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Iran’s Foreign Policy: The Regional Adventure Continues

Iran’s Foreign Policy: The Regional Adventure Continues

Monday, 11 February, 2019 - 08:00
An elderly Iranian man walks past a large poster of Iran's late leader Khomeini in front of Tehran University, June 4, 2004. (Reuters)
London, Tehran – Asharq Al-Awsat
The 1979 revolution in Iran led to fractious relations with its neighbors and Arab countries. What started as a glimmer of hope in the pre-revolution era on the possibility of improving ties between Iran and its Arab surroundings, soon turned to despair with the Khomeini revolt.

The divide between Iran and its neighbors widened amid fierce speeches against Arabs and on expanding the revolution. Tehran eventually became embroiled in the affairs of other countries, most notably Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, through providing logistic and military support to armed groups and militias that have been designated as terrorist throughout the world.

Iranian researchers agree that relations between Tehran and its neighbors during the past 40 years leave much to be desired. The greatest blow dealt to these ties was the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran a year into the revolution. The eight-year war left a million people dead. It was followed by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, prompting Iran to begin plotting its regional meddling.

At first, it attempted to turn a new chapter and seize the opportunity to achieve rapprochement with Arab countries due to its major economic losses from the war. This new era was led by then President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He succeeded in resolving several disputes with neighboring countries and forging friendly ties. The arrival of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to power and Tehran’s growing role in Iraq, especially in the final two years of President Mohammed Khatami’s tenure in 2004 and 2005, led to the deterioration of these ties to the worst they have been since the revolution.

Current President Hassan Rouhani had pledged during his electoral campaign in 2013 to improve these relations, but he has so far failed to make any progress. Instead, Iran has continued its expansion and meddling.

What do the Iranians say?

Amid American and Arab accusations of interference in the affairs of other countries, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared in November 2017 that this meddling was part of the Iranian regime’s policy.

“Iran will be present in any area where its presence will help counter apostates,” he said while announcing Tehran’s role in Iraq and Syria. No sooner had he made these remarks that Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Mohammed Ali Jaafari acknowledged that Tehran was providing “advisory” support in Yemen. This was seen as direct admission that the IRGC was training and arming the Houthi militias.

Current Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has on numerous occasions defended Iran’s policy in the Middle East. In October 2017, he wrote in The Atlantic: “Iran being stronger and older as an independent state than any of its neighbors, has not attacked another country in nearly three centuries. Iran doesn’t and won’t interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors.”

He added, however: “Arab affairs are Iran’s business. And we are not shy in admitting that non-Arab affairs are their business. How can they not be? We share borders, waters, and resources; we fly through each other’s airspace. We can’t not be interested in how our neighbors affect the part of the globe where we make our homes.”

US-educated Zarif seeks to employ American-style methods to promote Iran’s international policies. He continued to The Atlantic: “Our interest in our region’s affairs, though, is not malevolent. On the contrary, it is in the interest of stability. We do not desire the downfall of any regimes in the countries that surround us. Our desire—in principle and practice—is that all the nations of the region enjoy security, peace, and stability.”

Changing point in Iran-Gulf relations

A major changing point in Iran-Gulf ties took place in January 2016 when members of the IRGC’s Basij force attacked the Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran. Riyadh retaliated by severing ties with Tehran and the United Nations Security Council strongly denounced the development. Later that month, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry released a document listing 85 malicious Iranian acts committed in the post-revolution phase.

Some of these attacks, include the kidnapping of 96 foreigners in Lebanon in 1982 and the bombing of the US embassy and attacks on the US Marine and French Paratrooper barracks in Beirut in 1983. It also cited Iran’s attacks against the American and French embassies in Kuwait and firing at oil tankers in the Arab Gulf. In 1985, Tehran failed in assassinating Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah. A year later, Iran incited pilgrims to riot during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. The violence left 300 people dead. In 1987, Iran was implicated in the assassination of Saudi diplomat Mosaed al-Ghamdi in Tehran and Saudi diplomat Reza Abdul Mohsen Al-Nozha was assaulted and taken by Revolutionary Guards. He is released following negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Bahrain’s independence and the 3 Emirati islands

During the post-revolution phase, the Iranian regime considered the end of the occupation of Bahrain as one of the Shah’s “greatest acts of treason.” The tensions between the two countries reached new heights during Ahmedinejad’s tenure, when in 2007 the Kayhan newspaper, which is affiliated to Khamenei, wrote that Bahrain belongs to Iran. These claims fueled Iran’s destabilizing acts in Bahrain through the recruitment of terrorist cells in order stoke unrest in the kingdom. Manama has repeatedly accused Tehran, specifically the IRGC, of being behind such attacks.

With the United Arab Emirates, Iran has constantly rejected calls for international arbitration to settle the nearly 40-year dispute over the Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb islands. Fueling the tensions, Ahmedinejad visited Abu Musa island on April 11, 2011. Just last month, Iranian Chief of Staff Mohamed Bagheri and IRGC commander Jaafari paid a visit to the island, in defiance of American pressure on Tehran’s missile program.

Arab response to Iran’s support for terror

Arab countries have long complained that Iran ignores good neighborly practices and in 2016 eleven of them sent a letter to the UN to object to Tehran’s malicious behavior. In April 2018, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz strongly condemned Iran’s terrorist activities and meddling in the region. Similar condemnations followed throughout the year by Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE.

Tables could turn on Iran

The Iranian regional meddling is not only a cause for alarm on the international scene, but the Iranian people themselves are growing increasingly impatient with such practices. They first voiced their rejection during the Green Movement of 2009. Another greater wave of protests swept the country in January 2018.

In addition, experts believe that Iran may be headed towards internal ethnic unrest that could spread to regional countries. Iranian officials are aware that public anger against Tehran in neighboring countries could extend to them. A recent poll showed that nearly 75 percent of Iranians were unhappy with the state of affairs in their country.

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