Iran's Islamic Revolution at 40
Prospects and Challenges
By Dr. Kamal Kharazi
Last night, I attended a lecture sponsored by the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies. I have attended prior programs offered by the Centre and found them intellectually stimulating. They always offer points of view I have seldom heard in the West. I have blogged about them in a series of posts beginning here.
The invited guest, Dr. Kamal Kharazi, Chair of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations of Iran, gave a lecture followed by a brief question and answer period at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar. The moderator introduced Dr. Kharazi as an "insider" to the Iranian Revolution. That revolution celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2019. He spoke in English from prepare remarks.
Before I start, I want to note that I am working from my notes and apologize in advance if my summary contains any errors or misstatements. I am happy to make any needed corrections.
Several themes emerged. Dr. Kharazi began by calling for expanded relations between countries of the Muslim world that would result in increased security. He asserted that a united Muslim world would repel foreign intervention in the region. He argues that the region is in a critical political situation. Countries must respect the sovereignty of other countries and build what he calls "self-confidence." Later, he argued that leaders in the region need to reconstruct the "great Islamic civilization," which once dominated the region, in a way that allows them to deal with today's conditions.
Next, he cited the creation of Israel as an ongoing source of conflict in the region that invited foreign intervention. These foreign powers and their "agents" created deep political splits among the countries of the Muslim world.
He lamented the waste that has come with the regional investment in armaments, wars, and bloodshed. Governments that have spent millions of dollars on conflicts in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain could have spent that money instead on improving the lives of their citizens, as has Iran. Saudi Arabia, especially, has bought into the "Iran-phobia," panicked, and sought security through the purchase of U.S. arms. These conflicts have destroyed national assets needed by populations that increasingly are poorer and hungry. Later, he asserted that the U.S. feeds the story that Iran is a big enemy of the Ummah.
In contrast, despite foreign pressure, sanctions, and other interventions, he asserts Iran has survived and thrived. It is the most stable country in the region and has created an independent security structure. It has used its resources to build a scientific community whose capability surprised the West. It chose to invest in its people, education, and technology rather than dissipate resources on war. Dr. Kharazi offered an invitation to create joint projects with Qatari scientists and educators to create new knowledge and technology.
He said that Iran entered Iraq and Syria at the request of the governments in aid of the war against terrorists. Iran has never started a war in another country.
He acknowledged the role Iran played in "rescuing" Qatar after neighboring countries imposed sanctions on June 5, 2017. He said no country should need to deal with coercion or a threat to its sovereignty. During the question and answer period, he seemed to tie this help to the requirements of the Iranian Constitution.
Finally, he suggested that leaders in the region can overcome contemporary challenges through "political insight" (which he did not explain) and independence and self-reliance.
The moderator posed the first questions and then took six questions from the audience. Her questions were: Did Iran's foreign policy priorities change over the last 40 years since the revolution? Are those priorities tied to who serves as President of Iran?
Dr. Kharazi used this opportunity to discuss basic principles of the Iranian Constitution. It seeks social justice that requires attention to the basic needs of Iranians for education, housing, good roads, access to the internet, potable water, and other amenities. He noted that 80 percent of rural communities have these amenities now. Ninety-seven percent of Iranians are literate. Iranian leaders have created 2,500 universities serving a student population of 4 million students, up from about 100,000 students before the revolution. He acknowledged that women increasingly have more freedom and comprise sixty percent of university students.
He insisted that the Iranian Constitution requires Iran to fight against imperialism, including economic imperialism. He noted that Trump administration policies have troubled many countries, including European countries. At no time during the discussion did I hear direct reference to the U.S. withdrawal from the P5+1 nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration.
In response to a question about Iran's support of Afghanistan, he called the U.S. presence there "useless." It intensified the killing. He noted that even the U.S. now acknowledges the need to negotiate a peace with the Taliban. Taliban delegates have visited Iran, and Iran is hopeful for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
One audience member asked why the U.S. fostered a fear of Iran. Dr. Kharazi explained it as a way to increase security dependence on the U.S. by countries in the region. He quoted President Trump as saying: " You want security? You must pay for it."
He again stated that in the long run, despite the "Iran-phobia," Iran can survive because it has become security independent.
Other audience questions asked about Iran's role in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. Dr. Kharazi admitted Iran has tried to help the people of Yemen survive the current war, and it has supported the Houthis. He described Yemenis as poor people who want a share in the future government, which is a "natural right" of people. He described the war there as "useless" and said Saudi Arabia was violating the rights of Yemenis. He called it Iran's "duty" to support people under pressure. He hopes for a Yemeni-Yemeni negotiation that resolves the conflict.
Similarly, Iran supports the Palestinians, even though they are not Shia Muslim.
On Lebanon and the role of Hezbollah, Dr. Kharazi noted that Hezbollah had been the only regional actor successful in pushing the Israelis out of Lebanon. Both Egypt and Syria failed to do it. Hezbollah also fought Daesh in Syria. "Otherwise, it would be in Lebanon." Iran supports Hezbollah because of its opposition to Israel, its members belief in Islam, and their quest for a better life. He acknowledged its increasing power in Lebanese politics. But, he asserted Iran has had no direct intervention in Lebanon.
On Syria, the moderator asked about two story lines related to the onset of the conflict. In one story, the protesters were home-grown and grassroots. In the other story, they were sponsored by Israel as part of a plot to destabilize the Syrian government. Dr. Kharazi agreed to the second story line and also explained that the terrorist groups that had caused so much destruction in Syria could not have started without foreign support, arms, and funding. The foreign support came at the service of Israel with the goal of weakening Arab countries. Dr. Kharazi expects that the revelation of communications and other documents at a later date will support his view of the conflict.
One audience member asked if the Iranian Constitution needed updating. Dr. Kharazi rejected this suggestion saying that the Constitution is based on Islam. Islam does not change, so the Constitution needs no updating.
One audience member asked about the role of increasing sectarianism in regional conflicts. Dr. Kharazi explained that religious factors can be misread. But, a religious state does not necessarily result in religious misuse.
The same audience member accused Iran of occupying the capitals of four Arab countries. Dr. Kharazi asked the questioner to support the allegation. He admitted Iran has interests in a number of countries, both Arab and non-Arab. But, it seeks to inspire these countries to create independent survivability despite pressure from outsiders.
The event came across as strongly constrained on both sides of the discussion. Questions from the audience became more heated just as the moderator ended the session and referred people to the available refreshments. Dr. Kharazi did not stay during this networking opportunity.
As I listened to the discussion, I kept in mind a new book written by a scholar originally from Iran, Dr. Mehran Kamrava. His book, Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf, provides valuable insight into the regional tensions and the role Iran and Saudi Arabia, the competing hegemons, have played in creating and escalating those tensions. He agrees that Iran, of necessity, has created an independent security structure. Dr. Kamrava also agrees that the region would experience more stability if Iran again became part of the regional security structure. My review of his book will appear in the April 2019 issue of The Journal of Arabian Studies.
Missing from the discussion was the announcement this week-end that Iran now has a ballistic missile with a 2,000 kilometer reach. Discussion of the Iranian missile program appears here, here (including a map of Iranian missile facilities), and here. Commentators say the missiles could reach Israel, as well as many Arab countries in the Levant and the Arab Gulf regions.
I have described the role of Iran in Qatar's efforts to mitigate the effect of the sanctions imposed on it by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt on June 5, 2017. See Paula Marie Young, "The Siege of Qatar: Creating a BATNA that Strengthened the Tiny Country’s Negotiating Power," Qatar: Political, Economic, and Social Issues (Nova Science Pubs. expected May 2019).