ANALYSIS: “Iran’s New Foreign Policy Challenges”

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaks during a meeting with students at the Hussayniyeh of Imam Khomeini in Tehran, Iran, November 3, 2018. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

“Iran’s New Foreign Policy Challenges”
Chatham House
London, November 6th, 2018


In an ‘on the record meeting’ chaired by Dr. Sanam Vakil, Senior Consulting Research Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, Ambassador Seyed M Kazem Sajjadpour, Deputy Foreign Minister, Islamic Republic of Iran and President of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) discussed Iran’s new foreign policy challenges following the imposition of fresh U.S. sanctions in November 2018.

Summary Review

Kazem Sajjadpour began his presentation by setting out a conceptual framework based on the standpoint of three different players: the U.S., the world and Iran.

  1. The US

On the subject of U.S. policy towards Iran, Kazem Sajjadpour was of the view that there was a great deal of confusion as well as many contradictions in Washington. He noted that policy was made on the bases of simplistic assumptions, the latest one of which was that if Iranian revenues were reduced to a minimum, the hardship resulting from it would ultimately lead to some kind of a domestic uprising or possible regime change. This line of thinking assumed that in order to avoid such a scenario, the Islamic Republic would then feel compelled to accede ground by surrendering and coming to the negotiation table. He felt that this so-called working assumption, defied reality.

Kazem Sajjadpour felt that with regard to U.S. foreign policy on Iran and JCPOA, there were two competing narratives:

  • A globalist vision that looked favourably at the JCPOA and valued it as a major multilateral accomplishment;
  • A proposition more in line with the kind of Trump inspired stance that saw every aspect of U.S. foreign policy from a nationalist perspective.

It was his view that the second approach was bent on promoting American hegemony and the notion of America First on everything, while turning a blind eye to the interests of all other parties or stake holders in the international arena.

  1. The World

Kazem Sajjadpour reiterated the fact that the JCPOA and issues relating to sanctions were not only about Iran. It was also about all the other negotiating parties, i.e. Europe, China and Russia. He felt that while many in Europe had stood firm against American unilateral action on the JCPOA, certain other European allies of the U.S. had supported this action largely due to a desire not to jeopardize their interests with the U.S. in other areas.

He also highlighted the fact that in the conflict between multi-polarity and uni-polarity, countries such as China, Russia, most European and others, had opted for a position that was sympathetic to Iran.

  1. Iran

Turning finally to Iran, Kazem Sajjadpour said that on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic, it was essential to have a correct understanding of Iran. He then went on to provide the following explanation:

  • Iran was an actor with self confidence and not an object to be played with by the likes of Trump or some regional Arabs. He noted that Iran’s self-confidence had been achieved by hard work carried out over the last 40 years. During this period, Iran had successfully overcome many challenges to its independence and territorial integrity. In this regard, he mentioned the universal support that had been provided to Saddam Hussein in Iran’s eight year war with Iraq, as well as the imposition of multilateral sanctions following the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929. Suggesting that sanctions were all about psychology, it was his feeling that Iran had managed to overcome such obstacles.
  • Iran was a ‘builder’, given the number of domestic institutions that had come to exist in that country, especially when compared to some of the regional states which did not even have a national parliament. Additionally, Iran had successfully built a security system that was 100% home made and which had made it fully independent.
  • Iran also had its own political strengths and considerations. He noted that some four and half million young people were now enrolled in universities throughout the land and the country was in possession of around 200,000 engineers. Given these factors, he noted that building capacity in all fields was huge. This made the country immune and as Sajjadpour put it, created a protective situation whereby “if Washington coughs we don’t catch a cold”. He noted that Iran was a corporate actor, that successfully interacted bilaterally (with its neighbors and others), and multilaterally as best exemplified by the negotiations, which led to the JCPOA agreement. He insisted, though, that cooperation had its principles and said that unlike the Shah’s regime, which was psychologically dependent on outsiders (here he made specific reference to the book, “Majestic Failure” by Marvin Zonis in which the Shah is depicted as someone who received his orders from the British and U.S. Ambassadors in Tehran), the Islamic Republic of Iran relied entirely on itself for preserving its independence and sovereignty. He said that in these circumstances, it was difficult for Iran to remain cooperative while sanctioned at the same time. This, according to him, was where the E.U. could change the picture.

Kazem Sajjadpour ended his comments by saying that the quest for hegemony would be resisted and the Iranian regime was not worried by what was now transpiring as a result of the new sanctions.

Key Points from ‘Questions & Answers’

