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Iran faces long road before it is trusted by neighbors

A closed-door conference held recently in Europe concerning developments on the political scene in the Middle East and ways to address them was attended by high-profile characters from several countries, including Iran. The discussions during the event and informal talks in the breaks between sessions focused on the tensions between the US and Iran, their consequences, the options at hand and the repercussions of these tensions on the region. 

The leading figures appearing at the event from the Iranian side were all close to President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. Most of these figures occupy or once occupied senior positions within the government. Some of the meetings were heated whereas others were calm, with some of those present trying to ease the tensions whenever they reached an advanced stage of controversy or mutual recrimination or got bogged down in efforts to prove a particular viewpoint or to refute a certain argument.

I won’t go into details about the content of the conference and the various sessions, which lasted for a day-and-a-half. I did, however, come away from the event having reached several conclusions and made a number of observations concerning Iranian affairs that I believe are important, which I will summarize in the following points. 

First: The political bloc known as the moderates or reformists is deeply concerned about its future in Iran. Some of those attending the conference said openly that this political bloc would face massive challenges in the foreseeable future due to the increasing domination of the fundamentalists over state apparatuses, Parliament, and the entire government. 

These moderates fear that the fate of Rouhani and Zarif will be similar to that of former President Mohammed Khatami and perhaps that of the late Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died in ambiguous circumstances, with the finger of blame being pointed at the fundamentalists.

Second: The Iranian government believes that escaping the current crisis Iran is experiencing depends on improving relations with the Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia, and that dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran is the shorter, more reasonable and more effective course for the Iranian side. Saudi Arabia is seen as being capable of salvaging the reformist bloc on the one hand and easing US pressure on Iran on the other. 

Third: The Iranian reformist-moderate bloc is not opposed to the Islamic revolutionary principles on which the regime is founded, despite their efforts to present themselves to the West as being liberal. When they are confronted with facts, they find themselves in limbo without convincing answers or acceptable justifications, shifting quickly to the more well-known discourse and language adopted by the hard-line revolutionary regime and its fundamentalist supporters.

The recent conference saw numerous verbal lapses by the Iranian delegates, putting their colleagues in awkward situations. Many of those present noted the disgruntled expressions on the faces of the more junior or more genuinely moderate delegates as their colleagues launched extremist tirades. These outbursts confirmed the prevalent belief among the people in the region that the internal, superficial disputes between the wings of the regime do not substantially affect the Iranian regime’s foreign policy. 

The Iranian government headed by Rouhani is still not involved in making the country’s key strategic and critical decisions, even in the difficult circumstances like those which Iran is currently experiencing. Indeed, officials of the Iranian Foreign Ministry are not updated on many of the details related to the developments of Iran’s relations with the world, especially those intermediaries tasked with attempting to bring Iran’s views closer to those of the international community.

The regime’s profoundly racist and supremacist anti-Arab worldview is, in general, still an insurmountable obstacle

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The “unofficial” shadow foreign ministry, represented by former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and which is linked to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is kept more regularly updated about these developments and is closer to the leadership’s decision-making circle than the official Foreign Ministry represented by Zarif.

Fifth: The problem of the Iranian regime’s profoundly racist and supremacist anti-Arab worldview is, in general, still an insurmountable obstacle for Iran before anybody else. The political leadership in Iran is still unwilling or unable to let go of the nation’s imperial historical legacy. Indeed, it has ardently embraced this legacy and allowed it to dominate the Iranian conscious and subconscious mindset, despite the impossibility of reviving this legacy given the concepts of the modern world and the nation state, let alone the lack of ability among Iran’s leadership to ensure that the country plays a role as a leading nation or presents an attractive model of governance at home and abroad.

Sixth: The team of the former US President Barack Obama and those affiliated with him are still liaising with the Iranian government. Some former officials in the administration play a strong voluntary role in convincing European governments and companies to deal with Iran economically, commercially and politically. The Iranian participants at the conference couldn’t hide their nostalgic yearning for the Obama administration and its soft approach to Tehran, which enabled the regime to expand its influence across the region, with its militias and sleeper cells becoming active in every sphere. 

In the end, there is still a long and bumpy road ahead for the Iranian regime if it wishes to gain the confidence of the region’s countries, to prove its goodwill and to work to change its behavior toward the region and the world. This requires the Iranian regime to change its mindset through working to gain confidence and to convince the other parties, by doing so steadily, that its change in behavior is not tactical but a real strategic change, albeit gradually. 

While the Gulf nations are always ready and prepared to strengthen relations with their neighbors, their historic experiences with Iran following the 1979 revolution prove that we should always question the regime’s objectives and remain deeply skeptical about its intentions, with its words being deceptive by default until proven otherwise. Although this approach is frustrating in the context of conducting international relations in general, it is, unfortunately, not only acceptable but essential in the case of Iran.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami