Behrooz Ayaz and Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill
The current U.S. administration must have the political will to pay the domestic political costs of engaging with Iran, and prioritize renewing dialogue with Tehran to draw it away from the Russo-Chinese orbit. Only through the extended practice of negotiations, even if there is no resulting agreement, will it be possible to identify the contours of possible diplomatic compromises, and make credible commitments that build trust. While some in the U.S. administration continue to hold out for the election of conciliatory reformers to the executive, or an election that sweeps liberals into the legislature, or perhaps an umbrella revolution in response to government corruption, these outcomes are unlikely in the near future. Persistent failure of U.S. policymakers to assess correctly the political cultures of Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Syria, and Russia, means that there is a continuing need for leaning through diplomatic engagement.
Dialogue will make it possible for Washington to calibrate concessions to Iran that maximize trust and approximate a balance between historical Iranian strategic goals and the security of regional U.S. allies. Some of Iran’s amorphous foreign policy aims include achieving regional military superiority, pursuing the status of a technological capability, including the possibility of a nuclear arsenal, winning the influence of the Umm al-Qura as the leading state of the Islamic world, asserting the rights of a regional power, and drawing the countries of the region under its influence. However, dialogue with Iran, particularly the commercial incentives of improving the economic prospects of Iran’s citizenry, may germinate new pacific interests in Tehran in terms of the main requirements for reviving the historical-political ideals of a successfully re-established Iran.
Iranian nationalism is an inescapable property of historical Persian identity, even as it is subsumed in the current theocratic polity. The Iranian inclination to invoke the memory of the Safavid Shiite Empire as a counterbalance to Turkish attempts to assert control over traditional Ottoman spheres of influence is a manifestation of an historical solution to a contemporary geopolitical challenge. The U.S. presence in the Gulf is reminiscent to Tehran of the military-commercial activities of previous colonial era powers, such as Portugal, the Dutch, and the British, primarily deployed to protect economic interests and the exploitation of regional governments, not for the establishment of democracy or the new world order.
Iran’s size and defensible terrain, as well as its persistent resistance to foreign invasions, including against the British during the Second World War, gives its political culture considerable confidence. This translates Iran’s historical grievances into wariness rather than a search for lost territories, extreme insecurity, or victimhood. We can infer from this that Iran’s preferred strategic architecture is a series of bilateral agreements regularizing security deployments in the Persian Gulf, and the exclusion of foreign forces deployed in its neighbours. This includes all US bases in Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, and Afghanistan, as well as Pakistani forces in Saudi Arabia, British forces in Oman, Chinese in Pakistan, Turkish and alleged Israeli forces in Azerbaijan, and Russians in Armenia. Tehran recognizes the inevitability of multipolar involvement in the energy-rich Persian Gulf. As with the presence of Portuguese, Dutch and English fleets up until 1971, and European fleets in the 1980s, and the almost daily presence of Indian Atlantique maritime surveillance aircraft in the Arabian Sea at the entrance of the Straits of Hormuz, Tehran is likely to be accommodating of foreign energy interests if pre-arranged bilaterally.
Of course, the exclusion of foreign forces would expose Saudi Arabia to Iranian encroachment, such as for example the 1971 Iranian seizure of the Emirati islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. Historically, however, Iran has sought regional stability as far as the Red Sea in order to secure the security of its energy and non-energy maritime commerce. On the other hand, Iran cooperated with Oman and the British in resisting Dhofari insurgents, and cooperated with Pakistan in dealing with a Baloch insurgency, and provided sanctuary to those resisting the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Before 1980, Iran was trusted to regulate its relations with the other states of the region without the need for the defensive backdrop of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The current uncompromising Western strategy of containing Iran with sanctions is both provocative, because it pushes Iranian decision-makers to pursue policies they would otherwise not be pursuing, and risky, because Tehran’s natural inclination is to join an emerging Russo-Chinese bloc. With the West’s diplomatic and economic isolation of Moscow following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it is likely Russia will significantly increase its military assistance to Tehran. This could come most prominently in the form of sophisticated air defense systems, such as the S-400, which will make even a stealth-strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities costly. Russia could also provide a significant number of anti-ship missiles and sea mines to facilitate a closure of the Straits of Hormuz. Iranian relations with China are more complicated, because Beijing imports more fossil fuels from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, military competitors with Tehran, than it does from Iran, and any arming of Iran could lead to the disruption of that fuel supply. However, given considerable investment over possibly a decade or two, Iran’s energy exports could be routed through Pakistan or Central Asia to China, circumventing the threat of a Western naval blockade at the Strait of Malacca. In the event of a major conflict over Taiwan, a simultaneous operation by Iran in the Persian Gulf would constitute a major diversion of air and Marine assets away from the critical theatre.
Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on Pakistan security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He has also conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Egypt, and is a consultant. He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after 9/11.
Behrouz Ayaz is an Iranian political analyst who specializes in foreign policy of Iran, Afghanistan, South Asia and Terrorism. He graduated from Tarbiat Modares university with a Master of Art’s degree in International Relations. He is currently cooperating with SCFR (Strategic Council on Foreign Relations). Ayaz has written the book as a Collection of Papers with accomplished professors “The Nature, Dimensions, and Future of ISIS”, and has published scientific articles, essays and policy related to his expertise.