NATO’s Strategy Following the Cold War and the Islamic Republic of Iran's Foreign Policy

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Behzad Khoshandam
PhD Candidate in International Relations & Expert on International Issues

The present confrontational relations between Iran and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are mostly a result of two factors. The first factor is the goals that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been pursuing in its foreign policy with the second factor being interventionist and militaristic nature and approach of the NATO, as the most important international defense organization, especially the aggressive quality of the organization’s interaction with Russia.

The confrontation between Iran and the NATO over a host of international issues and problems as a result of this international organization’s post-Cold War approaches is now a basic political realty which has drawn a lot of attention from international experts and politicians. The question is “does any meaningful relationship exist between NATO’s strategy toward Iran following the Cold War and Iran's foreign policy?” There is an even more important question: “What possible scenarios can be taken into consideration, in view of the background of relations between these two players, as futuristic scenarios for the study of Iran – NATO relations?”

NATO’s strategy toward Iran following the Cold War up to the middle of 2012 was mostly based on depicting Iran as enemy and being present in areas of Iran's strategic influence in order to put strategic reins on this important political player. On the other side, Iran's strategy toward the NATO at two aforesaid junctures has been influenced by discourses which put the highest emphasis on securitization (in line with Iran's national interests and security) and de-securitization (when Iran's national interests and security are challenged) with regard to Iran's national interests. They have been also influenced by the viewpoints offered by the Iranian political elite. This strategy in addition to contradictory approaches taken by Iran and the NATO have prevented this international organization from taking good advantage of Iran's intelligence, mediatory, institutional, interactive and supportive capacities.

Before the end of the Cold War, the NATO did not care much about the geographical expanse immediately surrounding Iran. After the termination of the Cold War and eastward expansion of NATO’s mission as well as following the emergence of new strategic games among big powers, the organization started to increase its influence in Iran's security domain and neighborhood in a gradual and step by step manner. The new approach was also a result of the new changes in the nature, goals, functions, and the mission of the NATO.

After the first NATO meeting following the Cold War which was held in November 1991, up to 2012, decisions made in various meetings of the NATO member states caused the organization to gradually change its goals and operations in the direction of controlling international crises resulting from terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the security of energy supply. As a result of these changes, the situation in Iran's peripheral neighborhood became of increasing importance to NATO’s transnational approach.

The following points should be taken into account when explaining the position of political players around Iran in NATO’s transregional approach up to the end of 2012 and within the existing framework of NATO’s cooperation with these players:

• NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PFP) programs, which are carried out in cooperation with some of Iran's northern neighbors;

• Strategic agreement or partnership between Russia and the NATO;

• NATO’s strategic union with Turkey;

• Commanding the operations of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan by the NATO;

• Strategic cooperation between Pakistan and the NATO;

• NATO’s military training program for the Iraqi government;

• NATO’s Istanbul initiative for cooperation with political players located south of Iran.

In addition, the roles and concerns of Israel, India, China and other important players like Russia should be also taken into account in this regard. It should be noted that as of 2012, one of Iran’ neighbors is already a NATO member (Turkey); seven neighboring countries of Iran (including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkmenistan) are engaged in cooperation programs with the NATO; fifteen countries around Iran are engaged in negotiations with the NATO (consisting of Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Israel, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain); and nine countries in Iran's neighborhood are hosting NATO’s military forces (which include Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan).

Under the current circumstances, neither Iran, nor the NATO has any clear-cut, coherent and solid strategy on how to deal with the other side. However, when talking about the importance of Iran for the NATO, serious attention should be paid to four components, including Iran's relations with the United States, challenging relations of Russia with the United States and the NATO; the issue of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities; and the new strategic concept of the NATO, which is based on the cooperative security model. This issue has caused these two players to pay more attention to each other from political, strategic, economic, civilizational, energy, cultural, and even ecological viewpoints. Meanwhile, Iran's comparative advantages as well as geopolitical and geostrategic importance have caused every one of these two players to pay serious attention to the other player’s activities in areas of interest and conflict.

