Iran – the Elements of Change in Foreign Policy

Kansallissali · 01.04.2014 09:00 - 11:00

Iran’s foreign policy has taken new directions since Hassan Rouhani was elected President of the country in 2013. Nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries have gathered pace. The ongoing conflict in Syria forms, however, a major challenge with respect to a longer-term détente and stability in the broader Middle East region.

Keynote speaker:
H.E. Dr Majid Takht Ravanchi, Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran
”Iran’s Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities”

H.E. Dr Majid Takht Ravanchi is an Iranian diplomat and Iran’s current Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs. He has worked extensively in different positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such as Director of the UN Department. Furthermore, he has served as Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN in New York. Dr Ravanchi received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Bern.

Prof Hannu Juusola, Professor of Middle East Studies, University of Helsinki
”Iran’s New Foreign Policy in the context of a broader Middle East”

Hannu Juusola is Professor of Middle East and Semitic Studies at the University of Helsinki and a former Director of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East. His current research interests include citizenship discourses, secularism and democratisation in the Middle East.

Dr Tytti Erästö, University Lecturer, University of Tampere

Dr Tytti Erästö has a PhD in International Relations from Tampere University, where she is currently a university lecturer. She is also a Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (2012-2014; Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow 2012-2013). Her current research focuses on the possibilities of a compromise solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute, and on efforts at establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

Dr Teija Tiilikainen, Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the seminar:

Director of FIIA, Dr Teija Tiilikainen, opened the seminar by welcoming the speakers and all the guests. She said that Iran is in a very interesting situation at the moment: there have been changes to the country’s foreign policy since Hassan Rouhani took over the presidency last summer, and also the nuclear talks are gathering pace with the EU playing a central role. Still, the restlessness and the threat of war in the area make the situation more unstable.

Dr Majid Takht Ravanchi, Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran, started his keynote by looking into the recent political developments in Iran. Dr Ravanchi reminded the audience that president Rouhani is operating with a broad mandate, since more than 70 percent of the people entitled to vote also took their right to do so.

According to Dr Ravanchi, one of the main themes of president Rouhani’s campaign was the policy of moderation. It means leading from the middle, enhancing dialogue within the system and prevent conflicts between different religious groups, but not giving away one’s principles, Dr Ravanchi said. He also noted that moderation is not a zero-sum game. According to him, moderation benefits all who take part in it and engage in conversation instead of shouting to one another.

Dr Ravanchi also spoke about the new government’s economic policy. He said that besides the outside world’s economic problems, which also affect Iran, the country is also facing sanctions that he thinks are unjust. According to Dr Ravanchi, president Rouhani has made the economy one of the most important issues of his government after taking office. Dr Ravanchi said that the number of new jobs, growth rate and foreign investments are not where the government would like them to be, but that things are moving in the right direction.

Speaking about the new Iranian government’s foreign policy, Dr Ravanchi said that the moderation is at its forefront. The main pillars of this policy are to promote dialogue and understanding in international relations and to oppose injustice and violence, and the new government has been doing exactly that since taking office, Dr Ravanchi said. He reminded the audience that Iran is located in a very dangerous neighbourhood where violence as a means for politics is promoted by certain groups and even governments.

Another issue that is very important for Iran is the policy of engagement. That means good relations and a constructive dialogue between neighbouring countries, Dr Ravanchi said. Iran does not wish to be politically isolated and does not seek others to be isolated either, but those who promote war and violence must be isolated whether they are in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, Dr Ravanchi said.

Dr Ravanchi admitted that Iran has its shortcomings, but he wanted to note that the country is a stable religious democracy and that the political system is supported by the majority of Iranians. Iran’s location is strategically very important: the country is located in corridor between the East and the West as well as the South and the North. There are tumultuous areas both to the East and to the West from Iran, but Iran has showed that it can be a calming power in this restless area, Dr Ravanchi said.

