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…On the Iranian Understanding of National Borders and their Stability: The Worst Form of Conservatism

…On the Iranian Understanding of National Borders and their Stability: The Worst Form of Conservatism

Wednesday, 1 June, 2022 - 09:15

A few days ago, Iran behaved like a power that safeguards national borders and guarantees their stability. According to the German Press Agency, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh affirmed that “the Islamic Republic of Iran opposes any military action and use of force on the territory of other countries with the aim of resolving disputes, because this violates the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of those countries and will only further complicate the situation and intensify tensions.”


He delivered this statement in response to a question about the prospect of Turkey launching a military operation in Iraq or Syria, a step that Turkish President Erdogan had been threatening to take. Conferring additional diplomatic poise to his statement, as diplomats representing major powers do, Khatibzadeh added that Iran appreciates “Turkey’s security concerns;” but that “the only way to resolve them is to engage in dialogue and respect the bilateral agreements that have been signed with neighbors, as well as agreements that were reached as part of the Astana peace process, which include respecting Syria’s national sovereignty and committing to the principle of avoiding the use force.”


“The past few years have demonstrated that the use of military force against other countries has not helped to solve problems but rather leads to worrisome humanitarian ramifications and further complicates matters in the region,” he went, adding historical wisdom to the diplomatic wisdom he had already shared.


He is entirely correct. Turkey once again crossing its southern borders, which it shares with Syria and Iraq, targeting the Kurds in both, as well as the sovereignty of these two countries, could only be a dangerous and worrying step.


The fact is that despite the collapse of the Sultanate a century ago, Ankara has not abandoned its sultanic mentality. It continues to see its neighbors as dominions that had been seized from it, dominions it can “legitimately” “keep in line” when that is required to preserve its “interests” or “national security.” We know that almost all the actions taken by Russia, with its imperial consciousness, draw on this tradition, as its ongoing war in Ukraine conclusively demonstrates.


Khomeinist Iran, on the other hand, is different. With the exception of Iraq, it does not share borders with any Arab country, and no Arab country was part of its empire in modern history.


True, Tehran will not give back the territory it had annexed in previous eras, whether it is the three Emirati islands in the Gulf that were occupied by the Shah in 1971, or Khuzestan (Arabistan), which was seized by Reza Khan from Khazal Jaber al-Kaabi, the last of the Kaabi rulers. However, it is also true that in spreading its influence, Iran draws inspiration more from partisan and missionary tools than it does from an imperial imaginary. In this sense, if Turkey’s consciousness is similar to Tsarist-Putinist Russia, then Iran’s consciousness is similar to that of the Soviets.


This strategy is timely and useful because Iran possesses powerful local tools, just as the Soviet Union had had communist parties in distant countries. By extension, it has an ideological message to preach, like the Soviet Union and unlike Turkey.


After four decades in Lebanon, two decades in Iraq, and a decade in Syria and Yemen, Iran and its local tools have succeeded in establishing a stability that institutionalizes instability, which takes the form of real or potential civil and regional wars. Generally, preserving states and borders has become beneficial to Tehran- so long as these states were hollowed out from within them while borders define countries’ shapes only insofar as lines in a body of water give it shape. States and borders being undermined, on the other hand, threatens the status quo that Iran has become familiar with and accustomed to controlling and dealing with. Undermining them threatens to introduce new powers that had not been accounted for or to pull away other powers that had been well known and well accounted for.


In Syria, for example, Iran has become accustomed to living next to Russia, with whom it shares support for Assad, cohabitation from afar with the United States, with whom it shares the “war on terror,” and a relatively contained war with Israel. But if Turkey were to get involved further and Russia left, many cards would be shuffled, and Iran would be forced to adapt: In addition to Ankara’s new role, the atrophy of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would exacerbate, and the Israeli-Iranian war could get out of hand after the Russian mediation is disrupted.


Something similar could be said of Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, all countries where Iran would prefer to avoid seeing any new factors coming in or any old ones getting out: neither revolutions nor elections are welcomed, nor is the development of relations with political powers or sources of economic support, nor is the emergence of new ideas and visions for the future… Everything, then, ought to maintain the shape it has currently taken, with the dominance of the Iranian regime as its backbone.


Thus, the stability that is desired, after everything Iran achieved for itself, is one that sees countries continue to walk along their path toward atrophy. And this, despite all the revolutionary rhetoric, is an extremely conservative project defending conditions so poor that the most hardcore conservatives would shy away from standing up for.


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