The Fractured Power
How to Overcome Tribalism
Since 1973 and the first oil shock, the center of gravity of Middle Eastern politics has been gradually shifting—from the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab-Israeli conflict toward the Persian Gulf and Iran. That process was accelerated in 1979 by the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which dramatically reduced the likelihood of another Arab-Israeli war, and the nearly simultaneous climax of the Iranian revolution, which replaced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with a radical theocratic regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Iran has long harbored ambitions to become the superpower of the Persian Gulf. That prospect is not as improbable today as in the past. In recent years, despite the severe constraints imposed by a chaotic internal situation, Iran has managed a complex and dangerous set of international relationships with boldness, sangfroid and a considerable measure of success.
Americans are prone to evaluate developments in Tehran from the perspective of U.S. concerns, particularly after the revelation of U.S. arms sales. The world as seen from Tehran, however, constitutes sets of interlocking circles of threats and interests in which the United States is important but far from paramount.
The most important circle of attention is the constantly shifting balance of power within the revolution itself. Second, and only slightly less important, is the war with Iraq. Every aspect of the war has both practical and ideological implications for the survival of the regime; it is the object of the most intense controversy and debate. Third is oil policy—production, pricing and distribution—which is intimately associated with Iran’s role in OPEC. For the most part, oil policy has not been a subject of political contention. Responsibility for management of the petroleum industry has been delegated to technicians who are essentially nonpolitical and nonideological. Iranian strategy in OPEC is apparently set by a small group of technocrats and political leaders at the very top of the power structure whose decisions, at least to date, have not been subject to serious public debate.
The fourth and fifth circles center on the two superpowers and their respective European allies, with the Soviet Union of more immediate and active concern than the United States. Sixth is Iran’s relations with the regional states of the Persian Gulf and Middle East, including Syria and Libya. These two states occupy a special role as important (though not entirely reliable) allies in the Arab camp. Finally there is the collection of more distant states or entities, such as the United Nations, the Islamic Conference, the Nonaligned Movement, Japan, China, Vietnam and African states, that may be important to Iran on certain issues but tend to be marginal players in Iran’s core concerns.
All of these circles overlap and interact. This analysis will focus on the domestic interests, which establish the baseline for all Iranian foreign policy behavior, including its war strategy; on relations with the two superpowers; and on Iran’s relations with its regional neighbors.
The one cardinal rule that the United States has learned—or should have learned—from its eight years of experience with revolutionary Iran, is that Iranian foreign policy is produced and conditioned by the hard imperatives of domestic politics in Tehran. The supreme goal of Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates is to assure the continuation of theocratic rule and to preserve the legitimacy of the new regime. They are playing for the highest of stakes—their own survival—a fact that focuses the mind wonderfully.
The first momentous encounter between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran—the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the imprisonment of its occupants for 444 days—is best understood not in foreign policy terms but rather, as Khomeini designated it, as the "second Iranian revolution." The event was exploited by Khomeini to rid himself of troublesome secular elements within his own government and to mobilize mass support for a radical transformation of the political structure and leadership of the country. In retrospect, it is apparent that the rhythm of the hostage crisis was attributable more to internal developments in Tehran than to anything the United States and the international community did or did not do.
The original hostage crisis provided compelling evidence of a leadership prepared to take extraordinary international risks in pursuit of its own domestic agenda. Khomeini demonstrated a cool and calculated ability to manipulate events for his own benefit and to function purposefully in the midst of political and economic tumult. The leadership in Tehran also displayed an appreciation for damage limitation, as when it quietly squelched calls for a hostage trial and expelled a hostage who was seriously ill in order to avoid probable U.S. retaliation. Moreover, when the crisis had served its purpose and the institutions of a suitably theocratic government were firmly in place, Tehran negotiated the safe release of the hostages on terms that cost the regime dearly, relinquishing its original demands for a U.S. apology and return of the shah’s assets.
In short, the leadership in Tehran showed itself to be exquisitely sensitive to its own internal priorities, immensely stubborn and tenacious in the face of nearly universal reproach, flexible and calculating in minimizing tactical damage to its own interests, and thoroughly pragmatic—even nonideological—when it determined that the game was no longer worth the candle.
There is perhaps no nation in the world that would be prepared to pay the very high price that Iran paid during the hostage crisis for its pursuit of idiosyncratic religio-revolutionary goals. Hence the perception of irrationality. But its actual performance was anything but irrational. On the contrary, Iran proved itself to be an adept and dangerous adversary, to be underestimated only at one’s peril.
The Iranian revolution is now more than eight years old. During those years, the new theocratic regime has experienced a major confrontation with a superpower, six-and-a-half years of a brutal and devastating war with Iraq, a prolonged and ugly conflict with the Kurdish tribes in the northwest, several attempted coups, an open rebellion led by the Mujahedeen-al-Khalq in 1981, attempted subversion by the pro-Soviet Tudeh party, and a steady succession of bombings, assassinations, hijackings and other terrorist attacks. International sanctions and attacks on its oil production, refinery and export facilities have had a profound impact on the structure of its trade and finances.
At the same time, Iran has effected a near total overhaul of its political, economic and social institutions, from the national constitution down to the lowliest neighborhood committee. It has completely restructured the educational, judicial and social-welfare systems. In the midst of war, it has redesigned its military forces in a unique three-part structure composed of the traditional professional military, the parallel Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (commonly known as the pasdaran), and a massive levy of volunteers known as the basij. It has absorbed several million refugees from Afghanistan and the war fronts. The new regime has nationalized some 80 percent of the nation’s industry, initiated a massive rural development program and engaged in a vociferous dispute about land reform.
Revolutionary Iran is a land of raucous debate where personal ambitions find expression in the vocabulary of revelation. Triumph over the old regime seems to have obliterated the past and convinced the new generation of revolutionaries that they could reinvent the world. That prospect released a remarkable surge of energy, but it also whetted immense appetites among those who hoped to define the future. Following the lead of Khomeini, who wove the rich symbolism of Shia Islam into the political fabric of the nation, personal and institutional rivalries are now conducted in the language, and with the same passionate conviction, reserved in medieval times for debate of first principles. Politics and metaphysics have fused.
Given the societal turmoil and the absolutist tenor of the debate, it is surprising that Iran has done as well as it has. The Iranian leaders have consolidated their control of the new revolutionary institutions. Their military forces, at great human expense, have reversed the early defeats of the war and have established a degree of momentum on the battlefield. They have continued to call on the long-suffering Iranian population for sacrifice, and the population—grumbling, to be sure, and with waning enthusiasm—has responded. They have demonstrated considerable skill and ingenuity in managing their oil industry in the face of Iraqi air raids. And despite eight years of seeming chaos, they have succeeded in paying off their entire foreign debt.
In fact, the pattern that has emerged in nearly every aspect of Iranian policy—foreign and domestic—has been extreme rhetoric in public pronouncements balanced by calculated flexibility and utter realism in practice, at least in those areas regarded as critical to survival. The war in particular has imposed a sense of realism and practical limitations.
Initially, Iran proclaimed its foreign policy in absolute, exclusionary terms in which Iran’s role was to serve as the exemplar and catalyst to bring "Islam to the entire world." The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the foreign service were purged repeatedly, and representatives abroad were exhorted to abjure traditional diplomacy in favor of revolutionary and doctrinal purity. Implicit in this approach was the assumption that the world was corrupt and, in the end, the world needed Iran more than Iran needed the world.
After four years of war that assumption was wearing thin. In October 1984, Khomeini summoned Iran’s diplomatic representatives from abroad and instructed them to take a new approach:
We should act as it was done in early Islam when the Prophet . . . sent ambassadors to all parts of the world to establish proper relations. We cannot sit idly by saying we have nothing to do with governments. This is contrary to intellect and religious law. We should have relations with all governments with the exception of a few with which we have no relations at present. . . . We will not establish relations with America unless America behaves properly.
Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi-Khamenei expanded on these comments, noting that Iran had experienced difficulties in obtaining spare parts and military equipment because of U.S. pressures. He offered assurances to the nations of the region who had feared the export of Iran’s revolution: "We do not want to export armed revolution to any country. That is a big lie. Our aim is to promote the Islamic Revolution through persuasion and by means of truth and courage. These are Islamic values."
