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Understanding the Iran Crisis

Author: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 31, 2007

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Prepared Testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

From the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to terrorism, from human rights to democratization, the Islamic Republic of Iran cuts across a wide range of American concerns. The American leaders routinely characterize Iran’s meddling in Iraqand its nuclear ambitions as a grave threat, while often musing about the eventual necessity of using military force against the recalcitrant theocracy. To properly contemplate the Iranian challenge, I shall focus on two areas of contention: Iran’s Iraq policy and its ambitious nuclear program. Through a better understanding of Iran’s motivations, one can best assess how to address its essential goals and objectives on these two critical issues.

Revolution versus Stability: Iran in Iraq

On July 7, 2005, a momentous event took place in Tehran. Saadun al-Dulaimi, Iraq’s then-defense minister, arrived in Iran and formally declared, “I have come to Iran to ask forgiveness for what Saddam Hussein has done.” The atmospherics of the trip reflected the changed relationship, as Iranian and Iraqi officials easily intermingled, signing various cooperative and trade agreements and pledging a new dawn in their relations. In yet another paradox of the Middle East, it took a hawkish American government with its well-honed antagonism toward the Islamic Republic to finally alleviate one of Iran’s most pressing strategic quandaries.

Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the Bush administration has periodically complained about Iran’s mischievousness and intervention in Iraq’s politics. The question then becomes, what are Iran’s priorities and objectives in Iraq? Does Iran seek to export its revolution next door and create another Islamic Republic? Is it in Iran’s interest to intensify the prevailing insurgency and further entangle Americain its bloody quagmire? DoIran and the United States have common interests in the troubled state of Iraq?

As Iraq settles into its disturbing pattern of violence and disorder, the Islamic Republic has contending and at times conflicting objectives next door. The overarching priority for Tehranis to prevent Iraq from once more emerging as a military and ideological threat. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war an uneasy consensus has evolved among Iran’s officials that the cause of Iraq’s aggressive behavior was the Sunni domination of its politics. Thus, the empowerment of a more friendly Shiite regime is an essential objective of Iran’s strategy. However, given the fears of a spillover from a potential civil war and the fragmentation of the country, Iran’s leaders also seek to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity. Finally, there is the menacing U.S. military presence in Iraq. Contrary to the notion that Iran seeks to fuel the insurgency as a means of deterring theUnited Statesfrom attacking its suspected nuclear facilities, Tehranappreciates that a stableIraq is the best means of ending the American occupation. These competing aims have yielded alternative tactics, as Iran has been active in subsidizing its Shiite allies, dispatching arms to friendly militias, and agitating against the American presence.

AlthoughIraq’s Shiite political society is hardly homogeneous, the two parties that have emerged as the best organized and most competitive in the electoral process are the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party. Both parties have intimate relations withTehran and allied themselves with the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq war. SCIRI was essentially created by Iran, and its militia, the Badr Brigade, was trained and equipped by the Revolutionary Guards. For its part, Dawa is Iraq’s longest surviving Shiite political party, with a courageous record of resisting Saddam’s repression. Under tremendous pressure, Dawa did take refuge in Iran, but it also established a presence in Syria, Lebanon and eventually Britain. However, despite their long-lasting ties with the Islamic Republic, both parties appreciate that in order to remain influential actors in the post-Saddam Iraq they must place some distance between themselves and Tehran. The members of SCIRI and Dawa insist that they have no interest in emulating Iran’s theocratic model, and that Iraq’s divisions and fragmentations mandate a different governing structure. Their persistent electoral triumphs reflect not just superior organization, but a successful assertion of their own identity. Still, Dawa and SCIRI do retain close bonds withIran, and have defended the Islamic Republic against American charges of interference and infiltration. In the end, although both parties have no inclination to act asIran’s surrogates, they are likely to provide Tehranwith a sympathetic audience, and even an alliance that, like all such arrangements, will not be free of tension and difficulty.

Although less well-publicized by Tehran, it does appear that Iranhas established tacit ties with Moqtada al-Sadr and has even supplied his Mahdi army. In a sense, unlike their relations with SCIRI and Dawa, Iran’s ties to Sadr are more opportunistic, as they find his sporadic Arab nationalist rhetoric and erratic behavior problematic.  Nonetheless, given his emerging power-base, strident opposition to the American occupation and his well-organized militia group, Tehran has found it advantageous to at least maintain some links with Sadr. Among the characteristic of Iran’s foreign policy is to leave as many options open as possible. At a time when Sadr is being granted an audience by the Arab leaders and dignitaries across the region, it would be astonishing ifIran did not seek some kind of a relationship with the Shiite firebrand.

