The ceremony in Tehran on Sunday when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei awarded the prestigious ‘Fath’ medal to the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi would be seen by sections of opinion in the United States as a ‘provocative’ act, which in turn fuels fresh criticism against President Barack Obama’s policy of engaging Iran.
Tehran honored Fadavi and four sailors for having detained 10 US Marines who trespassed into Iranian waters near the Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf on January 12. Prima facie, it looks a ‘provocative’ act. But there is also another side to it.
Obama’s critics probably do not know about another US-Iranian skirmish in the Persian Gulf. This was on 3 July 1988 when Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down with SM-2MR surface-to-air missile by the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes under the command of William Rogers III.
The incident took place in Iranian air space, over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, while the aircraft was on a usual flight path. All 290 on board were killed.
Yet, Washington refused to tender an official apology, and Washington instead honored Capt. Rogers with the Legion of Merit decoration “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer” of USS Vincennes.
As a memorial to the 290 victims, Iran Air still operates a daily fight to Dubai from Tehran as Flight 655.
Indeed, some memories do not easily retreat to the attic of the mind. Evidently, the ceremony in Tehran on Sunday had a deeper meaning. To quote Khamenei, “Certainly, it was the divine job that sent the Americans straying into our territorial waters only to be promptly captured with their hands behind their heads.”
What is at once obvious is that a long, winding, tortuous road lies ahead for the US-Iran normalization. The Implementation Day merely signified the unlocking of a door that was slammed shut over three decades ago. But even before the journey properly begins, misconceptions and false expectations – are galore in the American mind.
Let it be understood that Iran is not to be held responsible for the damaged relationship today between the US and Saudi Arabia. The fracture appeared when the Arab Spring swept away Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and the US did not lift a little finger to stop that from happening.
Equally, the turmoil in Yemen and Syria is traceable to the Arab Spring; as for Iraq, it was destabilized when the US invaded that country and therein lies also the rise of the Islamic State. Did Iran create the anarchy in Libya or Afghanistan?
The Iranian approach in all of these situations has been reactive. Thus, it is futile to expect that with a shift in the Iranian policies, the ‘hot spots’ in the Middle East would cool down. Nonetheless, the nuclear deal, which opened the way for the removal of sanctions and is facilitating Iran’s integration with the western countries, can and will make a crucial difference.
The nuclear deal will have a vital influence on where Iran’s domestic politics and its diplomacy are heading, namely, a sustained program to integrate with the regional and global governance systems.
There is bound to be strife between factions that favor opening up to the US and those factions which remain skeptical. Broadly, Iranian diplomacy will have to conform to the country’s reality and historical trends. But the good thing is that Iran has a need to diversify its external relations.
The country needs to accelerate development and to that end it has pressing need to source capital and technology and to access world market. On the other hand, this is not the end of history; Iran also sees the continued struggle ahead to ward off US pressures on ideology and human rights.
Therefore, Iran’s diplomacy will aim at creating leverage to realize its security ambitions. Thus, Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to supreme leader on international affairs, is currently on a visit to Moscow. A key item on his agenda is Iran’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (and BRICS).
But then, it is far from certain whether Iran’s SCO campaign, which actually dates back to 2008, will succeed in a conceivable future, since Russia and China may be paying lip-service to it. Suffice it to say, the SCO and the West are both important for Iran, but Tehran also needs to be vigilant about both.
Meanwhile, the stability of the political path will be Iran’s number one priority. The West’s analysis is rather superficially making these complex processes and Iran’s balancing acts into a tussle between ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’. Whereas, no matter the outcome of the forthcoming elections to the Majlis in end-February, the possibility is ‘zero’ that Iran will veer off track and adopt a Western model of reforms.
All the same, the US has no need of a ‘color revolution’ in Iran. Its relationship with Iran will see natural development. A stable foreign policy is going to be the objective of Iranian diplomacy, given its critical need to pursue national development with a balanced approach, taking into account the interplay of contradictory factors in the domestic politics.
Indeed, the prime objective of Iran’s opening up will be to deepen engagement with the US. But this may take time because it is also linked to Iran’s domestic political restructuring. Through the years or decades of sanctions, vested interests have developed in the control of the economy. And they include powerful quarters within the religious military establishment.
These vested interests will not disappear overnight but they will dissipate once Iran’s integration with the western countries makes headway and market forces gain ascendancy in the economy.
Undoubtedly, therefore, the co-relation between domestic politics and foreign policy remains a reality in the near future. That also explains the impetus for grandstanding and symbolism, which the ceremony in Tehran on Sunday exhibited.