These pronouncements marked a fundamental shift, not in Tehran’s foreign policy goals but in its strategy for pursuing those goals. Khomeini and his lieutenants had discovered that a policy of unrelenting hostility and pressure was getting nowhere and, more important, was hampering Iran’s ability to sustain itself at home while fighting a total war. This shift occurred at a moment when domestic popular discontent was on the rise due to shortages and inefficiencies. Moreover, the attempt to carry the war into Iraq appeared hopelessly bogged down, and domestic terrorist attacks were again becoming more frequent after a lapse of several years. It may also have been more than coincidental that this sharp reversal of policy was announced just as the United States was completing arrangements to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iraq, thus raising the prospect that both superpowers would be arrayed with Iran’s mortal enemy.
The announcements in late 1984 were followed by a series of missions by key Iranian political figures to dozens of countries throughout the world. The message of these emissaries in each case was that Iran posed no military or subversive threat to its neighbors, that the war with Iraq was imposed on Iran by Saddam Hussein’s aggression, that Iran had no territorial designs on Iraq or any other nation in the Persian Gulf region, and that Iran desired normal political and trade relations with all countries of the world.
The campaign had its setbacks; when President Hojatolislam Sayed Ali Khamenei visited Zimbabwe in January 1986 he created a diplomatic incident by refusing to attend a state dinner where wine was served and where a female cabinet minister was present. However, for the most part these delegations were successful in softening Iran’s extremist image and in beginning to restore commercial and political ties that had been interrupted by the revolution. By mid-1986 Khomeini was able to assert: "There was a time when the situation was chaotic and everything was in ruins, but—thank God—everything is now proper and right. . . . Domestic and international affairs are put right."
Khomeini’s claim was exaggerated, but his hyperbole was understandable in view of the considerable achievements of Iran’s diplomatic offensive of the previous 18 months. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal had paid a formal visit to Tehran in May 1985, and Iran had agreed to help reduce tensions associated with the annual pilgrimage of large numbers of Iranians to Mecca. In return, Saudi Arabia reportedly agreed to provide regular shipments of refined petroleum products to Iran, whose refineries were under attack by Iraqi bombers. In February 1986 Iran had successfully crossed the Shatt al-Arab waterway, establishing a beachhead on Iraqi territory at Fao. Iran had also cemented new trade and diplomatic relations with China and a number of other countries.
Most important, when Khomeini made this statement he knew—as most of the rest of the world did not—that Iran had succeeded in restoring an arms supply relationship with the United States. By that time, Iran had received intelligence briefings from the United States on both Iraq and the Soviet Union and had taken delivery of some 1,500 TOW missiles and components for its U.S.-built Hawk air defense system. Only days before Khomeini’s optimistic appraisal the United States had secretly dispatched former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane to Tehran to urge Iran’s assistance in freeing U.S. hostages in Lebanon and to seek a broader political dialogue with the Islamic revolutionary regime.
Iran understands as well as any country the implications of relative status implicit in diplomatic protocol. The fact that the United States was willing to send a high-level delegation to the capital of those who had kidnapped and held U.S. diplomatic hostages, to place itself in the hands of some of the very individuals who had participated in the hostage incident and to entreat them to reestablish a political relationship was perceived in Tehran as a remarkable vindication of their hard-line policy.
Khomeini later said that those hostile to Iran "have apparently come back today and presented themselves meekly and humbly at the door of the nation wishing to establish relations. . . . Right now, all big countries are competing to establish relations with Iran."
Regrettably, there is no evidence that the U.S. officials who planned the daredevil McFarlane mission had given any serious thought to the foreign policy signal it might convey. On the contrary, their decision to bring with them a chocolate cake inscribed with a small gold key suggests that the mission was regarded as an adventure, even a lark, and it betrays an embarrassing lack of understanding about the nature of the individuals with whom they were dealing.
