With sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran gaining greater momentum and the impact of the closure of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran looming large in the global economy, a key question remains whether or not the Islamic Republic will ink a deal to extricate itself from increasingly biting sanctions and ensure its survival, or will it inch toward an inevitable military confrontation with the West?
Houshang Hassan-Yari sat down with Reza Akhlaghi to answer the above questions and discuss what’s in store for the greater Middle East.
Dr. Houchang Hassan-Yari is Professor of international relations and strategic military studies at Royal Military College of Canada.
Originally published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs
In the current geopolitical climate involving Iran and the West marked by loud and reciprocal threats, intensifying sanctions, non-dollar trade paradigms, and an apparent shadow war, what do you think is in store for the region as it pertains to Iranian-Western rivalries?
Hassan-Yari: I think the current situation cannot continue for too long. If there is no peaceful solution in the nuclear issue of Iran, the cul-de-sac will be opened in another way. The war will be the most plausible. Iran is very much isolated in the region.
The United States and Israel have been successful in creating an association between the Iranian nuclear program and nuclear weapons. They were also able to join the vast majority of Arab countries to their perception of the danger that Iran poses to stability in these countries. The sum of U.S. efforts and concerns of the militarily weak Arab regimes have resulted in the necessity to contain a dangerous Iran. If there is a rivalry between Iran and West in the Middle East, it is clearly favourable to the West.
Iran has recently conducted a number of naval and air drills in the Persian Gulf in the course of which it has put on display new surface-to-sea and surface-to-surface missile capabilities. It has also threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. How do you assess Iran’s military capabilities in countering U.S. Navy presence in the Persian Gulf and in closing the Strait of Hormuz? What do you think would galvanize the U.S. and its allies into concrete military action against Iran?
Hassan-Yari: In this climate of distrust and suspicion which prevails in the Persian Gulf, a miscalculation by the parties involved could lead to a war that nobody wants. The threat of Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz, a threat that is taken lightly by the Iranian authorities, will lead to war.
Any aggression aiming international navigation in the Strait may trigger hostilities. It seems to me that the majority of the Persian Gulf Arab countries want to settle once and for all the “Iranian issue”. The problem is that they are unable to do so themselves. This is where the utility of American military power comes in. In other words, Arabs are pushing Americans to a war they want but cannot perform. Israelis also are in a similar situation.
Since taking office, and in particular during his second term, the policies of President Ahmadinejad and his administration have been synonymous with the rise of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iranian politics and economy. Given the prominence of the IRGC in the socio-political and economic management of the country, has it been an effective and capable force in formulating various policies and in executing those policies?
Hassan-Yari: President Ahmadinejad is only one factor that facilitated the rise in the status of the IRGC. The indispensable actor that greatly opened the door to the predominance of the IRGC in all aspects of Iranian life is the leader himself. The latter could not do so under Mohammad Khatami because of the popularity and the resistance of the reformist president. We should not forget that Ahmadinejad is one of them and owes his presidency largely to the intervention of the IRGC in the electoral process of 2005.
The multifaceted IRGC is not a homogenous force. Nor is it a force formed to formulate and implement policies for the common good. The main concern of the Force is to protect the leader and the revolution as it intends to do. Everything it does in the field of security, political, economic and social serves this purpose. In other words, its allegiance is first and foremost the Leader.
Dependency of political power to the military force of the IRGC has forced the former to give exclusive mega contracts to latter in all economic sectors. But as the Guardians do not have expertise in all these areas, they often fail to deliver a good quality product. However, the poor quality of their work was never an obstacle to prevent the IRGC to receive new contracts worth billions of dollars.
Their imprint is deeply engraved in all aspects of life from sport to aviation to missile technology to nuclear programme of Iran.
Recent statements made by former high-ranking officials and parliamentarians (Hossein Alaei of IRGC and Emad Afrough of Majles) appear to be part of a new paradigm in directly challenging the clerical establishment. Do you think these statements signify a new rupture in Iran’s power structure? If that is the case, how could this new rupture play itself out in the upcoming Majlis elections?
Hassan-Yari: What Alaei, Afrough and other rightwing moderates (Principalists /Ossoulgarayaan) pose as a question today are after-shocks of the popular protests of 2009 and the tremors of the recent Arab awakening. These individuals are also very sensitive to preserve intact the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini which is fast eroding since the coming to power of Ahmadinejad and the unconditional support he received from the Leader. They attempt to salvage the Islamic Republic by returning to the values of the 1979 Revolution. They directly challenge the entourage of the Leader and indirectly the Leader himself who has created a propitious environment for the growth of political immorality and toadyism.
