Pierre Razoux, academic and research director at FMES, author of The Iran-Iraq War (Harvard University Press), winner of the Society for Military History’s prize for the best book of 2016.
The ratification of the ultraconservative governmental team led by the new president, Ebrahim Raisi, by parliament and the supreme leader at the start of September 2021, gives the Iranian authorities a chance of four years of stability. Dominated by the Shiite clerics who rely on the most conservative elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (pasdarans), they understand that from now on there is no room for error; if they do not manage drastically to improve the people’s daily life (in the realms of the economy, environment, and society) they will no longer be able to place the blame on the shoulders of the reformers and their credibility will suffer long-lasting damage after, as a preventative measure, having previously forced out any other serious candidates for the presidential elections of 18 June 2021. The issue for the clerics consists of hanging on to power in order to keep control of the process of designating the next supreme leader, so that the latter will manage the system to their advantage. Counting on the regime collapsing is an illusion; anticipating its evolution over time post-Ali Khamenei (82) appears more reasonable.
If the Islamic Republic remains internally very fragile, it has been able to strengthen its influence externally having become an indispensable actor in the region and being recognised as such by its neighbours and its rivals. In many respects this paradoxical situation puts one in mind of Israel (weak internally but formidable externally), its principal regional adversary, its antithesis and foil with which it wrestles clandestinely on several fronts, in particular in the Levant but also in the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.
In the short and medium term Iran has four strategic priorities: 1) to remove economic sanctions, if possible, by agreeing to a compromise with the United States, while using that to increase its bargaining power with China and Asia; 2) to control and stabilise its immediate neighbourhood to its benefit (Afghanistan, South-Caucasia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Kurds); 3) to set China, Russia and India up against each other in order to obtain the maximum possible from each of them – in particular via the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – while also using their rivalries to avoid becoming dependant on China; 4) to modernise its obsolete military arsenal (with the exception of drones and ballistic missiles) in order to deter its neighbours and rivals without having to demonstrate a nuclear military capability that is sufficiently credible to act as a deterrent. Failing that Iran will continue its nuclear programme to equip itself with that very capability, thus comforting those of the Iranian leadership who think that threats come primarily from abroad (their authority being sufficiently strong to keep internal matters under control) and that only the balance of forces can ensure the regime’s survival when dealing with Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad, and Jerusalem.
Beyond the nuclear agreement, the priorities for President Raisi – who enjoys the supreme leader’s total confidence – allow for the possibility of cooperation with France and the EU in at least six different areas: Iraq, Lebanon, the economy, the environment, the fight against IS, and Afghanistan.
On 18 June 2021 Iran elected a new president, Ebrahim Raisi (61), an ultraconservative Islamic magistrate, a descendant of the Prophet (black turban), a middle ranking cleric who came second in the 2017 elections, and former head of the justice system notable for his engagement in the struggle against corruption, but also renowned as a pitiless prosecutor of government repression at the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). His victory in the first round of voting with the lowest voter turnout since the Islamic revolution (48%), and the highest number of spoiled votes since 1979 (13%), is explained by the clerics’ desire to keep hold of the reins of power, by the population’s apathy, punishing Hassan Rouhani’s failure to keep his promises of social and economic reform, and a rejection of his foreign policy that staked everything on the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) [simple_tooltip content=’ JCPOA : Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on 14 July 2015. ‘][/simple_tooltip] that was torpedoed by Donald Trump. Since his election the new president has formed a team very close to both the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard (pasdarans). Close for a long time to those who favour autarchy and consider that the Islamic Republic can survive by remaining isolated, his recent declarations and the ministers he has named, confirmed at the start of September by the unicameral parliament (Majles) and the supreme leader, appear to indicate that he has joined those who advocate greater openness, believing it is only by opening up to the wider world that the regime can survive, at least for trade and to reinforce its strategic posture. Ebrahim Raisi remains nonetheless hostile to social reform. One thing seems sure: he enjoys the confidence of the supreme leader, who has to think about his own succession; and that guarantees the president four years of stability. Under his leadership will the Islamic Republic turn in on itself or will it take advantage of a changing world to move its pawns? Will it succeed in finding a form of agreement with the United States to put an end to the nuclear crisis? Finally, will it succeed in avoiding China’s embrace?
The Iranian clerics are hanging on to power, but for how long?
To facilitate Ebrahim Raisi’s election, from the start the clerics and its supporting institutions did not hesitate to discourage or disqualify the most popular candidates: Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the speaker of parliament and former commander in chief of the pasdarans, for the conservatives; Ali Larijani for the moderate conservatives; Mohammad Javad Zarif, the outgoing foreign minister and Eshaq Jahangiri, vice-president, for the reformers ; and even Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic and enfant terrible of the clerics.