The Iranians participating in contacts with the United States were engaged in a deadly gamble. They needed U.S. military equipment and spare parts, and they were prepared to do whatever was necessary to obtain them—including bargaining with the United States and (indirectly) even Israel. But powerful factions in Iran opposed any apparent softening of revolutionary resolve and continued to view any dealings with the "Great Satan" as treasonous. Perhaps that is what the speaker of the Majlis (parliament), Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, had in mind when he made a public speech only one day after Khomeini’s declaration that all had been "put right." Rafsanjani commented:
There are at present two relatively powerful factions in our country with differences of view on how the country should be run and on the role of the government and that of the private sector in affairs. These two tendencies also exist in the Majlis, in the government, within the clergy, within the universities and across society as a whole. . . . They may in fact be regarded as two parties without names.
These two nameless parties, as suggested by Rafsanjani, are most prominently visible on domestic economic issues, e.g., land reform and nationalization. One faction, represented by such individuals as Minister of Heavy Industries Behzad Nabavi, favors government intervention in all major sectors of the economy. Another faction, reflecting the views of the traditional commercial interests of the bazaar and the conservative clergy, favors a deliberately free-market approach. Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the designated successor to Khomeini, believes that "private enterprise proves to be a better administrator of business than is the government." If industry is privately owned, he has said "competition will be created and competition, supply and demand can solve many problems. However, if the government imports and hands the product over to the cooperative, the situation will remain as it is." These issues have been the subject of lively and well-publicized debate inside Iran ever since the fall of the shah.
Less publicity is accorded to debate on issues of military and foreign policy, so it is more difficult to identify members of different factions, to specify the precise nature of their differences and to judge the relative political influence of one party or another at any given moment. Nevertheless, questions about the appropriate division of labor between the regular military and the Revolutionary Guards have sparked fierce debates throughout the course of the war.
Khomeini has had to intervene repeatedly to legitimize the role of the Revolutionary Guards and their development into a mirror image of the regular armed forces, with their own naval and air arms as well as mechanized and armored units equipped with heavy weapons. These disputes have gone beyond questions of allocation of scarce military equipment to issues of basic strategy. The Revolutionary Guards have placed a high premium on personal zeal, in the use of both massive "human wave" assaults and small-unit guerrilla actions, with little regard for casualties. The professional military has argued for careful preparation and training, the development of adequate logistical support and a more deliberate approach designed to minimize casualties and the risk of defeat.
In early 1985 Rafsanjani announced that it was Iran’s intent "to achieve victory with as few casualties as possible," suggesting that the professional military was being heeded. That impression was strengthened by the successful attack on the once busy port of Fao in early 1986. It was a complex amphibious operation, worthy of comparison to Anwar Sadat’s surprise attack across the Suez Canal in 1973. The operation was prepared and rehearsed for an entire year, and it effectively blended the planning skills of the professionals with the courage and élan of the Revolutionary Guards.
By mid-1986, however, the rivalry—and the debate over strategy—had reemerged. In July, the commander of the Iranian ground forces, Colonel Ali Seyyed Shirazi, and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaie, clashed violently over policy. Khomeini called them to his residence on July 19, 1986, where he enjoined them to "seek unity." "You must endeavor," he told them, "not to think in terms of being members of the Armed Forces or those of the Guards Corps or of the Basij forces. . . . We must understand that if there were to be any disputes among you . . . not only are we doomed here and now, but we also are guilty before God." Both Shirazi and Rezaie were appointed members of the Supreme Defense Council, but three weeks later Shirazi was relieved of his post as commander of the ground forces, while Rezaie retained his operational command. It appeared that Shirazi had been kicked upstairs and that the Revolutionary Guard was once again in the ascendancy.
In October, Rafsanjani defined what he called "the new war strategy" of Iran in terms that sounded very much like a compromise. After the Fao operation he said, "the officials in charge of the war reached the conclusion that instead of utilizing diverse resources on an ad hoc basis, it is better to prepare for a concentrated program to carry out an extensive and destiny-making offensive, and it is necessary to carry out more extensive and sustained operations. . . . Our aim in all these movements is to reach our objectives through a huge movement, without shedding too much blood." This formula appeared to contain elements intended to accommodate the positions of both the military and the Revolutionary Guards. However, the series of offensives that Iran launched in late 1986 and early 1987 resulted in some of the highest casualty figures in the war to date.
