Last week the reformist daily Shargh conducted an in-depth, extensive interview with Dr. Mahmoud Sariolghalam. Dr. Sariolghalam is a lecturer on international relations at the Economy and Social Science School of Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University. He holds a PhD in international relations from the University of Southern California, and specializes in the international politics of the Middle East, foreign policy, and Iran’s political culture. He is also an advisor for the Strategic Studies Center of the Expediency Discernment Council.
In the interview given to Shargh, Dr. Sariolghalam expressed a particularly critical and interesting approach towards the Iranian decision makers’ views on regional and international developments. According to Dr. Sariolghalam, these views can be characterized as unrealistic and anachronistic, and are detrimental to Iran’s ability to influence the developments in the world in general and in the Arab Middle East in particular.
At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Sariolghalam discussed Iran’s failure to play a major role in the developments that have taken place in the Arab world these past two years, and argued that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the political and economic winners from these developments. Turkey’s importance, he said, stems from its ability to present a unique model which has gained the appreciation not only of Middle Easterners but also of developing countries across the globe. Saudi Arabia, whose policy in the past was completely dependent on that of the United States, has also begun pursuing its own political initiatives in the past two years, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or North Africa. Unlike Turkey, however, it prefers to act behind the scenes rather than out in the open. These two countries are increasingly recognized by the new regimes in the Arab world for their ability to promote their interests while cooperating with the international system and with all of the groups and factions in the region. They work on the basis of economic interests and are taking advantage of all the political opportunities that they are presented with.
Iran, on the other hand, does not operate as it should in the Middle East, and has adopted an unrealistic approach towards its Arab neighbors. It ignores the fact that the Persian Gulf countries are economically, commercially, and technologically part of the world’s developed countries. Even if the citizens of these countries have political reservations about their governments, most of them, socially and politically, are happy with their situation and enjoy a high quality of life.
Sariolghalam said that Iran’s foreign policy is wrong in that it holds the willingness of other countries to agree with all of its views to be a precondition for having relationships with them. Iran cuts off its ties with any group or country unwilling to adopt its official views. This is detrimental to Iran’s ability to influence these countries, since influence is based on power, and power demands presence in the various countries. Iran is engaged in a political struggle instead of political conduct. Political work requires presence, influence, and the creation of coalitions. As an example, Sariolghalam cited Iran’s decision to cut off its ties with Egypt. Iran cut off its ties with this powerful and influential country for one reason (i.e., the Camp David Accords) and, as a result, lost its ability to influence it. Iran views other countries in the region only in the military and defense-related perspective, without taking into consideration scientific, technological, economic, productive, and artistic aspects. The result is that the political power in the region is shifting to Saudi Arabia, while the economic and diplomatic power is shifting to Turkey.
Sariolghalam went on to discuss the concept of self-reliance as it is reflected in the Iranian policy and what he referred to as Iran’s erroneous attitude towards the existing world order. He said that, while the past 25-30 years have seen the entire world, including China, India, Korea, Brazil, Turkey, Argentina, and Egypt, march in the direction of increased international cooperation, Iran is marching in the opposite direction of self-reliance. While this trend does encourage independent thought and technology, no person, institution, or commodity can earn their rightful status in the absence of international relations. Iran’s decision makers still think about the world in terms of the fight against imperialism, but the power in the world is already divided, and the GDP of Brazil, for example, is higher than that of Britain.
The Iranian model, based on self-reliance, is unwelcome in the Arab world, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Central Asian countries, since it makes economic management or scientific and technological development impossible. As a result, these countries adopt other models. In Egypt and Tunisia, and even among the Muslim Brotherhood, there are many who participate in international thought, speak foreign languages, have extensive international relationships, and share a similar moral and social outlook. Iran enjoys a historical status in the Muslim world and many among the Islamists consider the Islamic revolution to be a positive event in the context of history, which brought down the tyranny of the Shah. They are not sure, however, how they can learn from what is taking place in Iran. The most important question that they are asking themselves is why Iran is so hated across the globe, and why, in spite of its historical and philosophical power and its natural and human resources, it was unable to follow a course of action similar to that chosen by India. Even after two hundred years of colonialism, India was self-confidently willing to cooperate with all the countries in the world. It did not cut off its ties even with Britain, and has built extensive political, commercial, economic, and scientific relations with that country. The question that needs to be asked is why Iran’s relations with the rest of the world are unlike India’s relations, and whether this is the result of Iran’s weakness.
Dr. Sariolghalam said that even the Islamists in the Arab world no longer express an idealistic approach. The uprising citizens in the Arab world carried three important slogans: “welfare”, “freedom”, and “human dignity”. These slogans are not different from those carried in the past by left-wing movements that called for a struggle against imperialism and for the establishment of a new world order. Their slogans were realistic rather than idealistic. This is what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, and most Shi’ite politicians in Iraq hold similar views towards the developments in Iraq and elsewhere in the world.