The process of expulsions shows how afraid the clerics were of losing a presidency that they had monopolised almost continuously for forty years. Bruised by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist digression (2005-2013) and the avant-garde position of a part of the political class, aware of the fall in religious conviction amongst the population, the Iranian clerics combined to oust all those who might be tempted to stray from the dogma of velayat-e-faqih (government by theocracy) decreed by Imam Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Beyond ideological questions is also the question of the control of power and the extremely rich religious foundations; it is without doubt for this reason that the clerics, supported by the pasdarans, are blocking the Iranian parliament’s adoption of the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force’s rules on money laundering.
Ebrahim Raisi’s occupancy of the presidency of the republic will above all allow the clerics to secure the process of choosing the next supreme leader to replace Ali Khamenei (82) in the shorter or longer term, and to ensure that the new leader will continue to manage the republic’s institutions in favour of the clerics. There are many who think the presidency of the republic is only a stepping stone to allow Ebrahim Raisi to accede to the position of supreme leader, no doubt during his term of office given Ali Khamenei’s age[simple_tooltip content=’ Three other clerics descended from the Prophet are frequently mentioned as candidates for the post: Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the present supreme leader, Ahmad Khatami (no relation to the former president, Mohammad Khatami) and Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Imam Khomeini (Ardavan Khosnood, “What will happen when Khamenei dies?”, BESA Paper, n° 1885, 14 January 2021. ‘][/simple_tooltip]. The clerics’ aim is to prevent the supreme leader’s role being replaced by a leadership council, which would be to the advantage of the president and the parliament at the expense of the supreme leader’s own authority.
The population’s demands, clear-eyed as they are, do not extend to any hypothetical change of regime or the abandonment of its religious character, particularly as they recognise it has raised the international influence of ‘Eternal Persia’; in reality they are calling for an increase in personal freedoms in private and non-institutional life. In other words, Iranian men and women want to behave as they wish at home, amongst friends, in their cars or in public places, without risking arrest or a beating. Above all the population expects the government to create jobs, build housing and manage the environmental crisis that is having a disturbing impact on the country (pollution, persistent drought, diminishing groundwater reserves, sandstorms that are accelerating the process of desertification); and the same applies to the Covid-19 health crisis. Iran, the hardest hit country in the Middle East, has just experienced its fifth wave of the pandemic and is only now considering implementing a vaccine passport.
After the deadly repression of the protests of 2009, 2017 and 2019, the population knew that it could not win in the streets. Everybody understood the cost of revolution or anarchy[simple_tooltip content=’A fortiori with the new Minister of Intelligence, Esmail Khatib, a 60 year old radical mullah who is very close to the supreme leader.’][/simple_tooltip]. From that point on there started the flight of the elites. All those who could left to re-settle themselves abroad or sent their children to continue their studies outside Iran. Those who remain, make the best of it, foster individualism and stoically await an evolution of the regime, one that might perhaps take place after the supreme leader’s death if his successor has an awareness of the transformation in society. In the meantime, many young people seek their escape in the internet, others in drugs and yet others in crime. Statistics record a drop in the number of marriages (down a third in five years) and the birth rate (1.7 children per married woman, whereas thirty years ago it lay between 5 and 6 children)[simple_tooltip content=’The population of Iran has risen to 83 million, which makes Iran the third most populous country in the Middle East, after Egypt and Turkey.’][/simple_tooltip].
One thing appears sure: if they do not manage drastically to improve the population’s daily life (in the economy, the fight against the pandemic, the environment, and societal issues) the clerics will no longer be able to lay the blame at the feet of the reformers and their credibility will be damaged for a long time to come, leaving the field clear to the pasdarans, to the old soldiers and the Islamic technocrats who have spent their careers in the state system. The clerics suspect instinctively that all of these groupings, which are much more nationalist and much less ideological, will settle things amongst themselves to take power for the long term, relegating the mullahs to the third rank. In Qom, some clerics are already recommending a return to a more quietist Shia Islam, like that preached by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf in Iraq[simple_tooltip content=’For a detailed view of the evolution of Iranian society, see Bernard Hourcade, “Iran: le temps des changements?”, Politique internationale, n° 171, p. 173-187, 2021.’][/simple_tooltip].