This new phenomena is certainly a break with the established order since coming to power of Ayatollah Khamenei in 1989. It is expected to expand gradually as the gap in the conservative camp is widening, a situation that Khamenei is incapable of controling effectively.
A number of scenarios for the outcome of Majles election could be envisaged. If the elections are carried by the camp of Ahmadinejad, the status of the leader will be further weakened and the consequences could be fatal to the Republic as we know it today. A possible victory by the leader’s entourage should not be interpreted as the return to normality.
I think that a return to the former situation when the leader was not objectionable is impossible without resorting to brutal force. Even then, the lull is only temporary. The sanctity of the Leader is broken and with it the unchallenged position of the clergy close to the government. It is quite possible that we witness a return of the clergy in its religious schools leaving power to the ‘civilian’. In Iran, people break the personality before breaking the person.
Iran and Israel seem locked in a strategic rivalry that has gone through different stages, each stage with its own narrative. What are the key aspects of this strategic rivalry that have made the U.S. an indispensable player in it? Do you envision a point at which security establishments from the U.S., Iran, and Israel would decide to negotiate (most likely secret negotiations) as a way out of the current atmosphere of brinkmanship to avert a potentially large-scale regional conflict and save the global economy from spiralling down a path of sever instability?
Hassan-Yari: First, on Iran-Israel rivalry. From the perspective of the Iranian political elite in power, this rivalry has a clear ideological pronouncement. It goes back to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s epoch and the pre-1979 revolutionary romanticism when Iranian islamists received their military training in Lebanon and sympathized with the Palestinian cause. For them, Israel is a colonial creation, artificial and usurper. It is an illegitimate entity, so to disappear. For Israel, Iran was an opportunity to lessen the Arab pressure.
Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in Iran, this rivalry has taken on new dimensions. Israel remains not only as an ideological enemy, but also a military obstacle that challenges Tehran’s supremacist claim on the regional leadership. In addition, since the Israeli danger to Iran’s nuclear program has become more pressing, Tehran uses its Lebanese and Palestinian allies to keep Israel concerned about its own safety and away from the Iranian border.
On the other hand, Iran is the only country in the Middle East that poses a challenge to the qualitative predominance of Israel’s powerful military machine in the region. In the final analysis, if Israel can live with a non-militant Iran, Tehran cannot co-exist with a ubiquitous ‘Zionist danger’ in the region. This is where the United States enters into the equation as a moderating force. While Washington would prefer a more cooperative Iran, it seeks to remain the final arbiter of the regional game. It seems that neither Iran nor Israel want their regional importance overshadowed by the American omnipotence.
In regard to a possible “ménage à trios”, Iran-Israel-U.S., in the field of regional security, this hypothesis seems very unrealistic under current conditions. If the United States and Israel can provide manageable compromise to Iran over its security considerations without losing face, the latter, on the contrary, has everything to lose by entering into this game that goes against its identity as “defender” of the dispossessed. The only situation, in which the Islamic Republic will make painful compromise, is if it concludes that its own survival is at risk by persisting in its belligerent posture in regional and international security issues.
Russian officials have repeatedly made it clear that they are fiercely opposed to any military confrontation between the West and Iran. From geo-political and geo-energy perspectives, what are at stake for Russia? Do you think a political tilt by Iran toward the West would change the geo-political equation in Eurasia/Middle East?
Hassan-Yari: Russian resistance to any military intervention in Iran is not a matter of principle, nor is it aimed at preventing another catastrophic war in the region. The Russian calculation is based on geopolitical considerations. Russia is still looking for the lost place of the Soviet Union on the world stage. Any U.S. military intervention in the region further isolates Russia. It is also in this context that we must understand the resistance from Moscow to any foreign military intervention in Syria. For Russia, this is a zero sum game. In addition, an isolated Iran strengthens the position of Russia as an intermediary between this country and the West. Iran’s isolation and demonization has helped Russia develop advanced military and commercial relations with Iran. The same is true for China, with more emphasis on the economic relations with Iran.
