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The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of Soviet economic and military aid to its allies in West Asia changed the dynamics of the region with regard to the foreign policies of the states in the region, and Iran was no exception. Rafsanjani realised that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran could not depend on the presence of the Soviets to restrain the Americans in the region. America and its allies in the region were free from the constraints placed on them by the Soviet Union’s countervailing power.
President Rafsanjani, ever the pragmatist, decided to be more open-minded and measured in Iran’s dealings with other countries, both in the region and globally. The revolutionary zeal and fervour that characterised the foreign policy of Iran under Khomeini was jettisoned in favour of one of pragmatism in its dealings with other states, especially in the Persian Gulf. Under Rafsanjani, Iranian foreign policy was far less focused on overthrowing the pro-Western governments of the Gulf and instead stressed cordial relations with them. Rafsanjani realised that, as a result of the Iran-Iraq war and the massive economic, social, political and military damage that Iran had suffered, it simply could not afford to continue pursuing a policy of confrontation. Iran had to adjust to the new geo-political realities.[1]
This chapter focuses on Iran’s relations with various important countries within West Asia as well as the United States and how Iran has managed to tailor its foreign policy in accordance with the changed circumstances from the end of the Cold War to the present day, as well as changing its image from one of a radical, belligerent state bent on exporting its revolution as a means of achieving its goals under the guise of religion, to that of a responsible regional actor. However, it must be pointed out that, despite the pragmatism of Rafsanjani, there were certain areas where Iranian policy did not change, for example, in its support for the Palestinians and its opposition to the existence of Israel, as well as the refusal to lift the Fatwa on Salman Rushdie.[2]
Rafsanjani had to be careful not to antagonise the hardliners within the Iranian establishment that he was not selling out on principles of the revolution. He thus had to engage in a delicate balancing act of being more open-minded and moderate but at the same time not aggravating the hardliners and undermining his own position within the Iranian establishment.
Relations with America
After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, America emerged as the most powerful and influential player in the region. The era of the Pax Americana had begun. But it met its first challenge in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Iran was careful to join the rest of the international community in denouncing the invasion of Kuwait and supporting the UN sanctions against Iraq. While Iran did not militarily oppose the U.S.-led coalition, it nonetheless held military exercises in the Gulf to demonstrate its readiness.
The rapid and devastating defeat of Iraq at the hands of the Allies demonstrated America’s military prowess to the world, and this was duly noted by the Iranians. As a result of the Gulf War, America was the unchallenged military power in the region. America took on itself the role of regional policeman. Thus the Americans, encouraged by their triumph, decided to pursue a policy of Dual Containment with regard to both Iran and Iraq. Iran was singled out due to its support of terrorist groups and its opposition to the existence of Israel.[3] And many in the U.S. viewed Iran with suspicion, the pragmatism of Rafsanjani notwithstanding. They felt that Iran was not serious and this was just a ploy to deceive the region and the world. As far as America was concerned, the fundamental goals of Iran’s foreign policy had not changed.
Dual Containment meant that America would try to squeeze Iran financially and economically. The election of President Bill Clinton raised hopes of a lessening tension between the two countries. However, the hawkish line against Iran was further strengthened after the 1994 Congressional elections in America that brought the Republican Party in control of Congress. The U.S. cited Iran’s support of terrorist groups as well as its missile and nuclear programmes as enough justification to maintain a tough line on Iran. Thus, overall the atmosphere between the two countries remained tense during Rafsanjani’s presidency. This was manifested in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1995 which forbade American companies from doing business with Iran and even punished non-American companies who did business with Iran.[4]
Relations between the two countries began to thaw slightly after the election of Mohammad Khatami as President in 1997. Khatami’s election marked the most significant turning point in Iran’s relations with the outside world since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Khatami specifically rejected the “clash of civilisations” theory of Samuel Huntington; instead he called for a “dialogue of civilisations”. In a 1998 interview to CNN, he praised the American people and compared both the American and Iranian struggles, claiming that they were similar in their quest for human dignity and freedom.[5]
Similarly, President Bill Clinton praised Iran’s culture and heritage in a televised address, and Madeleine Albright, the then Secretary of State, acknowledged America’s role in the coup that overthrew Mossadeq. There were also informal talks between members of the U.S. Congress and the Iranian Majlis (parliament). The election of Khatami was a reflection of the growing desire within Iran, especially among the youth, to end Iran’s isolation diplomatically. And while the hardliners were loath to accept it, the rabid anti-Americanism that marked the attitude of Iranians after the revolution was absent among the youth. Also, American and Western popular culture such as music, movies and clothes were very popular among the young.
