Iran's Tarnished Foreign Policy

By Meir Javedanfar

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad´s absence at the African Union summit was a bit conspicuous.

After four years of globetrotting, it would take a lot for Mr. Ahmadinejad to give up the chance of addressing such an important forum as the African forum. The Iranian President has always felt that in places such as Africa he has an audience for his anti-American and anti-Israeli views. This would have been a perfect opportunity for him to declare his return as the new president, and to promote his image as a statesman.

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Judging by a recent report in AFP, there were a number of African delegates who were worried that that the Iranian President's presence may have diverted attention away from the real issues at hand.

In other words, after the recent elections in Iran, President Ahmadinejad is too contentious a figure to invite to such an event for countries who prior to the June 12th Iranian elections would most probably have not complained. During Ahmadinejad´s first term, many African states strengthened their ties with Iran. In fact, no African country walked out after Ahmadinejads´s controversial speech in at the Durban conference in Geneva.

This is a major setback for the Iranian President, as his government's relations with Africa are an important part of his "South - South" strategy. Devised by Saeed Jalili, who now heads the nuclear file at Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the goal of this strategy is to strengthen relations with southern hemisphere countries - especially in Latin America and Africa - as means of countering US influence.

What should worry the President even more is the warning sent by Europeans that during Ahmadinejad´s speech in Libya they would either stay quiet, or walk out. According to the Tehran-based news web site Iranian Diplomacy, they did not say which one of these options they would follow. Either of these would be interpreted as clear sign of deterioration between EU and Iran.

These events will not bode well for Iran's foreign policy. Already battered by Ahmadinejad´s denial of the Holocaust, and calls for the elimination of Israel, any more damage could erode Iran's standing in important places such as the Middle East and Europe. Such damage could reduce Iran's leverage, especially when it comes to negotiating with the United States. This could mean a weaker hand, thus leading to Tehran coming off worst.

What Iranian foreign policy strategists have to address now is how to restore Iran's pre-election legitimacy. One way could be for Iran under Ahmadinejad to become even closer to the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. Both countries are important to the US, and their governments are not very sensitive to the recent developments in Iran.

There is also the issue of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Despite the animosities felt towards Tehran, a turnaround in Iranian foreign policy and approach, especially when it comes to cooperating in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan, could make it harder for them to ignore Tehran, despite Ahmadinejad´s tarnished image abroad. To them, having a bigger say in the region is worth more, and a seemingly weak Ahmadinejad may be seen by them as the perfect time to deal with Iran.

There is always the option of encouraging Hamas and Hezbollah to start another conflict with Israel as means of flexing muscle and showing influence. The international community would then have to ask Tehran to rein in both movements. However, taking both movements' domestic challenges and ambition into consideration, plus the additional pressure this could cause for Tehran in the region and in Washington, such as option is unlikely to be a recommended one by strategists.

Iran's battered image, made worst by the loss of Hezbollah in the recent Lebanese elections, compels the Supreme Leader to address the situation by making positive overtures. Otherwise, Iran could lose years worth of meticulous planning to build alliance and influence.

There is always the possibility that Iran is so close to the bomb, that Ayatollah Khamenei feels that any rapprochement could hurt his plans to make Iran a nuclear state. So for now, it's best to shut the hatchets and live with the status quo until this goal has been accomplished.

Even if this is the case, the losses incurred are unlikely to be completely repaired, even with a bomb in the basement. With or without a bomb, Iran needs alliances and a functional foreign policy. Taking the new developments in Libya into consideration, Khamenei´s administration cannot afford to be looked upon as the new Zimbabwe.

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and a regular contributor to RealClearWorld. He is co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.

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