Dr Ravanchi also addressed the nuclear issue. He said it is something that needs to be tackled. From the Iranian point of view, taking the issue to the UN Security Council was unnecessary, he said. But the past is past, and Iran is now working to solve the issue, Dr Ravanchi said. It can be managed if there is enough will on both sides, he said. That would mean that Iran’s rights to enrich uranium for energy production are protected, and at the same time Iran would make a promise that its actions are peaceful, Dr Ravanchi said.

An agreement is something to be done mutually, Dr Ravanchi noted. Either all parties win or all parties lose, he said. According to the Deputy Foreign Minister, Iran has done its share in implementing the joint plan of action signed last year, and now other parties will need to do so as well instead of publishing some unfair comments like certain US officials have done recently, Dr Ravanchi concluded.

Taking the floor after Dr Ravanchi, Prof Hannu Juusola began his remarks by saying that in addition to advancing the nuclear talks and promoting dialogue in international relations, one of the main priorities of president Rouhani’s foreign policy is to improve Iran’s regional influence. Prof Juusola explained that because Iran is a Shia majority state in a Sunni majority region and a Persian majority state in an Arab majority region, it has had a hard time in becoming a major regional power.

The other two major powers in the region are Saudi Arabia and Iraq. With Saudi Arabia, Iran has had times of closer ties as well as times of ideological confrontation. Concerning Iraq, the arrival of US Troops in the country in 2003 was a profound change. After the removal of the Saddam regime, Iran has become a major regional power. The Saudis have never forgiven the US for this, Prof Juusola argued.

The Arab Spring has also brought changes to Iran’s position. For example, by supporting the Assad government in Syria, Iran has lost a large part of its soft power in the area. For decades, Damascus has been Iran’s most important regional ally, Prof Juusola said, and argued that it is through Syria that Iran has been able to play a role in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is otherwise outside its reach.

Thus, it clear that Iran sees the Syrian conflict and the support for the opposition forces from the West as an attempt to remove the axis of resistance that consists of Iran and Syria. If this happens, Iran could be even more isolated that it was in the worst years of the 1980s, Prof Juusola argued. Following the conflict in Syria, a regional Cold War has already come to life, Prof Juusola said. It has developed into a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias, he said.

On the other hand, the situation is better for Iran than it was last summer. Some of this has to do with Rouhani’s policy and maybe his person, Prof Juusola said. Also, the position of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is a lot stronger than it has been during the past 2 years. There is no sign of a solution, and the Assad government’s military position has improved lately. The ever-growing fragmentation of the opposition also plays an important role here.

In addition to gaining ground concerning the Syrian conflict, Iran is also improving its diplomatic relations with some of the countries in the area. According to Prof Juusola, Turkey seems willing to improve economic relations with Iran, one sign of this being the Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent visit to Tehran. President Rouhani also visited Oman recently, and Jordan and Iran exchanges ambassadors, which is an improvement to the frosty relations.

There are also signs of better relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but the confrontation is there to stay due to vastly contradictory interests and major ideological differences, Prof Juusola said. The conflict can still be toned down, he argued. One thing also playing in Iran’s pockets is the coup in Egypt last summer and the differences of opinion it has created in the Gulf region, Prof Juusola said. Qatar’s support for the Muslim brotherhood led to the Saudis recalling their ambassador back home from Doha, and this could lead to Qatar siding more actively with Iran to reduce Saudi Arabia’s position as a regional power in the future, Prof Juusola said.

The last one to take the floor was Dr Tytti Erästö. She began her remarks by arguing that chances to resolve the nuclear issue between Iran and the P5+1 countries are better than ever and that we are very close to a diplomatic agreement. She attached the nuclear talks to the Syrian crisis, saying that a solution in the talks could help resolve the Syrian conflict as well. In recent years, we got used to a very different dynamics in the talks. They were characterized by escalation and diplomatic deadlock, and many have been surprised by the latest positive developments, Dr Erästö argued.