A dominant U.S. presence in Iran could compromise Russian’s not too comfortable authority in the Caspian Sea basin. One of the reasons for creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was to counterbalance the U. S. presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The fall of the Islamic Republic could revive the spectrum of Soviet containment through a new security belt connecting Europe to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
This year Russia and Iran started doing trade in their respective national currencies, replacing the U.S. dollar and Euro. Similarly, trade has been taking place between Iran and China in Chinese Renminbi and between Iran and Japan in Japanese Yen including for the sale of Iranian oil. Do you think the exclusion of U.S. dollar and Euro from trade by these trade partners could hold geopolitical implications? If so, in what ways?
Hassan-Yari: Since the day after the revolution Iran has tried to to break free from the yoke of the dollar, without much success. The currencies of Russia and China are not convertible, which reinforces the dependency of Iran on Russians and Chinese. It’s an ironic situation because Iran claims to want to break from the grip of the U. S. dollar and to free itself of turbulence of American imperialism by creating more dependency on secondary powers like Russia and China. In its business dealings with Moscow and Beijing, Iran is forced to buy Sino-Russian merchandise. However, the quality of those goods does not meet consumer expectations in Iran. The continuation of this trade policy increasingly limits Iran to two or three unreliable suppliers who put their own national interests ahead of Iranian welfare in any dispute with Americans. Russia in particular has demonstrated that it is not a feasible partner. There is no other country in the world that has hurt Iranian interests as much as Russia since the 19th century.
The recent currency crisis that deeply hit the value of Iran’s Rial showcased the significance of dollar as a safe currency for ordinary Iranians. During the crisis, no one was looking for Russian or Chinese currency. It is also ironic that some ministers in Iran use the dollar as reference when they talk about their non-petroleum exports, the value of the national economy or foreign investment. The language that the average Iranian better understands is that of Dollar, not the Rouble, or the Yuan. In addition, the Central Bank of Iran often manipulates the value of dollar to regulate the amount of liquidity in circulation.
The exclusion of U.S. dollar and Euro from trade by Iran and its trade partners could hold geopolitical implications if Euro Zone dismantles itself and if China decided to dispose its massive dollar reserve. Among some other possibilities one can invoke the unlikely scenario of the Arab oil producers to join the Russia-China-Iran trio in replacing dollar by other currencies. Iran’s economy is too small to have a geopolitical impact on the dollar.
How stable is the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria? How Iran could be impacted by Assad’s fall?
Hassan-Yari: Assad’s regime is extremely weak. It has reached a point of no return and condemned to disappear. Its fall will have major implications for the safety and security of the Islamic Republic as well as the rest of the Middle East. The survival of the Syrian regime is so crucial to the Iranian theocratic system that it forced Tehran to denounce the Syrians protesting against Damascus as agents of Zionism and imperialism while praising Arabs in other countries as Islamist followers of Iran’s Islamic revolution. This position has highlighted the contradiction in the official discourse of the Iranian leadership by substantially weakening its claim to the universality of the Islamic revolution.
Syria is the only strategic ally of Iran in the Arab world. It also acts as a bridge between Iran and Lebanon. It gives Iran direct access to Israeli territory through the Hazbollah and some Palestinian groups. The fall of the Assad regime will also weaken the position of Shiite militants in the region. A regime change in Damascus further limits Iran’s ability to intervene on the regional scene. It will deprive Islamic Iran of a vital window to breathe. Finally, it will make Iran even more vulnerable in facing a possible foreign military attack. Within Iran itself, it will strengthen the resolve of opponents of the Islamic regime.
The Saudi government has made significant military hardware purchases from the United States. The Saudi diplomacy has been also active in countries impacted by the Arab Spring. How do you assess the future of the strategic relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and in light of Arab Spring, what are the chances of having a more representative leadership in Saudi Arabia?
Hassan-Yari: The Islamic Republic is not the only country embarrassed by the Arab awakening. The United States and Saudi Arabia have also taken contradictory positions to events in Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere.
The future of the strategic relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia depends largely on the Kingdom’s internal dynamics. A democratic Saudi Arabia will be more independent in its foreign policy. It will also have much less appetite for accommodating dictatorships in surrounding countries.
But since we are not there yet, I cannot envisage any strategic change in the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship, even if there is a few sporadic surmountable bumps.
As for democratic changes in Saudi Arabia, they will be introduced very gradually in the absence of a popular revolution. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can not remain immune to the political and military changes that inflame its neighbourhood. The question is the degree and level of change that the descendants of Al-Saud are forced to introduce.