By Amir Taheri
October 01, 2021
In his first statements on foreign policy, Islamic Republic’s new President Dr Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi made two claims: First that he would be the ultimate arbiter of Tehran’s foreign relations and, second, that his top priority is to “establish close ties with neighbors and promote peace and stability in Western Asia.
(The ruling mullahs now use the term West Asia which was circulated by the Soviet Union, instead of the Middle East which they regard as a term coined by “Infidel powers.”)
Just week into his tenure, however, it is hard to find evidence to support Raisi’s claim.
True, the new Islamic Foreign Minister Amir Abdullahyan is no Muhammad-Javad Zarif with his flamboyant style, personal ambitions and powerful American friends, and thus in no position to think of upstaging his boss.
Nevertheless, Raisi has not managed to impose some discipline on the few hundred mullahs and brigadier-generals who form the core of the ramshackle regime. Thus the mullah from back of the beyond and the brigadier-general who has never seen a battle except on television, continue to make foreign policy comments mostly to threaten the very neighbors that the Dr-Ayatollah hopes to seduce.
Worse still, such interventions go beyond mere rhetorical outbursts.
Consider some events of the past 10 days or so.
Pakistan security arrested three men, identified as “citizens of Iran” and, according to Islamabad sources, members of the Quds Force, on a charge of plotting to kill 25 Chinese engineers by planting a roadside bomb near the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman. The alleged plot claimed the lives of several Baluch children.
A few days earlier, units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched a series of artillery attacks on 22 villages in the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq where, Tehran claims, anti-Iran Kurdish “secessionists” have set up a number of bases.
Neither Baghdad nor Erbil authorities were forewarned while the IRGC promised to repeat the deadly exercise.
Tehran’s disregard for Iraqi sovereignty came in other forms as well. The official media threatened Baghdad and Erbil with “consequences” unless those who had organized a private seminar on normalization with Israel were “dealt with”. The fact that the seminar in question was in conformity with Iraqi Constitution and law, guaranteeing freedom of opinion and expression, was conveniently ignored.
The Erbil authorities were forced to be economical with the truth by claiming they didn’t know about the seminar and would not allow similar events in the future. The Baghdad authorities went further by issuing arrest warrants for three people, one of whom was in Germany at the time of the seminar.
The new violation of Iraqi sovereignty came a bit later and on a much larger scale. Baghdad had announced the closure of its borders with the Islamic Republic as a means of controlling the spread of Covid-19 which is wreaking havoc in Iran.
Iranian pilgrims wishing to go to “holy cities” in Iraq for Arba’in, marking the 40th day of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom, were told that only those travelling by air could do without obtaining a visa.
Yet, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, and people trying to make a fast buck during the pilgrimage, gathered at land border crossings and managed to dismantle the barriers and march into Iraqi territory to board buses heading for “holy cities”. Islamic Republic border guards either watched the “invasion” or even helped speed it up.
On eastern borders, the Islamic Republic closed its borders with Afghanistan to prevent thousands trying to flee the new situation in Kabul. At the same time, however, hundreds of suspected Al-Qaeda members and their families living in exile in Iran for almost 20 years, mostly in the Dost-Muhammad area in Sistan-and-Baluchistan province were “ advised” to return to Afghanistan.
However, the biggest show of “good neighborliness” promised by Raisi came inside the (former Soviet) Republic of Azerbaijan and along its borders with Iran and Armenia.
What Tehran media described as “a multi-faceted task force” consisting of helicopter gunships, tanks, armored vehicles and elite Special Units under the personal command of IRGC’s Chief of Land Forces Gen. Pakpur was assembled on full alert within sight of Azerbaijani troops and their Russian “advisers”.
This large-scale sabre rattling coincided with the first anniversary of the war between Armenia and Baku over the enclave of High Qarabagh (Artsakh). Tehran put in motion a roadshow in three stages.
In the first stage, a few days before the anniversary, a long line of Iranian heavy trucks, passing through the Lachin Corridor theoretically under Russian control, to enter High Qarabagh to deliver supplies to Armenians. The idea was to show that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev’s claim of having won a great victory in last year’s war was an empty boast as Russia, not his government, controls entry points into Azerbaijan and the disputed Artsakh enclave.
To save face, Aliev called in Tehran’s ambassador to Baku and demanded that Iran stop sending trucks without proper visas from Baku. In the second stage, Tehran replaced Iranian number-plates with Armenian ones to claim that the lorries in question came from Armenia proper to supply fellow-Armenians in Artsakh.
For Aliev this was like turning the knife in the wound, reminding people in Baku and environs that their president’s claim of victory at the cost of thousands of lives followed by the virtual occupation of parts of the country by Russian troops bore little relation to reality. Iran’s claim that matters had been cleared with Levon Jagarian, the Russian Ambassador in Tehran, poured salt on the wound as Moscow’s man in Iran is an ethnic Armenian as is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
An angry Aliev, already under domestic pressure for mismanagement, corruption and nepotism lashed back by announcing a total ban on truck traffic from Iran and claiming that “Azeris all over the world” back his position. This was seen in Tehran as an act of deliberate provocation by Aliev as Iran sees itself as the true home of all Azeris including the 12 million or so who live in the Baku republic and the Russian federation.
Raisi’s claim of “good neighborliness” remains just a claim. The fact is that either Tehran turns the Middle East (or West Asia as the Kremlin prefers) into something like the Khomeinist Islamic Republic or the latter becomes more or less like other regimes in the region. An outsider, a prowler, cannot have normal, let alone good, relations, with others in a neighborhood.