The most dramatic evidence of internal tension and dispute within the closed circle of Iran’s foreign policy decision-makers was provided by the controversy surrounding contacts with the United States. The internal opposition to the arms deal with Washington centered on a group of radical revolutionaries headed by Mehdi Hashemi. Hashemi, a relative by marriage of Ayatollah Montazeri, had long been associated with Montazeri’s son, Mohammad, whose history of mental illness and radical behavior earned him the nickname of the "Red Sheikh" and eventually led the elder Montazeri to disassociate himself from his son’s activities. Mohammad Montazeri died in a bombing incident in 1981 that killed more than 70 top leaders of the Islamic Republican Party.
Apparently Hashemi assumed direction of the Islamic Liberation Movement after the younger Montazeri died. Although the organization was formally disbanded in 1984, it retained close contact with hard-line elements in the Revolutionary Guards and continued to operate out of Ayatollah Montazeri’s offices in Qom, trading on the Montazeri name. Hashemi had evidently learned of the McFarlane visit after the American visitors, left waiting at the airport, finally identified themselves to officials who turned out to be Revolutionary Guards. The Guards later attempted to kidnap McFarlane and his party, but were thwarted by forces loyal to Rafsanjani.
In August and September of 1986, Hashemi and his ultra-radical supporters detected what they interpreted as evidence that Rafsanjani and others were softening their position on the war. Also, because of their close ties to radical Shia groups in Lebanon, they were no doubt aware of pressure being exerted to effect the release of U.S. hostages there. In early October, the Hashemi group circulated leaflets in Tehran opposing these policies and advocating resistance. Shortly thereafter, Hashemi and some 40 others were arrested, including several members of the Majlis. In retaliation, associates of Hashemi leaked to a Lebanese magazine details of the McFarlane visit to Tehran in May.
Thus the leak that put the entire U.S.-Iran relationship on the front pages of the world and initiated a crisis of confidence in the United States was the result of a power struggle inside Iran that was only indirectly concerned with the United States or even with foreign policy. This conclusion is strengthened by the extensive evidence provided in the Tower Commission report of February 26.
Members of the Majlis called for an investigation, and there were rare public demonstrations. Khomeini had to intervene personally to halt the escalating confrontation and to plead for unity. "What is wrong with you?" he asked the protesters. "I know some of you. . . . I do not want to break your heart, but you should not break the heart of the nation either. . . . You should not set up hard-liners and moderates. You should not create a schism." The protests promptly ceased, but the tensions between the "two parties without names" in Iran remained as fervent as ever.
This account suggests that the primary divisions within Iran relate to differences over the allocation of power on the domestic scene, not over foreign policy per se. The Hashemi group had been aware of the McFarlane visit since May and had tolerated it. It was only after Hashemi’s arrest in October that they decided to use that information as ammunition against their internal opponents. The fundamental policy dispute centered not on the United States but on the continuing feud between the Revolutionary Guards and the regular military. That dispute goes to the heart of the meaning of the revolution, and it is certain to continue.
These events also suggest that the shorthand distinction between "radicals" and "moderates" inside Iran is at best misleading. If followed to its logical conclusion, it suggests that Khomeini—who was undoubtedly aware of the contact with the United States and who came to the defense of those who had arranged it—is a "moderate." It would be more accurate to say that there are powerful individuals among the Iranian leadership who are prepared to deal with the United States, if necessary, to preserve Iran’s fundamental interests and to obtain military equipment and spare parts to prosecute the war with Iraq. Those individuals are not "pro-Western," but they are prepared to bargain with the West on secondary issues to promote the objectives of the revolution. Other individuals with close access to the power structure believe that the true purposes of the revolution can be served only by strict national self-reliance and rejection of any compromise or accommodation with the West.
The United States may be able to take advantage of this schism to pursue its own interests in the region, but it must do so with no illusions about the prospects of a fundamental shift in Iranian attitudes and with a skeptical awareness of the limits of maneuverability available to any Iranian political leader. Any approach to Iran should be undertaken with limited objectives and low expectations.
