Is Iran Unpredictable?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mohsen Shariatinia

Iran's nuclear issue is currently one of the hottest topics for discussion in international politics. Therefore, a host of viewpoints and different opinions have been expressed on Iran's nuclear energy program and, in general, the country’s foreign policy approaches as well as the consequences of its possible access to nuclear weapons. Viewpoints expressed on this issue can be divided into two general groups in relation to ongoing political debates, especially in the United States:

1. The first group which mostly consists of realist analysts believes that Iran is like all other international players and can be dealt with by the means of available international mechanisms; and

2. The second group of analysts believes that Iran is a revolutionary, ideological and unpredictable country. Therefore, it should be either attacked, or made subject to extremely heavy and crippling sanctions.

This paper focuses on the analysis of the viewpoint of those who believe that Iran is an unpredictable and ideological player. From the viewpoint of the writer, this viewpoint is riddled with flaws given the history of Iran's foreign relations.

To shed more light on whether Iran is or is not predictable, the Islamic Republic’s strategic behavior in sensitive junctures of the past three decades should be taken into consideration. During the aforesaid period, despite all positive and negative arguments, Iran's foreign policy behavior has been continuation of its past conduct. As a result, Iran has in practice have always opted for tolerance and peaceful coexistence with the neighboring states and other countries. To prove this point, attention should be paid to Iran's strategic behavior at various junctures of the aforesaid period.

1. The Iran-Iraq War

When the Islamic Revolution in Iran triumphed, it was natural for the country to incline toward aggressive and expansionist policies. The interesting point, however, is that despite all the rhetoric about the export of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the country not only avoided of aggressive behavior against any country and never took a practical step in that direction, but was also invaded by its western neighbor, Iraq. When Iran was invaded, it took legal action through the United Nations Security Council as the main international body responsible for protecting international peace and security. The Security Council’s reaction, however, was clearly in favor of Iraq. It not only avoided condemning Iraq, but also termed Iraq’s war against Iran as a “situation.” Although the unilateral and discriminatory behavior of the Security Council dealt a heavy blow to Iranians’ trust in international institutions, at the end of the day, Tehran accepted the Security Council’s solution by accepting Resolution 598. Tehran, thus, put its confirmation stamp on the Security Council’s decision for the termination of Iraq’s imposed war on Iran.

2. Iraq’s War on Kuwait

After Iraq’s war on Iran came to an end, it was shown to both Arab and Western countries that the unpredictable player in the Middle East was not Iran, but was its neighbor, Iraq. This was proven when Baghdad invaded its southern neighbor, Kuwait. It was then that all countries were waiting for Iran to take retaliatory measures against Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and also against the United States. Iran, on the contrary, chose for totally peaceful behavior aimed at protecting international peace and security. It not only lent its support to territorial integrity of Kuwait and condemned Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait, but also remained neutral throughout the United States operations against Iraq and did not help [the former Iraqi dictator] Saddam [Hussein] in any way. Iran's behavior at that time amazed Arab countries and the United States alike.

3. Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001

When the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, took place in the United States as the bitterest incident in that country’s history, Iran was among the first countries in the Middle East to condemn the attacks and a group of Iranian people sympathized with the American nation. Although at first some circles pointed incriminating fingers at Iran for complicity in those terrorist attacks, it transpired later that no Iranian national had been involved. On the contrary, 19 terrorists were of Saudi nationality and came from Saudi Arabia which is widely believed to be the most important US ally in the Middle East.

4. The War in Afghanistan

When the United States attacked Afghanistan as part of its war on terror and as retaliation for 9/11 attacks Tehran greatly cooperated with Washington. Interestingly, the United States gave an inappropriate response to Iran's cooperation in Afghanistan by labeling the country as part of the Axis of Evil.

5. In the Strait of Hormuz

It goes without saying that Iran is in effective control of the most important and the most strategic waterway in the world, namely the strategic Strait of Hormuz. However, despite the fact that a devastating war was imposed on Iran during the past three decades in which all Western countries threw their weight behind Saddam against Iran and although the country is currently under heavy sanctions by the West, it has been always committed to its international obligation for peaceful management of this international waterway to guarantee free flow of oil throughout all that period.

The above facts, mark major turning points in Iran's strategic behavior during the past three decades. In all those cases, Iran took the opposite sides, especially Arabs and the United States, by surprise through demonstrating its peaceful and tolerant behavior as well as its commitment to maintaining order and security in the region and observing its international obligations.

Therefore, the theory which says Iran is an unpredictable and irresponsible country is not rooted in the realities of Iran's foreign policy and strategic behavior. In better words, it is not only undoubted that this theory has no relation to Iran's strategic behavior, but it has also no place in strategic culture of Iran whose essence is peaceful coexistence and tolerance.

Key Words: Iran's Nuclear Issue, Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s War on Kuwait, September 11, War in Afghanistan, Strait of Hormuz, Sahriatinia

*Mohsen Shariatinia is assistant professor of International Relations at the Mofid University (Qum, Iran) and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Trade Studies and Research. He is the author of Iran-China Relations: An Introduction (2007) and Developmentalist Foreign Policy: Chinese Experience (2008), both published by the Center for Strategic Research - CSR, in Persian.

More By Mohsen Sahriatinia:

*Iran–China–US Triangle:

*Iran-China Relations: An Overview of Critical Factors:

*Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Practical Capacities for Iran: