Iran and the West: a foe or a potential ally against terror?

There are different optimistic and pessimistic perceptions of Tehran’s contemporary role in the war on terrorism. Irrespective of the existing contradictory views, Iran’s geographical, cultural and security-political characteristics provide the country with great significance in the war on terrorism. Two questions are of particular importance in this context: why is Iran’s engagement imperative to the global community’s efforts to eradicate terrorism? And does Iran in its present role in the war on terrorism represent a friend or an enemy?

First and foremost, it must be understood that Iran’s relative co-operation in the war on terrorism is dependent upon the state of its relations with the rest of the world. When Tehran feels confronted by the international community, it is only natural that the Islamic Republic’s range of co-operation becomes more limited.

Iran’s significance in the war on terrorism

With the rise to prominence of transnational Islamist terrorism, international security, often strained by wars and tensions generated by the Middle East’s political and cultural problems, is threatened by a complex and unconventional new force. Al-Qaeda’s version of terrorism appeals to the hearts and minds of certain individuals to act for an idealistic end.1 This does not suggest an easy resolution.

The new terrorism is in fact the product of the divergence between democratisation and stabilisation. As US President George W Bush has argued, for a long time the democratisation process was sacrificed in favour of accommodating stability in the region.2 As exemplified by Iraq, in today’s Middle East any effort toward rapid democratisation through foreign intervention results in instability, which in turn is exemplified by increased terrorist activities. The underlying paradox is that democratisation of the region requires stability and security as prerequisites.

In this context, understanding the role of influential countries as counterweights to insecurity is of great importance. Among the countries of the Middle East, Iran has a significant status due to its diverse characteristics. Flanked by countries that have witnessed extensive US-led military intervention (Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east), engagement with Iran in seeking resolution to many regional crises can be of great benefit. Iran’s significance in the war on terrorism can be demonstrated by the following:

Geopolitics. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the movement of terrorists across national boundaries underlined the significance of geopolitics in the war on terrorism. Although the nature of anti-terrorist operations since 11 September has sought to drive terrorists beyond national boundaries (in effect ‘deterritorialising’ them), their organisational framework remains intact within national borders.3 Since terrorists require a safe haven for training activities and planning, any power vacuum, disorder or insecurity (as illustrated by Afghanistan in the 1990s) would be an advantage for terrorist groups.

Nation states therefore have an important role to play in maintaining order and stability within and across national borders. Iran is notable among Middle Eastern countries due to its large size and numerous neighbours. The strategic location of the country, linking South Asia to the Middle East and Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf, places it at the international crossroads of 21st century terrorist activities. So for reasons of its geographical location alone, Iran can contribute much to the US-led war on terrorism.

Iran’s role in creating regional stability. As events in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate, the eradication of terrorist activities in the Middle East is dependent upon the establishment of security in the region. Terrorists are doubtless always looking ahead to locate the next area of instability to exploit. As Al-Qaeda has often said, the US-led war in Iraq (Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’) has created fertile ground for their jihad4 against the international system – much as the opponents of the war feared. Today, Middle East specialists are astonished by the revival of the appeal in Iraq of global jihadi Islam, which had been regarded as a declining force.5

As Iran is a neighbouring country of two principal targets in the war on terror, the international community may benefit from approaching the Islamic Republic as a potential stabilising force in the region.

Iran’s political and cultural characteristics. Despite the continued prominence of hardline politicians within the Islamic Republic, the political culture, economic outlook and social activities of Iranians are extensively oriented towards the West. This may strike many readers as a surprising contradiction, yet, as one analyst of Iranian issues notes, during the 20th century "Iranians ... always counted the West as their model of transformation and the most appropriate way of development and progress. As a sustainable variable in Iranian culture, there are certain observable preferences among the Iranian general public for elements of Western social and entertainment culture."6

Contrary to the unsympathetic attitude of Arab public opinion, the regime of President Mohammad Khatami could be regarded as one of the West’s friends in the region. Indeed, positive engagement with Tehran from the international community - especially the US - could reap significant rewards. Persian Iran’s ability to offer a counterweight to Arab Sunni extremism should not be discounted. Also, Iran’s revolution has had time to mature and grow – Tehran no longer seeks to export its revolution. As a result, Iran can serve as a moderating force within the Muslim world.

Iran’s role as a counterbalance to Sunni radicalism. As the homeland of Shi’a culture and religion, Iran plays an immense role within Islam. While Shi’a fundamentalism acted as a catalyst (commencing with the 1979 Islamic revolution) to the revival of Sunni radicalism in the 1980s and 1990s, it introduced fewer threats to global peace and security. As Shi’a radicalism has waned and Sunni radicalism has waxed over the past two decades, Iran could now play a valuable role in balancing extremism in the region.

With the reinforcement of Shi’a culture in Iraq after the fall from power of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in 2003, Shi’a factions can be measured as the prime factor moderating Sunni radicalism across the region. Almost all the Shi’a groups in Iraq regard Iran as their natural ally in their efforts to reinstate the primacy of the country’s Shi’a community. In this context, Iran has a significant role in moderating extremist movements.

Iran’s status in the war on terrorism

Bearing all of the above points in mind some crucial questions remain, including: what is Iran’s role in the war on terrorism? Is its role supportive? Most importantly, what are the reasons behind President Khatami’s policy on the war against terrorism?

