Iran's Pragmatic Regional Policy. (Foreign Policies toward the Region)

By Hunter, Shireen | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Iran's Pragmatic Regional Policy. (Foreign Policies toward the Region)


Hunter, Shireen, Journal of International Affairs


The notion that an ideological competition between Iran and Turkey would determine the internal evolution and external orientation of post-Soviet Muslim republics was simplistic and deeply flawed.

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By mid 1990, it became increasingly clear that the Soviet Union as then structured would not endure and that most of its constituent republics, including those in Central Asia and the Caucasus, would sooner or later become independent. Two questions preoccupied the minds of analysts and governments, especially those in the West: first, what philosophical framework would replace communism as the organizing principle of post-Soviet societies and guide their external orientation? Second, in the case of the largely Muslim southern republics, which one of their close or distant neighbors with ethnic and cultural links would gain the greatest influence in the region and potentially act as a model for their social and political organization?

THE CONTEST FOR IDEOLOGICAL INFLUENCE

Most Western writings of the late 1980s and early 1990s cast the competition for influence in the region between Iran and Turkey. An important aspect of this contest was ideological. Iran, on the one hand, represented the dreaded Islamic model. The fear was that Iran, seeking to export its vision of an Islam-based government and polity to the post-Soviet Muslim republics, could win favor in a region experiencing an Islamic revival after 70 years of active repression. Turkey, on the other hand, represented the prototype of a modern, secular and democratic Muslim state. While Turkey was a Western ally, Iran was still perceived as a threat to Western interests. The West thus promoted Turkey as a model to be emulated and supported the spread of Turkish influence in the Muslim-inhabited regions of the former Soviet Union (FSU), while attempting to thwart ties between Iran and the newly independent Muslim republics.

The United States in particular was bent on preventing Iran from establishing any significant presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made this pointedly clear during a visit to Central Asia in January 1992. In later years, it became part of the broader U.S. strategy of containing and isolating Iran in the context of the Clinton administration's policy of "Dual Containment." (1)

The notion that an ideological competition between Iran and Turkey would determine the internal evolution and external orientation of post-Soviet Muslim republics was simplistic and deeply flawed. Analysts at the time pointed out the weaknesses of this perspective. Iran and Turkey did not have the resources to effectively permeate the region; the influence of key international actors--most notably the United States, but also Russia and Europe--carried greater weight. The Central Asian states were not passive recipients of ideas and models of development, but active participants in the complex and dynamic process of nation-building. (2) Furthermore, Iran underwent fundamental changes in its domestic priorities and foreign policy. Perceiving Iran as an Islamic threat ignored the vast changes the nation experienced in the aftermath of both its eight-year war with Iraq and the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

THE CHANGING FACE OF IRAN'S DOMESTIC CHALLENGES

At the end of the Iran-Iraq War in August 1988, Iran shifted its priorities from the exportation of revolutionary Islam to internal political consolidation and economic reconstruction. After eight years of war and suffering, it was in desperate need of economic improvement, without which its political stability would have been jeopardized. (3) With the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on 5 June 1989, the Iranian leadership faced its greatest challenge yet, bringing its internal dilemmas to a head. How could it effect a smooth transition to a post-Khomeini era and improve its economic situation while maintaining the basic structures of the Islamic regime that Khomeini built? …

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