Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website devoted to news from and about the Middle East. The author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, Ms. Slavin is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS and C-SPAN. A career journalist, Ms. Slavin previously served as assistant managing editor for world and national security of The Washington Times, senior diplomatic reporter for USA TODAY, Cairo correspondent for The Economist, and as an editor at The New York Times Week in Review. Ms. Slavin sat down with Reza Akhlaghi to discuss the upcoming presidential elections in Iran.
Since the report you authored in 2008 for the U.S. Institute for Peace entitled “Mullahs, Money, and Militias: How Iran Exerts Its Influence in the Middle East ” what changes, if any, have you noticed in Iran’s strategic regional calculus?
Iran’s goals have not changed dramatically since I wrote that report, but its influence has diminished because of rising sectarianism, the conflict in Syria and economic sanctions. Iran’s reputation was at its peak from 2006-2008 as it basked in the glow of Hezbollah’s quasi-victory over Israel (in 2006) and benefited from Arab hostility toward the George W. Bush administration. Bush’s departure from office and the U.S. exit from Iraq, however, lessened anti-Americanism while Sunni Muslims increasingly feared that Iran would dominate Iraq’s new government and forge a “Shiite crescent” extending through Damascus to Beirut.
Meanwhile, the Arab uprisings, beginning in 2011, have been a double-edged sword for Iran: They have hurt U.S. and Israeli interests by toppling pro-Western dictators but they have not benefited Iran because they stirred up sectarian hatred against Shiites. This has reached a critical point in Syria where Iran’s staunch support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime has alienated most of the rest of the region – and the wider Muslim world — and undermined Iran’s narrative of “siding with the oppressed.” Iran has also lost influence over Palestinian movements such as Hamas, which is now closer to Sunni Turkey and Egypt. Hezbollah, Iran’s most prized regional partner, has also been put in an uncomfortable position over the conflict in Syria. In addition, draconian economic sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program are reducing Iran’s ability to lavishly fund and arm Arab militants.
Iran’s goals remain as I described them in 2008: “to achieve strategic depth and safeguard its system against foreign intervention, to have a major say in regional decisions, and to prevent or minimize actions that might run counter to Iranian interests.” Much will depend on the outcome in Syria and whether Iran is able to maintain physical control over enough Syrian territory to continue to send money and weapons to Hezbollah. Iran’s fate also rests on the nuclear crisis. A U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran would likely shift regional opinion toward sympathy with Iran, especially if fighting is prolonged and there are massive civilian casualties.
From a historical perspective the mentality of Iran’s power structure is rooted in an imperial-oriented tradition. Over the last eight years of the current administration in Tehran, one can witness a gradual re-orientation of state ideology toward a glorified imperial past. Are you of the view that Iran is redefining its role based on a re-construction of an imperial-oriented, Iranianized Islam? If that is the case, what would, in your opinion, be the implications of such a policy?
Iranians have always been very conscious of their imperial past. I see more continuity than change in Iranian foreign policies. It was the Shah, after all, who seized three small islands in the Persian Gulf that are also claimed by the United Arab Emirates – islands that Iran still occupies. Bahrain, which has a Shiite majority, was once part of Iran, as both the Shah and Islamic Iranian leaders have noted. Iran historically has tried to maintain close relations with other former parts of the Persian Empire – including Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan and western Afghanistan. Recently, Iran has sought to exert influence through the Non-Aligned Movement, which it currently chairs. However, the sectarian factors I mentioned above are blunting Iran’s reach.
Iran’s power structure has had an antagonistic relation with women’s presence in public life including the unclear barrier in Iran’s legal system for women and in particular religious minorities (including Sunni Muslims) to become presidential candidates. Should these issues be addressed in the new administration and to what extent do you anticipate a modification of these policies?
Iran actually provides more political space to women and minorities than most of its Arab neighbors. However, the theocratic nature of the Iranian system prevents a woman or a Sunni from running for president or achieving other significant office. I do not anticipate any changes in this discriminatory situation in the near term. I am hopeful that Iran’s political system will gradually evolve, restoring influence to the reform movement and reversing the securitization of society that has taken place since the disputed 2009 presidential elections. Given the current atmosphere of tension – both inside Iran and internationally because of the nuclear program – it’s hard to imagine that the system will open up in this fashion in the near future.
Where are U.S.-Iran relations headed in the short to mid-term? Are they nearing a tipping point?
There is a slim chance for a partial agreement in the nuclear talks that would relieve tensions. Recent comments by President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggest that both are willing to give diplomacy at least another year before resorting to military force. In a new report, the Atlantic Council Iran Task Force, with which I work, has proposed some steps to shore up relations with the Iranian people – by designating several Iranian banks that can be used for transactions involving food, medicine and other humanitarian matters and by encouraging more academic and cultural exchanges. The Task Force also advocates asking Iran to allow American diplomats to staff an Interests Section in Tehran, putting American diplomats back in Iran for the first time in 30 years. But I do not know if the Obama administration will implement these recommendations, or if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will allow them to be implemented given his fear of Western influence and a “velvet revolution” against his government. I don’t necessarily see a “tipping point” in U.S.-Iran relations this year. Relations have been poor for so long that a continued stalemate is entirely possible.
With rivalries between Iranian proxies on one hand and those of Saudi and its allies on the other, and the presence of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, what is your outlook on the future direction of Iran-Arab relations?
As I mentioned earlier, the outlook is poor because of the conflict in Syria and the advancing Iranian nuclear program. While Muslim Brotherhood-connected officials have come to power in North Africa and Egypt, no country has adopted Iran’s unique theocratic system, nor is one likely even in countries with substantial Shiite populations like Lebanon and Iraq. As I wrote back in 2008, “Iran’s ability to project power, even among fellow Shiites, is aided by historic and familial ties between clerics but constrained by sectarian and ethnic divisions and the nature of the religion itself. Shiism is not a monolith, and Iran’s supreme leader faces competition from a number of prominent figures whose allegiances are not necessarily to the Iranian state.” With wealthy nations such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar backing Sunni proxies and governments, Iran will exploit chaos and political violence but it is hard to see it developing more reliable friends. In the end, as Shireen Hunter has said, Iran is a “strategically lonely” nation – a Persian, Shiite island in a Sunni Turkic and Arab sea.