Introducing Mahdi Ahouie
Mahdi Ahouie (Tehran, 1977) is Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue in Geneva.
He has obtained a PhD in International Relations at L’Institut de Hautes Études Internationales et du Développement (HEID, University of Geneva).
In the first part of a series of four interviews, Dr Ahouie gives his views on Iran’s foreign policy objectives, its security concerns and its regional and global position. The other parts of this interview are:
What are the main objectives of Iran’s foreign policy?
To understand the main objectives of Iran’s foreign policy, one should first realize the logic of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Briefly speaking, the Iranian revolution was a revolt against domestic dictatorship as well as the international world system which the revolutionaries found “unjust.” The Islamic Republic was thus built on the assumption that the bipolar world system, divided between Eastern and Western blocs was not to provide justice and security for all nations of the world, but it was only aimed to serve the interests of the two superpowers and their satellites. Iran then became an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement under the Cold War, expressing a harsh opposition toward the interests of both the United States and the Soviet Union in the Middle East.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous doctrine “Neither East, Nor West” thus became the main guideline of the Iranian foreign policy after the revolution. Under this general doctrine, Iran’s priority was to maintain a “unity” among the Muslim nations of the world, and eventually among all the “oppressed” people, against the oppression of the existing world system. For some time, this policy was called “exporting the revolution” abroad. However, this terminology, as well as the content of the Iranian message, was not welcome by most of the conservative Arab governments, who were trying to maintain cordial relations with either of the two superpowers.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, Iran’s foreign policy has not changed in strategy. The main goal is to resist the United States’ “unilateralism” in the world politics, through making an unannounced alliance between developing countries. Although the term “exporting the revolution” is formally abandoned, Iran has managed to expand its influence over areas outside of its own region and even beyond the Muslim world, notably in Latin America and Africa.
In sum, Iran’s main international goal today is to become a “protesting” regional hegemony and world actor. For this, Iran’s foreign policy priorities can be summarized as follows:
- maintaining good relations with its neighbours, while gaining an unarguable regional superiority which would also require containment of Israel
- making an alliance between developing countries, from Asia to Latin America
- leading a world opposition against Western dominance and unilateralism over world politics and economy, however through ways which would not end up in open conflicts.
What are the main security concerns of Iran?
For almost two centuries, Iran’s main security concerns have remained unchanged. Iranian governments have always felt cheated and humiliated while dealing with world powers. Throughout the past two hundred years, Iranians have been feeling very unsecure about the “great game” of world major powers. The Iranian governments have continuously strived, throughout the 19th and 20th century, to convince the world powers that Iran is a power to be reckoned with.
Except for very short periods, Iranians have generally failed to reach this goal, and they have received nothing but more humiliation:
- Iran lost a large part of its territories to Russia during two major wars in the early 19th century, as Napoleon’s France chose to leave Iranian allies alone against the Tzar’s aggressions;
- Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in the light of the military occupation of the country in 1941, conducted by Russian, British, and American troops;
- Prime Minister Mohmmad Mossadeq’s nationalist government was overthrown in 1953 through a cout d’êtat made by Britain and United States;
- Mohammad-Reza Shah never received the same security guarantees from the United States as other American regional allies such as Turkey (which was accepted into NATO) or Israel;
- Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary government, supported by the majority of Iranian people, was beated by the military aggression of a fully-armed and fully-supported Saddam Hussein, during an eight-year war (1980-1988).
These bitter experiences have influenced the Iranian political psyche so much so to conclude that Iran should maintain its security on its own and without relying on anybody’s support. Historically and geographically, Iran feels “lonely” in a sea of foreign threats, coming from world powers to regional neighbours. The US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as its military presence in the Persian Gulf area and Central Asia, have escalated Iranian security concerns in the past decade. Iran thus seems somehow surrounded by American troops.
The US governments, under both Democrats and Republicans, have similarly talked about “all options on the table” with regard to Iran, which implies the possibility of a military attack should democracy fails to solve the problems between the two countries. This kind of aggressive language, though not justifiable or understandable by any legal measures, has become common in recent American debates on Iran, and it has understandably alarmed the Iranians.
Israel also poses anther security threat against Iran at the regional level. The hostility between the two sides has lately increased to the boiling point, and there have been constant talks about a possible Israeli strike against Iran.
On the other hand, although the conflict between Iran and Iraq has long ended and the new Iraqi government seems to be willing to establish close ties with Iran, Iran-Arab relations have always been turbulent over the past decades and Iran can never feel completely secure from its Arab neighbours. This mistrustful situation is also deteriorated by the Shi’ite-Sunni division in the region and the fact that the major conservative Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, are very much afraid and sceptical of the expansion of Iranian/Sh’ite influence in the region.