Iran Realigned?

It remains too early to foresee how the war in Ukraine will reorientate the world order, but that has not stopped commentators from speculating. Are we seeing a Russian ‘pivot’ to Asia; a sequel to the Cold War; a new bipolarity with China? Perhaps the world order is reverting to the Great Game of the 19th century, or even an older premodern norm, the ‘Asianisation of Asia’? What is certain is that a war ostensibly being fought between Moscow and Kiev is not only driving a geostrategic consolidation of the US with NATO and other non-NATO European countries, but also a looser group of Asian countries, increasingly open in their dissent from the unipolar US-led system.

China, India, Pakistan and Iraq were amongst those that formally refused to condemn the Russian invasion at the UN Assembly. Saudi Arabia backed the vote, but its relations with the US are at their worst since the Yom Kippur War; not only has it signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia but there is talk of de-dollerising part of its oil trade. Joe Biden’s plea for an increase in oil production – made during his recent visit – that would insulate the West against price hikes triggered by its sanctions against Russia, was met with only a courtesy increase for July and August. China, wary of growing US militarism on its border, has promised ‘everlasting friendship’ with Russia, and a commitment to ‘advance global multipolarity and the democratization of international relations’.

How does Iran, an old thorn in the US’s side, figure in these realignments? The essential prehistory here is the tenure of Biden’s predecessor and the changes they wrought. Donald Trump’s unilateral exit in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which had dangled the removal of devastating sanctions on Iran in exchange for nuclear transparency – provoked a dramatic escalation of tensions. Sanctions were intensified, and the US indicated that any new deal would involve further concessions by Iran. The deterioration in relations that followed would see Iran hit US-protected oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and UAE to demonstrate the vulnerability of Persian Gulf oil exports. Fighting erupted between Iraqi militiamen loyal to Iran and US military assets in southern and Kurdish Iraq. Iran sought to send a further, indirect message by loosening the rules of engagement of its Iraqi militias. Two US private security contractors were killed, and the US embassy received fire, though Tehran’s role remains uncertain – Iraqi protestors attacked both Iranian and US targets.

Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign was intended to compel Iran into a better deal for the US with his name on it. But while Trump was trying to bounce Iran into negotiations, his advisors appeared to be trying to bounce him into war. The president appeared unaware of the strict rules of carefully calibrated escalation that had long contained Iran-American military conflict, and had outsourced policy to pro-regime change figures keen to upset this balance. Around 4,500 US troops were redeployed to the region and newly appointed hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo claimed that Iran was preparing to strike US targets (intelligence committees revealed Iran was in fact preparing for US attacks). Israeli military planners, also committed to regime change, were invited to the White House to strategize about ‘escalation scenarios’. ‘These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting’, Trump was reported as saying by the Wall Street Journal. The denouement came on 7 January 2020, when he ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s widely respected senior general and a ‘living martyr’ according to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This caused a major shock. Until Trump, Soleimani had been off limits despite being in the crosshairs of the US and Israel several times. The Islamic Republic responded with missile strikes against two US bases in Iraq, its first major direct attack on the US military in its history. To avoid the escalation spiralling out of control, Tehran issued advanced notice through the Iraqi government. Trump underplayed the impact of the attacks, and war was averted, though press reports later revealed that over a hundred US personnel who had taken cover underground sustained concussive brain injuries.

Domestically, this led to a shift in political alignments. Following Trump’s exit from the JCPOA, Iran abided by the deal for a year, before slowly resuming enrichment of uranium, while its foreign office worked in vain to try to split Europe from the US in hope of establishing a sanctions-proof trading corridor for Iranian oil. The saga fatally wounded Hassan Rouhani’s already staggering reformist-backed government, and emboldened conservatives, who had always believed that the US – in Chaney’s infamous idiom – was playing rope-a-dope with them and would never take ‘yes’ for an answer. In the 2021 presidential election Khamenei worked the system to all but appoint the far-right cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a stalwart ally, as president. Khomeinism – anti-democratic, populist and rooted in Shi’i mysticism and jurisprudence – has always existed in an uneasy and shifting balance with a ‘reformist’ element among the clerics that has its roots in the 1905-1911 Constitutional Revolution, and which has seen relations with western Europe as key to Iran’s future. The election of Raisi – a key figure in the execution of political prisoners for religious crimes – was the death knell for this second element. Power, for the first time, now lies solely within the non-elected parts of the state, the Office of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The events appear also to have frozen relations with the US in enmity. Today, Iran’s leaders operate under the assumption that Iran will never be allowed back into the US-controlled global economy and see their future in the east. Days after Soleimani’s assassination, Khamenei announced change of a strategy towards the US in Arab lands: ‘The presence of the US in the region, which leads to corruption, will come to an end’, he said. ‘They bring discord, sedition and destruction’. He expanded budgets for the extraterritorial Quds Force which Soleimani had led, and ordered a review of Iran’s deterrence strategy to counter any US attacks with greater force. Iran now seeks to mirror the US ‘maximum pressure’ doctrine. The state has effectively resigned itself to permanent exclusion from the US-led economic order, and eyes the advance of a multipolar order with palpable relief.

