On 15 March 2022, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) hosted Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa programme and James Anderson professorial lecturer in the Middle East Studies department at SAIS Europe, for a lecture titled “Politics, Paranoia and Pride: Iranian Security Policy under President Raisi.” The lecture was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.
Vakil began by relating the history of Iran’s security policy, with a focus on the worldview of Iran’s conservative politicians. Differences in worldviews can help better explain and predict tensions in the Middle East. Raisi’s election formalized the conservative monopoly of elected as well as un-elected institutions in Iran. With factionalism being a prominent feature of Iranian politics, including within conservative politics, Vakil described the worldviews of Iran’s conservatives in general. “I see a mix of nationalism and paranoia as very much coming together in how Iran engages in the international and regional domains.” Vakil stated that Iran sees its regional activities as defensive, while regional states see Iran’s activities as aggressive. With the nuclear talks in Vienna being inconclusive, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel are concerned about regional security both with and without the JCPOA.
Describing Iran’s foreign policy, Vakil observed that the primary objective of the state has been to protect the security of the Islamic Republic, and the primary perceived threats are the involvement of the US in the region, and Israel. Therefore, the goal of the Islamic Republic has been to reduce the role of the US in the region. Iran has employed forward defense to achieve strategic depth in order to push its perceived threats away from its borders, and towards other arenas such as the borders of Israel. Recently, it has sought to use the Houthis to push its strategic objectives to the borders of Saudi Arabia. This has been seen as an effective strategy in Tehran. The Islamic Republic has tried other strategies, such as signing the JCPOA, only to have it replaced by Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. Trump’s Iran’s policy was seen as economic warfare, cementing Tehran’s worldview that goodwill does not beget goodwill.
Vakil stated the dynamics in the region have shifted over the last four decades. Two events have been instrumental in shaping the conservatives’ worldview in Iran. The first is the Iran-Iraq war, which fueled a sense of pride but also paranoia. The other was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has been repeatedly discussed by Khamenei in his writings and statements as a turning point, with the goal of preventing a similar collapse in Iran. Iran is unlikely to make sweeping social reforms in view of the effect of Perestroika on the Soviet Union. Under maximum pressure sanctions, Iran has relied on bordering countries politically and economically to survive, prompting the country to pay greater attention to the importance of improving its regional relations.
Discussing differences between presidential administrations and their policies, Vakil said that different presidents share the worldview that many Western states want to change the nature of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani believed that the way to safeguard the Islamic Republic was through international economic integration, while conservatives like Raisi see integration as ultimately unseating the place of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei has allowed both strategies to be implemented. The West has proven itself to be an unreliable economic partner.
On recent events, Vakil remarked that Russia has decided to hold the Vienna talks hostage, requiring written guarantees of unsanctioned trade with Iran. Maintaining trade relations with Iran could be useful because of the sanctions campaign launched against Russia, but Russia is mainly using the shared security challenge of Iran’s nuclear program to exert pressure on Western states. Legally, Russia’s support for the JCPOA is necessary for the deal to move forward, and Tehran is unlikely to be able to ignore Russia’s demands.
Considering the postponed Saudi-Iran talks, Vakil explained that on the Iranian side one of Rouhani’s goals was to improve regional relations, but Arab states did not see it to their advantage to improve relations with Iran. Today, Iran’s Arab neighbors are comforted by a sense of conservative unity in Tehran. There is a sense that when they engage with the Iranian president, they are engaging with a political leader who has the ear of the Supreme Leader. They see Iran’s decision making as similar to their own systems, where decisions are made at the top rather than through consensus. However, the talks have hit a number of obstacles due to differences in threat perception. Iran views the US as its biggest security threat, while Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its greatest security threat. Vakil sees the JCPOA as a starting point for regional security.
According to Vakil, domestic and international security are linked. Iran has pushed back against perceived foreign influence in civil society through repression of NGOs, journalistic training, and other efforts that could be coming from abroad.
Finally, commenting on Iran’s position on the war in Ukraine, Vakil mentioned that Iran has implemented a “look East” policy, through which the Islamic Republic has sought to become closer to countries such as Russia and China. Iran abstained in the UN vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, taking a neutral, independent posture. This was to be expected given Iran’s history with the West and Russia.
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