Iranian leaders have no grand strategy
September 28, 2001
Once again Iranian authorities are sending contradictory
messages at a time of crisis. While some like President Khatami and Ayatollah
Ali Akbar Rafsanjani appear mild mannered and complacent in their approaches,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts continue to issue uncompromising
and fiery rhetorical speeches. What is the meaning of all this, and what
can we learn from the history of the Islamic Republic? What can we expect?
No one should read too much into what is said publicly in Iran. Iranian
leaders are not "statesmen" yet; rather, they maintain the posture
and culture of radical Shi'ite clerics. They deliver unscripted speeches,
and as old preachers, their emotions sometimes carry them away. The audience
also plays a role in the level of excitement of the speakers. Therefore,
one should not expect much precise thinking before they speak -- although
they don't seem to have a monopoly over this; remember President Bush's
The past two decades has shown that the leaders of the Islamic Republic
make decisions day by day, without following a predetermined, thought-out
course of action. In a televised interview last year, when President Khatami
was questioned about the economic planning model of his administration,
he answered in a matter-of-fact manner that his cabinet follows no model,
rather, they improvise continually.
In response to the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf
War, initiatives forwarded by former U.S. Secretary of State Albright, and
the current crisis, Iranian authorities have always reverted to last-ditch
efforts. By this I mean that they have delivered fiery speeches, made contradictory
statements depending on their audience, and eventually made a decision only
at the last moment -- if faced with critical situations. Otherwise, they
have preferred to take the path of inaction, which has time and again been
proven to be safe route.
The Constitution has put the President in charge of foreign policy, but
it is always the Leader who has the last word in important matters -- and
this is considered constitutional too! The Leader is constitutionally entitled
to define "general policies", and any matter related to foreign
affairs can be interpreted as such.
Moreover, Khatami seems to have accepted the position of second -- or
even third fiddler -- in Iranian politics. Unlike Rafsanjani, who has challenged
the Leader from time to time, Khatami seems to be gradually retreating especially
in his second presidential term. This trend, to the detriment of the presidency,
has reemphasized the role and status of the Leader.
Foreign ministers are always hand picked by the Leader. Former Foreign
Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who was replaced by Kamal Kharrazi, now serves
as Khamenei's advisor in foreign affairs. Kharrazi himself is close to the
Leader's office (beyt e rahbar) and was not replaced in the recent
reshuffling of the cabinet.
The erosion of Iranian influence in the region, and all the losses suffered
in foreign policy, are also due to the lack of a competent team of career
diplomats and regional experts. The traditional elite in the ministry left
Iran after the revolution. Those who remained were never given any decision-making
positions. Most officials in the Foreign Ministry were granted their positions
through nepotism, an issue that has recently been hotly debated in Iran
A number of current diplomats are merely former members of the Islamic
Association of Students in various countries, who were instrumental in occupying
Iranian embassies during the revolution in protest against the monarchy.
The Foreign Ministry also served for a while as a dumping ground for some
nefarious characters such as senior intelligence officer, Saeed Emami. However,
it must be added that the ministry is being gradually staffed with professionally-trained
The government has given up the idea of exporting the Islamic Revolution.
However, two major pillars of its foreign policy, support for Palestine
and opposition to the U.S., have damned its maneuvering from day one. By
adopting a policy, already discarded by a good number of Arab countries,
Iran has not reaped any political gains in the international community.
Ironically, being a non-Arab, Shi'ite nation, Iran's political or religious
world view is generally not well-received by many Arabs.
Some analysts have argued that the Islamic Republic's anti-American and
pro-Palestine policy is aimed at gaining domestic legitimacy. However, it
seems that some Iranian authorities are genuinely anti- American, such as
Khamenei himself. Anti-Israeli emotions also have precedence in pre-revolutionary
Besides, most Iranian clerics have strong family ties to the Arab world.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's parents moved from Najaf in Iraq to Khomein
in Iran, and one of Khamenei's grandparents migrated to Najaf. The current
Judiciary Chief, the Foreign Ministry's Spokesperson, and the former chief
of the Islamic Propagation Organization are Iraqi Iranians.
Iran is not positioned to benefit from the present crisis, as in previous
ones. There is a tremendous overlap of geopolitical interests between Iran
and the U.S.; however, Iran has decided to ignore it. Terms such as "compromise"
(saazesh) are taboo in contemporary Iranian political culture.
Iran cannot abandon its previous political positions overnight. Otherwise,
it would have been the opportunity of the century for her to collaborate
with the U.S., which would have helped dismantle the sanctions, boost the
economy, and improve Iran's position as a regional power. Last but not least,
Iran would benefit from dethroning the diabolical Taliban regime, ridding
Afghanistan of women haters, drug traffickers, and callous terrorists.
As the last caveat, one should consider the fact that in the recent crisis,
if Iran has no plan of action, neither does the U.S.! So there is hope!
It is likely that the two countries will meet at some point, at the cross
road of indecisions, and the whole game plan would change instantly.