With Marcin Piotrowski about the allies and adversaries of Iran, his political ambitions, military potential and internal situation talks Tadeusz Wróbel.
Iran has serious political ambitions related to the Middle East. What influences this Shiite state has in the region?
On one hand – quite significant, on the other hand – limited, since most locals in this regions are Sunni, usually anti-Shiite and anti-Persian. One of the generals of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said that friendly to Tehran political fractions function in several Arab countries: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, that is where large Shiite societies live. In Bahrain, where a command of the US 5th Fleet is, the Shiites constitute about 60-70% of population, but the power is held by Sunni dynasty (with support of the Saudis). Iran, however, has among its supporters much smaller communities in other countries, such as Kuwait and Oman. Syrian government has been dominated by the Alawites, a religious group, which for political reasons had been recognized by Ayatollah Khomeini as a Shiite faction, although historically speaking, it’s not true. It should be remembered that Syria and Yemen have plunged into bloody internal conflicts. The regime in the former state has survived to a great extent due to the help of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which had sent there thousands of its members and organized a “Shiite international” there. Iran also gained strong position in Baghdad after overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003. The creation of the so-called Islamic State was partially a response to the increase of Tehran’s influences in the region. For three decades, the greatest regional antagonist of Iran has been Saudi Arabia, whose assets are money and the control over the most sacred places for Islam.
What are Iran’s relations with its historical adversary, Turkey?
The Turks and Iranians are ambitious nations, and they remain rivals. Under the rules of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ankara got closer to Tehran, but I think this was simply a tactical move, which won’t last in a longer perspective. What for tens of years has been relieving the Iranian and Turkish tensions is of course the Kurds who desire to have their own country. The creation of such country would mean a significant weakening of both states.
What about the relations of Iran with his other great neighbor, Pakistan, where Shiite minority is the target of bloody attacks of Sunni extremists? What is your opinion about them?
In the past, the relations would shape in various ways, because Iran made attempts to use Pakistani Shiites for propagating the objectives of the What about the relations of Iran with his other great neighbor, Pakistan, where Shiite minority is the target of bloody attacks of Sunni extremists? What is your opinion about them? ir Islamic revolutions. However, for several years, their mutual relations have visibly warmed up. Just as the Kurds weaken a conflict between Iran and Turkey, the Iranian-Pakistani relations are affected by the Baloch’s separatism, whose land is divided between both these countries. Since 2001, Pakistan and Iran join in their aversion towards the military presence of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, called the father of Pakistani atomic bomb, gave the Iranians a lot of key information on the production of this weapon. Was it significant for improving the relations with Pakistan?
Probably it was, although we don’t know any details, just as it was the case with a transaction with North Korea. We still don’t know what Pakistan and Khan received from the Iranians. To me, it’s quite likely that it was serious cash or oil deliveries. Khan sold Korea and Iran a full package: models of several designs of centrifuges for enriching uranium, manuals for their assembly and servicing, as well as construction details of nuclear warhead. The centrifuges were tested by Pakistan during the development of Pakistani nuclear program and uranium production in the 1980s, and the warheads probably during Pakistani tests at the end of the 1990s. In addition, Pakistan received the design of uranium warhead from China, which had tested this type on ballistic missiles back in the 1960s and 1970s. Such transfers couldn’t, in my opinion, have been conducted without silent consent of Pakistani authorities and special services.
Is Moscow, who wants to regain influences in the Middle East, interested in strengthening of Tehran?
In Western and Russian media, as well as in the commentaries of some analysts, there appear some speculations about an increasing conflict, but I’ve never found any declaration of the representatives of the Russian Federations, which would present any adversity towards Iran. On the contrary, both countries effectively cooperate in Syria. Such cooperation has a long tradition – since 1991. Its example was a civil war in Tajikistan, which broke out after the collapse of the USSR. Initially, the Russians and Iranians supported various fractions fighting there, but when they considered this conflict too bloody, they brought the situation to peace in mid-1990s. The appearance of the Taliban in Afghanistan rather had an impact on this rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran. For that reason, they jointly supported the Northern Alliance who fought with the Taliban. The illustration for better Russian-Iranian relations is also the fact that during the conflict for the Republic of Artsakh, Iran supported the Christian Armenians, not Muslim but pro-Turkish, Azerbaijan. There may not exist any full trust between Tehran and Moscow, but still both parties have the same political goal: to stop the influences of Turkey and the United States in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Is it not risky to the national cohesion of Iran that the Persians constitute only half of this country’s total population?
