Foreign officials dealing with Iran since the mullahs seized power have often wondered who is really in charge in Tehran. Chris Patten, a British politician who served as the European Union’s foreign policy point-man, once observed that Iranian officials he dealt with always turned out to be “actors playing the role of ministers”.
Over the decades, scores of officials from all over the world have reached the same conclusion after dealing with officials in Tehran including men bearing the lofty title of President of the Republic. The impression is that Iran has two governments: one that is presented to the outside world, and another that wields real power.
Last week that impression was reinforced when Ali-Akbar Velayati, whose title is Special Foreign Policy Advisor to the “Supreme Guide”, flew to Moscow on what he said was a “mission to start the Islamic Republic’s new strategy” which was labeled as “Looking to the East”.
Velayati’s trip to Moscow was interesting for a number of reasons. To start with, it was timed to immediately follow President Hassan Rouhani’s visits to Rome and Paris with the message that the Islamic Republic was seeking close ties with Western democracies. Rouhani is also scheduled to visit Austria and Belgium later this month.
In addition to this, Rouhani has missed no opportunity to send friendly signals to the Obama administration in Washington. He has praised the US president as “intelligent and perceptive” and claims to be in an epistolary relationship with him.
Rouhani has noted that the world today is like a village in which America is the “headman”. Thus it is important for the Islamic Republic to foster good relations with the “headman.”
In fact, political circles in Tehran have nicknamed Rouhani and his entourage as the “New York Boys”, a faction of the Khomeinist regime that hopes to imitate Communist China under Deng Xiaoping by forging close ties with the US while maintaining the repressive one-party system at home. Their godfather has been and remains former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wheeler-dealer who first established secret contacts with Washington in 1984, triggering the “Irangate” scandal under President Ronald Reagan.
Since then, successive US administrations have pursued what has so far turned out to be a chimera: helping the “moderates” led by Rafsanjani to eliminate “hardliners” led by Khamenei, closing the chapter of the revolution and turning the Islamic Republic into another despotic regime that minds its own business without making trouble for the US and its allies.
During the past 150 years, how to balance hostile foreign powers against one another has been a key preoccupation of Iranian leaders. In the heyday of European Imperialism, Iranian elites were divided between Anglophiles and Russophiles: a choice between “pest” and “cholera”.
In the 1950s, as Britain faded and Russia re-emerged as the USSR, Iranian elites were divided between pro-Americans and pro-Soviets. Muhammad Mussadeq, who briefly served as Prime Minister, started as pro-American but ended up dreaming of what he called a “negative balance”; that is to say keeping both east and the west at an arm’s length.
To deceive the Mussadeqists, with whom he had a tactical alliance against the Shah, the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini launched his slogan of “Neither East nor West”.
In practice, however, Khomeini regarded the US as the most dangerous enemy of his ideology and the Soviet Union as a far lesser threat. The reason was that, for many Iranians, America was attractive for cultural, scientific, economic and even political reasons while the USSR was unable to attract even Iranian Communists most of whom were Maoists, Trotskyites or Castrists.
Khomeini approved the attack on the US Embassy and the seizing of American hostages but vetoed similar moves against the Soviets. He invited Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to convert to Shiite Islam and believed that anti-Americanism was enough to tie Moscow and Tehran together.
Khamenei is aware of all that. This is why he decided to clip the wings of the “New York Boys” before it was too late. Last November, as the “New York Boys” were making a song and dance about their “nuke deal” with Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Tehran, went straight to Khamenei’s palace and pointedly ignored Rouhani and Rafsanjani. It was after that meeting, described by Velayati as “epoch making”, that Khamenei coined the phrase “Looking to the East”.
Will Khamenei be able to contain the “New York Boys” in the context of a new anti-American axis with Russia? Tehran and Moscow share a number of objectives.
Both want to capitalize on the American retreat under Obama and make sure that the US doesn’t return to the regional scene as the decisive power. In that context they want to keep Bashar Al-Assad in place in Syria, albeit in a pocket of territory, for as long as possible. They also want to consolidate the influence that Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia, have gained in Iraq and Lebanon while “Finlandizing” some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, notably Oman and Qatar.
In Moscow on Monday, Velayati spoke of Russia and Iran as “guarantors of peace and stability” in a vaguely defined region stretching from Central Asia to North Africa and the Atlantic Ocean.
The trouble is that Russia is deeply unpopular in Iran while there are few Russians who have lost any love for the Islamic Republic. While some four million Russian tourists went to Turkey in 2015, Iran, promoting “halal tourism”, attracted a few thousand. Trade between the two neighbours is also limited simply because Russia has nothing that Iran wants to buy and Iranians cannot tempt Russians away from western products.
Tehran and Moscow have a centuries-old tradition of mutual suspicion and one effect of this has been their failure, after 25 years of negotiations, to decide a common legal regime for the Caspian Sea.
For more than 2500 years, the direction of the Iranian “historic gaze” has been to the west while Russia, newcomer to history as a state, has also looked in that direction since the 19th century at least.
Finally, mere anti-Americanism is not enough for building a new global strategy for either Russia or Iran. Khamenei’s “Looking East” is a failure even before it is translated into concrete policies.