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.
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?
A DETERIORATING SECURITY ENVIRONMENT
Under these circumstances, what Iran needed most was stability and predictability in its immediate neighborhood. This tranquility, however, eluded it. Developments on both its southern and northern frontiers produced unstable conditions that posed a threat to its security and territorial integrity In the south, the Persian Gulf War commenced, and in the north, the Soviet Union was disintegrating. The collapse of the Mohammad Najibullah-led Afghan government in April 1992, the onset of the Afghan Civil War, and the subsequent rise of the anti-Iran Taliban produced new challenges in the east.
THE IMPACT OF THE U.S. PRESENCE AND SOVIET DISINTEGRATION
In the south, war with the U.S.-led international coalition forced Iraq to withdraw its troops from Iranian territory. After the war, however, Saddam Hussein remained in power, and Iran's sense of security hardly improved. Moreover, the war led to a greater and more open U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. Despite remaining neutral during the Gulf War, Iran did not succeed in normalizing its relations with the United States. This was largely a result of domestic political reasons in Iran. It was thus hardly surprising that Tehran viewed the enhanced American presence in the region with apprehension. Meanwhile, the unraveling of the Soviet Union jeopardized the security of Iran's northern frontier. In 1989, Soviet-Iranian relations seemed to be improving. After the visit of the Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze to Tehran in February of that year and his meeting with the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran finally felt secure on its northern frontier. This sense of security, however, was short-lived: A shift in the balance of political power among the Kremlin's warring factions and a reassessment of the USSR's past relations with various Middle East countries led to a cooling off of Soviet-Iranian relations. (4)
In the first two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian-Iranian relations worsened as the post-Soviet Russian leadership, notably foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, insisted that the Islamic threat emanating from Iran was real. Although the situation was improving by early 1994, Iran's motivation to foster its relationship with Russia was largely due to the absence of other viable options and its own domestic political bottlenecks. (5)
The consequences of the Soviet Union's disintegration were also key factors in Iran's security troubles, in part due to Iran's strained relations with the West, especially the United States. Even without a hostile U.S.-Iranian relationship, the Soviet collapse would have caused problems for Iran. Iran was the largest landmass lying between the Russian/Soviet Empire and the Persian Gulf. The strategic importance had obvious disadvantages--it invited excessive attention and undue intervention from outside powers--but it also had offered an advantage in that before and during the Cold War, competing great powers considered Iran's survival as a buffer state of paramount importance. With the exception of Iraq, which adopted a pro-Soviet posture after the 1958 revolution, Iran's immediate neighbors viewed Iran's survival and independence from the Soviet Union important for their own security. Even during the turbulent 1980s and despite concerns …
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Publication information: Article title: Iran's Pragmatic Regional Policy. (Foreign Policies toward the Region). Contributors: Hunter, Shireen - Author. Journal title: Journal of International Affairs. Volume: 56. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2003. Page number: 133+. © 1997 Columbia University School of International Public Affairs. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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