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Who Reaps the Whirlwind

With Mateusz M. Kłagisz on political unrest in Iran and rivalry for the title of the most important player in the region talks Robert Sendek.

Is Tehran “sowing chaos, death and destruction,” as Donald Trump claims? When justifying his decisions on, among other things, exiting by the USA the Iran nuclear deal and imposing new sanctions, the US President made serious accusations against this country.

This statement is very provocative, not only towards Iran, but also Barack Obama’s policies. Trump’s predecessor was one of the authors of the agreement reached between the USA and Iran back in 2015. The rhetoric of the current president results, to a large extent, from America’s experience with Tehran. In the narrative used by Trump, Iran is indeed the USA’s enemy number one, and vice versa. I always wonder, however, to what extent it is aimed at American citizens and to what it is reflected in actual international relations. Obviously, the USA and Iran don’t have any diplomatic relations, but whether they want it or not, the two countries must sometimes cooperate with each other, this way or another.

At the beginning of October, France announced that Iranian intelligence had been preparing an attack on Iranian opposition activists near Paris. Does it mean that representatives of other countries support the thesis on sowing chaos?

The target of an attack was to be the left-wing People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), considered a terrorist organization in Iran. Years ago, it had taken active part in the Islamic Revolution, but had never assumed power. The authorities started catching and arresting its members pretty quickly, and its leaders escaped to France.

Don’t the French accusations confirm Trump’s thesis?

We have to realize that every country wants to come out on top at the smallest possible cost. Iran is trying to fight for its good name in many different ways, not always compliant with the international standards we consider acceptable. Truth be told, Iran is not the only country doing that – we can mention, for example, the recent unexplained disappearance of a Saudi journalist who entered the premises of the Saudi consulate in Turkey. In spite of everything, I need to defend Iran a bit here, and say that the situation of this country is not easy. The typical, 19th-century type of colonialism might not longer be work, but there are various economic areas that are being seized. The Middle East has become new colonization territory for western countries. Iranians have not been able to settle many fundamental issues with Americans for several dozen years now, so they feel vulnerable. Look at what has been happening right outside their borders since 2001. What I have in mind is the US-NATO intervention in Afghanistan, and the American search for allies in Central Asia. What’s more, the neighboring Pakistan’s relations with the USA are very tight, while those with Tehran are far from perfect. On top of all that, Americans also came to Iraq and created their bases in the Persian Gulf states. It turns out that Iran is surrounded by forces that are not necessarily friendly.

Are you saying that Iran’s actions are justified because they feel threatened?

I am trying to defend them by asking who decides that some countries have the right to do something and others don’t. Opting in 1979 for the creation of the Islamic Republic, Iranians clearly showed the world they don’t want to follow either the western or the eastern model of state, but want to create their own one. This independence was to be manifested in various areas of social, economic and political life. Although Iranians obviously don’t exist in a void and on many levels are dependent on neighboring countries, Europe or the USA, they have somehow managed to follow this third path, to some extent. Many countries, including the USA, don’t like that.

Let’s move on to the sanctions. How can they affect the situation in Iran?

The very announcement of imposing sanctions resulted in serious economic perturbations. Truth be told, Iran has for a long time been dealing with problems arising from the fact that its economy is not entirely liberal, and, on top of that, badly managed.

American politicians close to Donald Trump have given some specific arguments for imposing sanctions. Rudolf Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, said that they are to cause an economic collapse in Iran, and then...

…and then Iranians will start their own internal revolution and transform their political system. This kind of thinking, in my opinion, shows that these people had not read basic American studies regarding Iran. What kind of political system do they think can replace the current one? If not an Islamic Republic, then what? Monarchy? Who would be the ruler? Maybe introducing democracy is a good idea? Ok, but the fact is that the Islamic Republic has some characteristics of a democratic system. True, not everyone can run in the elections, but every adult citizen has the right to vote. Iran has both conservative and more liberal political groups. I don’t think that putting the screws on Iran or imposing sanctions will result in the appearance of some movement that can propose something new.

