A few hours after the Iranian presidential election, which was held on May 19, 2017, the re-elected moderate President Hassan Rouhani characterized the election as a “victory of peace, reconciliation against tension and violence” in his speech addressing the Iranian nation. According to Rouhani, “the message of [the Iranian] people [in this election] was expressed clearly in the election and today, the world knows well that the Iranian nation has chosen the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism.” Rouhani’s statements are extensions of his statements on Iran’s aspiration to form a global coalition against Islamic extremism (any form of Islam that opposes democracy, the rule of law, individual liberties and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs) instead of the armed coalition in the Middle East.
Considering the latest developments in Iran, this post examines some aspects of Rouhani’s attitude towards security and peace in the world and more importantly in the Middle East.
During the General Assembly of the World Ahl-ul beit Forum that was held on August 15, 2015 in Tehran, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani remarked,
“Our strength, scientific, moral and political power has never been and will be never used against any of the Muslim countries and neighbors in our region. With our ability and strength, we want to establish peace, stability and security in this region… In Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, there is no difference between a Shia and a Sunni. We want peace, security and brotherhood for all and development for the whole region.”
Rouhani’s statement at the forum has brought the question to mind of whether Iran is pursuing hegemonic power – influence and political dominance of a state or country over another – in the Middle East or Iran’s new administration is pursuing an attitude closer to international law. Answering this question depends on some critical challenges facing Iran.
After a long-running nuclear tension between Iran and the world powers, the P5+1 and the EU, Rouhani’s administration team succeeded in reaching a Nuclear Deal with those powers on July 14, 2015 in Vienna. In summary, the Nuclear Deal prevents Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The main purpose of the Nuclear Deal was to ensure the purely peaceful and civilian nature of Iran’s nuclear activities. The Nuclear Deal was an important achievement of Rouhani’s administration, which prepared the solution grounds of the Iranian nuclear crisis. In continuation of this important progress, Iran found an opportunity to build new connections with its neighbors and the EU and non-EU countries. In any case, improvement of Iran’s international and regional relations and, therefore, the growth of Iranian power in the region were underlying concerns of some neighboring countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials believe that “increased Iranian power will lead to political mobilization by Shia inside the Sunni-ruled Gulf states.” Nevertheless, Rouhani stated in reaction that Iran is not seeking regional hegemony but is rather working for a strong Middle East and better relations. In this regard, Rouhani also added that “Iran’s face is the face of fighting terrorism and establishing peace and security in the region and we will continue this path with more power in the 12th administration.”
Another step taken which strengthened these assertions was Rouhani’s Draft WAVE Resolution, proposed on September 25, 2013, entitled “A World against Violence and Violent Extremism (WAVE).” The Resolution was approved by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 2015. The WAVE Resolution, which calls on all nations across the globe to denounce violence and extremism, has been adopted on the basis of President Rouhani’s proposals on the fight against extremism and violence.
Keeping in mind Rouhani’s attitude in improving Iran’s relations after the Nuclear Deal, it should be mentioned that international relations of the states which form their national and international interests, is the main criteria of international law, which depends on a balance of power between the states that prevents a state from breaking international law. In this context, the lack of a community of interests or balance of power, there is no international law. Hans J. Morgenthau, “Positivism, Functionalism, and International Law”, 34 AJIL (1940) at 274. On the other hand, regardless of the continuing anti-Iran rhetoric of the new U.S. administration and Israel, adopting the WAVE Resolution by consensus upgraded Iran’s political position in international structures. Since Rouhani’s administration by such a suggestion showed that Iran demands peace and security in the region, it can be concluded that the WAVE Resolution was the most important step taken in order to create a moderate situation around the world.
At first sight, it may be said that the above-mentioned developments are adequate justifications, which demonstrate Iran’s pacifism and get closer to international law, since leadership in the fight against the factors disrupting international peace and security is the natural province of international law. However, it should be said that such leadership is not unlimited and therefore a state cannot act in violation of the basic rules of international law to protect peace and security. Keeping in mind the fact that the United States and its Middle Eastern allies, mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia, have ever aggressive policies such as war against Iran as an option on the table, it cannot be easily claimed that adopting the WAVE Resolution, in line with Rouhani’s anti-extremism proposals, as an anti-war policy to form a global coalition against extremism legitimizes Iran’s regional attitudes (intervention in internal affairs of the other countries due to lead the establishment of peace and security in the Middle East). In other words, Iran’s aspiration to establish peace and security in the region is not a reflection of its compliance with the international legal order.
First, the basic indicator of convergence of a state to the basic norms of international law and its safeguards should be sought at the national level. As a state in which the fundamental human rights such as the right to life, the rights to freedom of speech, access to information, right to express ideas and opinions, health services, and a clean environment are most seriously violated, talking about compatibility with international law is almost impossible.
Second, as a state in which its government’s form is an Islamic Republic, Iran’s foreign policy is based on the aspiration to be a power of the region, which has been foreseen in the Iranian Constitution. In this regard, Article 152 of the Constitution reads:
“The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the rejection of all forms of domination, both the exertion of it and submission to it, the preservation of the independence of the country in all respects and its territorial integrity, the defense of the rights of all Muslims…”
Besides, the contemporary Iranian state practice in “defending the rights of all Muslims” is the most important part of the Iranian political tradition ─ in line with the wide range of privileges and authorities foreseen in the Constitution ─ which has been applied during the whole reign of the ayatollahs. The Iranian political tradition is based on its constitutional monarchy in which intertwined organs of government and laws ensure the authority of the Supreme Leader over the president and the parliament. The Iranian constitutional monarchy is based on the top political organ in the country called the Supreme Leader who delineates the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 110 of the Iranian Constitution. Therefore, the President’s adherence to human rights, at the national level, and international law, at the international or regional level, does not significantly affect Iran’s national and international policies. In this context, it must be kept in mind that applying the policy of defending the rights of all Muslims depends on the maintenance of mutually peaceful relations with others. However, considering Iran’s past regional policies and its Revolutionary Guard Corps’ undeniable role in the Middle East, most notably supporting the other Muslim regimes of the region such as Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Qatar etc., it can absolutely be said that despite President Rouhani’s significant achievements ─ the Nuclear Deal as a “victory over war” and approval of the proposal which calls for the World Against Violence and Extremism in the UN General Assembly through consensus ─ Iran has been abusing its international relations in the region. Most importantly, the Iranian regime has continuously violated the principles of sovereign equality and non-intervention in internal affairs of another nation by directly and indirectly intervention in internal affairs of the above-mentioned states. The key point here is that in any case of intervention in other states of the Middle East, Iran had generally justified its attitudes under the guise of restoring regional order and security. In any case, Iran’s influence in the Middle Eastern states’ internal affairs and its continuing intercontinental ballistic missile program under the Revolutionary Guard Corps have promoted Iran to a regional power.
In sum, regardless of the significance of Iran’s achievements during Rouhani’s presidency, its attitude to establish peace and security in the Middle East through intervention in internal affairs of other states of the region committed in line with the Iranian political tradition is a hegemonic posture of Iran towards being a power in the region. Accordingly, the steps taken to restore order to the region are not in compliance with international law and the UN principles, including sovereign equality and non-intervention in the internal affairs of another state.