Since the end of “Pax Britannica,” a zero-sum approach to Persian Gulf security has predominated. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rhetoric and ideology in favor of “exporting the Revolution” to the Sunni Arab world coupled with the strong hostility of the Gulf Arab regimes toward the Islamic Republic of Iran reinforced a dichotomist mindset with respect to regional security. Iraq’s invasion of Iran and the taking of US diplomats as hostages by Iran (which compounded the severity of the fracture in US-Iran relations) exacerbated this trend.
In 1981 the United States sponsored the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with the idea of creating a balance of power to maintain a fragile peace in the area. Notwithstanding all the limits of that organization in the field of inter-Arab security policy integration and cooperation, the GCC in a way formalized this dichotomist posture and focused it on the “antagonist.”
After the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the consequent Gulf War of 1991, Washington’s “dual containment” strategy against Iraq and Iran crystallized this approach: Gulf security became hostage to the nature of the governments involved, without any conceptual development of the security frame.
Meanwhile in Tehran, an antagonist posture toward the West and toward the “moderate Arab” regimes became a distinctive characteristic of the post-revolutionary political elite; this posture still constitutes a pillar of the official ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran, well beyond its real regional and international policy. (Until Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iranian foreign policy often had been more pragmatic and rational than its regime rhetoric.)
During the reformist period (1997-2005) President Muhammad Khatami tried to deconstruct the theoretical basis of this radical confrontational policy, mainly by insisting on conducting a “dialogue of civilizations” and making an effort to foster mutual understanding with the other Islamic countries. Unfortunately, Khatami managed to adopt more moderate policies only toward Arab regional countries and the European Union. The ideological pattern of the Islamic Republic remained untouched.
In recent years, the political atmosphere in the region has worsened due to the post-9/11 US military presence all around Iranian borders (in Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iraq, and the Gulf); the questionable US decision to include Iran in the “Axis of Evil,” as articulated in President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2002; the idea of promoting “regime change” in Tehran; and the crisis related to the Iranian nuclear program, which since 2002 has been the main issue of concern for the international community.
These factors reinforced Tehran’s feelings of isolation and strategic loneliness. Conservative and radical factions of the Iranian ruling elite seized on these developments to exaggerate the dangers and perils facing the country. Moreover, US policies of coercion and isolation contributed to the progressive “securitization” of Iranian foreign policy thinking and actions. Security and military forces have taken the reins of Iranian policymaking processes, subordinating all foreign decisions to a radical, distorted interpretation of the “security needs” of the country.
This process of securitization has yielded very negative domestic and international consequences. At home, it has provided a powerful excuse for cracking down on reformist and moderate voices; it has reinforced the regime’s paranoia about “fifth columnists” (i.e., enemies of the Islamic Republic working inside the country being coordinated by the United States); it has made it very risky to speak in favor of pragmatic, friendly policies toward the West; it has exacerbated the threat perception of “existential risk” of the Islamic Republic; and it has provided a perfect excuse for the failures of Ahmadinejad’s government. At an international level, it contributed to further mistrust and recrimination between Iran on the one hand, and the US and Arab countries on the other.
At the same time, a series of developments — the removal of Iran’s two main enemies in the region (the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Husayn in Iraq), the catastrophic post-invasion period in Iraq, the creation of a Shi‘ite-dominated government in Baghdad, and the difficulties faced by NATO in Afghanistan — boosted Iran’s geopolitical importance in the Middle East. These changes subsequently provoked Sunni Arab oil monarchies’ fear of rising Shi‘a power in the Gulf (where Shi‘ite communities represent almost 50% of the population, but face political discrimination in several countries).
A growing number of analysts have pointed out that Iran has impressive “soft power” and growing connections with governments, parties, and political groups in the region (though this probably overestimates Iran’s influence). Nevertheless, the enhancement of Iran’s political role has made the ultra-radical government in Tehran more aggressive and even overconfident, which in turn has reinvigorated Arab fears. Iran again has become a dangerous antagonist whose main strategic goals are unclear.
It is well known that understanding the domestic political evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is notoriously difficult, due to both its political fragmentation and the extraordinary complexity of its constitutional framework. Dealing with Iranian foreign policy is sometimes even more puzzling, since one has to add the dichotomy between the regime’s official rhetoric and the more pragmatic policies it has often adopted.
However, there seems to be no option other than to try to move toward an inclusive regional security system, and to encourage Iran to perceive itself as less antagonistic vis-à-vis the other regimes. The international community should seek to nurture a process of desecuritizing Iranian foreign policy by pursuing a policy of selective engagement that exploits the convergence of interests on specific topics between Iran and the West for creating confidence and that ameliorates Tehran’s isolation, thereby reducing Iranian perceptions of insecurity.
This is the only way to weaken the dichotomist pattern of imagined regional and international relations, which, after 30 years, still inform the actual security policies and conditions in the Middle East.