By Ellen Laipson and Elena McGovern – Iran’s President, elected with no foreign policy experience and apparently no first-hand knowledge of any of Iran’s immediate neighbors or any of the great powers, has been making up for lost time. In his two years in office, he has been to the US twice, and will make his third visit later this month. He’s been to China, most of the Gulf Arab states (notably not Bahrain, which Iran has historically claimed), to major Muslim states including Malaysia and Indonesia, and to radical bastions Cuba and Venezuela. Most recently, he’s visited Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is worth pondering how these travels affect him and his worldview, and how his hosts view Iran and its controversial policies.
From a US perspective, these travels call into question some assumptions about US policies: is the US persuading other countries to keep Iran isolated, to contain it?Are Iran’s encounters with countries friendly to the US changing President Ahmedinejad’s understanding of the world of international politics?Does the Iranian president exploit anti-American sentiment to thebenefit of Iran’s soft power? Do other countries try to influence Iran with respect to its nuclear program and other policies that are unacceptable to the US and much of the West?
Here are some snapshots from President Ahmadinejad’s travels: In May he visited Oman and the UAE, becoming the first Iranian president to visit the Emirates sinceits creation in 1971. During the meetings he espoused the need for regional security cooperation and the historically friendly ties between Iran and the two Arab nations. But while still on Gulf soil, he threatened the US and its allies and assured the world of Iran’s capacity to deal a heavy blow to American interests in the region, increasing regional anxiety about Iran’s intentions. Coincidentally, Vice President Cheney was in the Middle East over the same week, solidifying their support for US policies against Iran and making bellicose statements of his own aboard the USS John C. Stennis.
Also in May, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei announced that Iran was taking the lead among nations in confronting the US. That same day President Ahmadinejad traveled to Belarus, one of the US-dubbed “outposts of tyranny.” His meeting with President Lukashenko resulted in Iran granting Belarus much-needed access to its oil reserves and an agreement to jointly develop an Iranian oil field as a means of breaking its energy reliance on Russia. In return, Iran solidified its “strategic partnership” with the country. Regional analysts have speculated that the meeting, closely watched by both Russia and the US, discussed the potential creation of partnerships with other Eastern European countries wary of relying solely on Russian energy. If successful, such an arrangement could threaten the US-imposed political containment strategy for Iran and Belarus. Ahmadinejad strengthened this impression further when he stated, “We shall not give in to the pressure which is being exerted on us. The future belongs to nations which want to be independent…Countries pursuing a policy of hegemony have no future and will have to give in to the will of our nations…We are against developing a unipolar world and against double standards being applied to us.”
Over the summer, Ahmadinejad met with other world leaders, including Chavez of Venezuela and Assad of Syria, shoring up his anti-American alliances. While in Algeria, he criticized the US for pursuing its own hegemonic interests and for contributing to terrorism, placing his host in an awkward diplomatic position as a US ally in the war on terror and the signatory of a recent nuclear cooperation deal with Washington. Meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and Afghan President Karzai resulted in statements of shared responsibility for regional stability and the promise of good neighbor policies.
Last month Ahmadinejad toured the Caspian region, visiting Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, trying to shore up both political and economic support. Meetings in Ashgabat ended with an Iranian offer to transfer gas to Europe and South Asia and agreements on water sharing, trade promotion and cross-border travel. Discussions also dealt with the division of the Caspian – a sensitive topic for both countries, as Iran is worried about the shifting of regional support further towards Russia, particularly as Iranian-Russian relations become increasingly strained. Turkmenistan is caught in a balancing act between the two.
The Iranian president continued on his tour of the Caspian region by traveling to Kyrgyzstan for the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with the stated goal of changing its status from an observer to a member. The SCO, perceived as a powerful and growing bloc that may one day be able to counter US influence, is viewed by Iran as a key piece to its Central Asian policy, as positive relations would strengthen its hand in its row with the West and encourage a “new Silk Road” connecting Iran and China through the region. Additionally, the meeting served as a platform for Ahmadinejad to lash out against President Bush’s proposed missile defense system. Yet despite Iranian desires, full SCO membership seems unlikely, given reservations in Moscow and Beijing.
Soon afterwards, Ahmadinejad made his first official trip to Azerbaijan, a key US ally, during which efforts were made to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation and trade. But speculators in the region wondered if Iran’s true intention was to dissuade Baku, which already cooperates with NATO and benefits from pipelines to Turkey and the West, from allowing a US attack on Iran from its territory, a charge they have denied.
The United States does not want to be seen as a “peer competitor” of Iran in its relationships in the strategic regions that border Iran. But in the Gulf, the Caspian and in Central Asia, the two countries are promoting starkly different world views and compete for favorable trade, energy and security relationships. For example, immediately following Ahmedinejad’s visit to Turkmenistan, David Sullivan, the US assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs, met with officials there to negotiate an underwater pipeline in the Caspian. Later a US Congressional delegation traveled to Ashgabat to strengthen bilateral relations.
For his part, President Ahmedinejad seems to be learning to mix his strident and defiant rhetoric about how the world should work, with more practical demonstrations of a kind of soft power that Iran can project, particularly in the Muslim world. He (or his advisors) are also learning to be more agile in their international dealings; only weeks before his third trip to New York for the UN General Assembly, the Iranian government released two of the four dual nationals who have been held for many months in Iranian prisons. The timing was surely based on a desire to reduce chances for unfavorable press during his visit, although observers of conditions in Iran continue to note disturbing trends domestically. The President has created a mood of fear and suppression in the country, in part due to his need to bolster his base and intimidate reformist sentiment before the next parliamentary elections. His international travel, perhaps intended to bolster his own legitimacy at home and to distract Iranians from his poor performance on the economy, is largely to non-democratic countries. One must therefore conclude that his international education has not yet changed his understanding of core principles and practices of democracy, nor has he faced consistent international opprobrium for the policies and postures we find so objectionable.
This piece also appeared as an Op-Ed in the Daily Star and can be accessed here.
Ellen Laipson is President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia/Gulf project, which focuses on a range of security issues in the Gulf region.
Elena McGovern is a Research Assistant with the Southwest Asia project.