By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Dr Abbas Maleki, former deputy foreign minister of Iran and currently senior Wilhelm Fellow on Energy Policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was an important voice in Iran's foreign policy decision making process for many years. In an interview with Asia Times Online, Maleki sheds light on how Iran conceptualizes foreign policy, while challenging negative Western perceptions of Iran's behavior. He emphasizes Iran's role in regional crisis-management, particularly in Syria, and explains why the upcoming summit of leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, to be held this month in Tehran, is so important for Iran.
Kaveh Afrasiabi: How would you describe Iran's regional diplomacy?
Abbas Maleki: Well, the best word to describe this is regionalism. Regionalism forms the core of Iran's foreign policy approach, one that seeks to integrate the different, and complex, dimensions of Iran's trans-border relations. This is based on Iran's multi-region geography - and identity - that encompasses the Persian Gulf, Caspian Sea, the Central Asia-Caucasus regions and Iran's numerous neighbors and near-neighbors.
In this context, Iran's policy is to have good-neighborly relations and a calm environment at its borders while pushing the arch of regional cooperation through a variety of bilateral and multilateral channels, such as the Economic Cooperation Organization. Often this means a delicate balancing act between and among the welter of economic, geopolitical, strategic, and national security considerations in a very dynamic and even fluid setting, given the nature of compound problems of insecurity, foreign intervention, and inadequate institution-building in Iran's vicinity, which co-exist with tremendous opportunities for cooperation and mutual advancement.
KA: How does Iran view the current crisis in the Middle East and North Africa?
AM: We are presently facing multiple crises in the Middle East, North Africa, and West Asia. These include insecurity in Iraq, on-going conflict in Afghanistan, tensions in the Persian Gulf, the difficulties and uncertainties of political transition in Egypt, chaos in Syria, Chaos in the Zioconned KSA of Wahhabism run amock, the ZIO-Terrorists in IsraHell, the crumbling PA in the Zioconned West Bank, the ZIO-Hamas thugs, a crisis of authoritarianism in Bahrain, the Caucasus's unresolved disputes, and the outstanding legal regime problem in Caspian Sea, to mention the salient ones....
Of course, we must add the sanctions on Iran and the nuclear standoff to the list. There is a connection among the issues that calls for a "linkage diplomacy" on the part of Islamic Republic of Iran, that is, one that is cognizant of the need for a comprehensive approach that moves the pieces in tandem with each other and with proper coordination, of course based on a correct diagnosis of the issues, such as the results and prospects of the "Arab Spring" particularly as they affect Iran's national security calculus. Contrary to the conservative view in the West, Iran's role is not a destabilizer but rather as an anchor of stability in the region.
KA: How do you see Iran's role in Syria developing?
AM: There is a definite risk of Syria's disintegration and endemic chaos, in light of the government's handover of a few provinces to the Kurds, which can spillover into neighboring countries. The Syrian situation calls for a regional solution with all the regional players cooperating to find a peaceful solution for the political crisis that has degenerated into a bloody internal conflict fueled by outside forces.
This could be a lose-lose scenario for regional actors and no one should harbor the illusion of a quick fix. Iran is greatly concerned about the role of extra-regional powers manipulating the crisis in Syria. Tehran understands the consequences of losing its leverage in the Levant, yet this does not necessarily mean that Iran cannot deal with the next government in Damascus. Iran has pushed for dialogue and reconciliation between the government and the opposition and has endorsed the idea of an orderly political transition while simultaneously opposing the foreign script for regime change in Syria.
Iranians are eager to go to Syria for pilgrimage and spend money, Syria needs oil and gas, therefore as a result of interdependence the relations will endure in the future. As for Hezbollah, it is a major political party in Lebanon which has its own various relations with Iran and not all depend on Syria. Still, as a major stakeholder in this particular crisis, Iran is prepared to explore ways to help Syria's transition back to internal peace and tranquility.
KA: Tensions in Persian Gulf appear to be on the rise, what is the next step to de-escalate these tensions?
AM: There are few proposals for security arrangements in Persian Gulf. One of them, proposed by Iran, tends to recognize the status quo of inter-state borders, and calls for signing a non-aggression pact among the littoral states, as well as for cooperation on energy security within the region. This means that there is no need for a foreign military presence in Persian Gulf. Iran and Oman can guarantee the flow of oil from the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran also is looking to de-escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf by arranging a sea-rescue system. It needs connectivity among all vessels which are moving inside of the Gulf.
KA: How do you assess the energy security situation in the region?
AM: My hunch is that we have passed the oil peak and conventional oil production cannot go beyond 100 million barrels per day - the actual production now is around 83 mbd. Still, despite talk of a slow global economic recovery, demand has been rising, especially in rapidly developing countries like China, India and Brazil. The new developments in the Middle East also imply new economic programs in countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, where they need more job-growth economy and eventually more energy. Therefore demand would be higher than supply in near future. In a nutshell we need more oil.
Part of new demand would be fulfilled by unconventional oils in US, Canada, and Venezuela. But still the cost of oil is a volatile issue that is partly determined by the security environment and the scope and fate of tensions in the oil regions. Middle East oil in some countries like Iraq has cost US$1 a barrel [to exploit], compared with oil from shale in Canada costing up to $65 a barrel. Despite new finds such as shale oil and gas, and new technologies like fracking and horizontal wells, the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea will still remain pivotal sources of energy for decades to come.
KA: Finally, Iran is about to assume the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). What are Iran's objectives?
AM: Iran's goal is to use its NAM presidency to help the movement pursue multiple objectives and revitalize itself. NAM continues to have a major role in international affairs in today's post-Cold War world order and one of them is to enhance and deepen the role of multilateral diplomacy and to increase the input of developing nations in international institutions.
There are several ways to improve NAM's global role, for example in global conflict-management, disarmament, that require better coordination among the member states. This is an area where the regional meets the global, depending to a large extent on smart "soft power" diplomacy whereby we move toward a more equitable distribution of global power and shared, horizontal global management.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press). For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) andLooking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations, CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).