Finally, there is Iran’s relation with Iraq’s most esteemed and influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Grand Ayatollah stands with traditional Shiite mullahs in rejecting Khomeini’s notion that proper Islamic governance mandates direct clerical assumption of power. As we have noted, Khomeini’s innovation contravened normative Shiite political traditions, making its export problematic, if not impossible. Thus far, both parties have been courteous and deferential to one another, with Sistani refusing to criticize Iran, while Tehran has been generous with crediting him for the Shiite populace’s increasing empowerment. Rafsanjani made a point of emphasizing Sistani’s role after the elections of the interim government, noting, “The fact that the people ofIraq have gone to the ballet box to decide their own fate is the result of efforts by the Iraqi clergy and sources of emulation, led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.”

For his part, Sistani maintains close ties to Iran’s clerical community and routinely meets with visiting Iranian officials—a privilege not yet granted to U.S. representatives. Moreover, even though Sistani has not pressed for a theocracy, he still insists that religion must inform political and social arrangements.  

The professions of the region’s Sunni elite notwithstanding, as clerical regime plots its strategy toward Iraq, it does not seem inordinately interested in exporting its failed governing model to an unwilling Shiite population. As an influential Iranian politician, Muhammad Javad Larijani, plainly noted, “Iran’s experience is not possible to be duplicated in Iraq.” As such, Tehran’s promotion of its Shiite allies is a way of ensuring that a future Iraqi government features voices who are willing to engage with Iran. The clerical rulers have no delusions about the Iraqi Shiite community subordinating its communal interests to Iran’s prerogatives; they merely hope that promotion of Shiite parties will provide them with a suitable interlocutor. It is important to note that Iran’s policy toward Iraq, as elsewhere in the Gulf, is predicated on carefully calibrated calculations of national interest, as opposed to a messianic mission of advancing the revolution.

Today, the essential estrangement of the Iraqi Shiites from the larger Arab world, and the Sunni dynasties unease with their empowerment makes the community more attractive to Iran. The ascendance of the Shiites maybe acceptable to the Bush administration with its democratic imperatives, but the Sunni monarchs of Saudi Arabiaand Jordan and the presidential dictatorships of Egypt and Syria are extremely anxious about the emergence of a new “arch of Shiism.” At a time when the leading pan-Arab newspapers routinely decry the invasion of Iraq as an U.S.-Iranian plot to undermine the cohesion of the Sunni bloc, the prospects of an elected Shiite government in Iraq being warmly embraced by the Arab world seems remote. Iraq’s new Shiite parties, conservative or moderate, are drawn toIran, as they look for natural allies. It is unlikely that this will change, as the political alignments of the Middle Eastare increasingly being defined by sectarian identities.            

Although it is customary to speak of Iran’s ties to the Shiites, it should be noted that the Islamic Republic has also sought to cultivate relations with the Kurdish parties, particularly Jalal Talibani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Iran’s own history with the Kurdish population is contentious, as the Shah mercilessly exploited the Kurds, and then casted them aside when they proved inconvenient. Soon after assuming power, the Islamic Republic itself confronted Kurdish separatism and one of its first challenges was the suppression of a determined Kurdish rebellion. However, during their long years of common struggle against Saddam, the two sides often cooperated with each other, and eventually came to establish relatively reasonable relations. For the past two decades, Irannot only sustained those ties but often housed substantial Kurdish refugees whenever they had to flee Saddam’s war machine. Today, Iran’s relations with Talibani are cordial and correct, asTehran hopes that a degree of Kurdish autonomy will persuade them to remain within a unitary Iraqi state.

Contrary to Washington’s presumptions, the realization ofIran’s objectives is not predicated on violence and the insurgency, but on the unfolding democratic process. In a strange paradox, the Iranian clerical hardliners who have been so adamant about suppressing the reform movement, have emerged as forceful advocates of democratic pluralism in Iraq. Indeed, a democratic Iraq offers Iran political and strategic advantages. After much deliberation, Iran’s theocrats have arrived at the conclusion that the best means of advancing their interests is to support an electoral process that is increasingly constructing a state with strong provinces and a weak federal structure. Such an arrangement would empower the more congenial Shiite populace, contain the unruly ambitions of the Kurds, and marginalize Iran’s Sunni foes.