The time for the idea of fighting the world order has passed. This can be seen in the example of the U.S.S.R., which had resources, capabilities, and military strength, yet still collapsed because it acted on ideas that went against human nature and global reality. The American hegemonic order no longer dominates the world. While the middle class in the United States and Europe is becoming weaker, the middle class in Asia and Latin America is growing stronger. Thirty-five countries and 1,450 companies cooperate in the production of the Airbus aircraft. The world has changed, and it is no longer based on a global struggle. This concept of fighting the existing world order is no longer accepted in Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, or Latin America. Brazil, which fought for 150 years to achieve a prominent status in the world, has finally reached its objective, and the Brazilians themselves admit that they owe their status to cooperation with the world’s countries. Twenty-two Brazilians became millionaires each day in 2010 thanks to cooperation with the rest of the world, and Brazil’s position is better than that of Italy and Spain.
Sariolghalam argued that the Iranian foreign policy has its source in anachronistic thought that is based on insufficient acquaintance with the world. The ideas expressed by Iranian diplomats abroad are recognized only in the corridors of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, not on the international scene. Most executives in Iran do not speak foreign languages and have no relations with the world. Instead of reading books, most of them read leaflets which, in the best-case scenario, contain a selection of translated excerpts from various books. Sariolghalam believes that an Iranian executive needs to read Samuel Huntington’s book from beginning to end, instead of just two paragraphs he had someone else summarize for him. He noted that the thought of politicians belonging to the first generation of Iran’s Islamic revolution was shaped during the Cold War and influenced by the reality of a bi-polar world and the philosophy of the anti-imperialist left wing. Now the world is different. It would be better for the research centers of the Foreign Ministry to bring together decent people who are far from politics to implement a new understanding of the world, and to allow Iranian diplomats to support new, more up-to-date thought. Today, even those who want to be religious must cooperate with the world.
Speaking about the Iranian approach which stresses the need for the establishment of relations with nations over the establishment of relations with governments, Dr. Sariolghalam argued that this approach is only good for speeches. In political science grounded in reality, significant cooperation requires the establishment of relations with centers of power. One can cooperate with Microsoft, a Chinese bank, or the South Korean maritime industry, but it cannot be argued that the priority is cooperation with “nations”. Who are those “nations”? Are these people who go out to the streets? People invited to conferences held in Tehran? Groups, factions, organizations, or centers?
If Iran wants to become part of the system that runs the world, it has to adopt a realistic approach. Sariolghalam cited the example of China. The leaders of that country also argue that their approach towards Europe and the United States is not positive, and they have also taken severe blows from the West. However, their concern is China’s interests, and they are not willing to settle their problems with the West from a historical perspective. They know that they need to learn from the rest of the world if they are to solve the problems of 1.5 billion Chinese. Iran, too, needs to learn how to cooperate with the world. The number of countries which an Afghan citizen can currently enter without a visa is bigger than the number of countries to which an Iranian citizen is free to travel, and it is hard to find anyone in the government of Afghanistan who has no knowledge of a foreign language.
Sariolghalam discussed the argument voiced in the Arab world about the existence of a “Shi’ite crescent” and Iran’s aspirations to take advantage of the developments in the Arab world to expand that crescent. He rejected that claim and said that the rivalry in the region is fundamentally political, even though at times it may be cloaked in religious garb. He said that the “Shi’ite crescent” argument is not serious. Iraq is not a monolithic Shi’ite country, and neither is Lebanon. For Iraq to be able to firmly establish its internal system, ensure security, and achieve political and economic stability, the Shi’ites in Iraq need to gain power in the Arab world, not in Iran. While the Shi’ites in the Arab world respect Iran as a Shi’ite country with religious centers and major Shi’ite clerics, in the political and economic sense they are looking at the world, and are closer to the Arab world. Certain groups in Lebanon and Iraq do cooperate with Iran; however, it is impossible to say that there is a single political belt stretching from Iran to southern Lebanon, and the argument about the existence of a “Shi’ite crescent” is mostly propaganda employed by Arab and Western countries interested in provoking a conflict between Iran and the Arabs.
According to Sariolghalam, Iran’s political attitude makes any significant improvement in its relationship with the countries of the region impossible. All the attempts made by top Iranian officials to ease the tension with Saudi Arabia over the issue of Bahrain have failed because the Saudis do not believe in the existence of a real possibility to reach an agreement with Iran, which considers many regional issues to be a leverage of deterrence against the United States, intended to prevent it from meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. Iran’s policy is not based on economic considerations, and its economic relations with its Arab neighbors are highly limited. Even Saudi Arabia, whose oil revenues far outweigh those of Iran, has reached the conclusion that it cannot act alone, and works to solidify its relations with Arab countries and with Turkey.
At the end of the interview, Sariolghalam spoke about Iran’s relations with the United States and the nuclear talks. He said that Iran is important for the United States due to the significance of political Islam and due to its proximity to Russia. He further added that in recent months the U.S. administration has changed its views on Iran because of the approach of the presidential election. The Obama administration seeks to portray the Iranian nuclear issue as being under the control and supervision of the United States, and not let its political opponents take advantage of the issue. The U.S. administration doesn’t want to see the nuclear issue escalate into a crisis, and it is Sariolghalam’s assessment that the negotiations atmosphere will last at least until the U.S. presidential election. He estimated, however, that the Moscow talks will lead to no significant developments, since it is in the interests of both Iran and the United States to continue the talks gradually and agree to mutual concessions in stages (Shargh, June 6).