This is the first post in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Regional Study Day: The Middle East’, held at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom on 13 May 2015. This study day was organized by the Defence Culture and Languages Centre (DCLC) and the Defence Studies Department’s Regional Security Research Centre.
The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has often been portrayed as having aggressive and expansionist intentions in its Middle Eastern neighbourhood. However, by observing the country’s pragmatic reactions to Islamic State or DAESH and the domestic political competition in Iran, it is clear that a more nuanced Iranian course of action is being played out in the region.
In a recent workshop on the Middle East at the Defence, Culture and Language Centre (DCLC), I argued that the IRI has been balancing these two elements (pragmatism and domestic competition) in order to safeguard its primal interest – the safeguarding of the Revolution. Specifically, this is concerned with ensuring that the post-1979 Revolutionary regime in Iran is kept in tact, something which is mandated in the country’s constitution.
Additionally, when concerned with the provisional nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, the UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany) – which has a deadline of 30 June 2015 to iron out the finer details of the deal – these two elements are very much in play. Pertinently, on this occasion, the P5+1 has recognised ‘Iranian Pride’ in the negotiation process. This is something which appears to be key to unlocking a deal as it resonates well with notions of safeguarding the Revolution.
As I noted in my previous post, Iran’s Response to DAESH: It’s all about the Revolution, Tehran has been carrying out discretionary actions in response to the threat of DAESH. This developed from initial support for the former Nouri Al-Maliki Iraqi Prime Minister, into providing political, military, economic and humanitarian aid to DAESH combatants (mainly Kurdish and Shia actors). Furthermore, the informal engagement with Saudi Arabia – in the form of an Iranian-Saudi Foreign Minister meeting on the fringes of the September 2014 Annual UN Conference – combined with the fact that Iran has been less critical of US operations against DAESH reflects this view. This latter point is of specific significance, as it is almost contradictory to the constitutional article which sets its sights on achieving ‘the complete elimination of Imperialism and the prevention of foreign influence’ (Iranian Constitution, 1989, Article 3, Point 5). This demonstrates a level of pragmatism and willingness to cooperate with various aspects of the international community to affront the DAESH threat, as this is complementary to minimising the threat DAESH poses against the Revolutionary regime.
The second element in play when concerned with deciphering Iranian interests, is the domestic political competition in the country. Indeed, the oppositional Hard-line or Conservative factions in Iran have rejected the nuclear deal claiming that it demonstrates weakness and infringes upon Tehran’s sovereign rights. However, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei (who has often aligned himself with the Conservatives in Iran) has tacitly supported the deal. As a result, the Conservatives have been conveying their opposition to the deal through various actions which have the potential to unhinge an agreement. A primal example of this came between 28 April and 7 May when the Marshal Islands flagged MAERSK ship was detained. The eventual release of the ship did however infer an appetite to avoid confrontation and reach a nuclear agreement – even if this appetite was minimal.
As a result, Iran is demonstrating signs of an increased willingness to cooperate with the international community – even if it is with its own interests in mind. The hope is that this sentiment holds enough momentum for an agreement to be reached on the 30th of June.
Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits sits with his fellow P5+1 foreign ministers — as well as European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, far right — at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran’s nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]