Moreover, Iran’s stratagem is not devoid of realpolitik considerations. A pluralistic Iraqis bound to be a fractious, divided state too preoccupied with its internal squabbles to contestIran’s aspirations in the Gulf. At a time when Iraq’s constitutional arrangements are ceding essential authority to the provinces, and privileging local militias over national armed forces, it is unlikely that Iraq will once more emerge as a powerful, centralized state seeking to dominate the Persian Gulf region, if not the entire Middle East. It would be much easier for Iran to exert influence over a decentralized state with many contending actors, then a strong, cohesive regime. 

Given Iran’s interest in the stability and success of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, how does one account for the credible reports indicating that Tehranhas been infiltrating men and supplies into Iraq? To be sure, since the removal of Saddam, the Islamic Republic has been busy establishing an infrastructure of influence next door that includes funding political parties and dispatching arms to Shiite militias.

Iran’s model of ensuring its influence in Iraq is also drawn from its experiences in Lebanon, another multi-confessional society with a Shiite population that was traditionally left out of the spoils of power.Iran’s strategy in Lebanon was to dispatch economic and financial assistance to win Shiite hearts and minds, while making certain that its Shiite allies had sufficient military hardware for a potential clash with their rivals. As such, Iran’s presence was more subtle and indirect, and sought to avoid a confrontation with the United States. Not unlike its approach to Lebanon, Iran today is seeking to mobilize and organize the diverse Shiite forces in Iraq, while not necessarily getting entangled in an altercation with the more powerful United States.

The Nuclear Conundrum

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a regime continuously divided against itself. Even in the era of conservative political hegemony, there are factions, as on issues of economic reforms, regional priorities and even relations with America, conservative frequently find themselves at odds with one another. However, today, a unique consensus has evolved within the regime on the nuclear issue. Iran’s cantankerous conservatives seem united on the notion that the Islamic Republic should have an advanced nuclear infrastructure that will offer it an opportunity to cross the nuclear threshold at some point. Whether Iran will take that step or will remain satisfied with a presumed capability just short of an actual breakout, as India did prior to 1997, will depend on a range of domestic and international developments.

From the outset it must be emphasized that for all the factions involved in this debate, the core issue is how to safeguard Iran’s national interests. The Islamic Republic is not an irrational rogue state seeking such weaponry as an instrument of an aggressive, revolutionary foreign policy. This is not an “Islamic bomb” to be handed over to terrorist organizations or exploded in the streets of New Yorkor Washington. The fact is that Iran has long possessed chemical weapons, and has yet to transfer such arms to its terrorist allies. Iran’s cautious leaders are most interested in remaining in power and fully appreciate that transferring nuclear weapons to terrorists could lead to the type of retaliation from the United States or Israel that would eliminate their regime altogether. For Iran this is a weapon of deterrence and power projection.

The primary supporters of the nuclear program are now officials in command of key institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Guardian Council. A fundamental tenet of the hardliners’ ideology is the notion that the Islamic Republic is in constant danger from predatory external forces, necessitating military self-reliance. This perception was initially molded by a revolution that sought not just to defy international norms but also to refashion them. The passage of time and the failure of that mission have not necessarily diminished the hardliners’ suspicions of the international order and its primary guardian, theUnited States. Jumhuri-ye Islami, the conservative newspaper and the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sounded this theme by stressing,

“The core problem is the fact that our officials’ outlook on the nuclear dossier ofIran is faulty and they are on the wrong track. It seems they have failed to appreciate that America is after our destruction and the nuclear issue is merely an excuse for them.”

In a similar vein, Resalat, another influential conservative paper, sounded out the themes of deterrence and national interest by claiming, “In the present situation of international order whose main characteristics are injustice and the weakening of the rights of others, the Islamic Republic has no alternative but intelligent resistance while paying the least cost.” Given its paranoia and suspicions, the Iranian right does not necessarily object to international isolation and confrontation with the West. Indeed, for many within this camp, such a conflict would be an effective means of rekindling popular support for the revolution’s fading élan.

Iran’s nuclear calculations have been further hardened by the rise of war veterans, such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to positions of power. Although the Iran-Iraq war ended nearly twenty years ago, for many within the Islamic Republic it was a defining experience that altered their strategic assumptions. Even a cursory examination of Ahmadinejad’s speeches reveals that for him the war is far from a faded memory. In his defiant speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2005, Iran’s president pointedly admonished the assembled dignitaries for their failings:

“For eight years, Saddam’s regime imposed a massive war of aggression against my people. It employed the most heinous weapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraqis alike. Who, in fact, armed Saddam with those weapons? What was the reaction of those who claim to fight against WMDs regarding the use of chemical weapons then?”