The evolution of Iran’s relations with the Soviet Union is a fascinating example of jostling and cajoling by two utterly ruthless powers—one large, the other small—whose history as neighbors provides no basis for complacency or trust. The Iranian revolution surprised the Soviets nearly as much as the Americans. The Soviets, however, had less to lose and were quick to stitch together a strategy once they realized that the shah’s regime was collapsing.
The leadership of the pro-Soviet Tudeh party returned to Iran in 1978 and 1979 from long exile in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe and began rebuilding the party’s strength. With Soviet assistance and support, the Tudeh adopted a policy of praising Khomeini and the revolution while calling for the establishment of a popular front in which they could participate in power. Initially Khomeini tolerated the Tudeh, and it looked as if its strategy of positioning itself inside the revolution might work. But the subterfuge was too blatant to be ignored. As one Islamic newspaper put it, the communists "threw a mouse in the soup of the revolution and, without any shame, shouted ‘Oh hajji, we are also a partner.’" The Tudeh headquarters was occupied by hezbollahi ("partisans of God") in 1980, and by 1981 the party had been forced underground.
In early 1982, when Iran had pushed Iraqi troops back to the border and was considering its next move, the Soviets attempted to persuade Iran to accept a negotiated settlement of the war, warning that they would be obliged to resume major arms deliveries to Iraq if Iran tried to carry its counter-offensive into Iraqi territory. Iran rejected the Soviet threat and launched the first of its many attempts to break through Iraqi lines. The Soviets resumed arms deliveries, and by the end of the year Soviet-built missiles were falling on Dizful and other Iranian border cities.
During the last months of 1982 the Soviet vice consul in Tehran, Vladimir Kuzichkin, defected to British intelligence with documentary evidence about Soviet and Tudeh penetration activities in Iran. This information was fed back to authorities in Iran, who launched a concerted attack on the Tudeh infrastructure. In February 1983 the entire top leadership of the party was arrested, hundreds of Iranians were taken into custody, and 18 Soviet diplomats were summarily expelled from the Soviet embassy. Within a period of several months, much of the subterranean network that the Soviets had painstakingly developed in Iran was reduced to a shambles.
This exchange of blows established the pattern for Soviet-Iranian relations in the years that followed. The Soviets, discarding any illusions about collaboration with the Islamic revolution, withdrew their experts from steel and power projects begun under the shah, and they took off the gloves in their unofficial propaganda broadcasts. The so-called National Voice of Iran (NVOI), a clandestine radio station broadcasting in Persian from the vicinity of Baku in the Soviet Union, turned vitriolic:
Every Iranian, be he fanatic or religious, can perceive the bloodstains of the Iranian nation’s innocent children on the turban, cloak and garment of these clergymen who have seized power and on the ugly faces of these turbaned executioners. . . . We realize that our nation is confronting the bloodiest regime of all, which under the banner of religion . . . has surpassed all bloody fascist regimes. The Iranian people will never forgive them for these crimes. The day is not far off when the Iranian people will avenge the blood of their dear ones. . . . that historic day—the day of the nation’s vengeance.
Iran subsequently arrested 60 ranking members of the pro-Soviet wing of the Fedayeen-al-Khalq in January 1986. Shortly thereafter Iran withdrew its ambassador to Moscow and placed him under arrest for suspected subversion. In September 1986 the Iranian navy for the first time stopped and searched a Soviet merchant vessel in the Strait of Hormuz.
Both sides were at pains, however, to keep this retaliatory cycle from getting out of hand. Even as they denounced each other, they were also carrying on a dialogue on issues of mutual importance. The Soviet Union was particularly anxious to restore deliveries of natural gas, which had been interrupted at the time of the revolution, and to avoid shoving Iran back into the arms of the United States.
An Iranian economic delegation visited the Soviet Union in September 1985. At about that time NVOI suspended its broadcasts, and the Soviet side agreed to resume supplying spare parts for the Soviet-built Isfahan power station. Iran, in turn, played a helpful role in securing the release of Soviet diplomats who were taken hostage in Lebanon in the same month and received a formal expression of gratitude from the Soviet ambassador.
