Iran’s Regional Ambitions: Implications for Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf States

, July 10, 2007

Vol. 7, No. 9

•Iran’s national interest would be to regard Israel as a strategic ally and partner because Iran does not want a Middle East which is entirely Arab. But the Islamic Republic wants to lead the Muslim world, create an Islamic superpower, and save mankind from a Judeo-Christian conspiracy.
•Jerusalem contains the al-Aqsa Mosque, but it is a Sunni mosque. Iranians are Shi’ites and cannot pray there because their prayers would not be accepted. So liberating Jerusalem is a totally useless project from an Iranian religious perspective.
•The majority of the Shi’ite clergy, in Iran and elsewhere, are against the Iranian regime. There are more Iranian mullahs in prison today than workers or intellectuals. All of the grand ayatollahs are now bitter enemies of the regime because it is a distortion of Shi’ite theology.
•Those who are fighting the regime inside Iran are mostly industrial workers, who have been on strike in many areas. Another group fighting the regime is women, who are very active, especially in hundreds of NGOs. The regular Iranian armed forces, as distinct from the Revolutionary Guards, are also unhappy with the present situation.
•The real issue in Iran is how it can find a way to emerge from its revolutionary experience, keep part of it, discard other parts, and really become a nation state. Once Iran has become a nation state, instead of a country devoted to an abstract cause, then it will display normal behavior and not be an existential threat to anybody.

Defining Iran’s National Interests

There are 7 million Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan and about 15-18 million Azeris in Iran. Yet, paradoxically, Iran is supporting Armenia against Azerbaijan because the Republic of Azerbaijan is pro-Western and pro-American. The only yardstick that matters for the Islamic Republic is not Iran’s national interests, but its enmity toward the United States.

Iran’s national interest would be to regard Israel as a strategic ally and partner because Iran does not want a Middle East which is entirely Arab. It is in Iran’s interest to have a Middle East in which there are also Persians, Kurds, Turks, Jews, Maronites, Christians, and Copts. If there was no Israel, all the negative energies of Arab chauvinism and pan-Arabism would be directed against Iran.

Israel should normally be Iran’s best ally in the region, but the Islamic Republic wants to lead the Muslim world, create an Islamic superpower, and save mankind from a Judeo-Christian conspiracy. Since the Arabs and the Sunni Muslims who are the majority are reluctant to accept Shi’ite Iran as a leader, Iran’s response is to tell the Arabs to destroy Israel under Iran’s leadership.

The destruction of Israel has thus become a device to avoid any theological discussions. In British mosques, for instance, God makes a cameo appearance every now and then, but the discussions have become entirely political.

Since there are many different Islamic sects and many different interpretations, the best way to prevent dissension is to avoid religion and talk about politics – Israel, Chechnya, Kashmir, the liberation of Andalusia – issues about which all Muslims can agree.

Iran has created a special corps to liberate Jerusalem, but suppose Iran were to actually liberate Jerusalem. Jerusalem has no natural resources and is of no strategic value. It has the al-Aqsa Mosque, but it is a Sunni mosque. Iranians are Shi’ites and cannot pray there because their prayers would not be accepted. So liberating Jerusalem is a totally useless project from both an Iranian religious and national perspective.

The real issue in Iran is how it can find a way to emerge from its revolutionary experience, keep part of it, discard other parts, and really become a nation state. Once Iran has become a nation state, then it will display normal behavior and not be an existential threat to anybody. A nation state’s demands are tangible and quantifiable. They are about borders, sharing water, markets, access to raw materials, influence, security, and geo-politics. The problem with a country devoted to a cause is that a cause is an abstraction. A defender of a cause wants everything and has no interest in negotiations.

A Moment of Disequilibrium in the Middle East

The status quo in the Middle East has been shattered as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Now we are in a moment of disequilibrium. The new Middle East will either be an American Middle East – democratic, pluralistic, and capitalistic – or it will be a Khomeinist Middle East. These are two different visions and they are in competition.