Next to the Kurds and the Balochs, there is also a multimillion community of the Azeris.
The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has Azeri roots, which shows that the ruling elite has the ability to absorb the representatives of ethnic minorities. On the other hand, also the Baku authorities pursue balanced policy, and do not promote any pan-Turkic or pan-Azeri concepts, because they know about the alliance of Iran with Armenia. I don’t think that ethnic composition of the society poses currently any threat to Iran’s stability. I would rather see it in the fight that may break out among elite authorities for the inheritance, when 80-year-old Khamenei dies.
In case of the conflict with the USA, would most of the Iranians still be ready to die for the Islamic Republic, just as they were in the 1980s during the war with Iraq?
I have doubts about that – to be more precise, they will be patriots, but I don’t think they will all like to die for the Islamic Republic. The Green Revolution – mass protests after presidential elections in 2009 – indicated that the beliefs of the Iranian society are changing. The demonstrators accused the authorities of electoral fraud to the benefit of a conservative candidate, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Today, a huge test for current rulers can be death of their Supreme Commander. The chance for the regime will be smooth succession, but I’m not sure whether the regime is still as cohesive as it was 30 years ago, when Khamenei quickly replaced Khomeini after the latter died. On top of that, there are also economic problems, and people who are discouraged by repeated isolation of their country.
There wouldn’t be any isolation if Iran’s rulers had normalized their relations with the USA.
Holding on to a situation where the USA and Israel remain enemies is cynically abused in internal and foreign affairs policy. For many years, external enemy has been the reason for integrating the society around the country rulers. We know that kind of approach is ongoing at our neighbor’s, Russia. That’s why I don’t really believe, considering present regime, that the visions of some analysts on reversing alliances and Iran again becoming the ally of the United States will actually come true.
What is the position of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran?
The Corps was formed when a theocratic republic was built, which was the sign of distrust of contemporary leaders towards the inherited army of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. That’s why they decided to build an ideologically stable and faithful to Shiite clergy parallel to a military structure. This total loyalty means that the control over various militias and paramilitary structures were passed on to the guards. Part of the Corps is al-Quds, the Jerusalem Force, which is the combination of special forces and intelligence agency. The unit’s members carry out various delicate and dangerous missions in the Middle East.
The Corps never limited its activity to defense and security. For dozens of years, the guards have created a financial power. They control almost all lucrative economic business. It is estimated that up to 30–40% of the country’s economy is in their hands.
The USA have considered the entire Corps as terrorist organizations. Is Iranian regime ready to resort to terrorism to reach its goals?
Yes, it is. The revolutionary guards use the suicide assassins. The cult of a martyr is very strong among the Shiites, perhaps even stronger than among the average Sunnis. Some experts say that the activity of Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s were the model for al-Qaeda. In the Iranian-Iraqi war, children were sent to walk through minefields to make a free passage with their bodies. Apart from that, Iranian rulers can be very flexible, and can support radical groups which could seem hostile to them. For years, they have been supporting Hamas, an organization functioning in the Gaza Strip, which was formerly sponsored by Saudi Arabia.
Why does Iran want to own nuclear weapon?
The actual intentions of Iran about that are not quite clear. Nuclear program was launched there probably around 1989, when the Iranians achieved the above-mentioned know-how from Khan network, although the first approach to building reactors was already during the Shah ruling. Keeping in secrecy almost entire nuclear program before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicates that from the beginning it was of military nature. Tehran admitted to the existence of the program as late as in 2002. Since then, for over dozen years it has been talking with key countries about its nature and the forms of control over it, but at the same time the research and theoretical development essential for building an atomic warhead was being continued. Reached in 2015, the agreement with the USA and other powers was a compromise. In exchange for limiting the scale and capabilities of the program, the Americans agreed to abolish painful for the Iranians economic sanctions. Because of the limitations included in this agreement, Iran wouldn’t have been able to produce its first warhead faster than within 12 months.
Still, President Trump considered them disadvantageous for the USA.
