Updated: December 28, 2015 12:01:33 am
The Vienna agreement between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015 was a major milestone for the Middle East’s geopolitical future. It was also a breath of fresh air for Iranian domestic politics. The question to ask now is what the nuclear deal means for Iran’s future economic and political role in the region and the world. Two strong arguments have emerged from the hawks and doves in Tehran and Washington. Opponents of the deal, in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US, continue to argue that Iran is at the root of many problems in the Middle East and that the only correct policy is economic and political containment, or military invasion. Supporters of the deal have a more nuanced understanding of Iran’s regional role and intentions.
Moreover, there’s a permanent disagreement between two competing visions within Iran. The first group — represented by President Hassan Rouhani, the moderates and reformists — believes that Iran must collaborate with Russia, Turkey, Iraq and the West to re-establish security and stability in the Middle East. From their perspective, Iran can’t remain an island of stability unless there’s an end to the ongoing regional conflicts. Proponents of the second view — represented by the conservatives and ultra-conservatives close to the Supreme Leader and the erstwhile government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — argue that collaboration with the West and non-ideological engagements in the region should be reduced to a minimum. For them, the war against the Islamic State is not Iran’s fight. They also believe Iran’s regional interests can be best served by defending only core Shia interests in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.
This debate comes at a sensitive moment. In the next 18 months, three important elections are scheduled. In February 2016, Iran will hold parliamentary elections and also elect the Assembly of Experts, whose key mandate is to choose the next Supreme Leader. In June 2017, Iranians will choose their next president. With Ayatollah Khamenei ageing and probably ill, many wonder if the assembly will choose his successor, and one who could reshape the constitution. Moderate forces advocate more power for elected bodies, while supporting the candidacy of the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s reformist grandson, Hassan Khomeini, for the assembly. Khamenei himself supported Rouhani’s push for the nuclear deal, but showed serious doubts about its implementation and consequences vis-a-vis relations with the US.
Despite resuscitating Iran’s economy with prudent diplomacy, Rouhani will face many difficulties in following up on his social and political liberalisation. As a result, Rouhani and his cabinet are under daily pressure from the ultra-conservatives. Yet, everyone in Tehran seems to be looking for some progress towards a regional security architecture. If this analysis is correct, any proactive shift in Iran’s foreign policy towards a less interventionist stance may help reduce Middle Eastern tensions. But this analysis can’t be valid without demolishing the myth of Shi’ite Iran — spread by Saudi Wahhabism — provoking sectarian wars for supremacy over the Sunni world. The truth is that Iran has little interest in challenging the Saudis, for the simple reason that Tehran doesn’t see Riyadh as an important threat to its security. Iran’s support for Iraq’s Shias and Syria’s Alawites, or its aid to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, is less about sectarianism and more about political realism.
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Iran appears to be moving towards greater accommodation with regional states. The proof is Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s letter to the Lebanese daily al-Safir, addressing the Arab world about security threats that confront all Middle Eastern states alike. Zarif suggested regional cooperation for a peaceful resolution to violent conflicts, signalling Iran’s goodwill. This new effort at partnership, post Vienna, is a transformative process, changing Iran from an insular security state to a regional power. If that’s the case, one should be prepared to witness a heightened economic partnership between Iran and Europe, and also with some Arab states and India.
Still, some believe there will be an escalation in Arab hostility to Iran to weaken Tehran’s hand, since the Gulf states have an innate fear of Iran’s re-emergence as a new regional policeman. What’s certain is that, if Tehran plays its cards correctly, the coming years may see Iran emerge as a respected regional power and a more visible partner in the global policymaking arena.
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