Absolute priority for the economy and the lifting of American sanctions
The combined effects of US and EU sanctions, poor administration and endemic corruption[simple_tooltip content=’As testified by the many sentences pronounced by the courts, led until spring 2021 by Ebrahim Raisi, now president of the Islamic Republic.’][/simple_tooltip], have severely damaged the Iranian economy and no longer allow it to buy social peace. Even if the actual GDP ($585 billion) appears to have risen by 1.5 % between 2020 and 2021 after a net contraction over the period 2018-2020, the macro-economic indicators are in the red: inflation at +37% ; an 80% rise in the price of housing in Teheran; an employment rate of 36% amongst the working age population; sales of barrels of oil that only represent 20% of export capacity (a direct effect of sanctions); budgetary deficit at 8% of GDP; a drop of 20% in currency exchanges, where the reserves are down to a third of what they were; a 10% drop in trade with China, -27 % with South Korea, -36% with Japan and -50% with India[simple_tooltip content=’Brèves économiques et sectorielles de Téhéran, Direction générale du Trésor, spring 2021.’][/simple_tooltip].
For all those who believe, like the clerics, that the main threat to the regime is internal, it has become crucial to relaunch the economy and to improve the population’s daily life. If official declarations are to be believed, the relaunching of the ‘Resistance Economy’ has as its first priority the lifting of economic sanctions which entails the new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, an experienced 56 year old diplomat known for being resolute but also pragmatic, finding points of agreement with the United States. From Teheran’s viewpoint a nuclear agreement would go a long way to removing sanctions and would therefore allow the economy to be restarted, while also allowing bilateral negotiations on other subjects: the release of ‘hostages’ held in Iran and the United States, the adoption of mutually agreed positions on the regional scene, possible trade agreements followed by the return of some American companies to Iran. But for this to happen, Teheran and Washington will have to agree on the basis and the tempo of negotiations, and then on how any agreement they arrive at can be presented to their respective partners.
The issue for the White House is finding a compromise that will be acceptable to congress, so that it does not question the result of the negotiations. Despite denials there are numerous signs that both sides are negotiating discretely through several channels (just recently in New York at the UN General Assembly) and that at the start of May 2021 they had agreed upon the broad outlines of an agreement as Abbas Araghchi, the then leader of the Iranian delegation, alluded to[simple_tooltip content=’IRIB, 2 May 2021.’][/simple_tooltip]. Araghchi has since been given a new job in in the think tank of the Islamic Republic’s ministry for foreign affairs, a redeployment that illustrates the continuity of Iranian foreign policy.
For the time being, the Iranian elites who had their fingers burnt by Donald Trump’s volte-face and the Biden administration’s seeming procrastination, are not placing any more faith in the US executive. Aware that their principal objective remains the return of Iran and the US to the JCPOA, they will only move from their set positions once an agreement has been reached with the American administration on the effective lifting of a significant part of the sanctions that are hitting Iran. For the moment they too are procrastinating and watching the clock, in the hope that time is in their favour as the 2022 mid-term elections approach; Joe Biden could indeed need a success in dealing with Iran (and therefore accept some concessions) to compensate for the disastrous effects of his disordered retreat from Afghanistan. But perhaps the Iranian leadership is making the same error as Antony Blinken and Robert Malley who reckoned that the Rouhani-Zarif tandem would make concessions in spring 2021 in order to boast of a success before the Iranian presidential elections in June? The hard-line conservatives, certain of winning the election, had nonetheless made it clear that any agreement could only be ratified by the new team once it had been confirmed.
For the moment, Americans and Iranians are raising the bidding, while behind the scenes they are most certainly engaged in dogged negotiations. The former talk of contemplating new sanctions and mechanisms that are designed to make their removal more difficult, pointing out that the window for negotiation will not remain open for ever; they are openly proposing a ‘Plan B’ with certain allies, Israel amongst them, without there necessarily being a military option; with the improved protection of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure it is more likely that any Plan B will aim more at strengthening sanctions, sabotage and cyber-attacks. The latter point out that they will negotiate at their own pace and will not make any decision until a significant part of the sanctions has been lifted[simple_tooltip content=’Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has mentioned the sum of “$10 billion worth of frozen assets as a sign of goodwill”; IRIB & I24News, 3 October 2021.’][/simple_tooltip]; to give added weight to their statements, they are accelerating their clear rapprochement with China, enriching uranium in quantities far higher[simple_tooltip content=’The AIEA’s report of September 2021 estimates that Iran had 2,441 kg of low enriched uranium available at that date, which is twelve times more than the terms of the JCPOA.’][/simple_tooltip] than those agreed with the JCPOA and to higher thresholds (60%), while at the same time limiting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to some installations, for example preventing it from changing the memory cards on its CCTV cameras at the Karaj nuclear site, where last summer there was an act of sabotage attributed to Israel. In short, both sides are sizing each other up and flexing their muscles. As things stand at present, and taking into account each side’s interests, it is not impossible to foresee an agreement, even if only partial, being made official before the end of January 2022 (in time for Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address), unless the Iranian regime were able in the meantime to obtain significant economic advantages from China and Russia, thus making an agreement with the US less urgent. This is why senior Iranian officials are increasing their shuttles between Beijing and Moscow[simple_tooltip content=’The Kremlin does not hesitate to put pressure on Teheran when it believes the Iranian government is moving too close to Beijing; by, for example, stopping work on the Bushehr nuclear power station for several months after the Iran-China partnership had been agreed.’][/simple_tooltip].
Strengthening links with China and Asia
From this point of view, Iran’s joining of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)[simple_tooltip content=’The OCS groups China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the Central Asian states together; Iran had requested membership in 2008 but had only been granted observer status.’][/simple_tooltip] as a full member, enacted on 17 September 2021 during the Dushanbe conference in Tajikistan, was an excellent piece of news for Ebrahim Raisi who was conducting his first foreign visit there, which in itself signifies the importance that Iran attaches to Asia. There is no doubt that the United States’ precipitate retreat from Afghanistan has accelerated things, with Beijing and Moscow seeing a good opportunity to rein Iran a little more into their camp, not least because the OCS represents a large market of more than 3 billion people.
It’s through this economic prism that the strategic partnership with China, announced with a fanfare of publicity on 27 March 2021 but in reality negotiated more than five years ago[simple_tooltip content=’It was President Xi Jinping who first brought up a partnership during a state visit to Teheran in January 2016; thereafter there were several projects and many rumours about its extent, and the military and strategic compensations to China’s advantage.’][/simple_tooltip], and the formalisation of which was accelerated after Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA should be interpreted. The partnership, agreed for 25 years, which complements those linking Beijing to Saudi Arabia (2006 and 2016) and to the United Arab Emirates (2012, 2018 and 2021), in fact only constitutes a general framework for future cooperation between China and Iran; it does not include any detailed figures, as Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese foreign minister, declared [simple_tooltip content=’IRIB, 28 March 2021.’][/simple_tooltip]. Officially it deals with political and military questions, the fight against terrorism and the economy in a general sense. Many Iranian experts acknowledge that it means large deliveries of oil to China at cut-price rates, along with Chinese investment in industry, technological research, and transport infrastructure [simple_tooltip content=’In summer 2021, direct Chinese investments in Iran amounted to $3 billion according to the Chinese business secretary.’][/simple_tooltip]. Iran happens to be at the intersection of several ‘silk roads’ coming from the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean, which increases its geostrategic value in the eyes of the Chinese leadership. Rumours [simple_tooltip content=’First mentioned on 3 September 2019 in the magazine Petroleum Economist.’][/simple_tooltip] of $400 billion of Chinese investments in exchange for a reduction of 33% (compared to market prices) in sales of Iranian oil to China, but also the presence of 5,000 Chinese troops in Iran with a view to the construction of a future Chinese naval base in the Straights of Hormuz, were swiftly disputed by the Iranian and Chinese authorities [simple_tooltip content=’These rumours were also disputed by well-informed US think tanks, such as the Wilson Center and the International Crisis Group.’][/simple_tooltip]. Several senior Iranian politicians (Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ali Motahari) stepped forward to say that the Islamic Republic would never sell itself to a foreign power and would never tolerate the presence of foreign military bases on its territory, disallowed in any event by Article 146 of the Iranian Constitution. Besides which, the temporary presence of Russian bombers and supply aircraft at the Hamadan air base during strikes against IS in 2016 had already caused a political scandal and the return of the aircraft to Russia.
For the immense majority of Iranians who consider the independence of their country to be the cornerstone of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, there can be no question of becoming subservient to China or Russia. There are many who welcome Chinese investment enthusiastically insofar as it brings cash into the state’s coffers through the sales of oil (China remains Iran’s principal customer [simple_tooltip content=’On the eve of the conclusion of the strategic partnership Iran was discretely selling 1 million barrels of oil a day to China (Direction générale du Trésor, France, 31 March 2021).’][/simple_tooltip]), as long as they themselves can continue to buy western consumer goods (especially American, Japanese and South Korean – with the implication that Chinese goods are excluded), and can remain in charge of their businesses (in particular those controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the religious foundations) and as long as the Chinese presence doesn’t become too onerous. From this point of view the setting up by China of around ten bitcoin ‘mines’ in Iran between 2020-2021 has stirred up frustration, not only because they require tens of thousands of computers which are then removed from traditional economic activities but also because they take over a significant part of the electricity resources of the south-east of Iran where they are based [simple_tooltip content=’https://observers.france24.com/en/middle-east/20210203-in-iran-power-outages-reveal-the-secret-business-of-chinese-bitcoin-farms ; some experts estimate that these mines are absorbing 2 to 3% of Iran’s national consumption of electricity, even if Iran is probably receiving some of the bitcoins in exchange. Others argue that Chinese hackers, handled by Beijing, have several times passed themselves off as Iranian hackers (MIT Technology Review, 10 August 2021).’][/simple_tooltip]. Those who are arguing for a nuclear capability also fear that China, as Russia, is firmly set against it.
