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Iran’s Khamenei sets down boundaries on foreign policy

Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei greets the crowd during the ceremony marking the 28th death anniversary of Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Tehran, Iran on 4 June, 2017 [Supreme Leader Press Office/Anadolu Agency]
Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei greets the crowd during the ceremony marking the 28th death anniversary of Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Tehran, Iran on 4 June, 2017 [Supreme Leader Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

“The enemy has failed to know you! The enemy has failed to know the Iranian nation! He does not know the Revolution or the revolutionary and faith-based spirit!”, proclaimed Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei to a gathering of Basij paramilitary forces on Thursday, October 4.

In a typically combative fashion, the Iranian leader set out the country’s attitude and desired policies in the face of intensifying hostility by the Trump Administration. By ruling out compromise or “surrender” to the US, Khamenei is effectively throwing down the gauntlet at the Iranian government and in particular the country’s diplomatic service.

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That speech, and a more recent one on Wednesday, October 10, when the Iranian leader met the heads of the three branches of government, underlines the sense of urgency and anxiety, if not a full-blown crisis, in Tehran.

The Iranian leader’s forceful intervention unfolds against a backdrop of a faltering economy, looming expansive US sanctions and growing insecurity and terrorism on the country’s periphery. The Iranian leader believes the country can overcome these problems without retreating from its core principles or policies.

But the key question revolves around the extent to which the country’s political establishment and policy community can adhere to the leadership’s guidelines.

A house divided?    

Ayatollah Khamenei’s clear message on “resistance” is as much directed at an internal audience as it is to the outside world. Indeed, at a time when the Iranian leader is stressing defiance, the Iranian Majlis (parliament) has just ratified measures against money laundering and terrorism finance. These measures were demanded by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a key international body setting down standards on financial probity.

Many people in Iran are opposed to compliance with FATF standards on the grounds that it can potentially undermine Iran’s policy of supporting “resistance” groups in the Middle East, notably Hezbollah and Hamas. More broadly, FATF alignment can potentially affect wider Iranian foreign policy and make it harder to stand up to the United States.

However, proponents of FATF alignment, notably pro-Rouhani Iranian diplomats, argue that in the event of non-compliance Iran faces even more international isolation and is more vulnerable to US pressure.

Cartoon of President Trump ripping Iran's Nuclear deal [Twitter]

Cartoon of President Trump ripping Iran’s Nuclear deal [Twitter]

Buoyed by the Majlis’s ratification of the FATF-compliance bill, Rouhani allies are pushing ahead with diplomatic initiatives to reach out to the United States. For example, the head of the Majlis’s national security and foreign policy committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, has just proposed reaching out to elements in the American political and policy making establishment who are opposed to the Trump White House.

Of course, the combination of tough rhetoric and vibrant diplomacy is nothing new in the Islamic Republic. It has been employed time and time again in the past three decades to great effect, insofar as it boosts unity at home whilst opening up diplomatic opportunities abroad.

But there are multiple indications that this period is unusually “sensitive” as Khamenei told the gathering of Basijis earlier this month. With regional tensions and American pressure continuing to peak, the Iranian establishment needs greater cohesion than ever to manage and overcome the multiple threats ranged against it.

Going on the offensive

Beyond the government, one section of the Iranian establishment, namely the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is fully in tune with Ayatollah Khamenei’s tough rhetoric. The IRGC has responded forcefully to intensifying security threats, notably by demonstrating the precision and lethality of its ballistic missile arsenal.

The IRGC’S missile strike on Daesh positions in eastern Syria late last month was more about demonstrating strategic capabilities and associated intent than striking at “terrorists” blamed for an attack on a military parade in Ahvaz.

Above all the missile strike on eastern Syria was a message to the United States which withdrew from the 2015 landmark nuclear deal in part because of its desire to contain Iran’s missile programme.

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Senior Iranian military leaders, notably Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, have claimed that US military forces were only 5 km away from the Daesh positions struck by the IRGC. Rhetoric aside, even if US forces were 50 km away that would still constitute significant signalling by the Revolutionary Guards.

The strike on Daesh positions was immediately preceded by a verifiably precise and deadly missile attack on the main base of Iranian Kurdish separatists based in northern Iraq. Additionally, the IRGC appears to be encouraging its Houthi Yemeni allies to intensify missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, as demonstrated by the latest reported missile strike on Saudi paramilitary positions in the Asir region of south-western Arabia.

Saudi quagmire in Yemen - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Saudi quagmire in Yemen – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

By flexing its muscles, the IRGC is indicating preparedness for escalation and potentially direct confrontation, even with the United States. Whilst this military posture is not necessarily inimical to pro-active diplomacy, nevertheless, in practical terms it acts as a constraint on Iran’s diplomats.

From the Revolutionary Guards’ perspective, the desired outcome is enforcement of Ayatollah Khamenei’s will to avoid diplomatic engagement with the Americans at this juncture. It is also indicative of a patient and long-term strategy to continually defy Washington’s will in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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