Soviet First Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Kornienko visited Tehran in February 1986 to pursue talks on natural gas and to establish an Aeroflot route between Tehran and Moscow. These contacts continued throughout 1986, resulting in the formal reestablishment of the Permanent Commission for Soviet-Iranian Economic Cooperation in December after a six-year lapse. Contrary to expectations, however, Iran refused to accept Soviet conditions for resumption of natural gas deliveries, and the Soviet economic delegation was treated to repeated public lectures about the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. It departed after signing a bland economic protocol that merely called for future meetings, and immediately after its departure mass rallies were organized throughout the country to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion. The subsequent visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati to Moscow in February 1987 kept the dialogue alive but otherwise left things very much as they were.
The absence of progress on the economic front may have been due in part to Soviet displeasure about Iran’s arms deal with the United States and hints of Soviet involvement in the Hashemi affair. A Soviet diplomat in Tehran, Vyachel Solosin, was reported to have committed suicide on the same day that Hashemi was arrested, and shortly thereafter a clandestine Soviet station resumed propaganda attacks on the Iranian regime. Using the new name of "Radio of the Iran Toilers," it urged Iranians to "raise the call of long live peace, long live freedom, death to Khomeini, and death to U.S. imperialism." Rafsanjani responded by attacking Soviet arms deliveries to Iraq and denouncing Soviet pressures: "The Soviet Union is a powerful country and is very angry with us over Afghanistan. We say: ‘Your troops are in Afghanistan, so this is how we will treat you.’ We destroyed their elements, the Tudeh party, and we stood against their aggressive policies."
The Soviet Union and Iran, like the two proverbial scorpions in a bottle, are engaged in a wary and dangerous dance. Profoundly distrustful of each other yet bound together by geography, they circle and probe; but neither side is willing to risk pushing the situation to the limit. The two parties share a number of mutual interests, which they are prepared to pursue cautiously while keeping a watchful eye. The Soviets, however, make no secret of their preference for a more tractable partner than the religious ideologues now in power in Tehran, and in the event of a new outburst of political turmoil in Iran, the game could become deadly.
The same combination of toughness and tractability that Iran has adopted in its dealings with the United States and the Soviet Union has been employed in Tehran’s relations with the conservative Arab governments of the Persian Gulf. The difference is that, unlike relations with the superpowers, Iran enjoys a preponderant power position in relation to its smaller neighbors. Iran controls half the coastline of the Gulf. Its total area is only slightly less than the area of all the other Gulf states combined. According to the latest Iranian census, more people have been born in Iran since the revolution (11 million) than the total number of citizens of all the other Gulf states combined.
The revolutionary regime in Tehran aspires, as did the shah before it, to be recognized as the dominant power of the region. Rafsanjani has characterized Iran’s naval and other forces as "the guardians of Persian Gulf security," and has threatened to "turn off all the oil taps in the Persian Gulf" if Iran’s oil exports are stopped. Iran has attacked shipping in the southern Gulf in retaliation for Iraqi air attacks on its shipping and as a warning to the Arab oil producers that their support for Iraq is not cost-free. Iranian fighter-bombers have also on occasion "accidentally" dropped bombs in Kuwaiti territory to underline Tehran’s displeasure over Kuwaiti policies.
These heavy-handed tactics have been balanced, particularly in the past two years, by verbal assurances that Iran has "no covetous eye on Iraqi territory and it has high respect for the Persian Gulf littoral states." In recent years Iran has muted its public criticism of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, has welcomed a number of Gulf leaders to Tehran, and has maintained a continuing dialogue on issues relating to oil and the war through special emissaries and normal diplomatic channels.
The Gulf states have responded to these overtures and assurances with cautious reserve. They have reaffirmed their support for Iraq, but they also understand that if Iran prevails in its war with Iraq they will be left in a particularly vulnerable and exposed position, more dependent than ever on U.S. security guarantees.
Thus the news of U.S. arms supplies to Iran came as a considerable shock, for it suggested, at best, that the United States was insensitive to their security concerns or, at worst, that the United States had concluded that Iran was destined to win the war and was moving in advance to cement its ties with the victor. The fact that the U.S. policy was carried out in close cooperation with Israel only enhanced these suspicions.
