Iran's Grand Chess Game Continues

Rouhani's courting of the U.S. during his interview on CBS's 60 Minutes last night made it clear that Iran seeks to be a respected member of the international community. Iran's government is pursuing an extensive charm offensive before the UN meeting next week in NY.

Just a few days before Rouhani's appearance, a recognized supporter, Dr. Nasser Hadian, Professor of Political Science at Tehran University, spoke at the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council. Dr. Hadian, presumably close to Iran's "moderates," said that Iran does not consider Saudi Arabia a threat and Saudi Arabia does not factor in Iran's national security calculations.

In a subsequent one-on-one interview with yours truly, Dr. Hadian ventured to say that Iran's defense posture in the region is primarily based on Iran's perception of threats, posed by Israel and the United States, to its national security interests and revolutionary values; the rest, from Iran's point of view, is background noise.

According to Dr. Hadian, Iran has two national security camps. The first camp is concerned with threats to Iran's revolutionary ideology and values, and the second camp is concerned with perceived threats to Iran's national security and interests. Iran's foreign policy is a function of who wins the argument of the day, hence the inconsistency at times. Dr. Hadian argued that the West, and the U.S. in particular, should take advantage of this division to do business with the second camp.

In Dr. Hadian's opinion, Iran is a "linkage state" as Iran's cooperation is needed in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria as well as on terrorism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, etc. An understanding of this reality will be fruitful to all stakeholders and could save more blood shedding and destabilization in the region, he asserts. Dr. Hadian claimed that Rouhani reached out a number of times to Riyadh, but the Saudis have a convenient enemy in Iran, stating that "Saudi Arabia's policy against Iran has been so far cost free but that is not going to remain the case."

When pressed on Iran's interference in Lebanon through its support of Hezbollah and its backing of the Assad regime, Dr. Hadian said that its interventions in Lebanon and Syria are not based on ideology but rather on interests, stating that "Iran's presence in Syria and Lebanon is to counter Israel and the U.S.'s influence, not that of Saudi Arabia, whereas Saudi Arabia's presence in Lebanon is to counter Iran. Syria, historically speaking, is part of the resistance movement in the region and currently its inherent value to Iran is that it has been the life support channel for Hezbollah."

For Iran, Dr. Hadian added, Hezbollah provides "strategic depth based on terrorizing Israel to deter any potential Israeli attack on Iran." Iran sees both Hezbollah and Syria as tools in furthering Iran's security and national interests.

Dr. Hadian asserted that "Shiism" does not drive Iran's foreign policy as Saudi Arabia claims, but rather it is based on the values of Islamic revolution, with an emphasis on revolution. He cited Iran's siding with Christian Armenia against Shia Azerbaijan in the 1980s to drive this point home.

When asked about its belligerence towards Israel given that the two countries do not share any borders, Dr. Hadian answered that the issue is one of ideology. I asked him how could he square this with Rouhani's congratulatory statement to the Jewish people on their New Year earlier this week, he answered " Rouhani was congratulating the Jewish people, not the Israelis. Israel is not the only country with Jewish people, you have more Jewish people in America than in Israel." Dr. Hadian's answer reminded me that Iranians invented Chess.

Listening to Dr. Hadian, it is clear that Iran wants to be recognized for the regional player‎ it is and seeks this recognition from the U.S., not from its gulf neighbors. But before this happens, Tehran, as former secretary Henry Kissinger has written, still has to decide whether it wants to be a cause or a state.