Iran's Foreign Policy Is in Chaos. How Should America Respond?

Iran's Foreign Policy Is in Chaos. How Should America Respond?

Hardliners and moderates are facing off, creating dilemmas for the United States.


Iran’s foreign-policy establishment is in chaos. The last week has seen a catena of maneuvers by the system’s key players. Rumors, reassignments and threats have been the order of the day. Yet determining how America should respond won’t be easy; indeed, it requires a fundamental vision of the U.S. approach to Iran.

Things kicked off last week when a former leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) alleged that Abbas Araghchi, a senior foreign-ministry official and nuclear negotiator respected by Western interlocutors, is a member of the IRGC’s external action wing, the Quds Force. The Quds Force has been linked to numerous terrorist plots, and its members face restrictions; as Al Monitor’s Arash Karami notes, this could lead “foreign delegations [to] request that Araghchi no longer be involved in ongoing negotiations over the implementation of the nuclear deal,” hindering those negotiations and thereby increasing pressure on Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.


Then, last Friday, Al Monitor’s Laura Rozen reported that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had “signaled that he has more authority on the Syria file than he has had until now, and that Iran may be prepared to show more flexibility to advance a political solution.” Rozen linked this to a meeting between the Iranian, Russian and Syrian defense ministers in Tehran earlier this month, which saw similar signals by Iran, and to the subsequent appointment of Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani to handle “political, security and military affairs with Syria and Russia.” This would shift the Syria file away from the de facto control of the IRGC.

On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry announced a shakeup. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, was removed from his post and made an “adviser” to Zarif, allegedly rejecting a role as ambassador to Oman in the process; foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi-Ansari took his place, while Bahram Qassemi, former ambassador to a number of European countries, became the new spokesman. This little game of musical chairs seemed to confirm Zarif’s rumored empowerment, and implied a shift in Iran’s foreign policy. Amir-Abdollahian was seen as the IRGC’s man in the foreign ministry—as Muhammad Sahimi points out, he was in the foreign ministry’s Iraq department for much of the period of U.S. occupation there, at a time when Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad was a member of the Quds Force. Amir-Abdollahian’s area of responsibility in his latest post overlapped with areas where the IRGC, not the administration of President Rouhani, have more impact.

Amir-Abdollahian was enough of a thorn in Arab sides that many inside and outside Iran suggested his removal implied an Iranian opening to Arab states on the Persian Gulf; Zarif even had to deny rumors that Amir-Abdollahian was removed at their request. Coupled with Zarif’s empowerment and the new role for Shamkhani (an ethnic Arab seen as friendlier to the Arab states), this suggested a coming reduction in tensions with the Gulf Cooperation Council and a stronger focus on the diplomatic track in Syria. And, to a lesser extent, Qassemi’s advancement could also hint at a turn toward Europe, as both of the previous spokespersons have moved on to prominent roles.

This diplomatic shift would comport with the Rouhani administration’s apparent desires. Though his time in office has seen the worst relations with the Gulf states in decades, there is a widespread perception that he favors friendlier relations with their governments and with the West, and that this is in service of a commerce-first vision of national power. (Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key Rouhani ally, is associated with similar views.) The hardline factions, centered around the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, tend to push for a more revolutionary approach to the region, distrust of the West (sometimes in favor of Russia, China or the third world), and autarky.

The Guards quickly hit back at the diplomats’ attempt to seize control of Iran’s foreign policy. General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force and an increasingly popular figure, issued a very sharp criticism of the Bahraini government’s revoking a prominent Shia cleric’s citizenship. In what hardline outlet Fars News branded an “unprecedented warning to the Al Khalifa regime,” Soleimani said that harming the cleric was a “red line” that would “set fire to Bahrain and the whole region” and “leave the people with no path other than armed resistance,” starting a “bloody intifada” and ending in the fall of the regime. Given Soleimani’s role in supporting insurgencies and terrorism around the region, this is rather like a mafia don saying “Nice restaurant you have there. Would be a shame if something happened to it.”

Soleimani’s statement was clearly intended as an Iranian threat to Bahrain, and an Iranian response would indeed be likely if Bahrain were to take further action against the cleric. (When Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shia cleric in January, protesters seen as agents of the Iranian deep state ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.) But it has also been interpreted as an answer to Amir-Abdollahian’s removal at the foreign ministry. As Al Monitor’s Karami points out, two Rouhani advisers publicly pushed for a peaceful approach to Bahrain, with one implying Soleimani’s remarks had created a “serious challenge” for the new deputy foreign minister. And Zarif seemed eager to counter Soleimani’s threat, saying that Iran “considers having good neighborly relations (with other countries) as its unwavering policy.” Ali Akbar Velayati, one of the Supreme Leader’s top advisers, seemed to split the difference between the Guards and the Foreign Ministry, saying that the “Al Khalifa and their regional and non-regional supporters need to know that they cannot stand against the will of a nation” while warning that harm to the cleric would lead to a “new phase of struggle.”

This back-and-forth is consistent with broader patterns in Iranian foreign policy: it has always been a battleground for domestic politics. Hardline actors have been particularly willing to take actions that keep tensions with “enemies” high, even when these actions damage Iran’s international standing. The IRGC’s intelligence arm, for example, has been detaining foreigners on apparently spurious charges. The moderates often can only try to control the damage.