The Gulf states have stoutly resisted being stampeded by Iran, but they are also realistic about the dangers of an emerging power imbalance in Iran’s favor. Accordingly, they have hedged their bets by maintaining civil relations with Tehran and by accommodating Iranian policy on oil and other issues when they can do so without harm to their own basic interests. Iran seems to have accepted this situation as the best it can realistically achieve while it has its hands full with Iraq. If Iran should win a major military victory, or if the government of Saddam Hussein should collapse under Iranian pressure, Iran could be expected to be much more demanding of its smaller neighbors.
From this selective overview of Iran’s efforts to deal with its foreign policy predicament, it is possible to draw a few general observations.
First, Iran’s tactical performance has been shrewd and tough. The new regime has used whatever leverage available to seize the initiative and to keep its many adversaries off balance. The new leaders have been bold, but they have also been willing to bend their revolutionary principles when it suited their purpose. Iran’s record as a middle-range power in dealing with two hostile superpowers and a host of smaller opponents is impressive.
Second, Iran has proved adept in the practice of "thump and talk" diplomacy, lashing out with what appears to be utter fearlessness and abandon at enemies of all sizes while simultaneously discussing agreements and concessions. Its reputation as a "crazy state" is deserved, but it is often not as crazy as it seems. President Nixon was not the first to recognize that a bit of perceived "craziness" can be valuable in keeping an opponent on the defensive. Iran exploited this attribute to the hilt with the Americans and Israelis in 1986 to get the maximum quantity of arms for the minimum number of hostages. The regime’s repeated failure to keep its promises could always be explained by the craziness of the country’s internal politics and of those holding the hostages in Lebanon. Whether true or contrived, it worked.
Third, it is apparent that Iran has modified, at least for the time being, its millenarian goal of bringing "Islam to the entire world" in favor of a policy that might be described as "clericalism in one country." Eight years after the revolution, Iran is less concerned with fomenting rebellion abroad and more concerned with consolidating and protecting the revolution within its own borders. That is not to say that Iran will not meddle abroad when the opportunity presents itself. It is doing so in Lebanon and probably elsewhere. It is also not to say that this is necessarily a permanent condition. It may be nothing more than a recognition that after more than six years of war Iran had best devote its limited resources to problems close to home. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the export of revolution does not get a great deal of attention in Tehran these days.
Perhaps because of the high price it paid for the original hostage crisis, Iran now attempts to avoid direct association with terrorism. Its deputy prime minister has declared (with a straight face) that it is "against hostage taking, which is also rejected by Islam" and that it will "take any measures in its power, wherever in the world" to oppose the taking of hostages. Obviously, Iran is willing to take advantage of its relationship with radical groups holding hostages for bargaining purposes, but in recent years it has attempted, with some success, to avoid leaving its own fingerprints on such operations.
Finally, it is apparent that Iran’s determined drive to become the superpower of the Persian Gulf hinges, at least in the short term, on two unpredictable variables: Khomeini’s health and the outcome of the war with Iraq. Over the past 24 months, Khomeini has had to intervene personally on at least three occasions to keep the internal situation from getting out of control. There is no one else who can play the crucial role of arbiter. It is unlikely that Iran will immediately unravel or undergo a dramatic transformation upon Khomeini’s death, but its internal politics will become more volatile, the rivalries more intense and the outcomes less predictable.
Khomeini and those around him have gambled everything on the war—the economy, the nation’s influence in international affairs, the legitimacy of the leadership, possibly the fate of the revolution itself. Each of these factors rises and falls as Iran seems to be winning or losing. If Iran is ultimately forced to accept an outcome approximating the status quo ante, it will be more likely to turn inward and focus on its enormous internal problems. However, a decisive Iranian victory would be interpreted as a vindication of extremist goals, and the relative moderation of Iran’s recent performance would become a thing of the past.
In that event, the shift in the center of gravity would be complete. The Middle East could become polarized between two hostile regional superpowers—Israel in the west and Iran in the east—with dangerous and unpredictable consequences. Israel and the United States did not seem to give that possibility much attention in the past few years. It is time they did.