However several experts close to sources in authority state that ‘Iran has the means to keep China at a distance if necessary’, underlining that ‘the Chinese will have a great deal of difficulty in establishing themselves in Iran because they don’t really understand the country, any more than they understand West Asia (Iran’s ‘Middle East’ ) [simple_tooltip content=’Remarks made to the author by several Iranian experts met in Teheran and Paris since 2018.’][/simple_tooltip]. One thing appears certain: the strategic partnership with China has become a divisive subject in Iran, even if the new President Raisi has declared that “promoting cooperation with China is one of the Iranian government’s priorities . . . . Iran supports the one-China principle and appreciates the cooperation of the Chinese government which has sold millions of doses of vaccine to Iran to help it fight the spread of the coronavirus [simple_tooltip content=’IRIB, 18 August 2021. Iran is still the country that has suffered the most Coronavirus deaths in the Middle East (quite certainly more than 100,000, amongst them several members of the regime). Iran has developed three vaccines (CovBarekat, Fakhravac & Noura) that complement those delivered initially by China and Russia, and then by some Asian and European countries, amongst them Italy.’][/simple_tooltip].” The Iranian press remains indeed very divided over the effectiveness of the Sinopharm vaccine.
Three other Asian countries are at the centre of Iran’s economic preoccupations: Japan, South Korea and India. Over the course of decades Iran has developed very strong trading links with these three markets, but the threat of American financial sanctions has had the effect of stopping their imports of oil (reducing them, in India’s case) and freezing capital. Teheran is therefore trying to regain the latter, whether by negotiation or duress. As such the South Korean prime minister had to travel to Iran on 11 April 2021 to negotiate the release of a tanker ‘immobilised’ in Bandar Abbas, in exchange for restitution of part of the Iranian funds frozen in Seoul, while the Japanese foreign minister travelled to Teheran on 22 August 2021 to discuss the freeing of Iranian assets frozen in Japan.
Relations are more straightforward with India which sees in Iran an ally in Pakistan’s back yard and a trading partner worth cultivating, but above all a supplier of high-quality oil. Both countries are linked through a partnership in the future port hub in Chabahar (Iran) on the coast of the Indian Ocean, that should allow India to be supplied with oil on a long-term basis – but which will be in direct competition with the hub of Gwadar built by China in Pakistan, nor far from the Iranian border. For the moment, Iran has not pursued the project in order to avoid Beijing’s ire. But to show the Chinese government that it does not intend to put all of its eggs in one basket, the Iranian government has not hesitated to organise naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman with the Indian and Russian navies, prompting annoyance on the part of the Chinese authorities (as in autumn 2020 when the Chinese navy cancelled its participation after it discovered that the Indian navy had been invited).
The Europeans are not absent from the Iranian agenda either, as Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s messages convey: “Europe, by adopting moderate positions, should try to play a constructive role . . . Relations between Iran and Europe have their own rationale and should not be tied to negotiations with the United States; they will not be limited to the three European members of the JCPOA but will be directed to all the member states of Europe [simple_tooltip content=’IRIB & AFP, 1st and 22 September 2021.’][/simple_tooltip].” Indeed, the Iranian foreign minister has met almost all of his European opposite numbers in New York, making it clear to them his desire to construct partnerships in the economy and the environment[simple_tooltip content=’Michel Makinsky, “En cas de levée des sanctions en Iran, quelles transactions bancaires et commerciales pour l’Europe?”, La Tribune, 27 July 2021.’][/simple_tooltip].
President Emmanuel Macron’s participation in the Baghdad conference of 28 August 2021 to consider the future of Iraq, France’s wish to take part in any initiatives for regional cooperation and also its engagement in managing the Lebanese crisis, seems to have revived a positive dynamic with Teheran, as the long telephone calls between Presidents Macron and Raisi during September 2021 and the visit to Paris on 30 September by Saïd Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Iranian foreign minister, bear testimony. The Iranian authorities have made it clear that they wish to cooperate with France on Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, while also coordinating more closely their efforts to combat Islamic State [simple_tooltip content=’These are messages that have never stopped being passed to the French authorities since 2016, over the course of numerous informal discussions in Teheran and Paris, and in which the writer participated.’][/simple_tooltip]. There is no doubt that America’s attitude, judged by the French to be negative in certain areas (Lebanon, Afghanistan, Europe, Australia), combined with the arrival in Teheran of a new and apparently pragmatic team, has persuaded President Macron that it is time to renew links with his Iranian counterpart. It is to be hoped that this positive spirit will lead to the release of the two French hostages (Fariba Adelkhah and Benjamin Brière) detained in Iran.
