Iran Policy: Pre-emptive Surrender is No Option

Earlier this month, the daily Kayhan, reputed to reflect the views of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Guide” of the Islamic Republic, published an essay about the “containment” strategy that US President Harry S Truman adopted vis-a-vis the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.

Kayhan justified giving space to such esoteric subject by claiming that some American “think-tanks” are recommending the adoption of a similar policy towards the Islamic Republic in Tehran, among them The Woodrow Wilson Foundation and The Carnegie Foundation.

Kayhan’s claim is sustained by recent op-eds by Iran lobbyists in the US, among them former US diplomats, business brokers, and “anti-war” activists.

The Truman-era containment policy was the brainchild of George Kennan in 1946 when he was in Moscow as charge d’affaires at the US Embassy. He spelled it out in an 8,000 word report, later to be known as “the Long Telegram”, addressed to the Secretary of State.

A year later, back in Washington Kennan deepened his expose in an article signed “X”.

Thanks to the Americans’ penchant for hyperbole, the “Telegram” and the “X” article ensured Kennan’s abiding reputation as a visionary strategist, and, believe it or not, the man who prevented a Third World War.

Even today, some believe that Kennan’s idea enabled the US to “contain” the USSR, securing the broader interests of Washington and its allies.

However, a less starry-eyed reading of the facts may suggest a different picture.

To start with the very concept of “containment” is too inexact to provide a solid basis for a serious strategy. The side that seeks the containment of an adversary has no control on what that adversary might do.

The only thing that the “containing” side is certain to be able to do is to contain itself. And, that means unilaterally relinquishing all other options which will remain open to the adversary.

This is exactly what happened in US-USSR relations in the following decades.

Before “containment” became fashionable in Washington, the USSR contained itself whenever it felt it had gone too far in provoking the US. For example, in 1946, President Truman made it clear to Soviet leader Josef Stalin that he could not keep his Red Army in two Iranian provinces occupied since 1941. After a brief attempt at wiggling out, Stalin complied and withdrew his troops without firing a shot.

Another example came in the same period when Washington made it clear to Moscow that the US would not allow Soviet-backed armed Communists to seize control of Greece. Anxious not to provoke the US which, at the time, had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, Stalin also agreed to scale down support for Communist rebels in the Chinese civil war where the Americans backed the Nationalists.

In Eastern and Central Europe the USSR played with “coalition” and “popular front” gimmicks, allowing pro-West parties and personalities to retain a share of power.

Shackling the US with “containment” released the USSR from whatever constraints it had imposed on itself.

“Containment” gave the USSR freedom to pursue a hegemonic strategy.

First, it expelled “liberal” partners in Eastern and Central Europe by establishing full-blood Communist regimes run from Moscow.

Stalin also stepped up support for the Chinese Communists while recruiting, training and arming the Kim Il-sung band in the Korean Peninsula.

He also launched his “Peace Movement”, a façade for KGB-controlled Communist parties in Western Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. Within two years of the “X” article, Moscow had created 18 new Communist parties across the globe. At the same time, Moscow sponsored a series of “anti-colonial” groups in Asia and Africa, making sure that key US allies such as Britain and France would have their military bogged down in colonial struggles for years to come.

Six years after the “X” article, the Warsaw Pact was in place as cover for the Soviet war machine.

Assured by “containment” that the US would not react, Stalin formalized the annexation of the Baltic Republics and allowed Finland to survive as a semi-sovereign state thanks to “Finlandization”.

“Containment” encouraged Stalin to speed up a nuclear program which, two years after the “X” article, gave him the much-coveted atom bomb.

After Stalin’s death in March 1953 “containment” gave Moscow the assurance needed against punitive action by the US and allies- an assurance that was put to good use when the USSR crushed popular uprisings in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and created a client state in East Germany. In all those places, Soviet tanks could roll in with the certainty that the US was disarmed by its own policy of “containment.”

The true name of the metaphorical “Iron Curtain” was “containment.”

The “Long Telegram” and the “X” essay gave the Soviets a free hand in what was to be known as the Cold War. It was not until President Ronald Reagan replaced “containment” with his “roll-back” strategy that the clock started ticking for the USSR till its disintegration in 1991.

Kennan made the mistake of narrowing down options vis-a-vis the USSR to two: full-scale war or neutralizing the US with “containment.”

Knowingly or not, those who promote the idea of “containment” in the case of the Islamic Republic make the same mistake. Opportunist regimes like the defunct USSR and the Khomeinist hodge-podge in Tehran cannot be contained, especially when they claim legitimacy based on fake messianic missions.

The USSR was an anomaly in Europe.

It had to either make the whole of the continent like itself or to become like the rest of the continent.

The Khomeinist regime is in a similar position: either it imposes its brand on the whole of the greater Middle East or become like the rest of the region where Iran is located.

In dealing with the USSR yesterday and with the Islamic Republic today options are not limited to full-scale war or illusory containment.

In both contexts “containment” is another word for preemptive surrender.

Opinion: Our Story with Russia

Despite the zeal of some ultra-nationalist Russians who shun and ignore Soviet heritage, others still feel the USSR, the mammoth that competed with the USA for the leadership of the world, was an effective tool in promoting ‘Russian’ interests, regardless of whether ‘internationalist’ Bolsheviks had intended it or not.

I reckon this particular argument is still far from being settled, within Russia or outside the great country the Arabs and Muslims came to know for the first time through the travels of Ahmad Ibn Fadhlan in 922 AD, during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir, who sent with him a letter to ‘the King of the Slavs’, including the ‘Rus’ people.

On the other hand, I think we as Arabs have failed to get to know the Russian people, their culture, their history as well as their interests, in spite of the fact that they have been among the most interactive ‘European’ peoples with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Without dwelling too much on the subject, it would be beneficial if we keep the following in mind:
Firstly, the Russian ‘geographic’ environment has put them sometimes in a state of positive exchange, but more frequently in a state of confrontation with both Muslims and Arabs since the armies of Islamic conquest reached the foothills of the eastern Caucasus at Derbent (Bab Al-Abwab, i.e. ‘the gate of gates’ in Arabic), and began to deal with the local population.

In those days the Muslims and Arabs called the Caucasus massif the ‘Mountain of the Tongues’ (Jabal al-Alsun) denoting the multitude of languages spoken in its inaccessible valleys inhabited by different minorities without a single dominant majority. In fact, a large portion of that region is called Dagestan meaning the ‘Home or Land of mountains’. Before that, some historians linked the Jews to the Khazar people living on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea, claiming that the then King of the Khazar, already on bad terms with Christian Slavs but unwilling to accept Islam brought by invading armies from the south, decided to adopt Judaism as the religion of his people.

Throughout history the lands of the ‘Rus’ witnessed several waves of invaders and settlers, perhaps the most important of which were the waves of Turkic (Altaic or Turanic) raids, which resulted in the settlement of many Turkic peoples in today’s Russia. These include the Chuvash – western Russia’s only major Christian Turkic people –, the Tatars, the Bashkirs and the ‘old Bulgars’.

Secondly, Russia remains Europe’s largest country and certainly the leading bastion of Slavic culture. Indeed, when European powers began to show interests in the Middle East, bolstered by the never severed religious connections with the holy places in Palestine, Russia was one of these powers which established a strong ecclesiastic, educational and cultural presence. This presence was best reflected in what were known as ‘Moskovian’ seminars and schools. The remains of that presence are still there despite the ‘spiritual retreat’ in the face of ‘revolutionary thought’ during the Soviet decades. I still recall during my school days in Lebanon, namely in the town of Choueifat, the strong Russian ties with the area including the marriage of Aleksei Kruglov, the last Russian consul in Palestine to a Christian Orthodox lady from Choueifat. A grandson of consul Kruglov is a very dear friend and schoolmate.

