Iran Spotlight: A Special Position Paper no.1 ● March 2008




Raz Zimmt


On February 11, 2008, Iran commemorated the 29th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution. In a speech delivered two days afterwards at a conference held in the city of Qom, the Chairman of the Expediency Council, 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, reflected Iran’s revolutionary vision by stating that Islamic unity was the only way to achieve an Islamic victory in the world. The Islamic nation, he added, must join hands in order to avoid rifts and maintain unity in light of its enemies' plots.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution (1979) Iran has often declared its extensive commitment to Islamic unity and its support for Muslims around the world. The conception adopted by the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, denied the existence of different nations and states in Islam and aspired to implement Islamic unity between all components of the Islamic community. Khomeini considered the concept of nationality to be an "imperialist plot" designed to weaken the Islamic world in order to exploit it. The Islamist takeover and preservation of power in Iran was considered to be the first stage towards achieving Islamic unity.

Iranian commitment to the promotion of Islamic solidarity was frequently reflected in Iranian officials' foreign policy statements and actions during the early 1980s. Fairly quickly, however, the Iranian leadership acknowledged the need to adapt its conduct to geo-strategic realities and to prefer state interests over revolutionary ideals. Although revolutionary principles required Iran to demonstrate its commitment to Muslims in every possible place, it often chose to subordinate the revolutionary vision to its state interests whenever demonstrating its commitment to Muslims threatened to harm those interests. For example, Iran avoided any assistance or even expression of support for the Chechen Muslims, who had been struggling for independence from Moscow throughout the 1990s and even explicitly expressed its support in favor of Moscow's territorial integrity in order not to jeopardize its relations with its Russian ally. It also adopted a balanced approach toward Shi'ite Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia ever since the 1988 eruption of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict. Iran even served as Armenia's main supply route, thus helping the Armenian war effort in its conflict against Azerbaijan.

Apparently, Iran feared that a successful secular Azerbaijan might encourage irredentist aspirations among its own substantial Azeri population, thus giving priority to domestic state interest over religious solidarity. The clash between these two considerations was once again evident in Iran's response to the Kosovo crisis.

On February 17, only a few days after Revolution Day in Iran, the Parliament in Prishtina endorsed the declaration of independence from Serbia made by Kosovo's Prime minister, Hashim Tachi. Had the Iranian policy towards Kosovo been based upon its revolutionary ideological vision alone, Tehran should have welcomed the establishment of an independent state in the heart of Europe with a 90 percent Muslim population. The birth of a new Muslim state in the Balkan region might have even been considered by Iran as an opportunity to expand its influence on the European continent, even though Kosovo was not governed by Islamist Muslims.

But considering the decisive objection by its strategic ally, Russia, to Kosovo's independence and the support given to the new-born state by Iran's rival, the United States, Iran again preferred its political interests over its revolutionary vision. Iranian officials remained silent and avoided any official reaction to Kosovo's declaration of independence. Iranian Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Mohammad-'Ali Hosseini, who was asked about the situation in Kosovo at his weekly press conference, reacted quite cautiously. He called for maintaining peace and stability in the region, avoided any clear position regarding the declaration of independence, and stated that the rights of religious minorities should be respected. Iran, he said, was closely following developments in the Balkans and would announce its opinion in the future.

An even more hesitant approach was evident in commentaries published in the Iranian press. Even the conservative newspapers, which often reflect their devotion to the revolutionary vision and to Ayatollah Khomeini's ideology, refrained from siding with the independence-seekers among Kosovo's Muslims. Tehran Emruz daily dedicated two articles in its February 19 edition to the issue of Kosovo. Under the title: "Why Independence?", 'Ali Karami asserted that considering the political tensions caused by Kosovo's declaration of independence and its recognition by other countries, it should be asked whether the "sweetness" of the unilateral declaration of independence was really expected to fulfill the ambitions of Kosovo's people. The meaning of independence in international relations, Karami said, was a country's ability to manage its own affairs without the involvement of another country. Independence and the prestige of raising the Kosovo's flag in international institutions were indeed important for the Albanians in Kosovo, but other countries' recognition of their independence was more important. In addition, independence did not only have political dimensions, but economic ones as well, manifested by the ability to achieve economic growth for the sake of the citizens' welfare. If Kosovo's authorities failed to realize their political and economic objectives, Karami warned, the Albanians in Kosovo would one day aspire to return to living under the protection of Serbia.

The same edition's editorial also reflected the chilly Iranian reaction to Kosovo's independence. Although the creation of a new country with a Muslim majority in one of the most strategic points of the world could serve Tehran's interests in the long run, the editorial said, one should not forget that the Albanian ethnic and national identity amongst Kosovo's Muslims was much stronger than their religious convictions, and that the Albanians led by Hashim Tachi nurtured the idea of establishing "a greater Albania" in the future.

In February 18th Fars news agency also reported the developments in the Balkans while reflecting a restrained approach toward Kosovo's independence. A commentary entitled: "Kosovo's Independence - Another Conflict in the Balkans?" ignored the religious significance of the event, preferring to concentrate on the advantages America gained from the independence of the Kosovars. According to Fars, Kosovo had major political and economic importance and there were also many uranium mines located there. The question therefore was whether Kosovo's independence would lead to further political tensions and whether the Balkan region would witness another conflict between different powers.

Iran's reaction to the political developments in the Balkans and its avoidance of recognizing Kosovo's independence or even expressing its support for Kosovo's Muslims demonstrates once again that when faced with a choice between its revolutionary vision and its state interests, Iran usually favors the latter. Iran is likely to continue to raise its revolutionary flag on various occasions and to emphasize the need for Muslim solidarity. But wherever a militant policy based upon the revolutionary vision might compromise its vital national interests, Iran is likely to act in accordance with pragmatic considerations.

Raz Zimmt is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Historical Studies and a research fellow of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

* Views included and/or expressed in The Iran Spot reflect those of the author(s).

The CIS of Tel Aviv University does not maintain an official position on Iran.

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