Priority for the neighbourhood
On the geopolitical plane, moving beyond the rhetoric of the ‘axis of resistance’ against the United States (Great Satan) and Israel (Little Satan), the new president and his new foreign minister regard managing their immediate neighbourhood as a priority, one which causes them some concerns but also offers genuine opportunities. Ebrahim Raisi’s remarks at the 76th UN General Assembly appear clear: “Iran desires cooperation and large scale political and economic convergence with the world…Teheran will give an appropriate and pragmatic reply to any positive moves….I am looking for effective interaction with all our neighbours and extend the hand of friendship to them [simple_tooltip content=’AFP, 21 September 2021.’][/simple_tooltip].” For him, it is a question of consolidating a position that has become favourable again after Donald Trump’s erratic politics, which neither contained Israel’s impulses nor reassured America’s regional allies, despite the elimination of General Soleimani in January 2020 and the negotiation of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain the following summer. The wide-ranging demonstrations of force carried out by Iran in 2019-2020 without provoking any reaction from the US, followed by Joe Biden’s election to the White House – the latter having reengaged in dialogue with Teheran and placed Qatar back in the centre of regional affairs – have convinced Saudi Arabia and the UAE to renew dialogue with Iran [simple_tooltip content=’Armin Arefi, “Pourquoi l’Arabie saoudite et Iran renouent en secret”, Le Point, 19 April 2021.’][/simple_tooltip]. Symbolically, a member of the Saudi royal family was present at the swearing in of President Raisi in Teheran. As Hossein Amir-Abdollahian indicates, “Discussions between Iran et Saudi Arabia are taking place under the best possible conditions; several sessions of discussions have taken place in Baghdad; messages have been passed between both sides, including those on regional issues, and should allow for the establishment of stable and long-lasting relationships within a framework that respects our mutual interests [simple_tooltip content=’IRIB & FARS News, 4 October 2021.’][/simple_tooltip]”. It is probable that Teheran, which still has strong influence in Yemen and Bahrain, as the mass demonstrations in Manama on the opening of the Israeli embassy demonstrate, has proposed to Riyad that it will ‘manage’ the Houthis in Yemen, in exchange for Saudi ‘neutrality’ in Lebanon and Iraq, and the normalisation of relations between the Arab monarchies and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
In the rest of the Persian Gulf, Teheran maintains good relations with the Sultanate of Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait, three monarchies of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, who have often played the role of intermediaries with the rest of the Arab world. Only the United Arab Emirates remain a concern, but they know that they cannot directly oppose Iran if they wish Expo 2020 in Dubai to run smoothly. Above all, they know that Beijing, the key economic partner for their economic diversity, will not tolerate any increase in tensions around the Straights of Hormuz, through which transit huge quantities of oil bound for China.
In the Middle East, Iranian interests can be summarised as having the following objectives: 1) reinforcing Iranian influence along the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon continuum, in order to protect their Iraqi and Syrian allies and to install a land corridor to the Mediterranean (to provide support for Hezbollah and deter Israel, and to diversify export routes for hydrocarbons); 2) chasing the US army out of Iraq, and then reducing the American military presence in the region (which does not conflict with the aim of trading with the US); 3) preventing any Israeli presence in a country close to Iran, in particular the UAE and Azerbaijan; 4) convincing the monarchies of the Persian Gulf to join Iran in an inclusive security framework based on the principle of non-aggression; 5) preventing the creation of an independent Kurdistan while still militating for the creation of a Palestinian state. To this end the pasdarans have multiplied their strikes on Iraq, targeting the rear areas of the armed Kurdish groups (of the PDKI) who are hostile to the Iranian regime.
At the start of autumn 2021, it is nonetheless Afghanistan that constitutes the primary concern for the Iranian government, as its special place in the Iranian press demonstrates. The Taliban victory in Kabul, declared enemies of Shia Iran, has in fact opened a new security and military ‘eastern front’ which has captured Teheran’s attention and as such reduced its capacity to pressurise the US in Iraq and to confront Israel elsewhere. For outwith the theological dispute between a Shia state and a Sunni, jihadist, movement with close links to Al-Qaeda, relations between Iran and Afghanistan are impacted negatively by three sensitive matters: first of all the million Afghan refugees from the Hazara Shia minority, frozen out by the Afghan authorities and persecuted by the Taliban, whose long-term presence in Iran fuels the frustration of many Iranians, even if they constitute a cheap workforce and a reservoir of forces for Shia militias engaged in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; then there are the problems of sharing the freshwater from the rivers and groundwater reserves on the borders of a region that is badly affected by droughts; and finally the use of Iranian territory by drug traffickers who export massive amounts of Afghan heroin to Turkey, the Caucasus, Iraq and Baluchistan, and in the process cascading it onto some of Iran’s youth. There are frequent violent clashes between the Afghan drug barons and Iran’s border guards and regular army.