Since the US established its new and direct presence in the region, most Middle Eastern regimes have stood in opposition to the Bush administration’s policy objectives. As an immediate result of the wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), the US continues to promote regime change in Iran and Syria. Unfriendly US conduct towards these two regimes has caused Washington to consider them as threats rather than potential allies in the war against terrorism. (Tehran and Damascus were included in President Bush’s so-called ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in 2002).

In the case of Iran, the international community’s pressure on several fronts, including Tehran’s nuclear programme, its human rights and its (negative) influence on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, undoubtedly reflect pivotal concerns held by other (predominantly Western) countries. For its part, the Islamic Republic has repeatedly professed its readiness to view all of its international issues through a different prism: the threat posed by the US.

Since its emergence in 1979 with the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomenei, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been regarded by most of the international community as a threat to global peace and security. US animosity can be seen in the context of the US embassy hostage crisis (1979-80); the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88); economic sanctions; and political and cultural isolation. After the events of 11 September and Iran’s subsequent inclusion in the ‘Axis of Evil’, threats and pressure on Iran have accelerated, with a considerable effect on Tehran’s regional policies.

Iran was one of the few Middle Eastern countries persistently to condemn the terrorist attacks of 11 September and consequently offer its comprehensive support to the global community. Such an attitude was exemplified during Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’, in which Iran exercised its influence on the Northern Alliance in its effort to remove the Taliban regime. Tehran subsequently halted its interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and has collaborated with international efforts to create a stable and powerful central government. Specifically, when Washington needed it most, Iran played a constructive role in formulating the Bonn Conference and moving towards the establishment of the interim government in Afghanistan. Iran’s rewards for these significant and appreciable efforts were threats from the US, embodied in the policy of regime change.

As many experts in Middle Eastern politics understand, the key principle for most regimes in the region is self-preservation. While the US is determined to advance its grand strategy of regime change, it is to be expected that the establishments in Tehran and Damascus will do their utmost to counter the US and its allies’ threats to their systems of government. No greater justification can be raised for these countries’ unsupportive approach to West-aligned elements of the international community.

As for the other pro-Western Arab regimes, their position has become complicated by the fact that, unlike in the past, they may not be able to put their faith in US support.7 This comprehensively opens up the divergence between stability and democratisation. As current events in Iraq show, any attempts to advance a policy of regime change will in the short term lead to more insecurity - and will ultimately result in the proliferation of terrorism.

The Iranian establishment views upholding its system of government as its most essential principle. The Islamic Republic is currently not looking to export its revolution; nor is it using the ideological approach to drive its regional policies, as was the policy in the heady days immediately after the 1979 revolution. Similar to any other political system, the core of the Iranian system protects itself through empowering those faithful to the system.

The existing situation in Iraq presents a new challenge for the Iranian establishment. From the perspective of Iran as the next possible target of the Bush administration, Tehran’s role in the war on terrorism has become one of a threat instead of a potential ally. Accordingly, as long as the US administration is determined to pursue its uncompromising policy towards Tehran, the Islamic Republic’s role in the war on terrorism will be unco-operative.

Despite Iran’s potential to play a helpful role, the international community has so far ignored its significance in the war on terrorism. As a country that has been pressured by the international community (the US in particular) for a long period, Iran justifies its policies in the Middle East as a response to enduring US threats to pursue regime change.

Consequently, the US is viewed in Tehran as a threat to the Islamic government and hence must be countered by every means. As a result, Iran’s supportive role in the war on terrorism has shifted into an all-out defensive reaction in order to resist US pressure.

This conduct has been interpreted in the West as being unsupportive of efforts to combat terrorist activities, rather than as a reflection of Tehran’s instinctive sense of self-preservation.

Realising that Iran could play a constructive role in the war against terrorism requires the global community to decide whether it can engage with the Islamic Republic as an equal. If so, the former’s first obligation is to understand that the Islamic Republic’s priority is its self-preservation. As such, any threat or pressure in order to weaken the Islamic government could make Iran’s role neutral or even unsupportive.

Dr Kayhan Barzegar is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Islamic Azad University, Science and Research Campus, Tehran, Iran


1 For further information see, Riaz Hassan, ‘Life as a Weapon’ in ISIM Newsletter No.14, (June 2004, pp8-9); and Sabine Damir-Geilsdore, ‘Martyrdom and Resistance in the Middle East’ in ibid., pp10-14.

2 See President George W. Bush’s speech at National Endowment for Democracy, at: news/releases/2003/11/20031106-2.html.

3 Kayhan Barzegar, ‘The Persian Gulf After the Post-September 11 Era: Threats and Opportunity’ in Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly, Vol.4, No.19, (Summer 2002, p22).

4 The word jihad literally means ‘striving’ or ‘struggle’. It has been used to refer to a holy war and also commonly been used to refer to war against an aggressor.

5 See Noam Chomsky, ‘Doctrines and Visions: Who is to Run the World and How’, Olaf Palme Lecture, Oxford, 20 May, 2004.

6 Mahmood Sariolghalam, ‘The Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran: A Theoretical Renewal and a Paradigm of Coalition’ in Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly, Vol.3, No.3 (Winter 2002, pp73-74).

7 For further information, see Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler, ‘Bush Aims for Greater Mideast Plan’, The Washington Quarterly, 9 February 2004.

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