However, the hardliners were determined to limit Khatami’s room for manoeuvre with regard to relations with the U.S. due to their own hostility as well as American support for Israel and American demands for Iran to halt its missile and nuclear programmes. Indeed, on these issues the hardliners held sway as well as having control of the Revolutionary Guard. Thus Khatami was effectively blocked. Furthermore, even within the U.S., especially within the Republican-controlled Congress, there was still deep suspicion of Iran: it was felt that Iran was not sincere in its moves to improve its international image. Opposition to Israel as well as Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes were also major obstacles to better relations.
Thus, both Khatami and Clinton were hindered in their attempts to break the mutual suspicion and mistrust between the two nations. After the election of President George W Bush, there was hope that since Bush had been the Governor of Texas, an oil-rich state, both sides could further improve ties. A series of events would make both countries further cooperate. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by Al Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan and ruled by the Taliban, made both countries cooperate. The Taliban was Sunni and backed by Pakistan. Iran, which is predominantly Shia, had always opposed the Taliban and nearly went to war with it in late July 1998 after ten Iranian diplomats and an interpreter were killed.[6]
Hence, two weeks before military operations against the Taliban began, Jack Straw, the then UK Foreign Secretary, visited Tehran and managed to secure agreement on a joint search and rescue of downed American aircrew, repatriation of American troops in Iran, as well and allowing Taliban and Al-Qaeda to enter Iran. But things turned sour when CIA director George Tenet reported that Iran was allowing Al Qaeda members to escape through Iran to countries like Yemen and that the Revolutionary Guard was helping Al Qaeda. Yet, despite this Iran was praised for its constructive role in Afghanistan by Richard Haas, the then U.S. Special Coordinator for Afghanistan.[7]
Officials from both countries met at the UN regularly, but Iran denied that these meetings were a prelude for normalisation of relations as was speculated. These talks came to an abrupt end, however, when in May 2003 there were suicide bombings which were blamed on Iran. On January 29, 2002, President Bush declared Iran as being part of an “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq and North Korea. However, again both countries would cooperate over Iraq. As American attention turned towards Iraq, Iran again became important to American plans as Iran was home to a number of opposition groups which were opposed to Saddam Hussein, such as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Republic of Iraq (SCIRI). However, Saddam also courted Iran as Tehran adopted a position of “neutral but not indifferent” with regard to Iraq. While enmity towards Saddam Hussein was still strong, he was nonetheless weakened and there were fears inside Iran that the overthrow of Saddam would encourage America to also pursue regime change in Iran.[8] One bright spot was Iran accepting American aid unconditionally after the deadly earthquake in Bam.
In March 2003, America and the UK led an invasion of Iraq. Although Iran officially condemned it, it nonetheless secretly cooperated with the Americans. Iranian-backed militias were present in southern Iraq but did not take part in combat. However, just after the war, as attacks on American and Allied troops rose, America accused Iran - specifically the Revolutionary Guard - of arming and training militias to carry out attacks on Allied forces and helping them build sophisticated roadside bombs. And since the invasion, the U.S. has sent UAV’s over Iran to monitor its nuclear facilities and missile programmes.
Interestingly, just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Khatami sent a proposal - a so-called “grand bargain” - to the Americans, in which Iran would end its support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and suspend its nuclear programme in exchange for the dropping of sanctions and normalisation of ties. However, this was rejected by Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Defense Secretary, as well as Dick Cheney, the U.S. Vice President, who claimed that this was an exercise in futility as the hardliners would never approve of it. According to author Trita Parsi, the reason this overture failed was due to the resistance of Cheney and Rumsfeld.[9]
Soon after the invasion of Iraq, there were numerous allegations of imminent American attacks on Iran by people such as Scott Ritter, the former UN arms inspector, and Seymour Hersh, the American journalist. However, all these predictions have proved to be untrue. In August 2005, Phillip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, claimed that Cheney had secretly ordered that nuclear weapons be used against Iran’s suspected underground nuclear facilities in the event of war.[10] And on April 18, 2006, President Bush declared that “all options were on the table”. By then American special forces were already operating in Iran to gather intelligence on its nuclear and missile programmes.
Relations between the two nations worsened with the election of the new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on August 3, 2005. Unlike Khatami, Ahmadinejad pursued a hard-line policy against Israel, calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and denying the Holocaust ever took place.[11] He further stepped up Iran’s support for terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. Relations further deteriorated when, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Ahmadinejad compared Israel’s actions to that of Hitler, stating that, like Hitler, “the Zionist regime is just looking for a pretext for launching further military attacks”.[12] In 2007, US-Iran tensions heightened when American troops launched a raid on the Iranian consulate in Erbil, Iraq, on suspicion that Iranian diplomats were supporting insurgent activities. In September 2007, prior to addressing the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad gave a speech in Columbia University in New York. After the speech he was condemned for his stance on Israel and repression of homosexuals in Iran. In April 2008 he stated that the September 11 attacks were “highly suspect” and said that these attacks were used as a pretext to attack Afghanistan and Iraq.[13] He also welcomed the global economic crisis, stating that it was the beginning of the end of American hegemony and imperialism. Thus the period from  2003-08 saw a shift  in Iran’s US policy from partly neutral to overtly hostile. All these events happened in the backdrop of the 2008 American Presidential elections, during the Bush Administration.
During his electoral campaign, then Democrat Presidential candidate Barack Obama said that he would open negotiations with Iran without preconditions. This stance drew fierce criticism from his Republican rival, John McCain, who said that such a policy position was tantamount to appeasement. With the election of Obama as President, Ahmadinejad sent a message of congratulations to Obama. In his message he called for changes to U.S. policy.[14] Obama, mindful of the criticism he received during the election campaign, did not respond.
However, on March 19, 2009 during the beginning of the holy festival of Nowruz, Obama made an overture to the Iranian people declaring that America wanted Iran to take its place in the international community but that it came with real responsibilities. Iran first had to give up support for terrorism and scrap its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. This address was seen as an attempt by Obama to drive a wedge between the hardliners represented by Ahmadinejad and the moderates in the country, especially the youth.[15]
The release by Iran in April 2009 of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who had been convicted and sentenced to an 8-year jail sentence on the charge of spying, was a further conciliatory gesture by the Iranians. And in July 2009 five Iranian diplomats who were detained in Iraq were freed by the Americans.[16]Ahmadinejad was reelected with 66% of total votes cast[17] during the Presidential elections in June 2009.[18] The opposition led by Mir Hussein Musavi alleged widespread voter fraud and intimidation.
As a result, there were widespread anti-Ahmadinejad protests. These protests were brutally suppressed by the Basij militia who support the hardliners. Ahmadinejad had the support of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Obama praised what he described as a “robust debate” taking place in Iran. But as the crackdown grew increasingly more brutal, Obama was criticised for not taking a tougher stance against  the hardliners. In his defence, Obama claimed that to have done so would seem as if the protests were the work of America and would lead to further violence against the protesters. As things turned out, however, the blame for the violence was directed against Britain and not America. Obama then expressed deep concern about the violence against the protesters but also stated in an interview to the New York Times that there was no significant difference between Ahmadinejad and Musavi. Thus, Obama’s initial caution in condemning the violence was considered as being too soft on the regime and his policy of engagement with Iran at present seems unclear in the wake of the violence, appearing as if Ahmadinejad’s hardline policies had succeeded.[19] There are two opposing viewpoints about his ambivalent policy towards Iran: the first is that to continue engaging with Iran would be to undermine the U.S. commitment to human rights and democracy and would in effect embolden the Iranian hardliners, while the other viewpoint argues that engagement is the only viable option available to make Iran end its support for terrorism and to give up its missile and nuclear programmes.[20]  Iranian officials like the Foreign Minister have also called upon the US to change its policy towards Iran as a condition to engagement.
A further bone of contention was the arrest and detention of three American hikers on July 31, 2009 as they accidentally crossed into Iran while hitchhiking in the Kurdish areas in Northern Iraq. This further increased tensions between the two countries.
Iran-Iraq Relations
Iran’s relations with Iraq in the post-Cold War years were highly contradictory. On the one hand there was still mutual suspicion and mistrust as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, and yet there was a great deal of cooperation as well. Relations underwent a sea change after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait when Saddam Hussein re-established diplomatic relations with Iran. Saddam did this to offset the growing international alliance being arrayed against him by the Americans and to ensure that Iran would not in any way try to take advantage of the situation by trying to reclaim the Shatt al-Arab waterway.[21]
Iran’s relationship with the other Gulf monarchies was favourably affected as a result of the invasion of Kuwait. Until then, the Gulf Arab monarchies had steadfastly supported Iraq due to fear of the radicalism and anti-Western rhetoric of Iran, and a fear that Iran wanted to use Islam as nothing more than an excuse to achieve its geo-political aims in the region by overthrowing pro-American governments and becoming the de facto leader of the Persian Gulf, thus allowing it full control of the energy supplies that passed through it.
There was a definite feeling of “I told you so” by the Iranians following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - it was proof, if any was needed, of Saddam’s expansionist tendencies. Iran was warmly welcomed by the GCC summit in Doha, Qatar in December 1990.[22]This marked the beginning of the reconciliation between the Arab Gulf states and Iran. It was also a victory for the pragmatism of Rafsanjani. During the war, Iran got a boost to its Air Force when, in order to escape the Allied aerial bombardment, several Iraqi war planes escaped to Iran. The Iranians released the pilots but kept the airplanes as war reparations. While both countries re-established relations, there was still mutual hostility and suspicion. Both countries still disagreed on control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway and memories of the war between the two countries and the massive destruction were still fresh. Iran could not forget the huge loss of life it had suffered or the effects of the war which still badly affected it.
Another major sticking point between the two countries was the existence of opposition groups in both countries which sought to overthrow the governments of the other. Iran provided shelter and aid to opposition groups such as the SCIRI and the Jaish i Mahdi, as well as the Islamic Al-Dawa party, while Iraq provided support to the Mujahedin e-Khalq.[23] There was a series of tit-for-tat cross-border raids. Both countries, however, had a common goal in their opposition to American military presence in the region. While Iran had supported UN sanctions on Iraq due to its invasion of Kuwait, it became increasingly critical of the humanitarian cost of the sanctions regime and the presence of 600,000 Iraqi refugees who escaped to Iran as a result of economic hardship as well Saddam’s anti-Shia repression. Iran also helped Iraq to circumvent the sanctions regime by allowing oil smuggling through its territorial waters, allowing Iraq to earn currency outside the UN Oil For Food programme.[24]
Abdul Ghafour Younus, the then chairman of the Iraqi Chambers of Commerce, stated that only through coordinated action by both countries could American embargo efforts be neutralised. This atmosphere of simultaneous distrust and cooperation continued until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the Americans in March 2003. Iran while still being an enemy of Saddam was wary of American intentions and the possibility of itself falling victim to regime change as part of American efforts at democratisation. Iran was also concerned about a new government in Baghdad that was pro-American and hostile towards Iran. Iran continued to be courted by Saddam. Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy Prime Minister, welcomed what he described as Iran’s “positive neutrality”.[25]
However in the end Iran, while publicly denouncing military action against Iraq, covertly supported it by keeping a tight leash on militias supported by Iran and by using its extensive intelligence and political contacts to aid the American-led coalition.[26] Iran viewed the invasion as an opportunity to finally extend its control over Iraq, especially the oil-rich South, the most important prize being the port city of Basra. One of the most visible aspects of Iranian interest and influence in Iraq was the role played in the post- invasion chaos and disorder. Militias such as the Mahdi army and the Badr brigades flexed their muscles, filling up the vacuum that came about with the rapid collapse of the Iraqi army and security forces as well the policy of de-Baathification that was meant to purge the Iraqi army and civil service of the Baathist remnants of the old regime but which led to widespread chaos and disorder. As a result, from the slums of Baghdad to southern Iraq, militias stepped into the breach exacting vigilante justice on looters and criminals. The Americans, mindful of the numerical and political power of the Shias, tried desperately to cultivate them. 13 of the 25 members of the newly-formed Iraqi Governing Council were Shia. Nonetheless, American policy-makers were still unnerved by the influence of Iran in Iraq. In 2003, a U.S. State Department report accused Iran of fomenting anti-Coalition sentiment and engaging in activities that were undermining the Coalition. The then Iraqi Defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, accused Iran of supporting terrorism in Iraq.[27]
Sunni suspicion of Iran was also widespread with the then Iraqi interim Vice-President Ghazi al Yawar, who belonged to the Sunni minority, also accusing the Iranians of supporting Shia political parties with the aim of bringing about a pro-Iranian regime. Unease was also widespread in the region. King Abdullah of Jordan accused Iran of creating a Shia Crescent which would stretch from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.[28] The various Shia parties in Iraq came under the umbrella of the United Islamic Alliance. This was seen by the Sunnis as little more than an organisation who were stooges of the Iranians. Another disturbing development for the Sunnis was the explosion of sectarian killings of Sunnis by Shia militias which threatened to plunge Iraq into civil war.
As violence against American and Coalition forces increased, the Americans blamed Iran, specifically the Revolutionary Guard, of arming, financing, and training militias to attack Coalition forces. The Mahdi army led by Moqtada al Sadr, which was and is supported by Iran, fought pitched battles with American and Coalition forces. After the legislative elections of January 2005, Ibrahim al-Jaafari became the Prime Minister. A member of the Dawa party supported by Iran, he was seen as a stooge of the Iranians by both the Sunnis and the Americans. He won the Iraqi national elections by one vote in December 2005, but failed to deal with the sectarian violence that was sweeping Iraq and which was seen as being encouraged by Iran. He was succeeded by Nouri al-Maliki who was also a member of the Dawa party but who was considered more independent of Iran.
Iran through its ties with political and clerical figures, has tried its utmost to influence developments in Iraq to its liking. However, limitations have emerged especially with the re-emergence of Iraqi nationalism which manifests itself in an Arab-Persian divide and an increasing suspicion of Iran, which is seen as wanting to turn Iraq into a client state. And while officials from Iraq regularly travel to Iran they have to keep in mind Iraqi nationalist sentiment. A case in point was Maliki praising Iran’s “constructive role” on the one hand but still taking a hard line against Iranian-backed militias such as the defeat of the Mahdi army during operation Charge of the Knights in Basra in March 2008.[29] Another obstacle for Iranian plans is theological. Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani,  champions the quietist school of Iraqi Shia Islam which stresses  negotiation rather than confrontation, as well as keeping aloof from politics. This is counter to the theological beliefs in Iran which emphasise radical and direct action. The Qom seminary has been hitherto the most powerful voice within Shia Islam but, with the rise of the Najaf school in Iraq and the quietist line of non-intervention in politics, it is likely this could place a further obstacle for Iranian plans to influence and control post-Saddam Iraq.[30]
Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations
The event that provided the impetus for improved ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Up until then, mutual hostility and suspicion marked relations between both nations. Despite the interest shown by President Rafsanjani in improving relations, the Saudis were suspicious of Iran due to Iran’s radical foreign policy that sought to overthrow the House of Saud and tried to incite the Shia minority of Saudi Arabia to rebel against the Sunni monarchy. Iran, for its part, could not forget the money that was given to Iraq by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states that financed Saddam’s war, and the strong Saudi-American alliance.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait completely changed the relationship balance in the region. The Saudis, along with the rest of the region, were shocked by Saddam’s blatant invasion of a fellow-Arab state and thus decided to recalibrate their relationship with Iran accordingly. The Saudis welcomed Iran’s demand for an immediate Iraqi withdrawal as well as Iran’s neutrality in the conflict, and the fact that it did not in any way hinder Allied military operations earned Iran the respect of the Saudis and the region as a whole.
Yet, despite the thaw, there were still sticking points especially with regard to Iran’s support for radical terrorist groups as well as its opposition to the Arab-Israel peace process. However, Iran was far less vocal in its support of extremism and had scaled back its support of terrorist outfits like Hamas in the Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But there were two events that marred relations between both countries. In 1994, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the Saudis decided to restrict the number of Iranian pilgrims to its quota of 55,000.[31] This was strongly criticised by Tehran especially by the hardliners such as the supreme leader Khamenei, referring to the Saudis as “pseudo theologians affiliated and in the pay of governments-made-of-straw”.
The other main event was the bombing of the Khobar Towers, the American military barracks in Dahran. The Saudi investigation concluded that the mastermind of the bombing, Ahmad Mughassil, a Saudi Shia, was trained by the Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon. After the bombing, Mughassil fled to Iran with a handful of followers. The Saudis then confronted the Iranians who denied that Mughassil was even in Iran. The Saudis informed the Americans who were reluctant to take action against Iran for fear of undermining the moderates. It is reasonable to conclude that the attack was masterminded by the hardliners to undermine Rafsanjani and thus weaken the reformers.[32]
A curious aspect of the relationship between the two countries is religion, which both provokes tensions but also acts as a moderating factor. Saudi Arabia is mainly Sunni and home to the Wahabi ideology, while Iran is mainly Shia. The Wahabis consider the Shias as being apostates who are not true Muslims and have carried out attacks against them. Iran is the most powerful Shia state and is ideologically opposed to the Saudi royal family and yet despite this the clerics in Qom in Iran encourage the Iranian government to maintain good relations due to the Saudi custodianship of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the fact that old people have to go on the Hajj pilgrimage before they die.
Relations took a turn for the better when President Khatami was elected in 1997. Indeed it would be accurate to say that relations between the two countries were at their best at any time since the revolution. In the same year, Khatami visited Saudi Arabia and held discussions with Saudi officials. Khatami sought Saudi help in removing diplomatic and trade barriers as well as help in trying to break out of its isolation and influence OPEC with regard to fixing the price of oil. Relations then took off. While Saudi Arabia supported the UAE on the issue of the disputed Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbsislands, the Saudis were not very vocal on the issue, and over the Khobar tower bombing they did not press the issue with Iran.
Saudi Arabia made concessions on cultural and religious issues. Iran was allowed to increase its Hajj pilgrimage quota from 145,000 to 245,000 and there was better coordination between both countries to keep friction at a minimum. Iraq was another issue where both countries saw eye-to-eye due to the threat that Saddam posed. There was no resistance from the hardliners in Tehran on closer ties with the Saudis, as it would help Iran break out of its isolation.
Despite the overthrow of the Taliban, which was recognised by Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan, and the invasion of Iraq, relations between the two countries remained cordial. That all changed with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President. Ahmadinejad, while still seeking good relations with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, also ramped up criticism of Israel,[33] denying its right to exist, reiterating opposition to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and making it clear that Iran would not compromise on its nuclear programme. He claimed it was Iran’s inalienable right to develop “peaceful” nuclear energy. Saudi Arabia has made it clear it will not sit passively in the event of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Iranian explanation of uranium enrichment for “peaceful” uses does not find any takers amongst the Saudis.[34] When Israel attacked Lebanon, Iran and Syria were outspoken in their support of Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia and Egypt secretly were hoping for the defeat of Hezbollah, seeing it as a blow for Iran’s regional designs. However, the war only raised Hezbollah’s profile and Israel was forced to withdraw. The lack of Israeli success only served to strengthen Iran’s reputation as a champion of the Islamic world against Israel and the west. In 2007, Ahmadinejad made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. He was also invited to a meeting with King Fahd, a development which attracted much attention but which did not lead to any diplomatic breakthrough. Since Ahmadinejad became President, relations between both the countries have become more strained. While there are full diplomatic and economic relations and official declarations of cooperation, the regional rivalry between the countries has intensified, especially over Iraq where the Saudis and the other Arab states are wary of Iran’s influence among Iraq’s Shia majority.
The differences between both nations emerged in December 2008 during the Israeli assault on the Gaza strip which is controlled by Hamas, with Iran trying to show itself as the champion of the Palestinians. With the re-election of Ahmadinejad, it is reasonable to expect relations between both nations to remain tense and unpredictable, especially given Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes.[35]
