Iran Inches Toward Total Economic Empowerment

The Mullahs anxiously await the final stages of the nuclear deal.

Hasan RowhaniThe nuclear talks between the Islamic Republic of Iran and six world powers (P5+1: China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) have inched forward toward the permanent nuclear deal and the removal of all economic sanctions against the Iranian regime.

Some proponents of the Iranian regime in the West and in Iran have been spreading a specific interest-driven narrative by pointing out that if a final nuclear is achieved, Iranian leaders are more likely to tone down their ideological and regional hegemonic ambitions as well.

According to this argument, if a permanent nuclear deal is achieved, and if the diplomatic thaw between Tehran and Washington continues, Iran’s foreign policies in the region will not turn more aggressive or interventionist regarding regional and foreign policies. As a result, other countries should not be concerned about Iran’s policies and they should push for a final nuclear deal and the removal of sanctions.

In other words, those who advocate for Rouhani’s government and the Islamic Republic contend that Iranian leaders will instead become more cooperative, conciliatory, and will decrease their hegemonic ambitions and policies in the region.

This view fails to take into account the realities on the ground. Since the interim nuclear deal has been reached, the Islamic Republic has become more emboldened to achieve its ideological, geopolitical, and regional hegemonic ambitions. Some of the sanctions relief and billions of dollars that the Iranian regime has received from the United States and international community has empowered its assertive and aggressive stance.

According to Lieutenant Commander of Khatam al-Anbia Air Defense Base General Ali Reza Sabahi-Fard, Iran is rapidly upgrading its defense system. And as Commander of the Army Ground Force Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan announced last week, Iran's Ground Force has test-fired new mid-range ballistic missiles and has equipped S-200 air defense system with new missiles. The S-200 system is characterized as having much longer-range capabilities as compared to previous missile systems.

According to Reuters, Iran’s military is planning to target a mock-up American aircraft carrier. The newspaper Haft-e Sobh daily quoted Adm. Ali Fadavi, navy chief of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, as saying, "target the carrier in the trainings, after it is completed." Accordingly, Adm. Fadavi pointed out, "We should learn about weaknesses and strengths of our enemy."

Recently, Iran's National Army Day orchestrated a large-scale military parade through the capital, Tehran, where fighter jets and military technology manufactured by Russia and other countries, were part of the show. Iranian leaders have made clear that their military capabilities and their missile systems are non-negotiable in the nuclear talks. The United States and other members have also overlooked this threat, and are instead focusing on reaching a final nuclear deal.

Due to the recent sanction relief, several countries, including Turkey, China, Germany, and Austria, have boosted or are planning to boost their economic ties with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s oil exports, in legal or black markets, have also significantly increased.

The case that Iran’s desire for regional supremacy will be tempered if a permanent nuclear deal is sealed, and if the U.S. and Iran thawed diplomatic relations, does not take into account the underlying geopolitical and economic fundamentals, as well as historical context of the Islamic Republic.

The view claiming that Iran’s ideological and hegemonic ambitions will diminish if a final nuclear deal is reached is very unsophisticated and naïve. Even when Iran’s nuclear program was not in the spotlight, for example in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Islamic Republic was at its peak in meddling in other countries' domestic affairs and showed no sign of tempering its aspiration for regional supremacy.

In fact, these were the times that the Iranian leaders were notably and outstandingly attempting to alter the regional balance of power in its interest by intervening in Lebanon, giving birth to one of the most formidable Shiite non-state actors, Hezbollah, fighting with Israel through its proxies, forming one of the most long-standing Middle Eastern alliances with the Syrian government, and continuing the war in Iraq for an extra six years despite the fact it was offered full compensation by other countries to cease the war.

More recently, even after reaching a preliminary nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic has shown no sign of tempering its foreign policies when it comes to affecting the domestic politics of other countries including Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Lebanon. The Yemeni president pointed out in an interview, “Unfortunately, Iran still meddles in Yemen whether by supporting the separatist [Southern] Movement or some religious groups in the north.” He asked the Shiite-dominated Iran to “keep its hands off Yemen” and to halt giving support to “armed groups” in the country. Reportedly, the Houthis are receiving Iranian support, and have been capable of dominating the northern Yemeni province of Saada. Asir, the Saudi province, borders the Yemeni Shiite rebel strongholds.

The second part of the argument made by the proponents of Rouhani’s government and the Islamic Republic is very simplistic in the sense that it overlooks the sophistication and complexity of Iran’s politics in Middle East.

The reason that other countries are not concerned about Iran’s foreign policies in the region if a final nuclear deal is reached (as well as in case Iran tempers its policies and regional geopolitical position), is that they take no notice of the Middle Eastern political chessboard and the Islamic Republic’s role in this political jigsaw puzzle.

The issue is that Iran’s nuclear file has been filled up with frequent clandestine nuclear sites revealed by external governments and organizations, a robust determination to become a nuclear power, non-transparency, secrecy, and a lack of clarity about Iran’s nuclear developments. How can other nations accept these terms of security if another country in the region is on the verge of significantly tipping the balance of power in its favor through reaching a breakaway nuclear capacity?

Most likely, the permanent nuclear deal will leave the Islamic Republic with some breathing space to pursue its nuclear ambitions and achieve its objectives and nuclear breakthrough. If this occurs, the chessboard that is the Middle East will witness a critical reshaping in favor of the nuclear state. This will naturally be followed by a nuclear arms race and competition in the region, which will further destabilize the region and its security. In addition, the nuclear deterrence will boost and facilitate Tehran’s regional ambitions from economic, geopolitical, and strategic prisms.

Even if an efficient permanent nuclear deal is reached between the P5+1 and Iran, should other countries, as some policy analysts and proponents of Rouhani’s government argue, not be concerned about Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions? It is very unrealistic and naïve to argue that the Islamic Republic will temper its ideological and regional hegemonic ambitions even if a permanent nuclear deal is reached and even if Washington and Tehran mend diplomatic ties. Iran is strongly involved in influencing the domestic affairs of other countries, through founding or backing some Shiite groups, which makes a shift in Tehran’s regional policies inconceivable. Furthermore, Tehran’s regional policies are not only aimed at achieving geopolitical and economic supremacy, but also founded on ideological landscapes, attempting to spread the Shiite version of Islam through either political movements or well-established religious seminary centers such as in the city of Qom.

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