Sir Richard Dalton, British Ambassador to Iran from 2002 to 2006, spoke to Fellows on 14 March about Iran’s regional policies and the nature of Iran as a state. This is a highly abridged version of what he said.
Several convictions influence the regional policies and practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran:
- That Iran’s survival cannot be taken for granted. This belief is born of historic experience and current reality: former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has revealed that during the long crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme several Middle East states asked Washington to bomb Iran. And Iran faces threats on its borders, from Sunni extremist groups.
- That international rules which ought to retrain enemies are weak and unreliable. Iran has been a victim of state-sponsored terrorism – for example, the Israeli-sponsored murder of five Iranian scientists between 2007 and 2012 – and of the unlawful use of force in the cyber realm by Israel and the United States.
- That Iran is as entitled as any other state to work at home and abroad to deter enemies, to protect its independence, sovereignty and interests, and to seek and strengthen alliances.
- That Iran’s ideology – religious democracy – is more worthy and significant for mankind than that of its Western adversaries.
- That the facts of conventional military power are stacked against Iran. For example, Iran’s air-force is very weak; and not only is Iran surrounded by U.S. military bases, but the United States and its allies have flooded the region with advanced weapons. (Iran spends one-fifth of what Saudi Arabia spends on its military, despite having over twice the population. The UAE, with a native population of 1.4 million, spends twice as much as Iran.)
Some believe that in all but one significant case, Israel, Iran’s foreign policy is primarily pragmatic. Others say that Iran is a cause not a state: “it is a revolutionary power tearing into the fabric of regional order in just the same way as, from the Sunni perspective, Daesh does”.(Henry Kissinger).
The Islamic Republic’s foreign policy goals are hardly revolutionary: survival; to project power and to extend influence; to be respected; to be part of solutions to the region’s conflicts; to avoid inter-state war; to promote growth and development.
Iran’s leaders say they are revolutionary; they continue to espouse the ideals of the original revolutionaries, especially Ayatollah Khomeini; they see maintaining Iran’s revolutionary character in the domestic sphere as vital; but they do not seek to impose those ideals on others. They do not aspire to dominate the Middle East; they recognise that no state, least of all non-Arab, Shia Iran, can do so. They would like to see an end to the external alliances of Persian Gulf countries with the United States, which they perceive to be in large part directed at them; but they do nothing to bring about that end. They try to influence the actions of foreign governments, to protect or promote Iranian interests; but they are not in the business of regime change. They refuse and will continue to refuse to accept Israel’s existence as long as a settlement that results in a Palestinian state is missing; but if there were such a settlement, they would re-consider – being at odds with Israel has cost Iran dearly.
The nature of the Iranian state
There are seven centres of power:
- The Supreme Leader and his network of representatives
- The agencies that report to the Supreme Leader: the Revolutionary Guards, the Intelligence Ministry and the Judiciary
- The Clerics, including the Ayatollahs based in Qom, a council that selects the Supreme Leader, and a council that vets presidential and parliamentary candidates for their morality and loyalty
- The Majles (House of Representatives), which legislates and has oversight of the government
- The government, comprising a president elected by universal suffrage, ministers appointed by the president, a large bureaucracy and the police
- The Bazaar: finance, commerce and industry
- The Street’, including the unemployed, students and organised labour.
In each of these centres adherents of four tendencies can be found, to a greater or lesser extent:
- Zealous supporters of the 1979 revolutionary Constitution, whom the West tends to refer to as ‘hardliners’
- Reformists. They hold that structural changes taking place within society will gradually bring about change, away from the religious and towards the republican dimension
- More radical reformists. They want a referendum on the future of the political system. They aspire to a secular parliamentary democracy
- Royalists and left-wing groups. They seek a fundamental change of regime.
Under the current Supreme Leader significant change is unlikely, despite Iran having a young, well-educated population that is pushing against social barriers and demanding personal freedoms. Even under a successor to Ayatollah Khamenei change is only likely to come if the Clerics decide to step back, to renounce their vetting and veto powers, to call off the political police and to support the rule of law.