Certainly the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, exploited by the Iranian regime for propaganda purposes, does lead to a decrease of American military power and is damaging to Washington’s credibility in the region, but it has allowed the US army to extract itself from an exposed position and also reduce its vulnerability to any retaliatory strikes coming from Iran; and it is the same logic that is pressing Joe Biden to negotiate a gradual withdrawal of the last American troops from Iraq, in the knowledge that at any moment the pasdarans could exploit the Shia militias, in particular the Hachd al-Chaabi, to harass them. The American withdrawal has put pressure on Iran which now has to negotiate with the Taliban without any assets in its hand. Having unsuccessfully tried to support the armed opposition to the Taliban, the Iranians are now trying to persuade the latter to opt for an inclusive style of government that will make place for all the constituent parts of the Afghan peoples and persecute none of the (implying the Shia Hazara minority); it has to be said that their message has not been heeded. It is therefore probable that the Iranian armed forces are preparing, if necessary, to intervene in Afghanistan to secure a buffer zone along the border as had been anticipated before the US intervention in 2001. This focus on their eastern border makes Iran’s relations with Pakistan (that Iran has always distrusted) more difficult, with the Baluch minority scattered between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Since the autumn 2020 war in Karabakh, relations have also been tense with neighbouring Azerbaijan, accused of cooperating closely with Israel both militarily and strategically [simple_tooltip content=’Igor Delanoë, “Israel-Azerbaijan: an alliance in search of renewal”, FMES, July 2021; https://fmes-france.org/israel-azerbaijan-an-alliance-in-search-of-renewal/.’][/simple_tooltip] but also of cooperating with Turkey in threatening the land communication line that links Iran to Russia via the Southern Caucasus and the Latchin corridor. Between 25 and 28 September 2021, Iran conducted exercise ‘Conquerors of the Khyber’ on the Azeri border, mobilising more than 10,000 soldiers and hundreds of guns and armoured vehicles. The aim was to remind President Ilham Aliyev that the Iranian government will not tolerate the presence of Syrian jihadists manipulated by Ankara and Baku on its border, any more than it will tolerate an Israeli military presence. Iranian annoyance is all the keener because two years ago the Turkish President Erdogan increased nationalist provocation of Iran by asserting the Turkish-speaking character of greater Azerbaijan, which includes the north-eastern sector of Iran. Since then, President Aliyev appears to have sent out signals that he is open to lowering tensions with Teheran.
Turkey remains inescapable for Iran. Beyond their confessional differences (Sunni for the former, Shia for the latter) and their rivalries in the Southern Caucasus, Iraq and Syria, their leaders, motivated by a strong revanchist nationalism (particularly with regard to the United States) are aware of being the heirs of two empires that once governed part of the region. They know that a confrontation between them would be futile and would only serve their adversaries’ ends. Beyond that they are both motivated by the same attachment to political Islam and the republican model. For this reason they consider themselves as rivals of Saudi Arabia, but also of Russia, which they seek to contain. For good or for ill, they work together in the framework of the Astana talks that allow them to negotiate with the Kremlin.
As for Israel, it remains a convenient foil while awaiting the death of Ali Khamenei, who is fundamentally hostile to the Jewish state [simple_tooltip content=’Pierre Razoux, “Iran-Israël : les meilleurs ennemis du monde?”, Politique internationale, n° 158, p. 193-208, 2018.’][/simple_tooltip]. Since Joe Biden’s arrival, the signing of the strategic pact with China, and Naftali Bennett’s election in Israel (who is less of an ideologist than his predecessor) the confrontation between Iran and Israel has continued on several fronts but in a more subtle manner: cyber, maritime, proxies, terror attacks and targeted assassinations. While it is still alive in Syria, the confrontation has moved from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, allowing the United States and China to avoid becoming embroiled in an air/sea conflict for the security – or interdiction – of the flow of tankers passing through the Straits of Hormuz.
Even if some Israeli experts are calling for a strike on the Iranian nuclear programme before Teheran can avail itself of a nuclear military capability [simple_tooltip content=’Mordechai Kedar, “Dismantle Iran Now”, BESA Paper, n°2113, 4 August 2021.’][/simple_tooltip], those responsible for Israeli security know that such a strike would be counterproductive yet without being completely effective, no matter the delivery systems used including the F-35 stealth fighters delivered by the United States [simple_tooltip content=’Conversations held by the author with Israeli experts and researchers who prefer to remain anonymous.’][/simple_tooltip]. In Israel as in Iran, the pragmatists know that one day or another, they must start speaking to discuss the future of the region.
Nuclear military capability as the ultimate negotiating tool?
In the meantime, Iran is looking to modernise its military arsenal, now obsolete [simple_tooltip content=’Iran’s aircraft and warships, as well as its armoured vehicles and tactical missiles all date from the time of the Shah or the Iran-Iraq war in their design at least, for the majority of them have been modernised. Other than some equipment delivered by the USSR at the start of the 1990’s, Iran’s military arsenal is therefore nearly 50 years old, whereas the Israelis, Americans and Emiratis all have the latest generation of weaponry.’][/simple_tooltip] with the exception of its armed drones [simple_tooltip content=’Dave Makichuk, “Iran’s new drone has a 7,000 km range”, Asia Times, 1July 2021.’][/simple_tooltip], ground to air missiles, ballistic missiles and its capacity for cyber-attacks which all allow it to offer some kind of deterrence to its adversaries. There can be no doubt that Iranian representatives are shuttling between Moscow and Beijing to obtain the most modern weapons that suit their needs at the best price, although their military has a preference for Russian weapons [simple_tooltip content=’Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, “Iran-Russia military cooperation decisive in global situation”, FARS News, 27 July 2021.’][/simple_tooltip].
One thing appears sure: given its recent history and the trauma of the Iran-Iraq war that is still alive in its leaders’ minds, almost all of whom went through it, the Islamic Republic is determined to be in a position where it can deter enemies and neighbours alike. To achieve this there are two possibilities. The first, conventional and asymmetric, relies on strata of regional influence: buffer states that allow enemies to be kept at a distance (the famous ‘axis of resistance), ‘proxy’ militias under Iranian influence, and an arsenal of drones and ballistic missiles that represent its long distance strike capability, for its strike aircraft and other offensive delivery systems have hardly any operational value anymore; this asymmetric strategy should allow time to replace them with the modern equipment that Teheran is having great difficulty in acquiring at the moment. This is the official path that makes sense to the majority of strategists – including those of the West – who affirm that Iran is succeeding in remaining ‘deterrent’ without needing nuclear weapons, as the absence of any American, Saudi or Emirati reaction to the various incidents and provocations of the last two years demonstrates. This asymmetric path entails a clandestine struggle with Israel, one that is destined to last for as long as both countries refuse to accept some form of mutual deterrence.
Iran’s second possible route consists of betting on a ‘non-conventional’ deterrence, working on the hypothesis that the international community, with the United States, Israel and the oil-kingdoms of the Gulf leading, will deny it the tools it needs for its strategy of asymmetric deterrence, in particular ballistic missiles and its regional influence by means of proxies. For the moment, Iran’s official position regarding nuclear weapons has not changed as Ebrahim Raisi referred to: “Iran is a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). […] It is Iran’s policy to consider the production and stockage of nuclear weapons as forbidden on the basis of the supreme leader’s religious decree, and nuclear weapons have no place in our defence strategy or our policy of deterrence. Israel, as a regime that is in possession of nuclear warheads is in no position to comment on Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme [simple_tooltip content=’AFP(21 September 2021) &France 24 (30 September 2021).’][/simple_tooltip].” Those who follow this line believe that the setting up and production of nuclear weapons would be too expensive for the Islamic Republic, both financially and in terms of sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
There are nonetheless voices, amongst those who favour force as against negotiation, who believe that the regime is above all under threat from outside and who claim that it is in Iran’s interest to furnish itself with a credible nuclear military capability, properly tested in underground facilities in the country’s desert regions. This capability would not necessarily mean crossing the step of declaring the possession of a nuclear bomb. Iran would thus establish itself as a threshold state, posing the dilemma as to whether or not it should remain in the NPT. These voices claim that North Korea’s leader has saved his regime and has managed to establish a dialogue with Washington by publicising his nuclear military capability. They also underline the risks for Iran if the fundamentalists in Pakistan come to power, in the knowledge that that country has a sizeable nuclear arsenal. Finally, they believe that Iran’s entry to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will allow it to compensate for the economic and diplomatic costs of such a threshold strategy.
In between these two positions, it is probable that a growing number of advisors believe that it is without doubt useful to continue along the line of creating a nuclear military capability for three reasons: to put pressure on the United States and the members of the UN Permanent Security Council at a moment when negotiations on the nuclear agreement are entering a decisive phase; to obtain economic compensations in exchange for freezing a nuclear programme judged sufficiently mature to produce a nuclear weapon; to facilitate the acquisition of the latest generation of conventional weapons (aircraft, tanks, warships, submarines, tactical missiles) in exchange for relinquishing the bomb. These same advisors could even be tempted to think that at the end of the day, if the international community continues to procrastinate on this thorny matter, Iran could end up by obtaining the full palette of deterrence: asymmetric, conventional, and nuclear.