Representatives of the European Union, on the other hand, are of the opinion that the sanctions are groundless. However, the EU has a problem with how to legally go around them. The sanctions hit mainly the banking system. Thus, in order to pay for the Iranian oil, one has to...

…carry the money in suitcases. Yes, that’s true.

The EU has already announced the creation of some system that will enable financial operations with Iran.

And this could be the answer to the question why Americans are using sanctions as their tool. Maybe it is a geopolitical game directed against countries that would like to withdraw from the dollar-based settlement system. Why can’t we settle transactions in, for example, yuans? They wouldn’t flow through American banks that make a profit on it. In Iran, transfer of money has always been a big problem, not only for companies, but also for common people. Many have tried to get around it in various ways, more or less successfully, but it has always been one of the restraints that made it impossible for many Polish companies to invest there. Lack of possibilities to enable free cash flow has for many years impeded the economic growth of Iran.

Several months ago, Donald Trump announced that the USA are withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Tehran. How can this decision affect the internal situation in Iran?

The agreement signed in 2015 was regarded in Iran as a great achievement of the state and Iranians themselves. Therefore, breaking the deal by Americans and imposing sanctions was quite a shock to them. It is a big problem for president Hassan Rouhani in terms of his image. He worked to reach an agreement that now ceases to exist. This puts wind in the sails of Iranian conservatives who openly say that only the language of force should be used in talks with the USA. Consequently, we may expect some political reshuffles in Iran.

Iran aspires to the position of a regional power. Are these aspirations justified? What is the position of this country in the international arena?

Iranian authorities have been trying to obtain the leader position in the Middle East in many different ways, but they have to compete against other pretenders. And while, for example, the Iranian-Turkish relations are correct, Tehran’s contacts with Riyadh are rather problematic. Iran is in fact engaged in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia. The war is not waged on Iranian or Saudi soil, but in Iraq, Yemen or Syria. It is a game played between two countries aspiring to be top players in the region. The competition is additionally heated up by the fact that Saudi Arabia is supported by the USA.

Iranians accuse Saudi Arabia of, among other things, being behind the September attack in the city of Ahvaz.

Within the last eight years, there have been four attacks in Iran, two of them inspired by Arab groups. The tensions between Iranians and Arab communities arise from some difficult historic events, augmented with religious issues. Arabs in Iran are not a recognized ethnic minority, because there is no such thing there as ethnic minority – minorities are categorized according to religion. All people that are not Christian, Jewish or Parsi, are Muslim, so Arabs are also considered part of the Islamic community. Therefore, they don’t have the right to, for example, education in their native Arabic language. It can’t be ruled out that the attacks are an attempt to show Iranians that they have to be careful while playing their political games in the region, since those can also transfer to their own territory. What I have in mind are the two attacks that took place in Tehran in June 2017 – against the Iranian Parliament building and the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomein. They were the first terrorist attacks in several years that were clearly inspired by Arab-speaking groups.

As to the attack in Ahvaz, symbolism is of key significance here. The attack was carried out on September 22, that is on the anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980. The place of the attack also wasn’t accidental. Ahvaz is in the center of Khuzestan, the most Arab province in Iran. Besides, several dozen years ago the region was still called Arabistan. Recently, an Arabian lecturer from the United Arab Emirates posted a controversial tweet in which he stated that “an attack by militants on a military parade is not an act of terror.” The statement met with a very strong reaction of Iranians, but the message remains clear. It may sound brutal, but it is impossible to undertake various actions around the world, especially military actions, and expect that they will not cause any repercussions. Iran, as a country aspiring to the role of the main player in the Middle East, has to take that into account.

Mateusz M. Kłagisz, PhD, works at the Department of Iranian Studies at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland.

Rozmawiał Robert Sendek

autor zdjęć: Michał Zieliński

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