impression is that even leaving aside the USA, Iran is still a country with a fairly substantial image problem, both locally and in the wider world.

  13. Pablo on February 12th, 2020 at 13:25

    Gorkem,

    The early stages of the Iranian Revolution was marked by the dominance of hardline or militant views within the revolutionary regime. After all, it was hardliners who overthrew the Shah and it was they who successfully navigated the perils of the early years (which include foreign funded counter-revolutionary disruptions, foreign interference and even foreign attack). But as time wore on and revolutionary fervour was replaced with more sober assessments of the country’s position, added to the fact that by 2000 there was a generation born after the revolution that did not share the original fervour of their parents (when that was the case), you had the makings of a turn towards moderation, at least in some sectors of society and the regime.

    However, as with all human constructs, it is possible that Iran–or more precisely, the Iranian regime–may revert to a more extremist posture, especially if under siege. But it also has that other human trait, which the ability to learn from experience. That experience has shown that extremism is counter-productive over the long-term and therefore inimical for the successful pursuit of broad strategic interests. Add in the fact that it is home to many ethnicities, linguistic groups and religious sub-cultures and is in a location that is both a geopolitical blessing and a curse, and it seems logical to believe that the regime will try to balance its militant and moderate impulses for both domestic and international reasons.

    As for how Iran has fared vis a vis the world community. I think that it has slowly been able to develop more reasonable ties with a number of nations, not just Russia and China. Remember that revolutionary regimes are never initially received well by the international community since they represent the triumph of anti-status quo forces in a community that abhors “bottom-up” disruptions. As former revolutionary regimes themselves, it is not surprising that China and Russia are allies of Iran (or for that matter DPRK, which sees it self as another anti-status quo country). But the proof of its acceptance and normalisation as a regional actor came when Europeans and others like NZ began to trade with it, something that was confirmed by the P5+1 nuclear deal that brought together security council members and Germany as major interlocutors.

    Now, the fact that the US has placed secondary sanctions on those who would try to continue to trade with Iran and treat it normally after the US abandoned the deal is proof that in many quarters it is not seen as “rogue” or “terroristic.” Again, remember that Iran has not started any major war with anyone but has been the subject of (Western-supported) attack in the form of the 1980 Iraqi invasion (which itself was born partially out of fear of the “contagion effect” of the Iranian Revolution amongst Iraqi Shiites). So both objectively, by its own actions and in the punitive threats that the US makes to those who would treat it as a “normal” country, Iran is regarded by most states not as the terrorism-sponsoring pariah that Israel and the US portray it to be, but as a middle sized power with enormous potential located in a strategically important part of the world that is led by a semi-authoritarian regime at odds with the Middle Eastern status quo and the Western states that support that status quo.

  14. Görkem on February 13th, 2020 at 03:51

    I know it is a side point, but Russia isn’t really a “former revolutionary regime”. Although Putin is sporadically nostalgic about the glories of the USSR, there was a hard break in 1991. Russia is no more a former revolutionary regime than Iran is a former feudal regime. And while the current Chinese regime did originate in a revolutionary situation I don’t think this really informs their foreign policy – China’s closest ally, Pakistan, has quite strong counter-revolutionary credentials.

    SO would you say Iran is fully normalised now, outside of the USA? I think that is overstating the fact. Iran has made steps towards normalisation, but it is still perceived as quite threatening in a lot of countries in the Middle East, and it still has a bad image in popular culture in most of Europe, even if European governments are more pragmatic. You say Europe and NZ started to trade with Iran, but did they ever stop? Other than arms embargos during the Iran-Iraq war and the UN restrictions on nuclear-related technology (very narrow ones), I don’t think the EU countries have ever had any restrictions on purely commercial trade with Iran. If trade is viewed as an index of normalisation, the Iranian regime was already normalised in 1994, at the same time it was bombing civilians in Argentina. I think it is also a bit of a stretch to call 1994 the early stages of the revolution – many of the initial actors had already left the scene, and those in control in 1994 had largely been second ranked players in the events of the 1970s. The post-revolutionary generation hadn’t got its hands on power by 1994, it is true, but it was making its voice felt.

    Other than external pressure, what internal strategic dynamics do you think might cause Iran to become more strategically repressive?

  15. Pablo on February 13th, 2020 at 12:45

    Gorkem:

    I think that you discount the impact of historical memory on post-revolutionary societies. The Russians most certainly remember the Bolshevik Revolution and the response of the international community to it (Lenin predicted that the imperialist nations would try to encircle and destroy Soviet Russia, and eventually one such nation did try to to do so (Imperial Japan was not much of a factor)). That was followed by the containment policy of the Cold War, which the USSR saw as confirmation of such encirclement. Likewise. the PRC vividly remembers the Long March and how the West turned on it after the defeat of the Japanese. Iran has strong ties with Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, the DPRK and Venezuela (which sees itself as revolutionary, at least in its public rhetoric). All of these countries had their first post-revolutionary regimes challenged and undermined by Western capitalist countries, usually former colonial overlords. That history is taught in schools and is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of these states even if they have abandoned their revolutionary ideals and even settled for state capitalism as the pragmatic path forward in an era of globalised production and exchange.