Iran-Russia Relations
Russia is one of Iran’s staunchest allies both in terms of  diplomatic support when it comes to resisting Western, specifically American, efforts at isolating Iran as well as selling sophisticated arms to Iran. Russia also views Iran as a convenient tool to be used against the Americans, bearing in mind the fact that dealing with Iran is a major strategic headache for Washington. Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has vetoed resolutions meant to punish Iran for its ballistic missile as well as its nuclear programmes. Russia has always insisted that Iran has the right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.[36]
Both Russia and Iran share a common goal of achieving a multi-polar world, thus ending American hegemony, and as such see a close relationship as a means of achieving this. Indeed, closer ties with Iran are part of Russia’s new more assertive foreign policy under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. At the heart of this policy is that, since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s security interests and opinions have been ignored and neglected by the West, specifically the Americans, and as such Russia should be more assertive and forceful in advancing its interests in both its immediate neighbourhood as well as worldwide. Russia and Iran share a long border, causing Russia to be worried about the fallout of any conflict concerning Iran.[37]
The warm relations between the two countries preceded the collapse of the USSR. Iran had sought Russian assistance in establishing the nuclear reactor in Busherh in 1988. A major complication in Soviet-Iranian relations was the Iran-Iraq war and Soviet support for Iraq, especially with regard to arms. After the war, Iran was exhausted and crippled as well as isolated and was in desperate need of friends, and naturally turned to Russia which, despite the end of the Cold War, met and acceded to Iran’s desire to buy new arms for its military and to break out of its isolation. As a result of both the war with Iraq and the 1991Gulf War, Iran possessed a large amount of Russian weaponry, especially tanks and planes. Russia agreed to supply Iran with spare parts for these weapons.[38]
Another major factor was Iran’s neutrality during the Russian invasion of Chechnya, despite the plight of the Muslim Chechens at the hands of the Christian Russians. This was welcomed in Moscow and contrasted strongly with Iran’s opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Another conflict in which Iran’s neutrality was welcomed by Russia was the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This was part of President Rafsanjani’s pragmatic foreign policy. The hardliners in Tehran were not opposed to closer relations with Russia as it would reduce Iran’s international isolation.
Under President Khatami, the relationship between the two countries only further strengthened. Both countries were opposed to the Taliban in Afghanistan and feared that the Taliban, which was supported by Pakistan, would destabilise Central Asia by exporting its hard-line extremist ideology. The first major arms sale from Russia to Iran was the sale of Kilo-class diesel electric submarines, as well as T-72 tanks and artillery howitzers in 1994.[39]
Arms sales are arguably the most important aspect of the relationship between the two countries. Arms sales from Russia prove that Iran can still acquire sophisticated weapons despite international sanctions imposed on it, and Russia is able to show the international community that it can still assert itself and can pursue an independent foreign policy despite pressure from the West, especially America. Furthermore, Russia links arms sales to Iran to the eastward expansion of NATO. Russia feels that this expansion is part of an American strategy of encircling Russia. Thus Russia uses the issue of arms sales as a means of leverage as well as gaining influence over Iranian policy. Over the issue of the Caspian Sea, both countries have decided to cooperate in jointly developing the oil and gas resources of this area.
Israel is another country which strongly objects to Russian arms sales, specifically the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft system which Iran greatly covets in order to place it at sensitive military and nuclear installations. It is widely feared that, in the event of these missiles being delivered, Israel might launch an attack. Russia has stated that it would object to any attack. Russia, while emphasising that Iran must cooperate with the IAEA, also shares a common border with Iran and fears the humanitarian fallout of any attack on Iran and the resulting impact on what is already the most unstable region in the world. Russia also is mindful of the lucrative commercial opportunities in Iran with regard to infrastructure such as roads, railways, and telecommunications.
After the Iranian presidential elections in 2009, Russia was one of the first countries to publicly congratulate President Ahmadinejad, under whose leadership Iran has moved closer to Russia.[40]  The future of the relationship between the two countries looks promising. Russia has taken the calculated risk of deepening its ties with Iran at the risk of offending the West due to its desire, shared with Iran, of building a more multi-polar world. It also fears what a more reformist government in Tehran might do to the relationship, especially if it becomes more pro-Western. It is also mindful of the lucrative arms trade between both countries.
Iran-India Relations
India has emerged since the end of the Cold War as a major strategic partner allowing Iran to further resist Western, especially American, attempts to isolate it. During the reign of the Shah, relations were strained due to the latter’s support for Pakistan; however, since the end of the Cold War, relations between the two nations have been strengthened in all areas, especially in the strategic field. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of America as the sole superpower, the World had to deal with a unilateral international scene whereby America dictated how the policies of other countries should be formulated in a manner that was advantageous to the Americans. The changed international scene forced India and Iran to recalibrate their respective foreign policies.
