During my recent trip to Tehran I had a chance to listen to and participate in discussions on both the political and societal levels about the final stages of the nuclear talks. As I discussed here in mid-February, the level of anxiety in Iran could not be higher.
More importantly, the overall debate about the talks and all its details goes far beyond factional politics. The often-cited (mostly Western) perception that debates in Iran on the nuclear issue run along factional lines is simplistic and misleading.
This debate is not defined by an ideological or programmatic gap between reformists and principlists or moderates and conservatives. Rather, this debate is about Iran’s general foreign policy conduct. In fact, the Islamic Republic is in the process of implementing a foreign policy shift from isolation and resistance towards constructive engagement and cooperation.
If the implementation of this new conduct proves effective and yields foreign policy successes (such as a comprehensive nuclear agreement), it may well lead to an enduring new foreign policy paradigm. But speaking of Iranian politics in factional terms—even after the deal is struck—can harm Iran’s internal dynamics and distract from following up on a promising new foreign policy approach.
Growing Regional Instability
Iran’s foreign policy shift is a logical consequence of the dramatic regional developments since 2010-11 as well as evolving domestic dynamics as early as spring 2011. These changes began to take place long before anyone expected Hassan Rouhani to win the presidential elections in summer 2013.
On the regional front, the post-“Arab Spring” contexts have significantly changed the nature of Iran’s regional security concerns and threat perceptions. Between the early 2000s and early 2011, literally encircled by US military bases, troops, and US-controlled air space, Iran perceived the US military presence in the region as its major security threat.
After 2011, however, the lack of stability, integrity, and security in the region concerned Tehran. With the gradual withdrawal of the US in the region (particularly from Iraq) Iran has had no choice but to act as a responsible actor trying to stabilize this highly conflict-prone region. There is no external superpower anymore that Iran can blame for the region’s insecurity.
Iran has thus put a lot of effort into strengthening the central governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Similarly, Tehran advised Yemen’s Ansarullah movement not to seize the capital Sana’a (but it did not listen). It is not in Iran’s security interest for non-state actors to gain control of capitals in the region. After all, no international conventions, no bilateral or multilateral agreements, and no diplomatic principles apply to such organizations.
Extremism, as Iranian officials well understand, flourishes best in such fragile contexts. The uncontrolled circulation of weapons, the increasing number of refugees, and the negative impact on the overall regional economics all pose a direct threat to Iran.
Hence, the Rouhani administration is seeking to foster regional cooperation. It has made overtures to Saudi Arabia many times and on various levels since Rouhani became president. But this outreach has not been well received in Riyadh. Indeed, the olive branch appears to have intimidated Saudi Arabia.
The already complex relation between the two countries reached a new low during the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen explicitly aimed at thwarting what Riyadh perceives as Iran’s regional ambitions. Western states may therefore have to facilitate rapprochement, according to some Iranian officials who believe in the necessity of improved relations.
Emphasis on National Security
Not only regional developments have made Iran change course in its foreign policy. The eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-13) were defined by a foreign policy that established resistance as an intrinsic value. The idea of resisting US dominance in the region was ubiquitous.
Iran became increasingly isolated regionally and globally. The international sanctions regime significantly exacerbated the already existing economic problems of the country. In addition, the social, cultural, and political environments progressively worsened due to the provocative and polarizing policies encouraged by the dominant discourse.
Eyeing events and uprisings in other parts of the region, however, Iran’s political elite realized this situation was not tenable. Influential clerics and commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, as well as veteran political figures, expressed serious concerns. Two years into the second term of president Ahmadinejad, segments of the elite came to the conclusion that internal divisions and external tensions were starting to undermine national security.
This sense of “national security” became the basis of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. To put it bluntly, Rouhani promotes the idea of regional cooperation and win-win not because he cares for the win of the “other,” but for what he believes is the most valuable win for Iran: national security. Rouhani speaks in favor of opening up Iran socially and politically not because he believes in pluralism and social participation but because he is convinced that a repressive political landscape will lead to conflict and endanger national security.
Link between Foreign and Domestic Politics
Given the urgent need to improve the economy of the country, President Rouhani has thrown all his weight behind the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is the embodiment of the foreign policy shift that president Rouhani intends to implement. The minister is seeking constructive dialogue with regional and global powers in order to explore common ground for cooperation.
This new approach has one big shot to prove itself. A comprehensive nuclear agreement can show that diplomatic dialogue in a multilateral format can break deadlocks. It will further demonstrate that the world powers acknowledge and appreciate constructive diplomacy and have changed their views towards Iran. If the Rouhani administration succeeds in translating this achievement into less economic hardship, a more responsive job market, and a gradual political opening, his strategy will gain him enduring popularity.
Opponents to this approach can be found in all political camps. Some stress their distrust of Western states. Others believe that Iran as an anti-imperialist revolutionary state should not give concessions to world powers. Other voices argue that Iran is able to stand on its own feet and survive economically even with sanctions in place – an assessment some well-established economists share. The hardship, they argue, is worth the independence Iran maintains by not giving in to external pressure.
But the vast majority of people and political figures alike support Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Supreme Leader Khamenei reiterated his support in a recent meeting with high-ranking officials. Given the broad-based support and the political capital invested in the talks by all sides, a deal will likely be struck soon in Vienna.
Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif