The elections are on. Within a few hours Iran will have a new President. And a new wave of opinion on the future of Iran and its foreign policy will begin. At this point it is very difficult to write about Iran’s elections. What is there to say that has not been said? But at the same time something must be said, not about the course Iran will take with its president, rather about the narrative against which many of us think about Iran. There is a serious need to review our narratives on Iran. By ‘our’ I mean Saudis in particular, but also those from the Gulf States. Most of the endless speculation and analysis of the past few months about the elections and their impact on Iran and its neighbours have been extremely distorted, and if that same narrative is used to understand the future of Iran after the election results are out, then all that will happen is recycling one distortion after the other to no positive benefit.
The current narrative that is used by most Saudis – and many American and Europeans - can be roughly summed up in two main points:
First: Iran is a messianic and apocalyptic Shiite theocracy. Being such leads it to behave erratically and irrationally. Internally it suppresses civil freedoms, stifles popular politics, and enforces puritanical policies towards its people. Internationally it seeks to disrupt regional peace, attempts to bully its neighbours, exports radicalism, promotes sectarianism, sponsors terrorism worldwide and seeks to destroy the West and undermine its values and way of life.
Second: Iran is ultimately a problem and a rogue and even evil state. The ideal solution is to see a regime change in Iran; to see an end to its theocracy and to replace that with a moderate regime.
Third: Since regime change is not happening, the second best is that elections reshuffle power in a way that brings the moderates and less-theocratic to power.
This first point is of course the most fundamental and constant component in any discussion about Iran. It sets the stage for the other two points, frames the analysis and shapes the view towards anything Iran does or says. It is always assumed in any discussion on Iran. Thus debates and disagreements are usually about the second point; and in times of election most of the discussion was about the third: Who are the presidential candidates? What is their power base? Can they challenge the Supreme Leader? Can they overcome the complex web of internal politics? The opinions are endless.
Demonize rather than understand
This narrative in my view is simplistic and useless. It is driven by the desire to demonize rather than understand. I am not a fan of the Iranian government, nor do I belittle their strategic threat to Saudi Arabia. But I am keen on a realistic understanding of where Iran is coming from, or at least a realistic point of departure. I live right across Iran. Having a more useful narrative about Iran is not an academic exercise, it is imperative for the national security of my country and the wellbeing of my children and community. Making mistakes can be detrimental. So before thinking of how the elections can affect Saudi Arabia I must start by considering another narrative about Iranian international behaviour, or as I said another point to start developing a narrative about Iran.
This narrative is not new. Its foundations are simple. Yet as a point of departure it is much more useful that starting with terms such as theocracy, Shiite, irrational, radical and rogue. It foundation is the general rule that when a ‘minor power’ interacts with a ‘super power’ in issues of national security and fundamental interests then the ‘minor power’ has one of two equally difficult options: balance or bandwagon. Balancing happens in many different ways such as building alliances or threatening weak spots in the super power. Bandwagoning is basically giving primacy for the vital interests of the super power even at the expense of the non-existential interests of the minor power. States that bandwagon do not become puppet states, and they often compete with the super power on various issues, but they avoid as much as possible challenging or threatening what the super power perceives as a matter of ultimate national security. You will please excuse me for my over simplification here; but taking this line of thinking as a starting point reveals a different narrative about Iran and Saudi-Iranian relations.
First: Iran is a minor power that interacts with the United States; a super power. Iran had had to make one of the two mentioned options. Before the revolution it chose bandwagoning but after the revolution Iran shifted towards the other option. This shift did not come about smoothly or without devastating human and economic cost. An important thing to note is that this shift from bandwagoning to balancing was not driven by the shift in Iran from a secular state to a theocratic state. One may even argue that it was also not driven by revolutionary fervour. I think that the shift was made by Iraq’s American sanctioned invasion of Iran. Had that invasion not happened Iran would have had no option but to eventually realign itself with the United States as its only other alternative was the Soviet Union.
Second: In this situation the priority for the United States is to bring Iran back to the bandwagon, ideally through toppling the current regime. While the priority for Iran is to persist in balancing the United States through whatever means it has access to.
Third: Saudi’s approach to its relation with the super power had been to bandwagon. This places Iran and Saudi at diametrically opposing positions and creates a space for conflict between them. Moreover Saudi has its own interests that collide with that of Iran creating a further reason for conflict. Of course there are many areas of common interest between the two countries allowing for cooperation. But the Saudi-Iranian collision or cooperation will always take place against the background of their opposing positions vis-à-vis the United States.
It is against this narrative that as we must start in our analyse of Iranian behaviour towards Saudi Arabia in particular but also generally. It is living in the shadows of a superpower that explains most of Iran’s behaviour. Being a theocracy is irrelevant. Actually one of the most superfluous even supercilious claims is that being an Islamic theocracy necessarily implies being irrational. Iranian leaders are as rational and irrational as anyone else. Ahmadinejad or Khamenei are no less rational/irrational than Bush, Obama or other leaders. Their rhetoric, style and self-presentation are another story.
When Iran develops military and security alliances with Russia and China it is to balance the United States. It will create proxy wars against the United States or its allies for that purpose. It will create pockets of disruption to distract the United States or its resources. And it has been doing that in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Lebanon. Hezbollah and Syria have been instrumental for Iran’s balancing game against the United States, and thus it will go to extremes in making sure that it does not lose them. It is worth noting that Israel is not an eternal enemy of Iran, and had Iran been bandwagoning it would have had a cold peace with Israel at worse.
It is also against this narrative that we must place the Iranian nuclear program. It is the ultimate balancing strategy. Iran knows that it cannot go on balancing the United States without nuclear weapons. Iran is exhausted, crippled, bankrupt, and is failing in providing many basic services and needs to its people. This is why I do not believe Iran when it claims that it does not seek a nuclear weapon. It has to have it. And sadly, I believe it eventually will.
Saudi Arabia’s options
And it is also such a narrative that I prefer to use in any attempt of understanding Saudi’s options vis-à-vis Iran, and what a new President means. So when it comes to the position Iran has taken towards the United States a new President cannot do much. This is not a matter of policy; this is part of what Iran had become. No president can change that without conceding defeat to the United States; something beyond the capacity of an office no matter how high. Not even the Supreme Leader can make such a decision. Thus Iran and Saudi Arabia will still be in opposing positions for the foreseeable future. Though this will overshadow their relationship, they can still find common grounds in ways that Iran and the United States cannot. And here is where a new president can matter.
I said that as a defensive strategy Iran will be offensive against American interests. Many times this will also damage Saudi interests. A different president, a more moderate one, can seriously mitigate that damage. Mitigation is not ideal, but is still a step in the right direction. A relevant example for this is the tragedy in Syria. The escalation to outright civil war could have been avoided if the Saudis and the Iranians were talking properly and trying to align their strategic interests and minimize outright collision. Another area a different president can matter to the Saudis is in convincing us that it has no offensive nor expansionist ambitions; or managing the perceptions Saudis have of its intentions. Iran’s offenses can be either seen as part of an expansionist strategy or as part of a defensive strategy. Either way, they are in no way acceptable, but different understandings of intention leads to different responses. And if Iran is truly without an expansionist agenda, then a President can go strides in changing the perceptions of Saudis, thus influencing the overall security situation in the region. Finally there are many areas of overlapping interests between the Saudis and the Iranians, least of which based on a destiny to be neighbours. And a different president can be helpful in pushing further those interests despite of the existing challenges. There is a lot that pragmatic, shrewd, and creative politics can achieve.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1