How should America react to all this? On the one hand, Arab–Iranian tensions are harmful to the United States, and U.S.–Iranian tensions are even more harmful. Actions to ease conditions for pro-rapprochement elements in Iran would follow from this approach. Yet on the other hand, a senior Iranian official has issued a barely concealed threat of violence against Bahrain, which hosts a major U.S. military base and is more or less an ally. (To make it a little more complicated, Washington is also unhappy with how Manama has handled its domestic discord, including in the case of the cleric; Bahrain and its GCC allies, in turn, fear so much that America is abandoning them to Iran that they are lashing out in the region in ways highly detrimental to American interests.)

When we focus on one side of the political equation in Iran, one set of U.S. policies would seem to follow; when we focus on the other, a different set of policies follows. If we want to help the moderate factions within the Iranian government, we should be happy with Amir-Abdollahian’s removal and encourage our Arab and European partners to seek a new understanding with Tehran. We could interpret the nuclear deal in a more lenient way and hold back from tougher sanctions in separate areas. We might even look at pursuing further negotiations, offering the Iranians a possibility of further concessions on our side. On the other hand, if we look at Soleimani’s statement, a firm statement of support for our ally, and possibly further actions (joint exercises, deeper military cooperation and so forth) would be natural.

The key problem is that these policies, pursued together, could undermine each other. The soft, moderate-centered approach would only amplify GCC concerns and would suggest U.S. indifference to an IRGC-funded “bloody intifada” outside the gates of its bases—the sort of signal that might make Iran more likely to see that as a viable policy approach if the cleric is harmed. (At that point, a pacific policy would become politically unsustainable, as would an attempt to resolve the Syrian crisis, empowered Zarif or no.) And a tough U.S. response would undermine those same moderate figures: their critics would argue that Rouhani and others had shown weakness, and they in turn would have to show their mettle. Further escalation could be the result, and securitizing politics tends to benefit, surprise, the security services. The latter concern is probably behind the Obama administration’s relative silence on this point (they’ve so far only noted that the Iranians had said some “pretty vituperative” things, and dissociated themselves from that).

That gets to a broader challenge in foreign policy: Should we treat states as “black boxes,” only paying attention to their behavior, not their internal politics? Or should we set policy to account for and even change other states’ internal politics? This is a particularly important question with Iran, with its tendency to have foreign policy used for internal ends and the fact that some of its political factions are more hostile to us than others. We thus often end up faced with Iranian actions intended to provoke a response from us that will empower more anti-American currents. The Iran hostage crisis fit that bill: America could not have ignored it, and it led to the end of the relatively moderate Mehdi Bazargan government.

Still, the black box approach may prove to be the wiser one with Iran, for three key reasons. First, because appearing pro-American is dangerous in Iranian politics, effective action to back factions we find congenial puts those factions in danger. (There was even an attempt to brand the moderate/reformist coalition in February’s elections the “English list,” after another of Iran’s perceived enemies; moderate clerics are accused of promoting “American Islam.”)

Second, and more importantly, excusing hardline actions to benefit moderates reduces both the price to Iran of taking those actions and the moderates’ incentives to rein in the hardliners. It can even allow Iranian leaders to play good cop, bad cop with us—the moderates can threaten us with what the hardliners will do if we don’t play nice; the hardliners can warn of what they’ll do to the moderates.

But third, and most importantly of all, Iran’s political system is not a normal political system where the president is in charge. There is a deep state linked to the IRGC and to various quasi-governmental economic institutions; there is also the Supreme Leader and the institutions he controls, including the Guardian Council, the intelligence services, and the judiciary. It would take a bit of sleight-of-hand to say that the foreign minister is the only legitimate interlocutor on Iranian foreign policy. Soleimani is not some idle kibitzer; he can bring about the “bloody intifada” he threatens. His chain of command, moreover, ends at Khamenei, not Rouhani or Zarif. It’s a similar story with actions by the murkier parts of the deep state: when vigilantes enjoy impunity, Iran is responsible; when they break into diplomatic compounds (a recurring problem), Iran is failing to live up to its obligations as a host.

Some level of engagement with the less traditional elements of the Iranian state can also be appropriate. In some areas, that might require direct contact; but in others a mere reply fits the bill. It is worth pointing out that some hardline actions undermine hardliners’ own stated goals. Soleimani’s remarks about Bahrain are a perfect example. Since before the revolution, Iran has pushed for a Persian Gulf free of foreign powers; with those powers gone, Iran would be the predominant state in the region. Yet by threatening regime change in a neighbor allied with the strongest of those powers, Soleimani only encourages more foreign presence, reducing Iran’s relative power. He also encourages the Gulf states to band together, again weakening Tehran. The BBC’s Mehrdad Farahmand, noting this dynamic, even called Soleimani’s remarks “a gift to the Saudis.” America’s can, therefore, can address both sides of Iran’s power equation in a way that doesn’t harm only one.

John Allen Gay is managing editor of The National Interest and coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

Image: Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a meeting with the ambassadors of Belarus and Pakistan. Tasnim News photo by Meghdad Madadi, CC BY 4.0.