India embraced economic liberalisation and closer ties with countries like America and Israel, while Iran under the leadership of President Rafsanjani pursued a more pragmatic foreign policy of engagement with Iran’s neighbours and the wider international community. India was accorded special attention as the two nations shared common interests. Iran realised that there was considerable sympathy for it in India amongst the Muslim community and among Indian Left Wing parties, and has cultivated this sympathy to great effect. Iran also recognises India’s growing importance on the world stage and its rise along with China as the two Asian giants.
Another area of common interest between the two countries is the opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan supported the Taliban as part of its efforts to gain “strategic depth” vis-a-vis India, but this threatened the interests of both India and Iran, especially in Central Asia. Thus, Iran has always placed a special emphasis on India as part of the pragmatic foreign policy initiated by President Rafsanjani and continued by President Khatami, who was the Chief Guest during the Indian Republic Day celebrations in 2003.[41]Iran frequently vetoed Pakistani attempts to move anti-Indian resolutions in the Organisation of Islamic Conference and India in turn welcomed Iran’s inclusion in SAARC as an observer state. In 2001, the India-Iran strategic dialogue was launched by government officials on both sides.[42]
Iran has seen to it that sensitive issues like Kashmir or Hindu-Muslim tensions within India do not hinder the relationship in any way. Both nations have an interest in curbing Pakistani influence not only in Afghanistan but more widely in Central Asia. Furthermore, Iran wants Indian help in modernising its armed forces and closer military cooperation between the militaries of both countries through joint military manoeuvres. Iran is also keen to use Indian expertise to upgrade its Russian-origin military hardware like warplanes, tanks, surface-to-air missiles, and submarines. India is also helping Iran upgrade its naval base in Chah Bahar. There is also the ambitious project to build a gas pipeline that would send gas from Iran to India via Pakistan, thus improving relations between all the concerned parties and promoting closer economic ties.[43]
Another factor working in India’s favour is its rise on the world stage, which means that it cannot be ignored and that all parties try to respect India’s stand and its attempts to find compromises between all the concerned countries. It is recognised that India is too important and powerful a power to be pushed around or taken for granted. Iran for its part realises that by maintaining good relations with India it is not only successfully resisting Western, especially American, pressure to isolate it but also showing the Iranian public that it can win powerful friends on the world stage. Thus, improved relations is a winning proposition for both nations.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Iran had to deal with a unipolar world order in which America was dominant. Iran under President Rafsanjani realised that as a result of the Iran-Iraq war and Ayotollah Khomeini’s confrontational foreign policy Iran was weakened  and isolated and had to adapt to the new geo-political realities. To this end both President Rafsanjani and his successor President Khatami  pursued a pragmatic foreign policy which was aimed at  improving Iran’s ties with its  Arab neighbours as well as with countries like Russia, China, India, and the European countries as a means of stopping American efforts to contain Iran. Both Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami undertook visits to Iran’s Arab neighbours to improve ties. President Khatami championed a “dialogue of civilisations” which aimed to promote understanding between the Islamic World and the West.
Enmity remained between Iran on the one hand and Israel and America on the other, but relations with other major powers improved, with Russia, China, India, Arabs and Europeans eager to improve ties with Iran.  However, this ran into opposition from America and Israel who saw this cooperation as further strengthening Iran, and they insisted that Iran had to curb its support for terrorism and also curtail its nuclear and missile programmes while also pointing out Iran’s opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Iran, however, through a combination of deft diplomacy and  using the opportunities made available to it through the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the 2008 Israeli assault on the West Bank strengthened its strategic position and influence in both West and Central Asia.
With relations with the Arab and European states having become more tense since the election of President Ahmadinejad, Iran can count on very strong support from Russia which is  a permanent member the United Nations Security Council. Russia also is helping Iran build a nuclear reactor in Bushehr and sells large quantities of arms to Iran. The two nations also want a multi-polar world where the influence of America is diminished. Relations with the Arab states had improved under both President Rafsanjani, who had opposed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, thereby winning Iran newfound respect from the international community, and President Khatami who followed this policy.  However, since the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005 and his subsequent re-election in 2009, relations have become strained due to his unwavering support for Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes and his fiery opposition towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Iran’s relations with India which were strained under the Shah have also been greatly improved with both countries having similar interests in Afghanistan which was ruled by the Taliban who were supported by Pakistan and Central Asia, as well as improving their defence ties.  Iran is using India’s help to upgrade its Russian-origin weapons as well as cultivating the support for Iran amongst India’s large Muslim minority and among India’s Left Wing, thus weakening American efforts to isolate Iran by showing the Iranian public that Iran can still have powerful and influential friends. India and Iran have not allowed sensitive issues like Kashmir to overshadow relations between them. Relations between the two countries look set to grow even stronger.
End Notes

