by Arash Falasiri
When Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the head of Iran’s paramilitary force Basij, stated a few months ago that “We must shift the realm of battle from our region into their territory”, it was not considered a new or particularly alarming message for the Iranian public audience. He continued, “This is the only way the West can realize the extent of our power – we can then achieve a better situation with them; one that takes our interests into account as well” but the world was used to this empty rhetoric. Now, as the United States accuses Iran of the attempted assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, the world may need to consider Naghdi’s words as a new doctrine, suggesting a radical shift in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Basij, one of the five branches of the Revolutionary Guard, mostly manages interior issues – such as the brutal response and cruel suppression of the Iranian people during and since the last presidential election in June 2009 – however, it is a common gesture for different sectors of the Guard to convey “new messages.” Iran’s apparent plot to bomb Washington sits at odds with its official condemnation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, putting many experts in a state of confusion. Huge differences among their analyses during the last three days demonstrate this perplexity. The spectrum of analysis ranges from putting the whole allegation under question, to considering this attempt as the manifestation of an interior conflict between decision makers within Iran.
Although US officials always accuse Iran of acting against American interests in the region, Iran has never before tried to reveal its direct will against the US outside the Middle East. Bombing Washington is the most serious allegation against the Islamic regime in the three decades since the Iranian Revolution. The Islamic state, however, as always, denies this allegation. What I will offer here is a decoding of Iran’s “new message” – to the West, generally, and to the US, particularly – through the lens of the larger picture: the effects of the “Arab Spring” on Iran’s position in the region.
In order to get sense out of this picture, we shall consider two main arguments offered by experts on this matter. The most interesting one, perhaps, suggests that the Revolutionary Guard is moving towards its second phase of a coup d’état – the first being the fraudulent election of 2009 – which is the manipulation of all socio-political sectors in the country by locating Iran in a more military condition. In other words, there is no benefit for the theocratic state in embarking on serious military action against the US. However, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, by virtue of its own nature, will achieve a huge short-term benefit by raising this tension. Top generals in the Guard can easily force the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to a situation of absolute reliance on them, and thus expand their capacities to defend the system against both interior and exterior opponents. In this way they can achieve more room and spread their power to all other socio-economic sectors. Although this reading might offer a plausible theory of how Iran’s theocratic system is gradually moving towards a military state, where the Revolutionary Guard manipulates the whole system, it seems that what Iran has been accused with right now has more meaning, and more consequences, than merely interior interests. Also, since the 2009 election protests Iran is already moving along the militia path. Even the Supreme Leader now mandates that the Revolutionary Guard has the highest authority and absolute power to save the Islamic state.
One the other hand, some experts suggest that, although since the 1992 “Mykonos restaurant assassinations” Iran has seemingly abandoned the foreign policy tactic of assassinating its opponents in Europe, it does not mean that this country will never reanimate its previous plans. The strategy of terrorist attempts is always open to Iran as an effective, if costly way to achieve its interests.
My interpretation, however, requires us to decipher Iran’s plot in Washington with reference to the Arab uprisings. In the light of these events in the Middle East – specifically Syria, Iran’s most strategic ally –, it seems that the Islamic Republic is encountering a new and perhaps very serious threat to its own situation in the region. If one considers Iran’s official gestures since the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, Iran’s contradictory behavior draws notice. On the one hand, Iran welcomed the regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen as the end of old dictatorship regimes. On the other hand, Iran also demonstrated its absolute support for Bashar al-Assad’s state. It has been argued that, through al-Assad and Hezbollah, Iran imposes its will upon other countries in the region. That is one of the main reasons that Saudi Arabia encourages more international pressure on al-Assad’s situation, even urging the US to take its military procedure in Libya to Syria. Although Iran has many different conflicts with Saudi Arabia, it seems that Syria’s condition, as Iran’s Supreme Leader clearly states, is the issue on which no compromise will be tolerated. During the last two months some Iranian officials have admitted that if al-Assad’s regime collapses Iran will face a great number of crises in both interior and exterior spheres. There are many reports, both by Western governments and Human Rights NGOs, that Iran sends not only military equipment but riot forces to Syria. On the other side, although Saudi Arabia fortifies Syrian opposition, it simultaneously reinforces the dictatorships in Bahrain and Yemen. These maneuvers make it clear that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are highly anxious about the potential long-term consequences of the “Arab Spring” – that is, the toppling of their own authoritarian regimes. Therefore, what is taking place in the region is not just each country grappling separately with their own interior problems. Some regional powers – like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – follow their own interests within the unstable countries in the region. Syria, however, in Iran’s perspective, is a special case; the possibility of US and Saudi Arabian interference in Syria targets the Islamic Republic of Iran’s very existence.
To understand the reasons for the alleged assassination attempt, we must first reconsider Iran’s various attempts to convey a message to the US during the last three months. Firstly, last August, through Afghanistan’s leadership, Iran sent a message that it was ready to cooperate with NATO and US in Afghanistan. The second “message” came a few weeks later, when Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most influential religious and political figures in Iraq, who has always been hostile to both Western troops and the Iraqi government, announced that in order to establish a better country he has decided to assist the latter. It is crucial to remember that this figure is considered as one of Iran’s closest allies. He is believed to reside mainly in Qom, Iran, which is the most famous center for Shi’a studies in the world. The release of the American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal just before the last UN general summit in September was the Islamic state’s last attempt to demonstrate that the regime was prepared to come to some kind of consensus with the US to guarantee its existence. However, the US did not offer any guarantees, seeming to ignore Iran’s overtures.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing the most critical situation in the history of its existence. The great sense of the Iranian public’s dissatisfaction with the regime, and the combined pressures of the “Arab Spring” place the Iranian regime in an isolated and fragile position. Although the biggest threat to these regimes comes from the Syrian and Iranian people themselves, the Libyan case demonstrates that these regimes can resist change as long as no military interference by Western forces takes place.
Last month some of Turkey’s newspapers reported that when the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, met al-Assad to deliver a “strong message” against Syria’s crackdown on protests, al-Assad replied that if one missile struck Syrian territory the results would be disastrous for the whole region. The Iranian website Tabnak, which operates under the direction of the former leader of the Revolutionary Guard, claimed that al-Assad was referring to Iranian missiles, the targets of which are US interests and military resources based in the Middle East. Iran and Syria have articulated their vision of response to any direct interference; they both claim the whole region will “go up in flames.”
This is the first time that Iran has employed an official member of the Revolutionary Guard in an attack against the US and Saudi Arabia. The significance of this should not be underestimated. Following this event, the words of Naghdi, the head of Basij, should be taken into account more seriously. His words, and the Washington assassination attempt, show that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has already come to the conclusion that the US mean to interfere militarly in Syria and then Iran. They are sending a new, far more serious message to their opponents this time. Although there has always been tension between the US and Islamic Republic of Iran, it seems that the regime’s “new message” is this: they are prepared to move the battleground from the realm of empty rhetoric to that of direct conflict.