The consequences of the negative attitude of these players toward each other should be also discussed with due attention to NATO’s double-standard treatment of Iran. It seems that in the time interval between the end of the Cold War and the present time, despite its strategic and tactical need to Iran, the NATO has for various reasons adopted a double-track approach to Iran based on which it has been trying to both align Iran with its goals according to “bandwagoning” principle, while beating the drums of hostility with the Islamic Republic. This issue has caused Iran to be constantly in interaction or confrontation with this organization. As a result, the Islamic Republic has been faced with four different options of cooperation, confrontation, ambiguity, or pragmatism.

At any rate, the new Asian order in addition to Iran's foreign policy goals as well as its specific Islamic and regional way of thinking has caused the country to adopt a threat-based approach to the NATO under the current circumstances. As a result, Iran has been considering the goals and operations of the organization, especially in its immediate neighborhood, as a source of threat and insecurity.

On the opposite, due to its interventionist model of behavior which is based on militarism, and as a result of the horrible consequences of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan under the command of ISAF, and also because of the important and constructive role of Iran in security arrangements of the Middle East and West Asia, the NATO has been pursuing a policy of strategic containment toward Iran. That policy has been pursued within framework of NATO’s general structure or through special interactions between NATO member states and countries cooperating with them.

Now, considering these issues and their consequences, how one can possibly talk confidently about the future outlook of Iran's relations with the NATO under the new atmosphere which prevails in the second decade of the third millennium?

To answer that question, one must pay serious attention to two variables, especially under the new circumstances in the second decade of the third millennium, which include similarities and differences between large-scale interests of these two players.

In current conditions, the following points are among the most important commonalties between the strategic interests of Iran and the NATO in the new era:

• Fighting new threats;

• Providing security of energy;

• Establishing stabilizing in geographical regions around Iran, including in Afghanistan;

• NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan;

• Security analysis of issues related to certain regions around Iran;

• Importance of Iran's neighboring countries for both players; and

• Inseparability of security from threats in Iran's peripheral neighborhood.

Despite these commonalties, the differences between the interests of Iran and the NATO are more profound under current conditions. The following list presents some of the most important points which differentiate these players in current conditions which have also caused every one of them to view the other one as a source of “threat and hostility”:

• The threat posed to Iran and Russia by NATO’s missile defense shield;

• Continued presence of the NATO in Afghanistan;

• Support of the NATO and its member states for anti-Iran sanction policy and escalation of sanctions against Tehran;

• Iran's nuclear issue;

• NATO’s operations in Iran's spheres of influence;

• The changing role of US – Israel axis;

• Resistance of each player against the actions of the other player;

• Different approaches and definitions of these players with regard to human rights issues and problems;

• NATO’s purposive effort to manage the changing regional order in the Middle East following the Arab Spring through military means; and

• Speculations about dimensions and consequences of NATO’s Asian order model with special emphasis on Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

In view of the above facts and requirements and by analyzing behavior and discourse of each player with regard to the other, the future outlook of relations between Iran and the NATO can be delineated within framework of two optimistic and pessimistic scenarios:

• The optimistic scenario relies on such elements as relative peace, constructive interaction, engagement, strategic partnership, big deal, and security building model;

• The pessimistic scenario builds on the military option, bedevilment, isolation, forced diplomacy, increasing securitization, and deterrence.

It seems that the relative peace and securitization model, as an optimistic scenario, as well as isolation and increasing securitization of Iran issue at regional and international levels, as a pessimistic scenario, are more close to reality for describing the future outlook of relations between these two players. At any rate, realization of each scenario on the two players’ future relations would heavily depend on many strategic calculations coming true, and would also depend on a host of variables such as the quality of future interactions among Russia, the NATO, and the United States; future role of the NATO in strategic and security equations of the Middle East; Iran's peaceful nuclear activities and the quality of future interactions between Iran and the United States.

The bottom line is that in view of changes in the nature, operations and the transregional approach of the NATO, especially following the Cold War era, the organization has been putting up a high-profile presence in Iran's neighborhood and areas of Iran's strategic influence at the beginning of the second decade of the third millennium. This issue has caused Iran to enjoy a special status in NATO’s transregional approach and in many cases the goals pursued by these players have come to loggerheads and even contradicted each other. Given the nature, goals, types of behavior, and the depth of their differences under the current situation, any hope in the possibility of lasting institutional interaction between these two important international players would be unrealistic as long as each one of them prefers to stick to its own attitude and fundamental presumptions.