Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Iran: Heroic Flexibility Returns

“Easy does it!” These days in Tehran the phrase seems to have become the guideline for a ruling elite that has realized it can no longer go about its shenanigans at no cost.

Almost six months of on-and-off protests virtually everywhere has persuaded the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he cannot put down a popular revolt at home while pursuing adventurous policies abroad. As a result, he has decided to perform what he calls “heroic flexibility” in foreign policy in the hope of focusing on a slow but steady suppression of dissent at home. In a speech last week, he said he was applying the tactic of “taqiyeh” (dissimulation), a theological concept, to diplomacy. Echoing Lenin’s famous phrase “One step backwards, two steps forward,” he said when a revolution hits a tough rock on its path it need not break its head against it; the wisest course would be to try and go around it.

It is against that background that Tehran now hails its recent “normalization” with Saudi Arabia followed by “dispersing the clouds” in relations with the United Arab Emirates as “a major step towards Islamic solidarity.”

This is to be followed by “normalization” with Egypt, partly thanks to mediation by Sultan Haitham bin Tarik of Oman.

Under the “easy does it” scheme Tehran has already managed to exchange a Belgian hostage it held with an Iranian diplomat serving a sentence in Belgium on charges of terrorism. By the time this column appears Tehran hopes to have made another exchange between one of its diplomats, again found guilty of terrorism, with a Swedish hostage.

Four French and American hostages have also been released in line with the same tactic.

More importantly, perhaps, Tehran has quietly “rescheduled” its annual “A World without America” seminar and the annual “Holocaust as a Hoax” cartoon exhibition.

Addressing Iranian envoys aboard, the “Supreme Guide” ordered them to be on their best behavior. This was in contrast with previous sermons in which he had urged his diplomats to always raise the banner of revolution and emphasize Iran’s role as the leader of a new power bloc seeking to establish a new world order in alliance with Russia and China.

However, the most dramatic illustration of this “turn the other cheek” game came with two recent border “incidents”. In the first incident a group of gunmen coming from Pakistan attacked an Iranian border post, killing and wounding a number of Iranian guards.

The surprise was that Tehran did not invoke a 1973 agreement with Islamabad under which Iranian forces could chase the attackers in “hot pursuit” and bring them to justice. The attack came a day after President Ibrahim Raisi had held a meeting with Pakistani Premier Shahbaz Sharif just miles from the border post that was attacked. The implicit message of the attackers was clear: We could have hit you a day earlier and exactly where you happened to be!

The second “incident” happened further north on the Iran-Afghanistan border with a group of Afghan Taliban supposedly straying into Iranian territory by accident, provoking an exchange of fire with Iranian border guards. A few days later tension was heightened with a four-hour gunbattle on three border locations with both sides accusing the other as the initiator.

The “incidents” happened against a background of dispute over the sharing of the waters of four rivers originating in Afghanistan and irrigating the northern part of the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Tehran claims that Kabul is deliberately denying Iran its share of the waters as specified in a treaty signed in 1972. Kabul claims that the Iranian share has been reduced because Afghan rivers have suffered four years of severe drought.

The irony in all that a new dam that is believed to be part of the problem was built by Iran before the Taliban returned to power in Kabul. For two decades Iran was the third largest donor of aid to Afghanistan under Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani in the hope of turning the Afghan ruling elite against the United States. Now, however, Tehran claims that “the remnants of the previous Afghan regime” are responsible for the water dispute in the hope of forcing Iran to attack the Taliban and help their opponents regain power.

There are also elements on the Iranian side who urge the leadership to “teach Afghans a lesson” in the hope of arousing nationalistic sentiments and divert attention from the popular protests that started last summer. There is some jingoistic talk on the Afghan side as well with several commanders even talking of marching up to Tehran.

Both sides, however, have shown no interest in starting a war at a time that they both face challenges to their legitimacy. Khamenei’s recently adopted posture of moderation is mirrored by that of his Afghan counterpart Hibatullah Akhund, the Taliban “Emir of the Faithful”.

Will Khamenei’s “heroic flexibility” also affect relations with Western democracies? A cautious yes seems in order. He has already declared that his regime has “never been hostile to relations with Europe” and talks are under way to arrange a visit to Paris by Foreign Minister Hussain Amir-Abdullahian.

The big enchilada, of course, is whether the “Supreme Guide” will prove flexible enough to accept a new version of the Obama “nuke deal” or JCPOA which President Donald Trump dumped, and his successor President Joe Biden is determined to bring out of the wastepaper basket. Biden seems determined to get a deal before next year’s presidential election to claim success in bringing Iran into the fold where Trump had failed. Iran has already smoothed its relations with its Arab neighbors and released most American hostages. It has also kept its Hezbollah surrogates on a tight leash while also reducing aid to the Houthis in Yemen and the Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.

More importantly, the new JCPOA that is on offer will tighten the control that the US and five other major powers will gain on key aspects of Iranian economic, trade and scientific policies. A tight leash on Tehran will enable Washington to regain some influence as Iran heads for the unchartered waters of Khamenei’s succession.