The international indifference to Saddam’s war crimes and Tehran’s lack of an effective response has led Iran’s war-veteran president to perceive that the security of his country cannot be predicated on global opinion and treaties.

The impact of the Iran-Iraq war on Tehran’s nuclear calculations cannot be underestimated. Iraq’s employment of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians and combatants has permanently scarred Iran’s national psyche. Whatever their tactical military utility, in Saddam’s hands, chemical weapons were tools of terror, as he hoped that through their indiscriminate use he could frighten and demoralize the Iranian populace. To a large extend, this strategy did succeed, as Iraqi attacks did much to undermine the national support for the continuation of the war.

Beyond the human toll, the war also changed Iran’s strategic doctrine. During the war, Iran persisted with the notion that technological superiority cannot overcome revolutionary zeal and a willingness to offer martyrs. To compensate for its lack of weaponry,Iran launched human wave assaults and used its young population as a tool of an offensive military strategy. The devastation of the war and the loss of an appetite for “martyrdom” among Iran’s youth has invalidated that theory. As Rafsanjani acknowledged, “With regards to chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons, it was made clear during the war that these weapons are very decisive. We should fully equip ourselves in both offensive and defensive use of these weapons.” Moreover, the indifference of the international community to Saddam’s crimes also left its mark, leading Iranto reject the notion that international agreements can ensure its security. As Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said in 2004, “We cannot, generally speaking, argue that our country will derive any benefit from accepting international treaties.” Deterrence could no longer be predicated on revolutionary commitment and international opinion, as Iran required a more credible military response.

The legacy of the war only reinforces a nationalistic narrative that seesAmerica’s demands for Iran to relinquish its fuel cycle rights under the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty as inherently unjust. As a country that has historically been the subject of foreign intervention and the imposition of various capitulation treaties, Iran is inordinately sensitive of its national prerogatives and sovereign rights. The rulers of Iran perceive that they are being challenged not because of their provocations and previous treaty violations, but because of superpower bullying. In a peculiar manner, the nuclear program and Iran’s national identity have become fused in the imagination of the hardliners. To stand against America on this issue is to validate one’s revolutionary ardor and sense of nationalism. Ali Husseini Tash, the Deputy Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, stressed this point, saying, “A nation that does not engage in risks and difficult challenges, and a nation which does not stand up for itself can never be a proud nation.” Thus, the notion of compromise and acquiescence has limited utility to Iran’s aggrieved nationalists.

Despite their bitterness and cynicism, the theocratic hardliners are eternal optimists when it comes to their assessment of how the international community will respond to Iran’s nuclear breakout. Many influential conservative voices insist that Iran would follow the model of India and Pakistan, with the initial international outcry soon followed by an acceptance of Iran’s new status. Thus, Tehran would regain its commercial contracts and keep its nuclear weapons. The former Iranian foreign minister Akbar Velayati noted this theme when stressing, “Whenever we stand firm and defend our righteous stands resolutely, they are forced to retreat and have no alternatives.” The right thus rejects the notion that Iran’s mischievous past and its tense relations with theUnited States would militate against the international community’s accepting Iran’s nuclear status.

However, should their anticipations prove misguided, and Iran becomes the subject of sanctions, it is a price that the hardliners are willing to pay for an important national prerogative. Ahmadinejad has pointedly noted that even sanctions were to be imposed, “the Iranian nation would still have its rights.” In a similar vein, Ayatollah Jannati has noted, “We do not welcome sanctions, but if we are threatened by sanctions, we will not give in.” The notion of the need to sacrifice and struggle on behalf of the revolution and resist imperious international demands is an essential tent of the hardliners’ ideological perspective.

For the foreseeable future, the United States confronts an Iranian state whose strategic vulnerabilities, regional ambitions and internal political alignments press it in the direction of nuclear capability. Moreover Iran’s nuclear empowerment comes at a time when it is bound to be the leading state in the strategically critical Persian Gulf region. These trends can neither be easily reversed through a policy of coercion or pressure, as in the end, a diplomatic engagement between the United States and Iran maybe the only manner of tempering the theocracy’s more troublesome designs.

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