Furthermore, in a study conducted by the Syrian academic Dr Joseph Zeitoun, he mentions that Russia’s interests in the ‘Mashreq’ go back to the early 19th century during the reigns of Emperor (czar) Alexander I and his successors. Zeitoun claims that the first steps in that direction were founding convents, caravanserais and hospices to serve pilgrims and visitors to the Holy Lands, particularly Jerusalem, but also including the Syrian town of Saydnaya, not far from Damascus, due to the significance of its ‘Convent of Our Lady’, regarded by many Christians as the ‘third pilgrimage’ after Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

In the 1830s Russia’s consul in Beirut instructed his council to travel through greater Syria (Bilad Ash-Sham) and prepare a report about the overall situation of Orthodox Christians. This report in turn led the Russian Synod to ask one of its bishops to travel to Palestine in a fact finding mission. The bishop indeed prepared an extensive report about the conditions of the Orthodox Church and its people, and stressed the urgent need for a ‘spiritual, social and educational renaissance’, as well as the need to establish a large Russian mission to provide relief not only to Greater Syria but also Egypt. Actually, as a fruit of such an endeavour, the prominent Lebanese intellectual and man of letters Mikhail Naimy was one of the Syrio-Lebanese graduates of Russo-Ukrainian institutes, and so were the prominent Palestinian author and educator Khalil As-Sakakini, and three members of the Arab ‘Pen League’ of New York, Raschid Ayyub, Abdul Massih Haddad and Nasib Arida. In addition to those, there was the noted Jerusalemite intellectual and academic Bandali Al-Jouzy who studied and taught in Russia.

According to Dr Zeitoun, the first school the Russians founded in Palestine was in the village of Al-Mujaidel near the city of Nazareth in Galilee in 1882. It was soon followed by other schools in the villages of Ar-Rameh, Kufr Yassif and Ash-Shajara in 1883 and 1884.

From my own personal experience, I remember reading two good books covering Russia’s interests in the Middle East; the first ‘The Lebanon and the Lebanese’ written in the 19th century by consul Konstantin Petkovich covering the affairs of ‘Mount Lebanon’ autonomous district between 1862 and 1882 (later translated into Arabic); and the second ‘Peasant Movements in the Lebanon’ during the first half of the 19th century written later during the Soviet era by Irina M. Smilianskaya.

These two books give a clear idea about how seriously the Russians took our region, both in Imperial and Soviet periods. Yet we seem to be unable to understand the motives behind Russia’s intentions. We even do not know, or forget, that the USSR was the first country to recognise the founding of Saudi Arabia!

The fact of the matter is that Russian gas never ceased to see itself a major and influential player on the world stage; let alone with regards to its often problematic historical relations with Islam and Muslim peoples, its geo-political interests in the midst of global competition, and its economic and oil concerns in a world of conflicts and integration.

Today, we as Arabs need experts in Russian as well as Chinese affairs at the same level with those who have studied European and American history and cultures. This is a challenge for us, and we – very simply put – need to know about the Russians and Chinese as much as they know about us!

The Art of Turning Neighbors into Enemies

By all accounts Azerbaijan should be Iran’s closest ally.

The tiny republic on the Caspian Sea is home to nine million people with strong ethnic, historic, and religious ties to the Iranian people. Almost 80 percent speak Azeri, an Altaic language with a vocabulary drawn from Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. Around 12 million people in five Iranian provinces speak a version of the language.

Azerbaijan also contains Kurdish, Gushtasbi-Talysh, Tat, and Lezgin minorities; ethnic groups with kith and kin in Iran (ethnic and linguistic minorities account for 22 percent of Azerbaijan’s population).

Known as Aran, Shiravan and Nakhjivan, the areas that actually form Azerbaijan were part of the Iranian heartland for more than 25 centuries. Iran lost them in two disastrous wars with Tsarist Russia which was pursuing its dream of reaching warm waters through Iran. With treaties imposed on the Qajar Shahs in 1824 and 1830 Iran ceded the areas to the Tsars.

When the Tsarist Empire collapsed following the 1917-1918 Russian Revolution, these areas came together to form an independent state. The experiment lasted two years before Lenin sent an army of to reassert Russian domination. Next, Josef Stalin, acting as Commissar for Nationalities, transformed the territories into a new unit named Azerbaijan, establishing it as an autonomous republic within the USSR. The fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991 gave the people of Azerbaijan a chance to regain their independence.

Due to these events, large numbers fled from the affected territories, seeking refuge in Iran. Today there are millions of Iranians whose ancestors fled the Tsarists and the Bolsheviks. The flow of refugees to Iran from Azerbaijan continued for decades, albeit with varying intensity. In the 1990s as Armenia invaded and annexed Nagorno-Karabakh, half a million people fled from Azerbaijan to Iran.

With Shi’ite Muslims representing some 85 percent of the population, Azerbaijan also shares strong religious ties with Iran. Linguistically, the Kurdish, Tat, and Gushtasbi-Talysh minorities belong to the family of Iranic languages. (Iran’s Zoroastrian “holy” book Avesta was originally written in the Gushtasbi-Talysh language.)

Thus, relations between Azerbaijan and Iran should be at least correct if not cordial. And, yet, the opposite is the case.

Last week, Iran recalled its ambassador from Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, and closed border passages.

The move came after Azerbaijan arrested 41 people on charges of espionage for Iran. Azerbaijani journalist Anar Bayramli, who worked for Iranian media, was also arrested.

As the drama unfolded, two Azerbaijani writers Farid Hussein and Shahriar Haji-Zadeh disappeared in Iran, presumably seized as hostages.

Last week, Tehran’s anger rose when Baku hosted a conference on “The Future of Southern Azerbaijan”. This was a gathering of militants, mostly US citizens of Iranian origin, who regard all the various peoples who speak versions of the Azeri language as Turks. It is not quite clear what they mean by “South Azerbaijan”. But one must assume that they want Azerbaijan to merge with the five Iranian provinces where Azeri is widely spoken to form a single new nation of 22 million people.

Tehran sees the move as a plot hatched by the United States, Israel, and Turkey against Iran’s territorial integrity.

However, the “unification” plan would mean the disappearance of the Republic of Azerbaijan in its present shape. In a “greater” Azerbaijan the people of the republic would become a minority.

Not surprisingly, on Wednesday the daily Kayhan, reflecting the views of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei called for the “return” of Azerbaijan to Iran. It suggested that a referendum be held under international auspices on the subject, giving the people of Azerbaijan the choice of “returning to their Iranian homeland.”

Hosting secessionists is not the only reason for Tehran’s anger. Azerbaijan has close ties with Israel including a USD 1.6 billion contract to purchase arms from the Jewish state. Tehran media claim that Azerbaijan would give Israel bases to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites.

Iran also regards Azerbaijan’s ties wit Turkey, a member of NATO, as a potential threat in case of a military clash with the United States.

To add to Tehran’s anger, Azerbaijan has sided with Russia over dividing the resources of the Caspian Sea including oil and gas and caviar-bearing fish reserves.

Iran wants the Caspian to be declared an inland sea jointly owned by its five littoral states. Under that scheme, Iran’s share would be 20 percent. Russia and Kazakhstan want the sea divided according to the length of each littoral state’s shoreline. Under this scheme, Iran would end up with 11 percent. At first equivocating on the issue, Azerbaijan now tilts towards the Russian position while Turkmenistan, the fifth littoral state, is hedging its bet.

Azerbaijan, too, has complaints against Iran.

The Islamic Republic supports Christian Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan. Without support from Iran, landlocked Armenia would not have been able to annex Nagorno-Karabakh. It is clear that as long as Iran backs Armenia, Azerbaijan will not be able to recapture its lost territories.

Baku has another complaint.

Iran’s ruling mullahs try to incite Azerbaijan’s Gushtasbi-Talysh minority against the Azeri majority despite the fact that the majority of the Gushtasbi-Talysh are Sunni Muslims. Baku also accuses Tehran of trying to foment nationalism among Kurdish, Tat and Lezgins in Azerbaijan.

Tehran’s mishandling of relations with Azerbaijan is a classic example of how ideological blindness could turn a nation’s potentially closest neighbor into an enemy.

Blinded by its anti-Americanism, the Khomeinist regime not only ignores deep-rooted cultural and historical ties but has also set aside Islamic or even Shi’ite sensibilities in shaping relations with Azerbaijan.

Instead of the current tension, under a normal regime Iran would have been able to draw Azerbaijan close to its ancestral cultural and historic homeland by opening the borders, merging markets, and allowing maximum contact between populations on both sides of the Aras River.

Sadly, however, tension with Azerbaijan need not be surprising. Today, Iran’s relations with all its neighbors are marked by varying degrees of mistrust and hostility. A sad story, all round.