Udo Steinbach: “Iran instrumentalises Shia Islam, but for its own political interests”

Udo Steinbach: “Iran instrumentalises Shia Islam, but for its own political interests”

Author: Interview by Orkhan Sattarov, head of European office of VK 
A German expert on the Middle East, Professor  of Islamic Studies Udo Steinbach, discusses Middle Eastern issues with VK.

-    Mr. Steinbach, what would be the effects of the rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, that you believe possible, for Iran's neighbours in the Middle East and the South Caucasus?

-    If we can move away from the entrenched policy of confrontation with Iran, successfully engage it in the architecture of international cooperation, if there is a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, no doubt, this will have a direct impact on other countries in the region. In this case, the regime in Tehran will have to abandon any attempt to in any way export the Islamic revolution to neighbouring countries and to use the religious factor to threaten its neighbours. The policy that Tehran is pursuing in the Persian Gulf countries (in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), Azerbaijan and Iraq, where Iran is playing an important role. But Iran considered by the international community as an equal partner will be able to move away from a policy of confrontation with its neighbours. In some countries Tehran intervenes directly - for example, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. In other cases, it threatens intervention - in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. This is also true for Azerbaijan, where Iran is trying to play on the religious factor. However, in the case of Iran’s involvement in the architecture of international cooperation, its current policy towards its neighbours would be counter-productive and inappropriate.

-    You accidentally touched on Iranian-Azerbaijani relations. What would and the region the possible US-Iranian rapprochement mean for them?

-    Undoubtedly, in this case we would see a significant improvement in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations. There is another side of this issue that I would like to mention. The Foreign Policy Concept of Russian President Vladimir Putin to strengthen Russian influence in the former Soviet Union, including Central Asia and South Caucasus, is largely feasible due to two factors: the lack of activity of the Americans in these regions, as well as the forces in post-Soviet space, which are  ready to move closer to Russia. And if Azerbaijan is increasingly facing pressure from Tehran and the growing Islamisation of the country, it is likely that the government in Baku will be oriented toward Moscow. Therefore, if Iranian pressure weakens and Iran is included in a rational system of regional cooperation, Russia will lose its potential allies and the field of action for the implementation of Putin's foreign policy concept, and the South Caucasus will see a rearrangement of forces and a more intense process of democratization. Central Asia will experience similar trends in this case, I believe.

-    There is, however, an opinion  that it is the politics of Shiite expansionism that forms the basis of the regime in Tehran. Do you think that the regime would be ready to abandon it in a new geopolitical environment?

-    This is certainly an age-old question, and since the Islamic Revolution in Iran a tremendous amount of literature has been devoted to it: what components dominate the Tehran regime - political or religious? However, we have repeatedly witnessed how sober and pragmatic Iranian politicians can act when it comes to objective interests. Recall the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia during the presidency of Khatami, when it served its economic interests.

Initially, I believed that it is the primacy of politics, not religion, that determines the actions of Iran. Scratch any mullah and you will find an Iranian nationalist. And if you look at the performances and the foreign policy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in recent months, with its nationalist emphasis, trying to save his own position by hook or by crook, it is once again clear that Iran's policy is of a very nationalist colour, despite the religious shell. So I can say that Iran instrumentalises Shia Islam, but for its own political interests. Remember how quickly Iranians stopped their religious demonstrations at the graves of the Imams in Medina, once they had established good relations with Saudi Arabia. As another example, the Iranians do not intervene in the situation in Bahrain, although their brothers in faith are also there, the Shiites, and the Shah of Iran dreamed of Bahrain, the Iranians believe Bahrain to be part of Iran. Because Iran is well aware that direct intervention in Bahrain is a red line that they cannot cross under the threat of nuclear attack by Israel. The situation is the same in the province of Al-Hasa, Saudi Arabia - Iranians do not really intervene there, despite the fact that it is a Shiite region. In other words, the religious components of the Iranian regime are immediately overshadowed when it starts to contradict political interests. So I do not subscribe to the theory of religious conflict in the region and the "Shiite crescent" that was mentioned by Jordan's King Abdullah II. Religious components come below political interests.