[1]Chubin, Shahram. “The Islamic Republic at Twenty Five: Adaptation and Evolution”, Iran Today: Twenty Five Years After the Islamic Revolution, ed. M Hamid Ansari, New Delhi: ORF-Rupa Publication, 2005. pp 234-237.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Conly, Barbara. “America’s Misguided Policy of Dual Containment in the Persian Gulf”, CATO Institute, Foreign Policy Briefing No. 33, November 10, 1994.

[4] Katzman, Kenneth. “The Iran Sanctions Act”, Congressional Research Service, October 12, 2007, pp 1-2.

[5]  Transcript of interview with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami: CNN, July 7, 1998.

[6] Dietl, Gulshan. “Iran and American Wars on its Flanks”, Iran Today: Twenty Five Years After the Islamic Revolution, ed. M Hamid Ansari, New Delhi: ORF-Rupa Publication, 2005. p 253.

[7] Ibid. p 253.

[8] Ibid. p 257.

[9] Parsi Trita.  Treacherous Alliance: The secret dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. pp 243-245.

[10]Giraldi, Phillip. “Deep Background”, The American Conservative Magazine, August 1 2005.

[11]  Fathi,Nazia, “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’, Iranian says”, New York Times, October 27, 2005.

[12]  “Ahmadinejad compares Israel to Hitler”, India eNews, July 16, 2006.

[13]  “Ahmadinejad: 9/11 ‘suspect event’”, BBC News, April 16, 2008.

[14] “Iran urges Obama to change U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East”, Haaretz, January 21, 2009,

[15] Djang, Jason. “A New Year, a New Beginning”, White, March 19 2009.

[16]  Sly, Liz, and Parker, Ned. “US frees 5 Iranian diplomats held since 2007”, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2009.


[18]  “U.S. values ‘free and fair’ election in Iran”, Press TV, June 20, 2009.

[19] Roff, Peter. “Iran election is Obama’s first foreign policy test - and he’s failing”, U.S. News and World Report, June 15, 2009.

[20]  “Iran’s foreign minister slams U.S. foreign policy”, AP, May 30, 2008.

[21] Op.cit. Dietl,Gulshan, p 250.

[22] Ibid. p 251.

[23]Fletcher, Holly. “Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (aka People’s Mujahedin of Iran or PMOI)”, Council on Foreign Relations, April 18, 2008.

[24] Wright, Robin. “Iran opens key isle to Iraqi oil smugglers, US says”, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2000.

[25]  Op.cit. Dietl,Gulshan, p 256.

[26]  Ibid. p 259.

[27] Barzegar, Kayhan, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in Post-Invasion Iraq”, Middle East Policy, Volume XV, Issue 4, Winter 2008. pp50-52.

[28] Barzegar, Kayhan, “Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realities”, Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XV, Issue1. p1.

[29] “Operation Charge of the Knights continues progress in Basra”, Multi National Force Iraq, April 14, 2008.

[30]  Rahimi, Babak. “Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Democratization of post-Saddam Iraq”, Foreign Policy, January 18, 2006. pp 3-4.

[31]Al-Mani, Saleh.“The Ideological Dimension in Saudi-Iranian Relations”, Iran and the Gulf - A Search for Stability, ed. Jamal S Al-Suwaidi (London: I B Tauris, 1997. p 167.

[32] Federal Bureau of Investigation press release, June 21, 2001.

[33]  “Ahmadinejad: Israel to be ‘swept away soon’”, Earth Times, May 13, 2008.,ahmadinejad-israel-to-be-swept-away-soon.html.

[34]“Mottaki Reiterates Peaceful Nature of Iran's N. Program”.

[35]  Bharadkumar, M K. “Saudi-Iranian hostility hits boiling point”, Asia Times, October 21, 2009.

[36] Javedanfar, Meir. “Iranian foreign policy analysis: Implications of  Iran’s alliance with Russia” May 4, 2005.

[37]  Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Green, Jerrold D. “Iran’s Foreign Policy: Between Enmity and Conciliation”, Current History, Vol. 92, No. 570, January 1993.  p 15.

[40]Abdullaev,Nabi. “SCO endorses Ahmadinejad Victory”, St. Petersburg Times, June19, 2009.

[41]Fair, C Christine. “Indo-Iranian Ties thicker than oil”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 11, No. 1, March 2007.

[42]Ibid. Fair, Christine C.

[43] Ibid. Fair, Christine C.