    This does not preclude them from having normal relations with many non-revolutionary regimes in both the developed and underdeveloped worlds. In fact, the continuation of trade relations between Iran and a host of countries is clear evidence that it is not seen as the rogue state that the US and Israel make it out to be. What has disrupted Iran’s foreign and trade relations is a series of sanctions, first on the revolutionary regime itself for having the temerity to exist, then on its nuclear program at various stages, then as a supporter of terrorism and now again because of its nuclear program. These sanctions varied in their enforceability and the adhesion of countries to them, and it has only been with the US imposing secondary sanctions against countries and companies that continue to trade with Iran (like Airbus) where the sanctions have begun to bite–not because of Iran’s behaviour but because of the negative economic consequences of the US unilaterally punishing those who display an independent attitude towards Iran.

    Put another way: if US sanctions were lifted do you think that Iran would be treated as a pariah state?

    We will have to disagree about whether 1994 was past the “foundational moment” of the theocratic regime. My sense is that it did indeed show signs of moderating in some policy areas and exhibited signs of transitioning to a new leadership generation, but that when it came to military-intelligence-security, hardliners with links to 1979 as well as their immediate disciples still were in firm control.

    The dangers to Iran are generational and technological. Like Cuba, which I know a bit better, it now has a majority of citizens who are of the post-revolutionary generation and who do not share the same zeal of their parents. They are exposed to more direct means of communication from foreign sources that are hard for the regime to block, and they continue to be the subjects of attention by foreign destabilisation operations and the appeals of the exile community, both Shah loyalists and not. When coupled with the economic deprivation produced by the sanctions, this younger generation–basically everyone under the age of 40–may not be as keen to defend the revolution as a matter of ideological principle. That poses problems for the theocrats and hardliners.

    But this younger generation has also not forgotten their historical roots. They are nationalists before anything else and will defend the nation (as opposed to the theocratic state) in the event of attack. So the major concerns for the regime leadership is that ethnic and other social tensions will increase and accelerate under the strain of economic hardship and increased inter-group competition for scarce domestic resources without the unifying counter-weight of a hegemonic ideology to off-set and ameliorate those tensions. The real challenges to Iran’s leaders, in other words, come from within, not without.

  16. Görkem on February 14th, 2020 at 23:10

    I know this is a side note but I think we are going to have to agree to disagree about Russia. I certainly don’t think there is any revolutionary component to Russian foreign policy which is ruthlessly pragmatic, if Russia tries to play up a revolutionary angle in the relations with any particular country that is purely situational and frankly is a bit of a long con on the country concerned, or at least that country’s public sphere. Russia is equally happy collaborating with revolutionary regimes (Iran, Venezuela) and explicitly counter-revolutionary regimes (Hungary, Turkey).

    I’m not disputing the facts of what happened during the 1910s-1950s, or the deep impact they had at the time, just the relevance of that to the Russian-on-the-street or the Russian ruling class. I don’t deny that the Russian regime is not above embroidering its public rhetoric with a few touches of Soviet nostalgia, but this nostalgia is just one of the many tools in the propaganda box and is no more significant than its equally frequent flourishes of christian conservatism, or ethnic nationalism, or Metternich-era cabinet politics.

    Indeed I would personally argue that, to the extent the current regime looks to the past, it is just as interested in the 19th century and the era of Great Power Congress diplomacy (also an era when Russia was extremely powerful) as it is in WW2 or the revolutionary era. It’s illustrative (although obviously not decisive) that internally, Putin is much more often parodied as a horse-riding, frock-coated Napoleonic era general than a Soviet-era apparatchik or chekist (which is all the more notable given that he actually was a chekist).

    I think the idea that Russia, either at the regime or popular level, is deeply invested in its Soviet era legacy is as much a reflection of western preoccupation with the USSR as it is anything about Russia – even to those born after 1991, the USSR is still relatively “live” as a political meme, while the 19th century is obscure to all but strategic experts such as yourself, so to a quite substantial extent western commentary tends to pick up on isolated instances of the rhetoric it expects to see (e.g. Soviet nostalgia) and screen out or just not even notice other instances of rhetoric.

    But going back to Iran – sorry for the derail – I think the chief attraction of Russia to Iran is that they have the same enemies (ISIS, and to a lesser extent Europe/the USA), they have no conflicting geopolitical interests given that Iran has set itself against Sunni Islam and Russia’s internal Muslim population is almost entirely Sunni, and that Russia’s influence in the Middle East is destabilising, which is to Iran’s advantage – Iran’s success in the last 20 years has largely come from its ability to mobilise local Shia militias in other countries and bring them under its own control, most obviously in Lebanon (which was to a large extent the test case) but more recently in Yemen, in Syria and of course in Iraq. Russia has no interest in correcting the situation that has allowed these militias to proliferate, and indeed is actively although indirectly resisting attempts to correct this situation.

    It will be interesting, in the long term, if the Assad regime is willing to continue to allow Iran to maintain strategic command over the various popular mobilisation groups that have sprung up inside Syria in the last ten years. The fact that many of them have an umbilical connection to the extremely well established and indeed institutionalised groups in Lebanon makes it an even more pressing issue. Syria and Iran are of course friendly and have no strategic conflicts, but at the same time, a country which is willing to recognise as legitimate armed groups that, even if they nominally identify as part of a Syrian nation-state, effectively take orders from Teheran has lost a major component of its sovereignty, and the fact that the sovereignty has been lost to a friendly country doesn’t necessarily soften the blow that much. Right now the Syrian regime has much, much bigger problems, and even if things go optimally for them they will continue to have bigger problems for quite a few years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes an issue in the future.

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