Written by Dennis M. Nilsen exclusively for SouthFront
Iranian foreign policy is a major concern both to its immediate neighbors and to the P5+1 group with which it made the nuclear deal two years ago.
In my last post, I spoke about the possibilities of Iranian foreign policy towards Iraq upon the defeat of ISIS and now I propose to enter in depth about the personalities behind the creation of that policy and the mechanisms used to attain it.
The overall direction of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is expressly given in the Constitution. This presents an ideal, but how is it actually put into practice?
It stands to reason for the rulers of the Republic that it is best to consolidate regional power before projecting even further abroad; hence the reasons behind the policies towards Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria (al-Assad), Iraq (al-Abadi) and Yemen (Houthis) and the policies against the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the remainder of the GCC (minus Qatar, of course).
In Iran, there are two branches of government which have input into foreign policy. In the executive branch there exists the Supreme National Security Council, comprised of twelve permanent members and one adhoc temporary member, a governmental minister whose portfolio determines his presence at the sessions. Because of the duality of Iran’s executive branch, between the absolute primacy of the Supreme Leader / Guardian Jurist (Persian vela-ye faqih) and the head of the government in the person of the president, only a loose analogy can be drawn between this body and the National Security Councils of the United States President and the British Prime Minister, the Secrétariat général de la defense et de la sécurité nationale of the French President and other similarly-named organizations charged with formulating an overall national defense.
Those readers with a Western mindset expect the chief executive of the government to be the one constitutionally tasked with creating the overall direction of his country’s foreign policy and with appointing senior civil servants within the foreign service ideologically aligned with him. In Iran, while President Rouhani has great say in the discussions going into the creation of foreign policy and in its functional realization, he does not have the ultimate say in its determination. Instead, that responsibility lies with Guardian Jurist Khamenei.
As in other countries, Iran has an independently-run foreign service, headed by the well-known Mohammad Javad Zarif, appointed by President Rouhani and answerable directly to him. He is charged with carrying out foreign policy through the Iranian foreign service and with being the spokesman for the policies of the government. Like the President, he sits on the SNSC and thereby has a voice in the development of the foreign and security policy of the Islamic Republic.
However, as is well known, the direction of the SNSC is dominated by an alliance of the Supreme Leader and the Sepah (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami). Of the twelve permanent members of the council, six owe their positions to Ali Khamenei: two men act as his personal representatives while the others sit ex officio. Saeed Jalili and Ali Shamkhani are the Supreme Leader’s two representatives and both are committed Principalists: Jalili, the former chief negotiator for nuclear affairs, served in the Basij in the Iran-Iraq War and lost the lower portion of his left leg, while Shamkhani engaged in subversive actions as a member of the Mansouroun (lit. “Subversives”) against the Shah before the Revolution and later commanded both the Artesh (conventional armed forces) and the Sepah Navies during the 1990s.
The four other men who sit ex officio are: Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani, Chief of the General Staff Major General (Sardar) Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of the Iranian Army Major General (Amir) Abdolrahim Mousavi, and Chief of the Sepah Major General (Sardar) Mohammad Ali Jafari. All are committed to the Principalist faction and thus to the continuance of the Axis of Resistance to Israel and its Western allies.
The remaining six members are President Hassan Rouhani himself, Speaker of the Majles Ali Larijani, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, Minister of the Interior Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi and Head of the Management and Planning Organization and Vice President of Iran Mohammad Bagher Nobakht. Rouhani, seen as a reformist in the West, has never identified himself as such and is in fact a conservative.
Speaker Larijani is an ally of Ali Khamenei and a committed Principalist, as are Intelligence Minister Alavi (a cleric who holds the rank of hojatoleslam) and Interior Minister Fazli, who is also an ally of Larijani. Of the other two men, Nobakht, the Head of Planning and Budget, is the Secretary-General of the Moderation and Development Party, a centrist organization with pragmatic economic goals, and Western-educated Foreign Minister Zarif is also a committed conservative, though not necessarily a principalist. Therefore the only member who can be seen as ideologically suspect is Nobakht, although again he is committed to the velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) despite his centrist politics.
Seen in terms of political persuasion, the SNSC is conservative to the core; further, all of its decisions have to be approved by Ayatollah Khamenei. This necessity means that the Supreme Leader’s personal representatives and the members who hold office because of him have an edge in deliberations and in the resolutions made. Also, the Holy Defense (Iran-Iraq War) leadership stills predominates in the SNSC, which means ideological cohesion around Khomeini’s revolutionary goals of spreading the revolution.
On the legislative side, there exists a committee entitled the Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy. Notice here the intimate link between the security of the Iranian state and the policies which it enacts towards the outside world, just as in the SNSC. In May 2016, the Iranian electorate cast votes for a new Majles, and shortly thereafter in June new committee assignments were made. According to the current membership of the committee, here is a breakdown by political affiliation:
- Reformist: 9
- Principalist: 7
- Independent: 6
- Moderation & Development: 1
Although all members publicly professor allegiance to the velayat-e faqih, the political order established by the Revolution, not all are united in how to direct the state in achieving the goals set out by the Constitution. Prior to the elections, all candidates had been vetted by the Guardian Council and thus only those acceptable to the establishment were allowed to compete. Reformists desire a more open society and a less abrasive engagement with the West, which may or may not mean for certain members the end of the Axis of Resistance. It was widely reported in the West that the Reformists gained the largest number of seats in the Majles (119) compared to the Principalist Coalition (84). Despite the predominance of the Reformists in the Majles, Principalist Alaeddin Boroujerdi was reappointed as Chairman of the foreign affairs committee, a position he has held for the past two Majles sessions.
As an example of his ideological convictions, Mr. Boroujerdi recently sent a public message of congratulations and fraternity to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on the eleventh anniversary of the 33-day war against Israel. As the control of the chairman over the direction and workings of committees in the Iranian Parliament is extensive, Mr. Boroujerdi, a committed Principalist, can be counted upon to reflect the views of the Ayatollah Khamenei and to originate and present legislation to the full Majles which will be favorable to his outlook. One can cynically look at Majles members as pseudo-public representatives who simply rubberstamp decisions already made by Khamenei with the SNSC, but an opposite view of a very real engagement within the legislature is more realistic. Majles members cannot override foreign policy decisions with their legislation, they can at least exercise a considerable degree of influence through their control of the budget for the active elements of Iranian foreign policy, namely the Foreign Service and the Sepah.
Ayatollah Khamenei and his Principalist allies remain dedicated to the Axis of Resistance against Western presence in the Middle East and as long as Khamenei sits as Guardian Jurist such will be the foreign policy of Iran, regardless of how many reformist members are elected to the Majles. The particular policies of support for Hezbollah, for the Syrian Government of Mr. al-Assad and for the Iraqi Government of Mr. al-Abadi are incarnations of this anti-Western foreign policy, and the nuclear agreement has merely given Iran more time to strengthen its hand in these three theatres.
It is clear how and by whom Iranian foreign policy is made and an appreciation for the working of Iranian policy making will only aid the West in its interactions with the Islamic Republic, particularly in determining realistic approaches. As Foreign Minister Zarif has said on many occasions, “Iran does not respond well to threats.”