The Foreign Service Journal - October 2017

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2017 25 Playing the Long Game Iran’s foreign policy is less contentious than its domestic policy. This is a nation that survived an eight-year war (1980-1988) instigated by SaddamHussein’s Iraq; opprobrium and crippling sanctions imposed by the West; and near-perpetual conflict with the United States, the unquestioned international superpower andmilitary hegemon of the Persian Gulf. Although the country suffered as a result of these conflicts, it has emerged with its revolu- tion and independence intact. Iranians often grumble about the price of supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, or subventions to the Assad government in Syria, or even the gratuitously obnoxious rhetoric against Israel; but for the most part, the Iranian citizenry (not unlike its counterpart in Israel) is willing to leave foreign policy in the hands of the Supreme National Security Council and the permanent structure that has grown up around the Supreme Leader’s office. On foreign policy, Ira- nians are realist to the core and driven almost entirely by their perception of the long- term interests of the nation. Tehran’s relationship with Damascus, for instance, was forged during the war with Iraq, when Syria was the only Arab state that sided with Tehran, and it has continued to this day as a critical link both to Hezbollah and governments around the Mediterranean. This bond, which Tehran regards as strategic, helps explain why Iran was willing to pour significant financial andmilitary resources into the effort to prevent a radical Salafist takeover of Damascus. Hezbollah itself gives Iran crucial strategic depth and serves as a deterrent against Israel’s military threats. It is very likely that the shah would have pursued similar policies under similar circumstances, though no doubt with a dif- ferent rhetorical façade. In terms of strategy, Iran is opportunistic and tends to play a long game. When the George W. Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran openly assisted in the first con- flict but not in the second. However, it was quick to appreciate America’s “gift” of eliminating its twomost serious rivals, leaving it immensely more influential in the region. Iran had virtually no contact with the Houthis in Yemen and played no role in their revolt, but when Saudi Arabia invaded the country in 2015 and claimed that it was opposing encirclement by Tehran, the Irani- ans gradually began to lend enough support to take some credit for themselves and ensure that the Saudis and their allies would remain bogged down in the Yemeni quagmire. And when the Saudis and Emiratis broke the Gulf Cooperation Council in two by boycotting Qatar earlier this year, Iran was quick to offer the besieged country use of its airspace and ports to help ensure that the split among the rival Sunni monarchies would not end quickly or amicably. When the United States and Israel joined forces in 2009 to sabo- tage Iran’s centrifuge chains by inserting a digital worm (Stuxnet) that cleverly caused the centrifuges to explode for no apparent rea- son, Iran responded in two ways. First, it redoubled its production of centrifuges and low-enriched uranium, thereby pushing toward a potential nuclear breakout much faster than anticipated, which eventually added to the pressure for negotiations. Second, Iran launched a massive cyberattack against U.S. financial institutions and the oil operations of U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. Just tomake the point clear, the attack on Aramco computers in Saudi Arabia utilized a piece of the code originally devised for the Stuxnet virus. In true spy-vs.- spy fashion, responsibility for the attacks was never publicly acknowledged by either side. The most serious assault on Iran’s nuclear programwas the assassinations of scientists. Over a three-year period at the height of the international pressure against Iran, a series of killings targeted Iranian scientists who had varying degrees of involvement in the state’s nuclear program. According to some U.S. intelligence officials, these highly profes- sional operations were carried out by Israeli intelligence, working with the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian oppositionmovement headquartered in Paris. (The details are described by Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council inWashington, in his recent book, Losing an Enemy . See the review on p. 61. ) The United States strongly disassociated itself from these actions, but Iran refused to believe that Israel would act without U.S. approval and reacted by launching a string of clumsy, failed attacks against Israeli officials, culminating in the bombing of a busload of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. The extremely amateurish and botched plot by an Iranian-American to assassinate the Saudi ambassador toWashingtonmay have been part of this campaign, as well. The Iranian intent was clear; the sloppy execution was harder to understand. A Fraught Relationship The fraught American relationship with Iran is the product of an extraordinary series of historical events, policy misbehavior, viru- lent misunderstandings, malign neglect and external pressures. It has now been nearly 40 years since the Islamic Revolution began, In terms of strategy, Iran is opportunistic and tends to play a long game.