That being said, there is still widespread and persistent cynicism on both sides towards a diplomatic solution, but the cynicism has become harder to maintain in the light of recent development. President Rouhani’s diplomatic style has effectively undermined the worst case scenarios, Dr Erästö said. At the same time she stressed that the positive developments are not only due to changes in Iranian foreign policy, but also due to the US and other P5+1 countries reassessing their positions and putting more weight on diplomacy, as their previous positions were not working.

A crucial change in the Western approach took place in 2009, when the incoming Obama administration in the US took the view that Iran cannot simply be coerced. However, sanctions continued to be an important part of the Western strategy, and many people still think that it was the sanctions that forced Iran to the negotiation table. Actually, instead of promoting a diplomatic solution, the sanctions have prevented its progress.

Alongside domestic political obstacles, the continuing belief in sanctions also partly prevented the West from moving from its previous incremental approach (modest confidence-building steps, without defining the end state of the talks) toward a comprehensive approach (confidence-building steps accompanied with definition of the end state).

However, by summer 2013 it had become clear that the previous approach was not working, and it was time to try the more comprehensive approach: in other words, Iran’s right to enrichment should be acknowledged. According to Erästö, this was necessary as the P+1 vagueness about the end state had formed a major obstacle for confidence-building from the Iranian perspective. When the talks resumed in autumn last year it was also easier for the Obama administration to justify this change of approach domestically after Rouhani’s administration had taken office, Dr Erästö argued.

There are still enormous challenges for the negotiation process and a high risk of failure, Dr Erästö said. But it is precisely the high stakes that might be needed in order to create the necessary political will to put an end to the unnecessary conflict, she argued. A resolution in this issue could also enhance the efforts to establish weapons of mass destruction free zone in the area, and could help resolve the conflict in Syria, she concluded.

There was a vivid discussion during the questions and answers section of the seminar. Below, some of the questions and answers are summarised.

How would you describe the relations between Iran and Europe?

Dr Ravanchi: Traditionally, Iran has had good relations with Europe. But they are not all the same: with some European countries we have a better understanding than with others. We are ready to improve dialogue with the EU and try to get closer to each other on many levels, of which trade and development are good examples. We can also operate together in the issue of narcotic drugs and trafficking. Iran is on the trafficking route coming out of Afghanistan, and most of the end users of the drugs are Europeans. We believe there is mutual work to be done here. Also, we could work together concerning the foreign fighters in Syria.

Is there a way to enhance the dialogue between different religious sects? And, is there a vision for the policy concerning Saudi Arabia?

Dr Ravanchi: The area where Iran is located is very volatile, and the last thing we need is a sectarian conflict. This should definitely be avoided. No one benefits from such a scenario. Sectarian violence breeds more violence and more extremism. We are in favour of dialogue between different Islamic sects and we think that we should do more to prevent a conflict. If we do not do so and this dangerous trend of sectarianism will continue, all of us lose.

With regard to our policy towards Saudi Arabia, we have differences of opinion mainly about Syria, but that does not mean we should not sit down and talk. We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia can work to improve the situation in the neighbourhood. The whole area would benefit from closer cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Concerning the Syrian question: the situation on the ground is very different to what was going on 2 years ago. During Geneva I, the military conditions in Syria were totally different compared to these days. We believe that the only way out of the Syrian crisis is for all sides to sit down and talk and find a solution. Iran has been advocating this policy for some time, and we believe that there is no other option, as there is no military solution to what is happening in Syria.

What is the position of US in the negotiations on Syria and the effect of Ukraine regarding this matter?

Prof Juusola: The fact that Americans are now angry at Russia might make them take more risks in arming the Syrian opposition. We have seen some signs of this, but it is difficult to tell. It might also have to do with their relations with the Saudis. All in all, the US might be taking more risks in Syria.

Can we look forward to improving the situation concerning getting press visas to Iran?

Dr Ravanchi: We will do our best to make sure the situation concerning the admittance of press visas improves. We would like to have more reporters visiting Iran to see for themselves what is going on and how has the recent political changes affected the situation in the country.