In an open letter published in the New York Times last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the Iranian nuclear controversy a ‘manufactured crisis’ which must be resolved so that Iran can deal with other, more important matters.
Iran, he says, needs a free hand to deal with ‘turmoil’ in the wider Persian Gulf area. He wants to establish a ‘collective forum for dialogue’ in that region, and to advance Iranian security interests by defeating the Islamic state and Al-Qaeda, and brokering a cease-fire in war-torn Yemen.
Western Liberals will be determined interpret this as a friendly overture of a weakling state struggling back into the ‘international community’. It isn’t. Zarif’s letter is really an announcement of Iran’s immediate geopolitical aims and ambitions as a regional power.
Zarif is right to suggest that Iran matters. But he makes no mention of cooperating with the West; he doesn’t acknowledge or apologize for Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas or for international espionage; and there is no mention of mending fences with Israel. So we have to ask: will the Islamic Republic contribute to the stability of the Persian Gulf region or not, and will Iran cooperate with the West?
Iran is now, and has always been, surrounded by suspicious and hostile neighbours, some of whom, such as Iraq and Saudia Arabia, are its bitter enemies. But the Persian language and the Shiite religion are diffused in sizeable minority groups in the Middle East and in Central Asia, all of whom look to Iran for religious and cultural leadership. Given the failure of the government of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the insane savagery of ISIL, Iran is now the only organised and credible expression of political Islam in the world, and this goes for Sunni and Shiite alike.
So it is only natural that a country with such advantages would seek to project power and influence throughout its regional context and outflank its rivals. This is how we must understand Iran’s military goals in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and its aim to establish Zarif’s "collective forum for dialogue."
In the distant past Iran’s response to being surrounded on all sides by a mixture of rivals and sympathizers was to swallow them all up in a vast trans-continental empire. However unlikely this may seem, this idea of an Iranian world-system is still the goal of Iran’s foreign policy. It is simply being pursued by other means.
The Iranian theocracy thinks of itself not so much as a country but rather as a religious cause. Such a notion lies beneath the modern Iranian theory of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic as temporary stand-in for the twelfth Shiite Imam who will return at the end of time to rule the world. This is the doctrine of velayat-e faqih (political leadership by a cleric) propounded in its most extreme form by Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s.
None of this doctrine has changed. Contrary to the assumptions of the liberal media, Iran is not a young nation struggling out of the ‘post-colonial’ shadow of Great Britain and America (although this is exactly the sentiment that Zarif is pandering to.) Iran sees itself as a regional power, and the nuclear deal, whatever its outcome, will confirm this position. With or without nuclear weapons, we will be forced to confront a much more influential and powerful Iran which still pulls the strings attached to Hezbollah and Hamas, and which remains the focal point of political Islamic aspirations throughout the Middle East.
We in the West must ask ourselves: will we be fooled this time?
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