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The State Blog | Clueless Iranian Foreign Policy?

by ALEX VATANKA

24 Jul 2012 21:43Comments

Is the Supreme Leader paying attention to the reality of the current situation?

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The State is a weekly column about Iranian security and diplomatic issues. Alex Vatanka is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Previously he was the managing editor of Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst.
[ comment ] A growing number of voices in Tehran are increasingly asking a simple but fundamental question: Is Iran's foreign policy in a tailspin? Many Iranian analysts seem to believe that to be the case, at least if one goes by the public debate inside the country. Such anxieties are rapidly rising as Western pressure on Iran remains rock-hard and the political landscape of the Middle East is changing in ways that could make Iran the biggest geopolitical loser of the Arab Spring.

To be clear, the alarm bells are ringing not only because of the potential fall of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus. The shortcomings in Iranian foreign policy are seen to be broader and rooted in a combination of misplaced hopes, needless posturing, and prioritizing veneer over substance and depth.

Let's take misplaced hopes. Nothing better epitomizes this than the Islamic Republic's perpetually refuted optimism that Russia will become a reliable partner. Sadegh Kharazi, a worldly former Iranian ambassador to France, made an impassioned plea last week for policy makers in Tehran to wake up to Moscow's double-dealings. He alluded to Moscow's four votes in the U.N. Security Council to sanction Iran over its nuclear program and called the Russian position more "bitter" than the American stance. As others have, he pointed out that Russia has deliberately dragged its feet in completing the Bushehr nuclear plant and refused to sell to Iran the much-needed S-300 anti-air missile system. Kharazi went on and suggested that Iran never has and never will have any strategic interest overlap with Russia. One wonders how far up in the ranks of the regime his words will be heard given his family ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Kharazi's sister is married to one of Khamenei's sons).

On the issue of needless posturing, few prominent regime personalities have been as openly critical of the state's current foreign policies as Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Since a ban was recently lifted on his personal website, this former president and once gray eminence of the Islamic Republic constantly repeats the message of the need for expediency over empty sloganeering. The idea of expediency and safeguarding national interests as key policy drivers is gaining such momentum -- thanks largely to the economic pains inflicted by sanctions -- that even the wisdom behind the nuclear program is now openly under question by some. A former interior minister turned dissident, Abdollah Nouri, went as far as to propose a popular referendum to determine the future of the program.

Most of the critics of Iran's foreign policy performance are not merely fringe elements in the ranks of the Islamic Republic. For sure, among those who openly speak up, the vast majority can be classified as "reformist," these days a catch-all phrase for anyone who slightly dithers in accepting the diktats of the Supreme Leader. (President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is politically isolated to the degree that he can at best play the role of a spoiler of policy, not a proposer.) As Iran continues to be squeezed, these critical voices are getting louder. The question is whether Khamenei will pay them and other realities facing the country any attention or stay the course as he publicly states he intends to do.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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