  • Asked if a greater surge of nationalism was likely to be exhibited by Iran, Kazem Sajjadpour said that nationalistic feelings would be sparked if the independence and territorial integrity of the country were to become threatened as a consequence of various agitations. However, he stressed that this was different to the kind of narrow minded and xenophobic behavior that was being exhibited by Donald Trump under the guise of nationalism. He said Iranian nationalism manifested itself when the defense of the nation was at stake and did not have any kind of racial intonations.
  • On the Subject of the 12-point set of demands announced by Mike Pompeo (now increased to 13 points – something which according to Sajjadpour’s joking remark was due to inflation) and its likely effect in prompting some move towards new negotiations, Kazem Sajjadpour said, “what is a humanist response if someone were to put a knife next to your throat and then ask you to start a series of talks”? He said this was not the way to try and conduct any kind of meaningful discussion.
  • Asked by Saeed Kamali Dehghani how confident he was about the workings of the newly proposed ‘SPV’ (Special Purpose Vehicle aimed to replace SWIFT in order to overcome Iran’s financial transactions with Europe), Kazem Sajjadpour said that he was quite confident that this new and interesting mechanism would be able to achieve its purpose, though he thought that more time was required for it to begin its operations. It was his view that with its leaders humiliated by Trump, prominent Europeans had passed the period of trying to appease the U.S.
  • In response to a question by a BBC journalist who asked under what circumstance the IRI was likely to leave the JCPOA, Kazem Sajjadpour responded by saying that the situation at any particular time would determine the response to the hypothetical question that had been posed. Responding to another question regarding Yemen and Saudi Arabia, he said that the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi had been a game changer. On Yemen, while sympathizing with the plight of the victims, he stressed the fact that the IRI had made several proposals, which had fallen on deaf ears. Instead, there had been a great deal of focus on what he called the Iranian threat, which he likened to a commodity that some regional players were trying to sell in order to compensate for their own institutional and democratic failings.
  • On the subject of taking steps to resolve tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Kazem Sajjadpour said that the IRI supported the concept of resolving conflicts and reiterated the fact that Iran had repeatedly called for bilateral discussions aimed at resolving all outstanding issues. However, it was the Saudis who had rejected all advances even at the Track 2 level.
  • Responding to a question regarding European assurances for assisting Iran in the post-U.S. sanctions situation, Kazem Sajjadpour said that he had received no personal assurances though he was aware that European governments were trying to create the necessary positive space for SMEs [small and medium sized enterprises] to find ways of conducting business with Iran.
  • In response to another hypothetical question asking would Rouhani agree to meet with Trump were he to continue remaining in the White House, Kazem Sajjadpour responded by saying that he was not a fortune teller and any such move on the part of any Iranian official depended on many unknown factors.
  • On the subject of the eight countries [Iraq not included], being given waivers to import Iranian oil in the next eight to twelve months, Kazem Sajjadpour said that he was not in a position to know about the final status of this arrangement. However, he suggested that even U.S. allies had reservations regarding U.S. actions in this regard and have challenged President Trump, asking for an explanation as to what Iran had done to be on the receiving end of such measures.
  • Asked about likely Iraqi reactions to U.S. pressures on Baghdad to wind down its commitments to Iran, Kazem Sajjadpour said that this was a question that needed to be posed to Iraqi officials. But he assured the audience that Iran enjoyed a deep and multi-dimensional relationship with Iraq. He said this people to people relationship had just seen some 20 million Iranians and Iraqis jointly celebrate Arbaeen, the Shia Muslim religious observance that occurs 40 days after the Day of Ashura.
  • Asked by Rosemary Hollis if Iran had any doubts regarding its actions in Syria and how the IRI might use its influence in the country in the future, Sajjadpour said that everyone had tried to undermine the Iranian role in Syria while aiming at the same time to overthrow the Assad government. Looking to the future, there was a huge economic and social reconstruction project that lay ahead and the IRI wanted to have a role in those endeavors.
  • Mehrdad Khonsari asked if he, as a scholar, had a broader vision for the future (say a post-Trump era) in which ambitions went beyond merely finding ways to survive? Could such a vision that involved economic growth and prosperity for the Iranian nation ever be realized without attempts at normalizing relations with countries like the U.S. or even Israel? Sajjadpour’s response was not clear, though he remarked that American animosity towards Iran had not subsided as it continued in its attempts to weaken the Iranian State. Referring to Israel as the “Zionist entity”, he noted that Israel had been responsible for the killing of Iranian scientists and commented on the audacity of the Israeli Prime Minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and to urge them to move against the then incumbent president and the nuclear deal that he was trying to reach with Iran.
  • Asked about the recent rapprochement between Israel and Oman (and the UAE) and Iranian concerns about the creation of an ‘Arab Nato’, Sajjadpour reiterated the fact that Iran was self confident and unconcerned about any such developments.
  • On Bahrain and whether Iran had been outspoken regarding the situation in that country, Sajjadpour responded with a rhetorical question that asked who had invaded Bahrain in order to pursue its interests in that country. Without naming the party he was referring to, he used the Farsi term “ammeh man ke nabood”, meaning it was not my aunt! He said that Iran had been vocal in demanding that the basic human rights of all people in Bahrain as well as other regional states, who were not clearly being treated on an equal basis, should be observed.
  • In another question, Sajjadpour reminded the audience that on foreign policy (as well as other issues), Iran was a debating society. He said that he held meeting every Tuesday in his Institute in which leading scholars and the Iranian Foreign Minister discussed various foreign policy issues. He said that the Foreign Minister listened diligently to all the arguments that were being presented before coming up with a particular line or policy. However, once a policy decision was reached, everyone accepted and followed it diligently.
  • A journalist from Press TV wanted to know whether the U.S. was shedding crocodile tears when it claimed that it was imposing sanctions in order to ‘support the Iranian people’? Sajjadpour responded by saying that some organization had come up with a study that suggested President Trump had told some 3,000 lies since assuming office. He felt the claim of wanting to support the Iranian people had been one of these lies. How can a country be a friend of Iran when it imposes hardship on its people and bars ordinary citizens from even entering the US? He added that in his view, the U.S. was itself isolated and lacked legitimacy for its actions. He said that Iran would overcome current adversities with strategic patience.
  • On a question related to the future status of the Caspian and Iranian cooperation in that area, Sajjadpour said that the Caspian was an area of co-operation. He said that co-operation went beyond the Caspian states and included all the Caucasian states as well.
  • Finally, on a question regarding the future of Iran-U.K. ties in the aftermath of Brexit, Sajjadpour was of the view that while the E.U. would not have the same weight as before following the departure of the U.K., he did not see any real changes taking place in the relationship between Iran and the U.K.