Russia’s rupture with the West therefore presented a diplomatic opening. Imperial Russia has been seen as a threat ever since the Russo-Persian Wars, fought between 1651 and 1828 over territory in the Caucasus. The Soviet Union supported Saddam Hussein against Iran, and Putin has been content to support the sanctions regime, which has had the benefit of excluding a major oil and gas exporter from the international market. The Iranian regime, for its part, decimated the Moscow-supported Tudeh party in the aftermath of the revolution, and backed Islamists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. But with the war in Ukraine, a tentative new partnership is taking shape. Iran’s leaders have endorsed the war, painting the Russian attack as a pre-emptive strike against US meddling, and have signed a $40 billion memorandum of understanding for the Russian energy giant Gazprom to develop ailing Iranian oil infrastructure. Immediately after Biden’s Middle East tour last month, the Russian and Turkish presidents met in Tehran to discuss multilateral relations, including Ankara’s war with the Syrian Army, backed by Tehran and Moscow. A deal to provide Turkey with subsidised oil and gas to sell on to Europe was agreed, which it is hoped could keep open European markets to Iran and Russia. Tehran made hay with the summit. Khamenei’s office, which customarily releases photographs of the Supreme Leader with world leaders at a distance, showed him posing for an amicable close-up with Putin alongside his new president.

As for the negotiations brokered by the EU to resurrect the JCPOA – which have begun today in Vienna – Iran’s diplomatic strategy remains unclear. The new administration has signalled that it requires US ‘assurances’ that the deal will hold this time, probably in the form of a Congressional sign off, which is almost certainly impossible. It is also irritated that Biden has ruled out reversing Trump’s decision to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization, which has the effect of placing much of Iran’s economy at risk of sanctions that would require approval from a perennially hawkish Congress to remove. Will some accommodation, however temporary be reached? Iran could perhaps still sign a deal, even one it knows to be vulnerable to the vicissitudes of US domestic politics and Israeli lobbying, but it may be tempted to leave it on the table.

Iran’s ascendent conservatives, meanwhile, can look around and see that their battle for survival is over for the time being. The country’s proximate enemies – Ba’athist Iraq, Salafi militants; and in Daesh, a noxious mixture of the two – have been significantly degraded by the US-led air campaigns, the very superpower that had armed and funded them in the first place. In the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, Iran had reason to fear it might suffer the same fate. But two decades on it has knitted its paramilitaries into the security services of the de facto or de jure rulers of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, while developing a formidable missile and armed-drone deterrence programme, capable of penetrating air defence in Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to Michael Knights of the Washington Institute, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah could ‘absolutely wreck the infrastructure, lifestyle and economic functioning of their close enemies’. ‘The Americans are impatient’, an Iranian official with military experience in Lebanon and Syria confided on condition of anonymity. ‘We have had to be patient because we live here, and the great arrogance [the US] now knows that we can hit them harder than they are willing to be hit’. ‘Iran does not need to do much’, in Elijah J. Magnier’s view, a reporter with rare access to the IRGC. ‘It simply waits to collect from the mistakes of the Americans’. Magnier cited the US refusal in 2014 to immediately rearm the Iraqi army after Daesh invaded, the bombing campaign in Yemen and the US sanctioning of Russia as unforced errors, which have strengthened Iran’s strategic position.

Geopolitics however is not everything. The Islamic Republic may be less regionally constrained that at any point in its history, but it faces grave dangers at home, exacerbated by its international isolation, among them chronic stagflation, high unemployment and runaway inequality. The Supreme Leader may be more powerful than ever, but in engineering a blatant factotum’s ascent to the presidency, he crossed a symbolic line – the fig leaf of Iranian democracy has fallen. Khomeinism is returning Iran to its revolutionary origins, but without a social base to sustain it beyond the state’s patronage networks, and with little money to expand them. It is difficult to determine the mood of the Iranian leadership. In 1975, three years before he was toppled, the Shah also dispensed with a still thinner fig leaf of democracy in the context of economic dislocation and an increasingly hubristic foreign policy, turning Iran into a one-party state. This signalled to his enemies that they had nothing to gain by operating within the system and they accelerated attempts to topple him; Khomeini responded from exile in Iraq by prophesising the imminent collapse of the monarchy. While the Islamic Republic has inured itself against external threats and vanquished its major internal enemies, there may still be uneasiness at the top. What Ervand Abrahamian has termed the ‘paranoid style’ of Iranian politics is unlikely to be allayed so easily. Since Raisi’s election, Iran has opened a new cultural front, with laws passed cracking down on ‘bad hijab’. Cultural war on dress is conservative bread and butter, but it is also intended to intimidate – a sign of weakness, not strength.

While the US is reducing its military footprint in the Middle East and Central Asia, it remains the most powerful country in history with a peerless cultural reach across the world, including in Iran. Its Middle East policy is now focused on bringing Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies together to act as its regional policemen. The 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE, which had already been cooperating on training and intelligence programmes for years, were a sign of the direction of travel. Saudi Arabia will be next. It has recently welcomed the Israeli Prime Minister – unthinkable a generation ago – and a security alliance seems inevitable. Iran is under no illusion about the strength of the US military and the bloody-mindedness of its leaders. And though Tehran and Moscow’s interests may be aligning, Russia has never been a natural ally. In early February, the Russian ambassador to Tehran laid a wreath before the statue of Alexander Griboyedov in the embassy gardens; an image of the ceremony went viral on social media. The famous playwright-diplomat had been murdered along with all but one embassy staff in 1829 by a mob in Tehran soon after being appointed as Ambassador Plenipotentiary. The mob deemed it a humiliation that the man behind the Torkmanchay Treaty – which ended the Russo-Persian wars by ceding Iranian land to Russia – should be so rewarded. The honouring of his statue was a signal to Tehran that in the emerging new order, Iran should know its place.

Read on: Asef Bayat, ‘Tehran: Paradox City’ NLR 66.