Iran’s original calculation was to wait until President Bush finishes out his term, but in recent months the leadership of the Islamic Republic seems to have decided that it does not have to wait Bush out – that Bush is already finished and the “good Americans” will soon be back in power. Therefore, the Islamic Republic has gone on the offensive, as can be seen in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. For the first time since 1988, the Islamic Republic navy is stopping ships, seizing British sailors. It is also intensifying attacks on allied forces in parts of Iraq that were not affected by insurgency. The Iranians want to take the credit for themselves (instead of allowing al-Qaeda, or the Baathist remnants to do so) and to proclaim themselves as the leaders of the region.

Everybody in the region is being affected. The Arabs in the Persian Gulf are afraid of even the peaceful use of Iran’s nuclear energy because the Iranian nuclear plant is less than 32 kilometers from Kuwait. Polluted water will pour into the Gulf where Kuwaitis get 90 percent of their water through desalination. The nuclear plant has a German design, but it was built by a Russian company, the same company that built the Chernobyl reactor. Also the plant is located in one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. Scientists at Tehran University sent a report to the regime that this was the wrong site for a nuclear plant.

The Arabs, Russians, Europeans, and Pakistanis all assume that if they pressure the Islamic Republic, the Iranians would make a deal with the Americans. They also assume that the Americans will take care of the Iranians if they really get out of hand.

The Saudis have created a group of eight – six Gulf Cooperation Council member states plus Egypt and Jordan. They also created another group of seven with Islamic countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia plus Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan, and for the first time excluded Iran. The Saudis are laying markers for a third vision of the Middle East, one that would be different from the American and Iranian visions.

Fighting the Iranian Regime

The majority of the Shi’ite clergy, in Iran and elsewhere, are against the Iranian regime. There are more Iranian mullahs in prison today than workers or intellectuals. Of all the grand ayatollahs, the last one who was still cooperating with the regime until the 1980s was Montazeri, who was supposed to be Khomeini’s successor. They are now all bitter enemies of the regime because it is a distortion of Shi’ite theology.

One can help the Iranian people by helping those who are fighting the regime inside Iran. These are mostly Iranian industrial workers, who have been on strike in many areas. The Islamic Republic wants to introduce a new labor code which they call Islamic, but it is really slavery in which the worker has absolutely no rights.

Another group fighting the regime is women, who are very active, especially in hundreds of NGOs. Segments of Iranian society such as legal and medical associations, who elect their own leaders, have liberated themselves in some degree from the regime. The regular Iranian armed forces, as distinct from the Revolutionary Guards, are also unhappy with the present situation.

The forces in Iran that are represented as revolutionary are shallow, and they maintain their power because they control the instruments of coercion – they can kill people, and they control the oil money. They have 3-5 million people linked to them through the distribution of favors.

Iraq: Situation Not as Bad as People Think

The Americans achieved all their objectives in the war in Iraq: they toppled Saddam Hussein and broke his war machine. The Iraqis wrote a constitution, held elections, and did what was necessary to create a new system. In terms of war aims, this has been a very successful war.

If things are going badly in Iraq, the Iraqis will start leaving in droves. Indeed, many Sunnis have left Iraq and are becoming new refugees in Jordan and Syria. At the same time, many Shi’ites and Kurds have returned to Iraq.

When things are going badly in Iraq, the flow of pilgrims to the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala slows down. According to this criterion, the situation in Iraq is good because since the liberation, Iraq has hosted some 12 million pilgrims from all over the world, for the first time since the late 1980s. It makes Iraq the number one tourist destination in the Middle East. In addition, the Iraqi dinar has been appreciating against both the Iranian rial and the Kuwaiti dinar.

Iraqi agriculture has made a comeback and for the first time since the 1950s Iraq is self-sufficient in food after peasants reclaimed their lands and started growing on it. They are even exporting a lot of food to Iran. Furthermore, the appearance of thousands of small businesses everywhere shows that the situation in Iraq is not as bad as people think.

* * *

Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe, was executive editor-in-chief of Kayhan, Iran’s main daily newspaper, from 1972 to 1979. Between 1980 and 1984 he was Middle East editor for the London Sunday Times. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on April 18, 2007.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe, was executive editor-in-chief of Kayhan, Iran's main daily newspaper, from 1972 to 1979. Between 1980 and 1984 he was Middle East editor for the London Sunday Times.