After the February 2020 parliamentary elections the political elite in the Islamic Republic homogenised itself, with the reformist current being practically left out of the parliament. The spread of the coronavirus strengthened once again the contradictions between the country’s elite and the people, for whom Iran is part of the world and not only the sponsor of „the axis of resistance” in the Middle East
This article will be published in the Bulgarian magazine “New Times”
The year 2020 started with fears from world war, which followed the murder of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. It continued with the hysteria around the spread of the coronavirus, which stirred the imposition of state of emergency in Bulgaria, Romania and other European countries. Now high-ranking politicians and experts claim in media that we are in a state of war with bacteriological weapon.
Such fears from war and extinction are not something new in the last thirty years, in which Bulgarians have passed through a lot of social cataclysms and crises. But our country was never under the threat of a military conflict with its neighbour or international factor. How would have we felt, if we lived in one of the key countries of the Middle East – Iran, and there was a constant threat haunting us – not only if we belong to the elite of the country, but also if we feel part of the common people? How do the Iranian elite and people see their role in the Middle East, where after 2001 there is an intense rearrangement of forces?
The strife for “own path” in the period 1979-2019
Since the Islamic Revolution (1979) Iran tries to walk its own way, in spite of the strong international interests, which are focused upon it. In the dawn of the Islamic Republic the principle “Neither East, nor West” guided the foreign policy course of the country, which is part of the movement of the non-aligned nations.
After that come periods when the foreign policy concepts change in one way or another, but they always have a key word or formula. During the mandates of the president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) a course of pragmatism is followed in the internal and external policy and even the relations with the traditional opponent Saudi Arabia are improved. During Mohammad Khatami’s rule (1997-2005) Iran opposes Samuel Huntington’s proclamation of “clash of civilisations” with the call to “dialogue of civilizations”.
The rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) is concomitant with the strengthening of the Revolutionary Guard in internal and external plan and with the building up of the so-called “axis of resistance” – the group of countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), where there is Shi’a population or Shi’a leaders, who oppose the vision of some American hawks for dissolution of nation-states in the Middle East and formation of ethnically and religiously homogeneous statelets.
Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), whose second mandate will be over next year, also had his vision for Iran’s foreign policy. Being a representative of the moderation as a principle in internal and external plan, his government signed the nuclear agreement with the group of the six (USA, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), which had to integrate the Islamic Republic in the global economy after a period of strong sanctions against it, in exchange for limitation of its nuclear programme. It was expected the the sanctions’ ease would give vitality to the Iranian economy and society, strengthening the country in regional affairs. Iran limited its nuclear programme.
But the benefits from the agreement didn’t reach Tehran, especially after Donald Trump entered the White House, took the USA out of the nuclear agreement and reimposed the sanctions upon the Iranian financial system. In the end, the Islamic Republic itself started to renounce on various clauses from the nuclear agreement, accusing the European countries, that they don’t do what is necessary, in order to protect the mutual benefits in the agreement.
The February 2020 elections and the perspectives
One can judge what are the tendencies in the thinking of the Iranian political elite after the results of the parliamentary elections, which took place on 21 February 2020. The Guardians’ Council – the institution, which allows or not the candidates to be admitted to the election lists, blocked a great number of reformists and supporters of the president Rouhani. That is how the wide circles of the conservative will dominate the future parliament with 221 deputies out of 290 seats in the parliament. The reformists will be only 20, while in the previous parliament they were 121.
The Iranian parliament doesn’t have a decisive role in the determination of the foreign policy, but can influence it to an extent. That is why the comments of the Iranian analysts in the international press are that Rouhani enters in a moment of around one year, when his possibilities for foreign policy activity will be supported less by the parliament. In his words, only one of the political wings of the Islamic Republic has occupied the parliament (and it is not his own wing).
Conservatives themselves are not homogenous. There are both pragmatists and idealists among them. There are people, who support the nuclear agreement and the negotiations with the USA. There are other, who oppose them vehemently. Some analysts, such as the Iranian foreign policy expert Farzar Ramezani Bonesh say that the new parliament and a new president could achieve new nuclear agreement with the administration of Donald Trump after his expected reelection.
Others emphasise on the fact that if Iran’s road to the West in the last years is closed, this pushes Iran towards Russia and China. In the end of 2019 for the first time the naval forces of the three countries held joint military drills in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. That is why it is expected that the new Iranian parliament and a future conservative president will make the country less open to compromise in its foreign policy course with regard to the West (the USA) and its traditional allies in the region, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, many analysts underline that the Iranian foreign policy avoids rapid movement and big changes. Therefore, the new things in the following months will not so much in Iran’s strategy, as in Iran’s tactics.
Even if the changes are not described as fundamental, apparently, there are contradictions in the Iranian society below the calmness on the surface. There has been a discrepancy between the interests of the Islamic Republic’s elite and the part of society, which doesn’t feel itself emotionally attached to the clerics or the Revolutionary Guards. Moments such as the shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger airplane by the Revolutionary Guard in the beginning of the year and the protests, which followed are only some of the examples of this division. There are others – e.g. a lot of Iranians from the middle class ask why the foreign policy puts an accent on the relations with the Muslim and Arab countries, instead of developing the bonds between Iran and the EU.
The rule of Rouhani itself demonstrated this discrepancy. His government have a lot of cadres with excellent connections in the West, while inside the country it has been claimed that there is a conflict with the interests of the Revolutionary Guards. This contradiction found an expression in the formation of two different vectors in the Iranian foreign policy. The first vector, personified by Rouhani and the foreign minister Javad Zarif – was the one of the so-called world policy, in which Iran searches for integration in the global economy and relations, through which it could bring its people out of the sanctions’ stagnation. Iran has a technocratic elite, which is well accepted in the West and around the world It is important for this elite that the country doesn’t auto isolate itself from the global economic, cultural and technological processes, because in the era of globalisation it is much more valuable to be integrated, than to stay isolated.
The second vector is the regional politics, for which the Revolutionary Guards and general Soleimani were responsible. It put the emphasis on Shiite solidarity and opposition to the doctrinal opponents of the Islamic Republic in the region, where Iran stands. It is believed that if Daesh is opposed outside the borders of Iran, this helps to avoid a similar religious and military conflict inside Iran. On the other hand, it looks like the complex fight between these two tendencies in the Iranian foreign policy will continues and after the era of Rouhani. Iran wouldn’t be able to rely on only one of these two vectors, because it is at the crossroad of too many interests. In the present circumstances, it is obvious that in the case of West’s unwillingness to accept Iran as an economic partner, Tehran has not other option, but to fortify itself and to develop the so-called “economic of resistance” – economic development in the conditions of sanctions and on the basis of auto sufficiency. This politico-economic line of behaviour usually comes together with strong bonds with Russia and China. Iran tries to achieve that the countries outside the Middle East have no longer troops in the region, because their existence is seen as a threat to the Iranian security.
In this sense on September 2019 at the traditional summit of the UN the president Hassan Rouhani unveiled an Iranian concept for Middle East security, which outlines that the countries in the region take care for its security alone. There is a Russian initiative for collective security in the region with a similar message. Starting from the middle of 2019 the USA has an American naval security mission in the Persian Gulf. And as of January 2020 European naval forces, lead by France, started operating in the same region. That is why the perspectives before the realisation of the Iranian vision for security in the Middle East are not very bright.
In this situation it is seen that the Revolutionary Guard strengthens itself additionally and Iran will put an emphasis in the near future on the support and development of “the axis of resistance”. The Shiite militias in the region don’t stop their activity, behind which there is always a mystery – whether the directive for their attacks is issued by Iran, or whether they rather act on their own and involve Iran in their own conflict with the international community. In the beginning of March Shia militias killed American and British soliders after a rocket attack against their military base in Iraq. The goal is obvious – if the enemy suffers unacceptable casualties or has great expenditures, he will have to withdraw from the Middle East. An American military answer followed, but also an announcement was made that a part of the American troops in the region, which have reached 90 000 people after Soleimani’s murder, will be withdrawn. On the other hand, two American aircraft carriers and the concomitant naval and air units are active in the Persian Gulf region. That is why it is still too early for this war of attrition to end.
The Revolutionary Guard and its local allies in the region also suffer loses. But for Iran as the center of “the axis of resistance” the dilemma for the foreign policy behaviour is part of the constant confrontation between the Islamic power-related elite, including the Revolutionary Guards, and the part of the population and the circles, which have a technocratic orientation.
The coronavirus’ mark
Now, in the context of the spread of coronavirus, the accusation towards the Iranian elite is that it didn’t stop in time the flights to and from China and that when the virus was already present in the holy city of Qom, no quarantine was put upon the city. That is how it was allowed the the virus spread in all of the Iranian regions.
The situation in Iran is fearsome, including because high-ranking cadres such as vice president, deputy minister of health care, an advisor to the ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the issues of the national security are either ill, or are put under quarantine. There are dead representatives of the high-ranking political elite. If the elite suffers so much, what is the situation for the masses? Western media has published a lot of articles, claiming that the Iranian stats on the disease cover its real dimensions. But on the other hand, the World Health Organisation said in the beginning of March 2020 that it doesn’t see any problem with the Iranian state.
In any case, Iran asked for the first time in decades for a loan from the IMF (at the value of 5 billion dollars). The foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asked the UN and the international community to act for the elimination of sanctions against the country, so that it could cure its ill people at an acceptable price for its sanctions-hit economy. The secretary general of the UN Antonio Guteris has already expressed his support for the Iranian demands. Given that the USA’s course for maximal pressure against the Islamic Republic there would hardly be any easing of the sanctions. That is how the corona virus becomes a weapon against the people, who rule Iran. It certainly increases the tensions inside the Iranian society.
The Iranians don’t want that their country become a new Syria, in which foreign powers fuel contradictions in order to tear apart and plunder it. They are a proud nation, which live with the consciousness that it has a special place on the world scene and deserves a better faith that the one, which the international relations have given it. That is how a part of the Iranian society’s dissatisfaction is directed to the outside – towards “the arrogant” West. But another part of the dissatisfaction is addressed at the Iranian institutions themselves. This dissatisfaction is increased by the growing number of crises in the country – the coronavirus, the youth unemployment, the inflation in price of basic goods and fuel, the lack of alternative at the elections, at which the voter turnout was only 42% at the national level and only 25% in Tehran.
In other circumstances among the tests before Iran would have probably be the low prices of oil. But in February 2020 its oil export was only 250 000 barrels per day. Its production capacity is 3,7 billion barrels per day and it can export up to 2 billion barrels per day, if it has partners for trade. In fact, Iran increased significantly its non-oil export in the years of sanction. But in this moment the direct financial transactions with Iran are impossible and this makes the Iranian citizens’ life more difficult…
The Iranian foreign policy shows great continuity in the last years, even if we take into consideration the fact that the government is led by a technocrat, who looks for good relations with the West. In the present conditions the Revolutionary Guards, which has strengthened significantly its power in the last ten years, will dominate the foreign policy.
But the Iranian state will continue to look for ways to overcome isolation and “autarchy”. The Iranian society, which has suffered a lot under sanctions and the eternal state of existential threat, will continue to look for justice. The place of Iran in regional and international plan will be function of those internal contradictions, but also will be determined by the international situation, in which war has become a part of life.
Read in Romanian language!
Read in Bulgarian language!