Iran responded to that only a year after Trump’s leaving the nuclear agreement. It is the harbinger for renewal of work on enriching uranium to a higher level, which is a form of pressure on foreign partners: China, Russia and Europe. Iran declares that every 60 days it will depart from the quantity and quality limits stemming from this agreement. At this stage, I don’t think, however, that Iran wants to totally terminate the 2015 agreement and provoke Washington to military response. The Iranians rather know how far they can go. That’s why they claim that they will take their steps one at a time, and all their moves will be reversible. Against what they say, they want to keep their door open for new negotiations with Washington, particularly when Trump is not reelected and a Democratic Party politician will move to the White House.
Perhaps nuclear weapon is to wipe out the conventional superiority of a potential enemy. Can Iran increase its defense potential without an atomic bomb?
Yes, perhaps, but not all at once. Potential suppliers of new armament and technology to modernize the Iranian armed forces are China and Russia. However, the resolution of the United Nations until 2021 limits selling to Iran the most state-of-the-art systems of offensive nature. Hence, this country takes efforts to maintain in the operational condition the western armament, and particularly American, which was delivered in large quantities in the last years of the Shah’s ruling.
Iranian media show numerous domestic designs, and claim they are very modern.
Here, we’re dealing with propaganda for internal policy needs. The authorities try to show their citizens that their country is strong and technologically advanced. In fact, these “wonder weapons” are merely mock-ups, they are not produced. One exception is missile program implemented in cooperation with North Korea. I also think that Iran is more than they admit advanced in a production of long-range ballistic missiles.
As Iran is weak, how would it defend against the attack of the USA?
Iranians cannot be rivals in the matter of technology, so they focus on asymmetric warfare, which is best exemplified by their naval forces, which have small surface and underwater vehicles. The revolutionary guards have thoroughly analyzed also American activity in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan. Then, they forced in the concept of Iraq’s defense, which they call the Mosaic Doctrine. It is based on the fact that in case of land invasion, there would be decentralization of command and shifting to partisan war. Pacification of Iran wouldn’t be easy.
When listening to politicians in the USA and Iran, one can have the impression that we are nearing an open war.
This is the beginning of a long period of tensions. If no diplomatic solution for American-Iranian clashes is found, the “grey zone” conflict – with hybrid warfare of both parties in various fields – will last until the end of the present term of President Donald Trump. Nobody wants war. I think that Iranians showed their red line in escalation of activities against the USA and their regional allies. Their leaders are aware that they would not win an open war with the Americans. I also have doubts about any US preparations for a large armed conflict and for abolishing present regime in Iran. Obviously, all activity which is to keep a controlled tension carries a risk of evoking some unpredictable chain of events or erroneous interpretation of other party’s intentions.
Such situation almost already happened. After shooting down the US drone by Iran, President Trump initially decided on the retaliation attack, though he ultimately cancelled it. What would happen if the missile hit the P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft with the crew of several dozen people?
In such case, Donald Trump for image and political reasons, would have to order the retaliation attack, but this would lead to escalation of the conflict, and further events would be unpredictable. Fortunately, this never happened. The US President did not order an attack in retaliation for hitting the drone, because before the next-year elections, he doesn’t want any war which would obviously cause human losses on both sides.
Can we say that today the USA focus mainly on further weakening of Iran’s economy?
Yes, and there are no differences of opinion in presidential administrations about this. Such activities, like imposing new sanctions, are effective. For the fear of retortions, European companies do not run their businesses in Iran, because the US market is too important for them. More active in Iran is Chinese and Russian business there, because for the companies of these nations business with the USA is of less significance. What I see, though, are disagreements about the goal of such US policy. Some Trump’s advisors, like Ambassador John Bolton, would want the “change of regime”, while most of US administrators and military officials wants to lead to a change of Iran’s behavior in regional, nuclear and missile issues. I suppose that President Trump in maximum variant would like to sign “better than Obama’s” nuclear agreement, and in minimum variant – avoid the war before 2020 presidential election. Apart from the White House – in Pentagon and US intelligence, there are however many experienced experts specializing in Iran, who perceive all of it in a longer and more complex perspective than politicians. I suppose that they will be decisive in shaping and implementation of US policy towards Iran.
Michał Andrzej Piotrowski, PhD works as an expert in the Polish Institute of International Affairs for Iran, non-conventional war, nuclear and missile weapon, and missile defense.
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz