A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
The Changing Paradigm of Iranian Foreign Policy Under Khatami
By Shah Alam *
Iran's foreign policy has entered into a new phase; moving from confrontation to conciliation. Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami's worldview and his notion of foreign policy is different from his predecessors'. In Khatami's notion of foreign policy, there is no "clash of civilisations", he favours a "dialogue of civilisations". The detente policy of Khatami has created a congenial atmosphere for expanding relations with the world, and its relations with the major powers (Iran's) is improving. Relations with the US alone are still marred by mutual suspicion and distrust. Tehran is increasingly making efforts to play a greater role in the Gulf region and beyond. In many ways the new foreign policy resembles that of the pre-1979 Pahlavi regime's policy, barring the alliance with the US.
The May 1997 Presidential election broke much more ice than expected. Khatami's landslide victory over the conservative rival, Nateq-Nuri, in the election ushered in both internal and external policy changes. The massive mandate of the people to Khatami meant a verdict for change from the political and social stagnation that Iran had been facing. The results of the February-May 2000 Majlis elections in which the reformists got victory over the conservatives were a continuation and confirmation of the May 1997 presidential election victory and strengthened the hands of the reformists to transform both domestic and foreign policies.
The Changing Paradigm
With the change in guard in Tehran in 1997, changes had also been perceived both in the internal and external politics. Finally, winds of change had begun to blow and social stagnation had broken. At the external level, pro-active foreign policy has been adopted by the Khatami administration. The policy of rapprochement was also adopted by the former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, but it is much more firmly adopted and implemented by the Khatami administration. Now the detente policy has become the cornerstone of the Iranian foreign policy.
The eight-year Iran-Iraq war shattered the Iranian economy and compelled it to abandon its confrontationist approach and make friendly relations with its neighbouring countries and beyond. 1 Since the death of Khomeini, Iran's foreign policy had increasingly been based on national interests rather than on ideological considerations. Iran has withdrawn the slogan "Export of Islamic Revolution" in order to avoid confrontation with its neighbours who were alarmed at this slogan. The slogan "Export of Islamic Revolution" had created unrest in some Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Iraq where demonstrations and protests were started against the regime. If in the Persian Gulf, the monarchies were threatened consequently safe oil to the US and the West would be threatened and the existence of Israel also came under threat. The complex situation which interlinked one another was created by one slogan the "Export of Islamic Revolution", which created fear among the Gulf States where their monarchy was under threat, and the US and its allies' interests were threatened on the other hand.
Iran, in order to reconstruct its shattered economy has left the confrontationist approach and has been forging alliances with its neighbouring countries and beyond that. In this process, it has pursued two objectives to maintain stability on its southern borders and northern borders: to have cordial relations with the Arab states; and to concentrate on Central Asia and the Caucasus region where the 1991 collapse of the USSR, created alluring political and economic opportunity. The US' military presence in the region and its determination to protect its own and its allies' interests had convinced Tehran that the most prudent policy was to accept the status quo in the region. All these events have made deep impact on the policy-makers of Iran.
The metamorphic change in Iran's foreign policy had been seen after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran's foreign policy drifted away from the West and US, and moved towards non-alignment, Third Worldism, and a populist anti-imperialist strategy. Islam as an infrastructural element of foreign policy of Iran surfaced at the very inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The essence of orientation during this period was political delink from the capitalist and socialist systems and the pursuit of populist economic policies. The Revolution's slogan of Isteqlal (Independence) permeated the ideology of the Republic. In the early days of the Revolution, Iran concentrated on five strategic slogans, "War until Victory", "War is a blessing", "Down with Satanic Powers", "Export the Islamic Revolution", and "Neither West nor East". In general terms, the orientation was both anti-monarchical and anti-secular. Thus, the basis of policy was to try and change the region's political map rather than to coexist with existing regimes of the post-colonial West Asia. One driving motive of Iran's slogan of "Neither West nor East" was to create a single Muslim global community. Iran's foreign policy orientation "Neither West nor East" created enemies from both camps. It was important for revolutionary Iran to reverse the earlier regime's policy of dependence on the West and US and to adopt a non-alignment policy.
The essence of the new policies of Khatami has been the restoration of stability in the Persian Gulf, further and faster reintegration into the global political economy, and greater participation in regional and global organisations such as the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), and the regional Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO). 2 In this context, Iran sought to contain the US presence in the West Asia and to maintain peaceful relations with Persian Gulf states. A pragmatic and moderate Rafsanjani's policy was based on three considerations: first, Iran cannot change the region's political map; second, Iran must try to adjust to a new balance of power in the region, in which US had played a major role in creating this new balance of power; and third, to initiate relations with Saudi Arabia because it is a major country in the GCC fold. Rafsanjani's prime objective in pursuing such policies was to recover ground lost during the eight-years Iran-Iraq war, and consequently to reassert Iran's influence in the region. Khatami's policy is a continuation of the policy of Rafsanjani with a more open and conciliatory approach.
President Khatami's detente policy is a process of normalising relations with all countries. Khatami said on March 5, 2000, that "Iran's detente policy is not at all tactical but a strategy and that Iran believes that the interest of the country, region and the world is linked with stabilisation and expansion of the policy." 3 Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister in Asia-Pacific Affairs, Mohsen Aminzadeh, stated that "the detente policy and relience-building guidelines as well as developing regional and international peace and stability in line with Iran's political and economic development are the main foundations of Iran's foreign policy". 4 The Khatami administration has adopted detente policy in order to fulfill its much required national interests. Khatami said, "we have taken some positive steps in relation to the policy of detente - steps which must be sustained. We must progress from the stage of detente to that of building trust and subsequently to the establishment of lasting regional cooperation". 5 He further stated that "Iran pursues a policy of detente not out of need but out of wisdom and a concern for ourselves and the world". 6 However, on the issue of foreign policy, conservatives usually support Khatami's objective of normalising relations with all countries except the United States and Israel. The conservative faction always opposed having any relations with these two countries.
Khatami visited Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Qatar in 1999. His visit to the Arab countries was the first by an Iranian head of State to the Arab World in the last twenty years. Khatami's visit to the Arab countries reflects that Iran's relations with the Arab states is improving. Iran's relations with the Central Asian countries and Caucasus region is also developing. Iran's desire to improve its relations with the West is reflected in the Iranian President's visit to the West. Khatami visited the European countries, Italy and Vatican City in March 1999, France in October 1999, and Germany in June 2000. In an address to Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran, Khatami explicitly stated that Iran wants to have "foreign relations with all countries, including the industrial developed world, on the basis of mutual respect and interests". 7
Iran's ideological abandonment of the export of Islamic Revolution has created some type of mutual trust between Iran and the Arab states. Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia have improved. But the issue of the islands between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is complex and still unresolved. The world's increasing interest in the region's energy reserves including those of the Caspian Sea has a deep and far-reaching impact on the security of the Persian Gulf region.
No Clash of Civilisations
With the emergence of "civil society" as a dominant discourse in domestic politics, Khatami's "Dialogue of civilisations" 8 has been a dominant discourse in foreign policy. The thrust of his foreign policy is "dialogue in place of conflict". His novel idea, "dialogue of civilisations" and "dialogue in place of conflict" is a turning-point in Iran's foreign policy. Thus, the foreign policy of Iran has moved from confrontation to conciliation with the large efforts of Khatami, and the phase of dialogue with the West and other states has been started. 9 Thus, a new opportunity has been created by Khatami for other nations to have a rethink towards Iran. This approach had been adopted after the 1997 Presidential election that strengthened the hands of the liberals by installing liberals into power, like Khatami. The May 1997 Presidential election had prepared the ground for a turning-point in Iran's foreign policy. From the very beginning, Khatami sought rapproachment with the US by telling the world on December 14, 1997, that "I first of all pay my respect to the great people and nation of America". 10 Khatami's interview on Cable News Network (CNN) on January 7,1998, had explicitly manifested his tone of friendship with the US. He said that Iran has an "intellectual affinity with the essence of the American civilisation". 11 He called for "dialogue of civilisations".
The conservatives have had different ideas on foreign policy issues. They argue that relations with the other countries should be maintained except the US and Israel. Ayatollah Khamenei in his address to the Assembly of Experts upheld the validity of the anti-US revolutionary slogans and referring to Ayatollah Khomeini ruled out having any relations with the US. In response to Khatami, Khamenei stated that "dialogue with America was even more harmful than establishing ties with that country." 12 The conservative faction accused Khatami of being "too lenient" towards the US in his landmark interview with CNN on January 7, 1998. The newspaper, Jamhuri Eslami which voices radicalism of all factions argued on January 26, 1998, that "struggle with America constitutes an important component of the culture of the Revolution and that the phrase 'death to America' is not a mere slogan". 13 The conservatives who represent the old guard of Iranian people have kept in their memory the CIA-engineered 1953 coup against the popularly elected government of Mohammad Musaddeq, the humiliating effects of the US policy of containment of Iran, especially President Bill Clinton's imposition of trade ban on Iran in March 1995, 14 and again the economic sanctions imposed in 1996 by a bill sponsored by Alphonse D' Amato, a New York Senator of US in 1996. 15 All these events have made the policy-makers of Iran cautious about maintaining relations with the US. The motive behind the US sanctions against Iran was to isolate Iran and cripple its economy so that it could not emerge as a formidable challenging power in the region and challenge the US interests in the region and elsewhere.
The credibility of unilateral sanctions imposed by the US on Iran's petroleum industry was seriously undermined on March 1, 1999, when the Iranian government signed a deal with the French company Elf Aquitaine and the Italian company ENI to develop Dorond oil field near Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf. The total value of the 10-years deal, intended to boost the field's recoverable reserves from "600 million barrels to 1.5 billion barrels was estaimated to be US $ 998 million." 16 Again French oil company Elf Aquitaine had struck its second deal with Iran in successive months. Together with Bow Valley Energy of Canada, Elf had signed a contract to develop "the Balal offshore oil field which had recoverable reserves of 100 million barrels." 17 The force of the US Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, designed to deter energy investments by threatening penalties against companies operations had been weakened when no action had been taken against any company.
Khatami's coming to power and reformists faction's victory in February-May 2000 Majlis elections have changed the US attitudes towards Iran, and the Clinton administration has moved to soften economic and trade sanctions against Iran. In April 1999, the White House announced, "an exemption of commercial sales of food, medicines, and medical equipment, enabling bulk sales of US grain to Iranian buyers." 18 The Clinton administration has pursued a policy of exchange of scholars and artists in what it calls people-to-people initiatives, including visits of Iranian wrestling teams, scholars, and artists to the US. Clinton stated at a White House dinner in April 1999 that it is important to recognise "Iran, because of its enormous geopolitical importance over time, has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations". 19 These steps and statements show that the US is interested to engage Iran despite many odds. But Iran is cautious about improving its relations with the US due to its past experiences. While addressing a meeting of students at Tehran University, President Khatami said, "when we say there is a wall of distrust between Iran and the US, it is not just a simple slogan". 20 But at the same time he stated that Iran was not an enemy of the US people and added that "they should know that the Iranian people do not accept any domination and believe that the basis for all relations should be mutual respect, and the destruction of the wall of distrust." 21 Khatami stressed that Iran will have relations only after getting their clearly defined demands. "As long as these demands are not met and as long as the high wall of mistrust between Iran and America has not collapsed, we will not witness a substantive change in the relations - between the two countries." 22 Mutual suspicion continues there, so, will take time in building a confidential and trustworthy relationship.
Inspite of mutual suspicion and mistrust, Khatami has created a congenial atmosphere and talked of better relations with the US and the West. President Khatami's brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami said about the relations between Iran and the US that "even if we do not resume diplomatic relations we can reduce animosity." 23 Khatami's brother promoted many of the US-Iran cultural exchanges that have slightly warmed relations between the two countries.
The US had considered Iran a hostile state since Ayatollah Khomeini's followers toppled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, seized the US embassy in Tehran, and preached the export of Islamic Revolution. But now Iran has adopted a moderate path and become a place where basic principles are debated in a way not seen in the US allied countries in West Asia such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The May 1997 Presidential election and February-May 2000 Majlis elections have changed the mind of the US and West towards Iran. The result of the Sixth Majlis elections held in February-May 2000, was welcomed by the US and the West. The Clinton administration welcomed the election result and interpreted it as an unequivocal demand for greater freedom within the country and for improved relations abroad. The US Department spokesman, James Rubin, stated that "we hope the desires of the Iranian people can be translated by their elected representatives, and we hope this trend will be reflected in a new approach to Iran's relationship with the outside world." 24
On the issue of having relations with the US, even reformists are taking very cautious steps to be too close to the US and stated in a news conference that "our movement was a domestic phenomenon and should not be seen as evidence that Iran had set aside revolutionary or Islamic principles to please the West, particularly the United States." 25 Khatami emphatically stated that the significance of the impressive election win by his reformist allies should not be misread and insisted that Iran would go its own way. Iran's state television quoted Khatami as saying "the Iranian nation will not lose sight of its goals on the basis of others' wishes and delusions. What our nation wants is important, not what others say or want." 26 Mohammad Reza Khatami, Leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, and the brother of President Khatami stated, "in the past the United States supported one of the most repressive regimes in history, which was the Shah's regime." 27 He was referring to Mohammad Reza Shah, toppled in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The President in his meeting with foreign ministry officials said "the Polls are part of the dynamic evolution of our 1979 Islamic Revolution, and its constant effort to reform itself. Reforms do not imply abandoning our principles." 28 The West expressed hope on the victory of the reformists in the sixth Majlis elections, that Iran will change its earlier policies, Khatami said, "if world powers have goodwill they must adapt themselves to the wishes of our nation." 29 As has been reflected from Khatami's earlier statements that he is ready to have cooperation with the world but at the same time he has threatened that "Iran will have a fitting reaction to those who acknowledge our independence." 30 Khatami's worldview of peace, stability, security, progress and prosperity, has led him towards the adoption of policy of "dialogue of civilisations".
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, said on the reformist victory in the sixth Majlis that "Iran's foreign policy and issues pertaining to Islam are stable and immutable." 31 Iran's foreign policy is not going to change drastically at this juncture since decision-makers are very sceptical about the US' overtures. President Clinton stated in a letter to the House of Representatives and the Senate, "the actions and policies of the government of Iran, including support for terrorism, its efforts to undermine the West Asia peace process, and its acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, continue to threaten the national security, foreign policy and economy of the US". 32 Inspite of these problems, the US is seriously considering the Iranian position and making efforts to come closer to Iran. In the process of normalising relations with Iran, the Clinton administration has adopted a new and softer approach to Iran. Now the US' policy towards Iran has been "engagement policy", the US thinks it is better to engage than isolate. The US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, whilst addresing an organisation of Iranians based in the US (the meeting was attended by serving Iranian diplomats as well as US diplomats who served in Iran) stated "a new beginning" in US relations with Iran, and announced the "lifting the embargo on the imports of caviar, carpets, and pistachio." 33 She also announced that the administration would remove some of the unnecessary impediments to increase contacts between the US and Iranian scholars, professionals, artists, athletes, and NGOs. The US Secretary of State announced that the administration was prepared to "increase efforts with Iran aimed at eventually concluding a global settlement of outstanding legal claims between our two countries." 34 It was a reference to the monetary claims that the two sides, or their citizens have vis-a-vis each other. Iran has for long been incensed that the US froze billions of dollars which they held in US banks for which they had been paid for undelivered defence equipments. Significantly, Ms Albright conceded that US involvement in the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 had "set back Iran's political development, and the support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s had been "shortsighted." 35 Ms Albright said,"we are really and sincerely sorry for having interfered in Iran's domestic affairs in the past. As the representative of the American people, the American government is prepared to do whatever the Iranians say. We are even sorry and unhappy for what we have done in Chile, Nicaragua, and Cuba." 36 The Clinton administration's new and softer approach to Iran including the lifting of sanctions on some Iranian commodities and expression of the regret for some US actions in the past which had harmed Iran were considered as a deliberate move of the US to appease the reformers who had achieved success in the sixth 2000 Majlis elections. Most observers are agreed that the Clinton administration's intention was to strengthen the hands of the reformers, especially President Khatami.
Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme religious leader of Iran, in response to Ms Albright's speech, said such "confessions" of past misdeeds were not sufficient to restore the US in Iran's good books. Ayatollah Khamenei has warned that the undermining of Iran's security and unity are the "objectives that the enemy is pursuing today". Ayatollah Khamenei discarded the speech of Ms Albright by saying it was of no use to Iran now and as "just another ploy... laying the ground work for their sinister plots." 37 Ayatollah Khamenei during his address to a public gathering in the Imam Mosque in Mashhad on March 25,2000, stated, "we are in the year 1379 (2000), that is to say that 37 years, nearly 40 years (as heard) have elapsed since 1332 (1953) and the coup d'etat of the Mordad 28 (August 19, 1953). It is only now that they are admitting that they were behind the coup d'etat. They admit that they supported and backed the dictatorial, oppressive, corrupt and subservient rule of the Shah for 25 years. And they are now saying that they supported Saddam Hussain in his war against Iran. What do you think the Iranian nation, faced with this situation and these admissions, feels?..." 38
Iran's strategic location has always attracted the world powers in order to serve their strategic purpose. In this unipolar world, the United States is the sole power of the world. Why is the US so eager to normalise relations with Iran after 20 years diplomatic break off? In the changing global scenario, strategic and economic interests in West Asia and Central Asia have compelled the US to normalise relations with Iran because it is the only stable and safe transit route to access breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union. The strategic and economic interests of the US are main and guiding factors that are compelling the adoption of the logic that Iran is the only exit route through which the strategic and economic interests of the US can be served. The US thought earlier that Afghanistan would serve its strategic and economic interests in accessing Central Asia. Though at the door of Russia, but unstable Afghanistan has changed the mind of policy-makers and they are viewing Iran as the only alternative route to access Central Asia. So, it reflects from the Clinton administration's statement and steps that it is taking to bring Iran in its fold after both countries had drifted apart after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Hatred of the United States is the cornerstone of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 because it threatened the US interests in the region. It is common parlance among Muslims that hostility towards Iran stems from the US' reluctance to accept Islam as the central premise of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran's relations with the West are improving by and by, the improvement of relations is reflected in the visit of the Iranian president Khatami in 1999 and 2000 to various European countries. President Khatami visited Italy and Vatican City on March 9-11, 1999, and became the first Iranian President who visited the West since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Khatami's talks with Italy's Prime Minister, Massimo d'Alema, and business community, enhanced his perceived image as a moderate, a democrat, and a moderniser. Khatami had also met Pope John Paul II on March 11,1999, in the Vatican where he reiterated his earlier call for a "dialogue of civilisations".
President Khatami visited Paris on October 27-29, 1999, and held talks with President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister of France, Lionel Jospin. This visit was the only State visit in the same year to a Western country by an Iranian Pressident since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. President Khatami's visit to the West twice in the same year indicates that Iran desires to have cordial relations with the West. The visit of the Italian Foreign Minister, Lamberto Dini, to Iran in March 2000, has indicated that the West is also interested in having good relations with Iran. Khatami told Lamberto Dini that "the Iranian nation wants to respect all nations and countries on the basis of its interests, ethics, history, and culture," 39 and added further that for "the Iranian nation nothing is more intolerable than attacks on its historical identity as well as insult and incursion on its national strength and security... Iranian nation and government would not spare any efforts to safeguard their historical credit, strength and dignity." 40
Khatami's proposals for normalisation of relations with the West can be seen in his statements and speeches. Khatami stated during the visit of German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, to Iran that "the proposal of conducting dialogue among different civilisations was made in order to create a world in which there is no tyranny, oppression, discrimination, poverty, murder and illegitimate domination." 41 In response, German Foreign Minister, Fischer, during his visit to Iran said that "Germany is ready with its capabilities to cooperate with the Islamic Republic of Iran and to establish a constructive link between the two countries in the economic and cultural spheres." 42 Khatami's recent visit to Germany reflects Iran's growing interests and its orientation towards the West.
Iran's Relations with Central Asia, Russia, and China
Iran's relations with Central Asia and the Caucasus region is flourishing. Iran, aside from having common land and water borders with most of them, has spiritual bonds and interests with most of the people of the Central Asia and Caucasus region. These bonds, common religion, common cultural heritage, common language (Persian) as the ancestral language in some parts of the region and also common history (extending several thousand years) has brought Iran closer to these countries. Iran's relations with Russia are improving. Relations between Iran and Russia have had ups and downs in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution 1979. Of course, there were ideological differences. There had been some wariness of Russia in Iran because of past history, but after the disintegration of the USSR that did not exist. These problems no longer exist now. With the changing world scenario, Russia desires to maintain good relations with Iran for the sake of economic and strategic reasons, cooperation in security matters and addressing developments in the southern region of the former USSR. In strengthening their relations, officials from both sides visit each others countries. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Sadeq Kharazi during his visit to Russia in February 2000, stated that "relations between Iran and Russia are now going through one of their best periods," 43 and further added that "today's relations between the two states rest on a firm foundation of good-neighbourliness and mutual understanding in restoration of many regional and world problems." 44 Both countries, Iran and Russia have common interests in the region, and share the same perception on the security of the region, and the interference of outside powers in the region, has brought both countries towards close cooperation. Sadeq Kharazi during his visit to Russia said that "Iran and Russia have many common interests in the vast geopolitical region, and many common positions on quite a number of regional and international problems which raise the concern of both countries." 45
Tehran's growing relations with Moscow has worried Washington. The growing strength of Iran's relationship with Russia is illustrated by the nuclear power plant which Russia is building at Bushehr. The US had tried very hard to scrap the project, threatened Russia with sanctions and withdrawal of aid, but Russia did not bow down. In early February 2000, Russia turned down "an offer of $100 million in aid from the US Department of Energy if it promised to end the reprocessing of nuclear fuel and cancel the Bushehr project." 46 Relations between the two countries are blossoming, encouraged by growing mutual interests, both at strategic and economic levels, and both are perceiving the need to come together against the US. Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Safari, clearly indicated the "wide possibilities" 47 for further cooperation between both countries. Russian Atomic Energy Minister, Yevgeni Adamov, complained that the US wanted to block the completion of Bushehr project and this was "solely due to political motives". Why did Russia not bow before the US and abandon the Bushehr project for which the US had promised to give aid? Russia's financial crunch has compelled it to go into further cooperation with Iran, as the Russian nuclear industry has been surviving the past few years largely due to the successful export policy. The Bushehr project is worth $800 million and promises are made for more contracts in future for further reactor units and fuel. This deal not only provides badly needed foreign currency to Russia but also ensures work for Russian industry. The United States' growing concern is not only the nuclear plant at Bushehr but that Iran is also becoming a major client for Russia's increasingly export-dependent arms industry. In January 2000, Iran started mass production of the Russian-developed Konkurs anti-tank missile - an inexpensive, flexible and effective weapon-under licence. Russia has made an agreement with Iran to "supply some $ 4 billion worth of material in the next few years to the Iranian armed forces, which are equipped with Russian tanks, military aircraft, diesel submarines and air defence systems." 48
Another area of growing mutual interest of both countries is oil and gas. Russia is expecting to get a market for its technology and equipment in Iran. The growing cooperation between these two countries is also a geopolitical compulsion for both; the growing trade relationship is the mutual desire to prevent the United States from increasing its influence in the Gulf and Caspian regions. The Iranian President Khatami's visit to China in June 2000, and the subsequent visit of the Russian President Putin to China, and the strong protest against the National Missile Defence (NMD) programme of the US by both China and Russia, reflect growing uneasiness in the relationship between US-China and US-Russia, and a fast growing triangular relationship between Iran, China, and Russia to ward off the US influence in the region, and to defend their nation's security if any threat emanates from the US. So, the US continues to make efforts to prevent Iran and Russia, China and Russia, and Iran and China coming too close.
Iran's relations with China are cooperative in the matter of economy, politics, arms trade and security. China as a growing economic power has paid special attention to Iran as an economic partner as it is a major oil producer. Its geopolitical location in the Gulf and next to Central Asia makes it a key partner of China. Iran's isolation in the international market especially in the West and the US, proved a boon to China. China took advantage of this situation, and became "a major supplier of arms technologies and equipment, especially to Iran". 49 Deputy Foreign Affair's Minister of Iran's statement on the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister, Tang Jiaxuang, to Iran, was that it was "a good opportunity to discuss the two countries' political, cultural and economic relations as well as various regional and international issues. Iran and China, as two Asiatic and developing countries, can play an important role in Asia and the Third World as well as in international relations." 50 In a bilateral exchange, Tang Jiaxuan referred to the old history of civilisation in Iran and China and said, "it is esential that we should through joint cooperation, establish long-term and stable relations which safeguard the interests of the two sides" 51 and further added that "China attaches great importance to Iran in its foreign policy, and we believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran as a big and influential country in the region, can play a significant role in the establishment of peace and stability in the region." 52 The Iranian President Khatami's visit to China in June 2000 demonstrates their growing desire to maintain close cooperation between two the countries and to contain the growing influence of the US in the region. Iran has become the centre of attraction due to its indisputable geostrategic importance of sitting on the new power axis developing in the zone between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.
Iran's Relations With Arab States
President Khatami as a charismatic liberal leader of Iran, and his novel idea of Iranian foreign policy, was warmly received at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Tehran in December 1997 where representatives of all Muslim States of the World came to attend the meeting. Khatami's impressive success in holding the OIC meeting in Tehran indicated that all members of the OIC, and especially the Arab States had attended the OIC meeting. The decision to hold the eighth summit of the OIC in Iran was taken at the sixth OIC summit that was held in Dakar in 1991. The changing paradigm of Iranian foreign policy is not a recent trend, but the shift in Iran's foreign policy paradigm had echoed during the Rafsanjani administration. Rafsanjani during his address at the sixth OIC summit in Dakar in 1991 called "a dialogue between north and south in the wake of the collapse of communism, for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and for the participation of women in the realms of science and culture, as well as in international economic, social and political affairs." 53 Khatami had called for "dialogue of civilisations", which was a continuation of Rafsanjani's policy. But the difference between the two leaders is that Rafsanjani proposed it covertly, whereas Khatami proposed it overtly and firmly.
The turnout of the large number of high-level officials attending the eighth summit of the OIC in Tehran had reflected the Khatami administration's conciliatory message that attracted the international community, and particularly Iran's neighbours. The unique turnout of the Arab countries at the eighth summit of the OIC held in Tehran in December 1997 had also demonstrated normalisation gesture of the Arab States. The May 1997 presidential election in which Khatami got a landslide victory over his arch rival, Nateq-Nuri, gave a clear indication to the entire world and especially to the Arab States that Iran adopted conciliatory approach in dealing with internal and external matters. Now Iran's policy towards the Arab states is the same as the Pahlavi regime had, but one exception is that the US is not an ally of Iran.
For economic growth and prosperity, sustainable economic development and the enhancement of bilateral and multilateral cooperation with all neighbouring countries especially the Arab countries have become a top priority of the Khatami administration. The foreign policy-makers have realised it and become more interest-oriented and pragmatic. Regardless of which ideological factions and political factions they belong to, most of them are willingly prepared to cooperate with the neighbouring countries in building mutual trust and increasing regional cooperation, harmony and prosperity. Iran's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia which has been considered its potential rival, demonstrates that regional leaders are interested to solve their interstate conflicts through negotiations and other peaceful means. But in Iran-Arab relations, ideology has played a dominant factor for centuries that makes both sides sceptical that was clearly reflected after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran. Theoretically and conceptually, Iran's radical Shii ideology has deepened the Iran-Arab chasm. Iran's Islamisation policy has accentuated cultural competitiveness between the Iranians and Arabs, and is a bone of contention between them in terms of their respective contribution to the development of Islamic culture. Thus, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are still rivals at as ideological level, but their national interests have compelled them to come closer and serve their national interests with mutual cooperation and understanding. Iran's detente policy and Mutual Confidence Building Measures' principal aim is to maintain stability and security of the Persian Gulf by the regional states. Ayatollah Khamenei during his address at the eighth summit of the OIC in Tehran in 1997 stated that "Iran poses no threat to any Islamic country." 54 This statement of Khamenei was warmly received by its neighbours and especially Persian Gulf states. Iran's foreign policy is guided by its national interests, ideology is not guiding its foreign policy as had guided it in the early days of the Revolution and during the Khomeini era. Thus, Iran is evolving a foreign policy that is based on mutual respect and understanding, and establishing conciliatory approach towards other nations.
Iran has always opposed the presence of foreign forces, especially the US forces in the region. Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, during his address at the eighth summit of the OIC in Tehran in 1997 stated that "the presence of foreign warships and more importantly the US militiary muscle flexing in the Persian Gulf, which is an Islamic Sea and important source of energy for the entire world, is faced with insecurity. A powerful Organisation of Islamic Conference can on the one hand use the medium of Islamic power and dignity to force the aliens to dispense with this intervention and on the other hand eliminate the pretexts for this improper presence (in the region). The Organisation can, when need be, deploy forces from the Islamic countries to preserve and safeguard peace and security in this area." 55 President Khatami in his address to the eighth summit of the OIC in Tehran in 1997 said regarding regional peace and security that "the Islamic Republic of Iran, while stressing cooperation among states in the Persian Gulf region for the preservation of regional peace and stability, considers the establishment of regional security and cooperation with the participation of all the States in the Persian Gulf and the adoption of reliable measures that would bear fruit of lasting security in the region and towards the creation of a common defence of shared interests and concerns of all countries and nations." 56 Iran is very sensitive about its territorial integrity, and regional stability, and the stationing of the US military forces in the Persian Gulf. Iran has always opposed the presence of the US military forces in the region seeing that it will pose a serious threat to the entire region. So, the policy-makers have adopted a cautiously pragmatic approach in shifting their policies towards the complex regional politics by taking into account the reality of regional political complexities, and stressed the need to have cordial relations with the Arab countries. The top agenda of the Khatami administration is to have close relationships with the neighbouring states and to prevent the development of enmity and mistrust. Iran's gesture of friendly relationship with the neighbours has reflected in the process of commencement of economic and political exchanges with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar.
The growing extensive and deep relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia reflects in the Saudi King's invitation to Iranian spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, for Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi King's special envoy, Abd al-Aziz al-Khuwaytir met Ayatollah Khamenei on February 19, 2000, and submitted an invitation from King Fahd to Ayatollah Khamenei to visit Saudi Arabia for Hajj pilgrimage. Ayatollah Khamenei thanked King Fahd and expressed the desire to visit Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage and stated that "the strong and growing ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia would not only serve mutual interest but would benefit the Muslim world." 57 He further told King Fahd's special envoy, "the threat posed by Israel is growing. You see in the midst of the so-called peace-talks, what happened to Lebanon. Therefore the Muslim world needs to develop strong relations." 58
Iran never recognised Israel as a state and it believes that Israel has usurped the territory, and discarded the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. This attitude of Iran towards Israel is the main factor in creating acrimony between Iran and the US. President Khatami said at the eighth summit of the OIC meeting in Tehran in 1997 that "peace can be established only through the realisation of all the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including the inalienable right to self-determination, return of refugees, and liberation of the occupied territories, in particular Al-Quds Al-Sharif (Jerusalem). 59 Khatami stressed that the nature of the "Zionist regime" in Israel is, "hegemonic, racist, aggressive and violent." 60 In Khatami's view, the Zionist regime in Israel is posing a serious threat to peace and security in West Asia and expresses itself in "gross violation of international law, pursuit of state terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction." 61 Khatami's tone towards Israel is as harsh as the earlier regimes was. President Khatami and his Council of Ministers' participation in the rallies of the international Quds Day 62 demonstrates that the Khatami administration is supporting the Palestinian right to Statehood and the liberation of the holy city. Khatami said that the "only way for the establishment of peace and tranquillity in the region was the total restoration of the rights of the people of Palestine." 63 Iran's policy towards the West Asia peace process has always been negative since it considers the peace process "unjust, contemptuous and illegal".
The February-May 2000 Majlis elections' verdict in favour of liberals will have a far-reaching impact not only at domestic level, but at external level also. The change at domestic level is warmly hailed by the world and considers that it will help in normalising relations with Iran. Iran's new political environment would "enhance regional stability, improving the sense of security among the Persian Gulf's oil monarchies, lessening longstanding Arab-Persian tensions and even,... encouraging domestic trends in other Islamic countries." 64
Iran-India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan
Many ups and downs have been seen in Iran-Afghanistan relations in recent years. Iran's links with Afghan groups in one way or another became a source of tension between Kabul and Tehran. Iran's policy towards Afghanistan had been dictated by a combination of solidarity and brotherhood with the Shias in Afghanistan (and in Pakistan), and strategic concerns over the US economic sanctions, access to Central Asia, and rivalry with Saudi Arabia. While the Taliban was moving towards capturing northern Afghanistan, when Mazar-e-Sharif incident took place in August 1998, nine Iranians died and some were captured, relations between Iran and Afghanistan reached their lowest ebb. This incident forced Iran to build up a military presence on the Afghan border and threaten military action. It inflamed nationalist passions in Iran. But the matter was defused by the UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Mediation by the UN, Pakistan, and other countries led to defuse the volatile situation, but the Khatami administration made it crystal-clear that it considers the Taliban government in Afghanistan to be a "radical fundamentalist" threat to the stability and security of the entire region. A section of groups were in favour of conflict with Afghanistan, but Khatami denounced "armed conflict" 65 with Afghanistan. The memories of the eight-years war with Iraq was still fresh in the Iranian minds and inclined them to avoid armed conflict with Afghanistan. But this development was taken seriously by Iran.
The break up of the USSR and the phenomenal rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, led Iran to frame a policy towards Afghanistan through giving economic and military assistance to a major faction, beyond its traditional Shia support. After the fall of the Najibullah regime, Iran helped the "Northern Alliance", the Jamiat-SCN, the Hizbe Wahdat, and the newly created NIMA. Iran's help to the factions was motivated by intentions to block the factions and parties supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan from coming to power. Saudi Arabia's policy towards Afghanistan had been based on two basic objectives: to counter Iran ideologically and strategically. Saudi Arabia's policy towards Afghanistan had shown that it felt some affinity to the Taliban version of Islam, and support for the Taliban was consistent with its rivalry with Iran and long-term strategic cooperation with Pakistan. At ideological level, Saudi Arabia had countered Iran's "Shii militant Islam" by supporting officially and unofficially the Taliban version of "Sunni militant Islam".
Strategically, the emergence of Central Asia and the Caucasus - the Caspian Sea - has increased the importance both of Iran and Afghanistan. The border touching Iran with the Caspian Sea as well as the newly independent states like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan has increased the significance of Iran because it has provided the shortest route to the sea for that region's oil and attractive routes for the region's natural gas like Turkey. Iran's unique geostrategic location, on both the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, has increased its strategic and international importance and its leverage over the US sanctions.
Oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia passing through Afghanistan and Pakistan were considered the only direct southern route. The construction of such planned pipelines would enable the US to ensure and promote its goal of linking and integrating Central Asia to the international energy markets by routes other than through Russia, and bypassing Iran. Therefore, Iran's apprehension that support of Taliban by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was politically motivated, and not only an attempt to impose Sunni extremist, anti-Shia regime, but the United States' game plan to encircle and isolate Iran. Taliban's guaranteeing security and safety for the pipelines route would weaken the leverage that Iran had. Hence, Iran's hard efforts to stop the consolidation of Taliban government were dictated both by strategic and ideological considerations.
Afghanistan has been passing through such complex problems that it has threatened the security of the entire region. President Khatami said that "unrest in Afghanistan threatens security and stability in the region, and even global peace", 66 and he further said that Afghanistan's conflict is "one of the biggest, unresolved tragedies of the centuries". 67 Khatami stressed the need for all factions in Afghanistan to cooperate with one another in order to reconcile their differences. The rivalry between Pakistan and Iran over Afghanistan, has caused the two countries to support different factions in Afghanistan. Both countries' strategic and political interests in Afghanistan, have complicated the Afghanistan problem. The Pakistan government has always denied that the Taliban are getting official and unofficial support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and Iran's apprehension that Pakistan is making efforts to compete with Iran in creating trade routes to Central Asia. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, stated "we consider Iran a friend, a neighbour, a brother in Islam... Neither the Leadership, the governments, the people, nor the elected representatives of Iran and Pakistan can dream of the day when we would be rivals or compete with each other..." 68
Despite Iran and Pakistan rivalry over Afghanistan, there has been extensive dialogue between officials of both countries' mutual visits between senior military officers, and low level exchanges of data on nuclear and missile technology. There has been growing cooperation on military technology and missile technology between Iran and Pakistan, and both import missile technology and military technology from China - which has created a potential triangular military cooperation.
However, Iran and Pakistan have intensified their talks on Afghanistan in an attempt to prevent it from contaminating their entire bilateral relationship. Iran supported Pakistan's stand on the nuclear tests it conducted in May 1998. But the Taliban offensive and the killing of the nine Iranians in August 1998 deteriorated relations between the two countries. Iran-Pakistan rivalry over Afghanistan and Sunni-Shia violence in Pakistan and killing of Iranian diplomats in Pakistan had strained relations between Iran and Pakistan.
In the process of maintaining healthy relations with Iran Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Chief Executive of Pakistan visited Iran in December 1999, President Khatami welcomed his visit to Iran and stated that "ties between Iran and Pakistan as profound and unbreakable, noting the two countries' common cultural and Islamic foundations." 69 Khatami called for cooperation between the two countries, "undoubtedly, the two countries are linked to one another and together must strive to safeguard these interests." 70 On the issue of Afghanistan Khatami said, "the establishment of a popular government in Afghanistan, representative of every strata of Afghan society, would bring about peace, calm, and stability in the region." 71 Khatami emphasised, "the need for the people and officials of two countries of Iran and Pakistan to neutralise divisive conspiracies," 72 and called on the Pakistani authorities "to deal resolutely with terrorists who had threatened that country's security and caused the martyrdom of several envoys of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Pakistan". 73
Gen Pervez Musharraf's visit to Iran indicates that Pakistan wants to placate Iranian concerns on Afghanistan and Shia-Sunni violence in Pakistan, and further consolidate its relations with Iran. Gen. Pervez Musharraf said on the issue of Afghanistan that Pakistan wants the establishment of a lasting peace in Afghanistan, "a government comprising representatives of different Afghan groups, must be established in Afghanistan." 74 He had expressed regret at the killing of Iranian nationals in Pakistan and said "the Iranian brothers had come to help us, but were killed by criminals. Now these criminals have been arrested and sentenced to death. The sentence has not yet been carried out owing to the judicial process in Pakistan, but I promise to pursue the implementation of this sentence". 75 Gen Musharraf's expression of regret at the killing of Iranian nationals in Pakistan and his policy on Afghanistan are intended to placate Iranian sentiments that strained relations between both countries.
Indo-Iran relations have seen many ups and downs with the passage of time, despite exchange visits of high dignitaries of both countries to each other in the pre - and post-Revolution period of 1979, and is still marked by mutual suspicion and distrust in which Kashmir has been major stumbling block, that has soured the Indian governments perspective. 76 However, both are keen on having positive relations with each other. At the economic level, many agreements had been concluded between both countries in the past, and the recent visit of India's External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, to Iran has reflected the eagerness of both countries to come closer. Two key issues have compelled both countries to come closer - energy and Afghanistan.
After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, India's relations with Tehran were minimal. However, developments in the region brought both countries closer. Both India and Iran have the same interests in Afghanistan namely, that a moderate government should be established there. Both countries are concerned that the consolidation of the Taliban government in Afghanistan would be a threat to the entire region.
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the recent past has drawn Iran and India closer because both countries perceive, this to be a threat to regional security. India and Iran are deeply concerned on the Taliban led Afghanistan because it affects the security of both countries. The vexing-problem of Afghanistan has emanated threat at both regional and global levels, so the international community is making strenuous efforts to normalise the situation in Afghanistan. In this process, India and Iran contribute to international efforts to establish a government in Kabul that "fully represents the ethnic and cultural diversity of Afghanistan". 77
The visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, to Iran, and signing of a memorandum of understanding at the end of the 11th joint economic commission between the two countries is a signal of growing cooperation between them. It was signed by the foreign ministers of the two countries, "the two sides agreed to set up six committees in various fields which would deal with issues such as the construction of a pipeline to transport gas from Iran to India, consular issues and problems, agricultural and fisheries cooperation and the export of goods." 78 The creation of the Indo-Iran Joint Working Group is a part of Jaswant Singh's "energy diplomacy", intended at leveraging India's large dependence on imported petroleum products to transform relations with the oil rich nations. Due to growing demand of energy, Jaswant Singh has kept emphasis on energy security as an important goal of India's foreign policy in the 21st century, so, is eager on ensuring and maintaining good relations with energy supplier countries. But the Pakistan factor is pre-eminent that had impeded many attractive proposals in the past for an energy partnership between India and Iran.
India's growing economy needs energy to keep pace with its development. Iran has huge reserves of natural gas that can be utilised to support India's economic development. So, India's increasing need of energy is a driving force to ensure good relations with energy rich nations, especially Iran for its safe and secure flow of energy. Iran, besides its own huge natural gas resources, could become the hub of gas exports from the rest of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf to India. Hence, Iran and India seek peace and stability in the entire region to make the best possible use of the energy supplies of the region. However, it is blocked by Pakistan and Afghanistan in its access to Central Asia, so, for India, only Iran is a possible transit route through which India can gain access to the former republics of the USSR. Energy security will be an important factor in strengthening Indo-Iranian relations in the future.
The idea of the pipeline project between India and Iran, passing through Pakistan is not new, but it was conceived in the early 1990s when Iran found large quantities of oil and gas, and decided to export them to India and Pakistan. But the realisation of the pipeline project is marred by India and Pakistan's mutual hostility and suspicion. Despite Pakistan's assurances for the safety and security of the pipeline, India is sceptical on the issue of its safety and security. However, India's apprehension for the safety and security of the pipeline that will have to pass through Pakistan overland is logical. If political tension would convert into limited-war or/fullfledged-war, then future of the supply of energy will come into question. The pipeline project that has to pass through Pakistan's overland is a dicey gameplan. The other view is that Iran being the supplier of energy through this pipeline, so, Pakistan would not disrupt supply of energy to India due to Iran's economic interests, and not risk antagonising it. Both views will have to be looked at carefully in the new emerging regional and global scenarios.
Since the May 1997 Presidential election, qualitative and quantitative changes have been seen at both domestic and foreign policy levels in Iran. The May 1997 Presidential election was a turning- point in Iranian political culture where the reformist faction defeated conservative faction and acquired institutional power in the institutionally conservative-dominated power structure. The emergence of "civil society" at the domestic level and the "dialogue of civilisations" at foreign policy level was a major shift at both domestic and foreign policy levels. Khatami's proposal of "dialogue of civilisations" in place of "clash of civilisations" indicates, that not ideology-oriented but interest-oriented foreign policy has been adopted. However, Islam is still the cornerstone and central pillar of Iranian domestic and foreign policies, but with a liberal face. As far as Iran's relations with the US are concerned, it is not static but is oscillating between mutual distrust and suspicion. Despite desire of both countries to ensure good relations, past incidents are still fresh in their memories and are an obstacle to moves towards a reliable relationship with each other. Mutual suspicion and distrust strengthened when the US' programme of NMD was contemplated as measure against "states of concern" such as Iran. Thus, mutual suspicion and distrust has marred and become a major stumbling block in strengthening their relations despite Iran expressing its desire to ensure good relations through a "dialogue of civilisations" and "lifting of some sanctions and accepting earlier misdeeds". Iran's improved relations with the West can be seen in the three visits of President Khatami to the West.
Iran's relations with the Arab States have improved, its indication can been seen at the eighth summit of the OIC held in Tehran in 1997 where almost all Muslim countries and especially all Arab States participated. Iran's withdrawal of the "export of Islamic Revolution" has brought changes in Arab attitudes and the US as well. The slogan of the "export of Islamic Revolution" threatened monarchies on one hand and the US' interests in the region on the other - safe supply of oil and Israel's security. Now Iran is adhering to the old Iranian foreign policy as it was before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but without forging any alliance with the US. Iran is trying to recover its lost ground and to reassert itself as a regional power as had emerged in the Pahlavi era.
Iran's relations with Russia and China have been strengthening. Russia and China both supply arms and other military equipments to Iran, Russia and China's strong protest against the US programme of the NMD, and the fast growing triangular relations between Russia-China, Russia-Iran, and Iran-China, will further strengthen military and political cooperation among them. The United States' presence in the region in one way or the other will threaten their national security, so, these three countries are showing their desire to cooperate closely.
Iran's relations with Pakistan have usually been good but Shia-Sunni violence in Pakistan and the killing of the Iranian diplomats in Pakistan, and Afghanistan problem have soured their relationship. However, despite some irritations their relations remain normal. India's relation with Iran is by and large good. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's visit to Iran and his "energy diplomacy" will helps India not only economically but also politically. India's "engagement policy" with oil rich nations is the need of the hour, and has to convert "energy diplomacy" into "political diplomacy" in its larger interests.
Khatami's detente policy has got an impetus after his allies' victory in the February-May 2000 Majlis elections. These have brought discernible changes in the minds of the world towards Iran. The major powers have expressed their desire to have good relations with Iran. India should keep its eyes open to all the developments at the regional level, and should engage Iran at every level.
Note 1: See Anpushirvan Ehteshami, After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic (London: Routledge, 1995); K.L.Afrasiabi, After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994); Jahangir Amuzegar, Iran's Economy Under The Islamic Republic (New York: I.B.Tauris, 1993). Back
Note 2: Jalil Roshandel, "Iran's Foreign Policy and Security Policies," Security Dialogue, vol.31, no.1, March 2000, pp.105-117, Saidel Lotfian, "Iran's Middle East Policies Under President Khatami" Iranian Journal of International Affairs, vol 10, no.4, Winter 1998-99, pp.421-448. Back
Note 8: Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilisation?" Foreign Affairs, vol.72, no.3, summer 1993, pp.22-49, later on he converted it into a book, Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). The conservatives follow the same path and share the same logic as propounded by Samuel Huntington in his article and book. But Khatami contrary to the conservatives and Samuel Huntington, advocates 'dialogue of civilisations'. Back