Iran - The factor of (in)stability in the Middle East

Posted in Iran | 02-Apr-09 | Source: IFIMES

Iranian soldiers stand guard in Zabol near the border with Afghanistan in 2008.

While Iran celebrates the 30th anniversary of Islamic Revolution, political analysts are carefully examining the role of Iran in the Middle East. The year 2009 may be a historical year for Iran, like 1979 when Imam Khomeini overthrew the pro-western Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi.

Unlike his predecessor George Bush, the newly-elected US President Barack Obama has opted for a moderate approach and only a few days after having taken the oath of office he offered the hand of peace and cooperation to Iranian leaders .

The UN Conference on the Future of Afghanistan which took place on 31 March 2009 was the first test of Iran's earnestness and well-intentionedness. Iran has made the first step on the way to reconciliation and co-operation with the US. At the Conference on Afghanistan Iran's deputy foreign minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhunzadeh expressed readiness of the Islamic Republic to co-operate in the projects for stabilisation, restoration and development of Afghanistan as well as in the prevention of drug trafficking. With this act Iran will become "the great ally" of Barack Obama's administration instead of the " the Great Satan" which it used to be during Bush's administration.

Iran's Vice-President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie stressed that Afghanistan's security is of strategic interest for Iran and noted that in his opinion ISAF international forces have not reached yet the planned goal, i.e. security in Afghanistan. Contradictory statements and oral duels expressed in recent weeks between US President Barack Obama and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have further confused western politicians. President Obama namely offers a hand of peace to Iran while using another hand to sign the decision to extend the sanctions by another year.

For better understanding of American-Iranian relations after 1979 Islamic Revolution the following chronological steps in the development of relations between the two states should be mentioned:
? On 4th November 1979 Muslim students seized American diplomats at the American embassy in Teheran. The incident happened just seven months after the Islamic state was proclaimed. The students demanded that the overthrown Shah of Iran, who was receiving medical treatment in the US, should be returned to Iran.
? On 7th April 1980 the US severed diplomatic relations with Iran at the initiative of President Jimmy Carter.
? On 20 January 1981, the day of inauguration of US President Ronald Reagan, Iran released the last American prisoners.
? On 4th November 1986, the "Irangate" affair erupted, revealing the visit of Reagan's special deputy who offered weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of American prisoners in Lebanon.
? On 3 July 1988 US Navy cruiser Vincennes "mistakenly" shot down Iranian civil aircraft killing 290 people. In 1996 the US partly recognised the "mistake" and paid compensation of $ 61 million to Iran.
? On 26th February 1993 Washington accused Teheran for the attack on WTC (six dead and thousands of injured).
? On 30th April 1995 Washington imposed financial and trade sanctions on Iran.
? On 19th of June 1996 the US Congress passed the bill providing for sanctions against companies investing in Iran's oil industry.
? On 15th September 2000, against the background of UN General Assembly, the two states had their first high-level meeting between Foreign Ministers Madeleine Albright and Kamal Kharazi.
? On 7th October 2001 Iran condemned American invasion of Afghanistan.
? On 29th of January 2002 US President George Bush named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the "axis of evil".
• On 17th January 2005 US President Bush stated he would not rule out the possibility of military actions against Iran if it continues its nuclear programme.
? On 16th August 2005 Iran's President Ahmadinejad rules out any possibility to establish diplomatic relations with Washington.
? On 13th March 2006 President Bush accused Iran of providing support and arming extremists in Iraq.
? On 6th of September 2006 President Ahmadinejad proposed a meeting with President Bush during UN General Assembly. President Bush rejected the proposal.
? On 10th March US Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker and Iran's Ambassador to Baghdad Hassan Kazemi Qomi met to discuss the stability of Iraq.
? On 24th March 2007 UN Resolution No. 1747 on additional sanctions against Iran was adopted.
? On 7th November 2008 the newly-elected US President Obama announced the improvement of relations with Iran.
? On 26th January 2009 President Obama repeated his intention to enter into dialogue with Iran.
? On 10th February 2009 President Ahmadinejad expressed Iran's readiness for dialogue on equal footing.
? On 20th March 2009 President Obama publicly addressed Iran for the first time and expressed readiness for dialogue based on mutual respect.


There is no doubt that the pragmatic Iranian diplomacy, which is a mixture of the ancient three-thousand-year old Persian diplomacy and Shiite religious school, today plays an important role in the stability of at least five states (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Afghanistan).

Iraq's leading Shiite parties (Dawa, Islamic Supreme Council) have tight connections with the Islamic Republic and are to certain extent subordinated to religious leaders in Teheran.

Despite the ideological conflict with Iranian religious school, the Hamas Sunnite movement in Palestine functions as Iran's extension in the Palestinian self-governed territory.

The minority Alawi authority under Bashar al-Assada in Syria is under great influence of Iran.

Hezbollah in Lebanon is Iran's product and represents the extension of Iranian politics. Together with its allies Hezbollah practically controls Lebanon's parliament (14 deputies) and it also constructively participates in Lebanon's government. The armed wing of Hezbollah has defeated Israel twice (in 2000 and 2006).

However, Iran's role in Afghanistan is more complicated. 8-10 % of Afghanistan's population are the Shi'a who spiritually belong to Iran. The Shi'a have a very strong influence on Afghanistan's politics and economy. They perform important state functions, such as president of the state, governors of major provinces (Herat, Bamiyan, Samangan, Daykundi etc.). They hold 25 % of seats in the Parliament and for the first time in the history of this Sunnite state the Shiite sect has been recognised as equal to Sunnite mezheb (religious legal school).
The Shi'a also have a strong presence in Afghanistan's economy. All the three mobile operators are owned by the Shi'a. A large part of import comes from Iran and the market is controlled by Shi'a traders. Iran has a visible influence on Afghanistan's universities, especially the University of Kabul which was rescued from bankruptcy in 2001 when Iran provided the financial means for six months.
The Shi'a also have a strong influence on the media since they control more than half of the media and own four out of nine television houses.

Iran can play a positive role in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq and Lebanon during the last two years. Direct talks between US Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi in 2007 marked the beginning of stabilisation of Iraq and the end of Iran's support to special groups (Sadr Militia).


Presidential election which is to take place in June 2009 will be of decisive importance for the beginning of dialogue between Iran and the US. Despite the strong influence of the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the future president will have wide powers and a strong influence on the state's foreign policy. If the conservatives' candidate and incumbent President Ahmadinejad wins, the accumulated hostilities from previous years will aggravate co-operation between Teheran and Washington, while eventual victory of the reformists, for example Mehdi Karroubi (former Speaker of the Iranian Parliament) or Gholam Hossein Karbashi (former Mayor of Teheran), will bring the new winds to relations between the two states.

Interestingly, the two states went through several political coincidences during the last 30 years: During the government of pragmatic President George Bush Sr., Iran's President was also pragmatic Hashemi Rafsanjani. During the period of democratic President Clinton, Iran's President was reformist politician Mohammad Khatami. When the US elected George Bush Jr., Iran was ruled by extremist President Ahmadinejad. The question is whether now that the democratic President Barack Obama came to Washington Teheran will elect a new reformist president?