“Withdrawal of Assad Will Be a Serious Setback for Iran”

By Reyhan Güner – 22.12.2012 – JTW Interview with Said Arjomand, Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York and Director of the Stony Brook Institute for Global Studies

What were the main security concerns of Iran in the past and what are they currently? How did the security concerns of Iran evolve throughout the process of revolution?

I think the security concerns of Iran seem very considerable after 2003 with the invasion of Iraq. Originally, as to how they evolved throughout the revolutionary process, the first concern was actually the exports of the revolution. After war with Iraq in 1980, the initiator of the hostility, the exports of the revolution remained in the country a very long time. The security concerns of the first period which were caused by the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988 were borne entirely out of the revolution and the response by neighbors to it, particularly the misperception of Saddam’s government that the revolutionary regime was weakened. Therefore, the first concern throughout the revolution and these two major aims, that is the aim of the revolutionary regime to export the Islamic revolution and then the reaction of the neighbors which in this case exemplified the typical misperception about revolutionary regimes being weak – and this misperception on the part of Saddam was in fact encouraged by the Iranian opposition – was that they thought he could win the war. War was the overall security concern that affected everything else until the truce in 1988. After the war, the security concerns began to become secondary, because Hashemi Rafsanjani became president in 1989. Then economic reconstruction and modernization of the state took the stage with the attempts to enhance the relations with the United States.

The major shift in 2000s pushed administrations to adopt a regime change policy and that was what forced Rafsanjani to think nuclear and find some sources for nuclear projects. However, nuclear projects are really the invention of Ahmadinejad rather than the exploitation of the security concerns caused by the possibility of regime change and the U.S. invasion. When Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he picked that issue as a popular one. It was quite popular with the middle class that the only possible defense strategy is nuclear. Security concerns are also largely the results of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan which destroyed two of Iran’s most serious enemies in the region and naturally opened up the best opportunities for Iran to exercise some influence in the security branches.

Do you think that the nuclear initiatives of Iran are the outcome of the Iranian approach to Islam or do these activities represent a challenge to its approach to Islam?

I think it is probably neither because of Islam nor its approach to Islam. It is much more caused by the geopolitical interest of Iran. It began as the way of defending or preventing regime change by the Bush administration in early 2003. I think it was rather the outcome of a common idea among the middle class that nuclear was the only chance for Iran. This idea also pushed the Iranian administration to consider nuclear power as the only defense against the U.S. and a possibility of regime change in Iran.

As far as Islam is concerned, the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei said several times that using nuclear weapons is forbidden, namely haram, under the Islamic law. Now, it is quite possible that he might change his fatwa due to the circumstances. The situation is that Khamenei has not done so yet, but a future point can show that Islam is quite secondary. I do not see Islam coming into the picture, either way they say Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, they are developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and international roles. So, I do not think Islam is relevant to that issue.

The expectations for the withdrawal of the Assad administration are growing. How will that withdrawal affect Iran and its foreign policy?

I think that will be a serious setback for Iran, because ever since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S., Iran suddenly found opportunities for expanding its influence over the region. So the situation now has contrasted sharply with the earlier attempt to use Shia populations in Pakistan and elsewhere, maybe in Bahrain in the early 1980s. Sectarian warfare in Pakistan that is strategically still ongoing is forced by other reasons, but I think it was initially at least triggered by some Iranian attempt. When compared to the Iranian revolutionary regime’s attempts to spread its influence in accordance with the zone policies, the U.S. presence in Iraq and the Afghanistan opened up a lot of opportunities for Iran. So the Iranian administration and Hezbollah that think of themselves as the representatives of Khamenei in the region were really happy with it. That was the one kind of successful revolutionary foreign policy because of the strength of the Shia bond. However, Iraq and Afghanistan were rather reactive, although these conditions are beneficial for Iran. My guess is that Iran will very closely coordinate with Hezbollah on what to do if the Assad regime falls. So far of course, Iran has considered Assad to be a very valuable asset and recently there have been movements trying to get some Iraqi Shia to fly through Iran to Damascus or such ports. So I think Iran will do what it can without any great task to support the Assad regime, but Turkey also certainly exercises some influence on Iran which is quite considerable and comes up with other deals. They really have no option to develop on Assad, but they will try to protect the interests of Hezbollah in Lebanon.