Interview: Alex Vatanka

Iran’s foreign policy is experiencing a moment of transformation.

Interview: Alex Vatanka

Alex Vatanka is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is author, most recently, of Iran-Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy, and American Influence and is presently working on his second book, The Making of Iranian Foreign Policy: Contested Ideology, Personal Rivalries and the Domestic Struggle to Define Iran’s Place in the World.

Vatanka has written for numerous outlets and recently spoke with The Diplomat’s Muhammad Akbar Notezai about Iran’s foreign policy, and Iran-Pakistan relations.

How do you view Iran’s foreign policy?

I see Iranian foreign policy today in arguably the greatest moment of transformation since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Today, many of the victorious men and woman of that revolution are attempting to undo some of the same damage they caused. It is a case of a buyer’s remorse as so many of the original promises of the revolution never materialized. That is also true for realities in the realm of foreign policy. The first decade of the Islamic Republic was one of a no-nonsense go-it all attitude held by the Islamist revolutionaries that took power Iran following the fall of the pro-West Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (Shah). But as original as Iran’s foreign policy was in that decade, it was an entirely hopeless condition. Despite all the pride and slogans of the Islamists, by the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, one major wing of the regime in Tehran had unceremoniously concluded that go it alone and independence does not have to mean xenophobia and the rejection of the outside world. They learned this lesson the hard way. Iraq, a country three times smaller in size and population, had come close to defeating Iran militarily. The reason was simple: Iraq had the world behind it; Iran had isolated itself. The man who is president in Tehran, Hassan Rouhani, is one of those that believes re-living the 1980s – as some of his hardline rivals support – would be a disaster for Iran economically and for its position in the region and internationally. More importantly, Rouhani is warning that renewed isolationism will endanger the future of the Islamic Republic. This battle of ideas, however, is still ongoing.

Officially, the Iran nuclear deal has been implemented, and nuclear-related sanctions are lifted. So, what does this mean for Iran and its neighbors, particularly Pakistan?

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It means that trading and doing business with Iran is by and large permissible. There are exceptions. U.S. banks, for example, cannot be part of financial transactions involving Iran as sanctions by America on Iran remain largely in place with a few exceptions. However, besides the removal of practical obstacles that had been imposed on Iran since 2006, Iran and its neighbors will have to figure out if they trust one another. Some of Iran’s neighbors have very strong relations with Tehran. Iraq, Armenia, Oman, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Others are lukewarm. That would include most of Iran’s Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, Turkey, and Pakistan. But Iran is such a large neighbor that it is hard to ignore. Even if you don’t go to Iran, Iran will come to you. That is why this is an important moment to turn a page. A country like Pakistan has no serious fundamental differences with Iran. It is not deep hostility that has marked Iranian-Pakistani relations – despite ups and downs over the years. It has been the lack of interest in one another. But as I point out in my book Iran-Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy and American Influence (I.B. Tauris, 2015), these two neighboring countries with nearly a combined population of 300 million are the two giants of West Asia. There is plenty for them to do together and if they do the entire region will benefit, from cooperating to push for peace in Afghanistan to pan-regional energy co-operation.

After the nuclear deal, can the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project proceed?

This Peace Pipeline has been discussed for some 20 years. It has great potential and makes absolute sense. Iran has the world’s largest gas reserves and needs to find market. Pakistan is energy starved. But politics is in the way. However, with Iran perhaps and hopefully moderating its policies, the geopolitical obstacles might soon be less and give a boost for the prospects of a pipeline that is genuinely a win-win.

The gas pipeline makes a lot of sense and Iran is still committed to it but pricing for the gas and who should pay for the Pakistan section of the gas pipeline remain a problem. If this pipeline could travel to India (as it was meant to) then it becomes so much more commercially viable.

What tensions do you see between Shia Iran and Sunni Pakistan?

Neither country should play with this question. Iran is the world’s largest Shia country; Pakistan in absolute numbers has the second largest Shia population of almost 40 million. More sectarianism in Pakistan would be disaster for Pakistan and it will be such a fire that will spill over to the rest of the region, including Iran which has a 8 million strong Sunni minority. Let’s hope all sides will stop exploiting religious differences for petty short sighted tactical goals.

As for Pakistan, the Shia-Sunni conflict would be a disaster for Pakistan and that’s why they have to do everything to keep it out. I think in the short term, the sectarian threat is a bigger problem for Pakistan than Indian nuclear weapons.

What kind of cooperation do Iran and Pakistan have with each other?

It is very little. They barely trade. Iran trades more with Armenia, a country of 3 million people, than it does with Pakistan, a country of 190 million. It is about mistrust. The Pakistanis do not like that Iran has close ties with India, and Pakistan feels Iran is closer to India and that Tehran will particularly look for ways to undercut Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Iranians see the Pakistanis aligned with its Arab rivals, particularly the Saudis. This mistrust needs to be broken first but it will not be easy and it will take time and patience. The good news is that neither side wants to have open conflict; instead the latest meetings between Rouhani and Pakistani Prime Minister Narwaz Sharif suggest an openness to the idea of kick-starting a meaningful dialogue.