There is a famous saying that “in politics, there is neither a lasting friendship nor a permanent enmity, but rather a permanent interest.” It is true. The most successful policies are the most realistic ones, in which pragmatism trumps principles.
Take the US, established by its Founding Fathers with their Declaration of Independence bestowing the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Despite this foundation, the US had no qualms during the Cold War about supporting dictatorships in the Far East, Latin America and parts of Africa. It justified this support by saying the US feared the expansion of the “Communist Ghoul” into poor countries that were prone to political instability.
Or take the former Soviet Union, with its roots in the 1917 October Revolution that demanded a fair global society for the world’s workers, with no racial, linguistic and religious differences. But within its borders this “workers’ paradise” built individual police states and sheltered mafia groups with illegally obtained wealth. They enslaved hard-working people, limited the dreams of the poor and deceived those who believed in social justice.
And why look so far afield for examples of such pragmatism? At the very heart of our Arab world, have we not seen how some “progressive” parties ended up once they acquired power? In a short period of time, and in the absence of accountability, they awarded themselves castles, privileges and wealth.
In the end, words may be forgotten and data erased, but interests, and interests alone, determine the policies of the countries that are good at “handling” politics.
For decades, the US State Department has issued annual statements about countries that flout international law and support terrorism. Iran, Syria and North Korea invariably appear on that list. Let us disregard North Korea for the time being and examine how Washington behaved toward the other two during the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama.
Obama reached a deal with Iran that will allow the latter, after 15 years, to establish a nuclear military capability. That was not all. To reach this deal, the US disregarded the expansion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) throughout the Middle East, inciting sectarian hatred and civil war.
At the same time, the US mocked the Syrian people’s revolution and denied it a path to success and any means of support. It also deceived the Syrian people and turned a blind eye to violence, starvation, displacement and destruction — crimes that have killed up to half a million Syrians and destroyed the lives of untold millions more. To put it simply, the Iranian and Syrian people have been overlooked, for the sake of a capricious deal that contradicted every principle of combating terrorism.
What applies to Obama’s Washington applies, in fact, to most developed countries that brag about their democratic heritage while lecturing a Third World that endures poverty, famine, disease and underdevelopment. It also applies to countries that claim to be living in accordance with divine spiritual principles that supersede political institutions, of which Iran is a classic example. To comply with the requirements of international relations, it elects governments and presidents, and establishes councils and surveillance bodies: But governance is exercised through the theory of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist or Wilayat Al-Faqih.
The triumph of pragmatism over principles is as old as politics itself, but Tehran’s recent behavior gives realpolitik a bad name.
Eyad Abu Shakra
Two powerful forces form the core of the regime, apart from all the claims related to democracy and public freedoms: The IRGC and its institutions, and the moneyed group that provides the IRGC with the means of subsistence, expansion and domination, and benefits from its activities.
At the end of 2001, and in response to the 9/11 attacks, the US decided to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan because it supported and had close ties with Al-Qaeda. The Iranian leadership did not object to the presence of US and NATO troops on the Muslim lands of Afghanistan. Quite the reverse, Iran was happy that Washington had brought down a hard-line tyranny that it disliked.
The same silence followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the toppling of the regime and the execution of its president. Moreover, despite the hostility to Washington and the “Death to America” culture that Iran spread through the areas under its influence and control, Tehran supporters actually benefited from the US occupation.
In Afghanistan, since the liberation from Taliban rule and the Afghan forces’ agreement on a consensual legitimate authority, Tehran has moved to secure a foothold in the country by re-establishing close ties with its “ancient foe,” the Taliban.
Almost the same thing happened in Iraq: The US did Tehran a favor by exterminating the Baathist regime, but once that was achieved Tehran had no interest in keeping the Americans there for long. To put pressure on Washington, Tehran gave the Syrian regime the task of exporting Al-Qaeda terrorism to Iraq with operations targeting the remaining US soldiers. That is how Iran forced the US to withdraw, leaving the arena clear for Tehran’s influence.
According to Tehran’s followers in the Arab region, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and now Daesh are takfiri organizations who accuse other Muslims of apostasy. This charge does not, of course, extend to similar organizations that are supported by Tehran.
Iran waged an aggressive war in Syria against its people, economy and national unity under the pretext of fighting takfiris. For several years now, Tehran’s spokesmen and Iranian policy advocates on Arab media have been attacking countries that they accuse of supporting takfiris. However, as soon as the Qatar crisis began, Tehran rapidly switched sides and stood shoulder to shoulder with the countries it had just accused of supporting takfiri ideology.
Some may describe this as “realpolitik,” and pragmatism trumping principles. Others may describe it as hypocrisy.
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.