The new Iran: all change or just more of the same?

10 November 2013

EFD fellow Anna Borshchevskaya notes in her latest op-ed for Al-Arabiya that "Diplomacy cannot succeed so long as the Iranian regime is driven by an ideology that, at its core, is in an existential conflict with liberal democratic values".

Video footage captured by Syrian rebels suggests that Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict goes beyond sending advisors to assist Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The BBC reported on 30th October that the video shows the extent of Tehran’s assistance to the National Defense Force (NDF), a pro-Assad militia.

The new Iranian president, Hassan Rowhani, presents himself to the West as a moderate; elected largely because he promised change and relief from the effects of international sanctions which have crippled the country’s economy. The video shows that Iran’s policy toward Syria, however, remains unchanged. And Syria is only part of a larger story. Iran is engaged in a broader turf war in the Middle East and beyond—increasingly in Africa and Latin America. A new President but it’s the same old story: Rowhani has little power and even less incentive to change this course.

Western policymakers refer to Iran as a “regional power.” Yet Iranian politicians themselves increasingly refer to the Islamic Republic as a “pan-regional power” instead, implying a broader area of influence. Iranian officials continue to use media, aid and/or irregular forces to influence Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Tehran has also reached out to many African countries, particularly those that vote in important international organisations, such as the U.N. Security Council, uranium-producing countries, and littoral states that can provide logistical support for the Iranian navy. Iranian officials have described Iran as an “extra-regional power,” – an even greater, though subtle, emphasis on Tehran’s ambitions outside the Middle East and beyond building a nuclear bomb.

According to former FBI counter terrorism analyst Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah, a terrorist group founded and trained by Iran and still working in conjunction with the Islamic Republic, is currently investing in countries such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire, to solidify its presence in the region. Levitt’s assessment additionally confirms that Tehran’s connection to Latin America is also growing and that Hezbollah’s role in drug trafficking is well documented. According to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011, Tehran attempted to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Iran and Venezuela for years have had a strategic alliance against Western “imperialism.” Roger Noriega, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, has warned U.S. lawmakers and journalists in March 2013 that Iranian influence is only growing in Venezuela and that Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, carries out terrorist attacks in the country, helping Tehran gain access to Venezuela’s financial sector and so circumvent Western sanctions.


Some Western policymakers may believe that the current Iranian leadership is more moderate than the previous one. Yet in September 2013, the regime’s press mocked President Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly where he praised Rowhani’s “… moderate course,” and expressed commitment to the “… diplomatic path” with Iran.

Washington DC-based Iran scholar, Ali Alfoneh, wrote that, in response to Obama’s diplomatic outreach, “… Rowhani was not attempting to find common ground with Americans but that he, rather, aimed to please developing nations, rising powers and hardliners at home in Tehran.”

Iran continues to execute criminals and this has only increased in 2013. The regime executed some 20 inmates the weekend of 26th October. According to Amnesty International, state executions have increased sharply in 2013 in Iran—hardly the actions of a reform-minded government. Senior Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami recently warned Iranians that Western diplomatic engagement was a trap because if the nuclear issue is resolved, the U.S. “… will raise the issue of human rights … and say whatsoever rights men have, women should have them too.”

The U.S. Congress is currently discussing a bill that calls for a review of the impact of U.S. policies towards Iran. Amidst warnings from Olli Heinonen, former International Atomic Energy Agency Deputy Director General, that Iran could be as close as two weeks away from acquiring enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, the bill could delay a new round of sanctions by as much as four months.

The White House asked Congress to give Western countries a chance to reach a diplomatic solution with the Iranian regime before imposing new sanctions. Diplomacy, however, cannot succeed so long as the Iranian regime is driven by an ideology that, at its core, is in an existential conflict with liberal democratic values.