Iran's expanding influence
While Iran has deftly taken advantage of changing regional circumstances, its bid for regional superpower status will not bring stability, writes Ibrahim Nawar*
Iran is now flexing considerable foreign policy muscle in the Middle East. The last few weeks have proven that Iran has become a capable regional player. Iran's strong ally in Beirut, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is holding many strings of power that make him a key figure in the search for a new Lebanese president. Moreover, Iran's Ambassador to Lebanon Mohamed Rida Shibani is calling, on behalf of the Lebanese people, for the removal of any foreign interference in internal Lebanese affairs, regarding Iranian influence as different. In Palestine, and with the help of Syria, Iranian allies are lining up against proposed peace talks to be held before the end of the year in Annapolis. Ramadan Shallah, leader of the pro-Iranian Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, is speaking with confidence of his ability to destroy President Mahmoud Abbas's project and to work with others (Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas) to create a new Middle East. Regarding Iraq, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki recently said Iran would help out by sending Iranian troops instead of the current US-led multinational force to ensure security and stability there. Mottaki also invited Saudi Arabia to take part in Iran's uranium enrichment programme by providing funds to nuclear facilities inside Iran. Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kadhemi Qommi is a key player in Iraq's security operations through his membership of the Iraqi Higher Security Committee and his relations with organisations loyal to Iran inside Iraq. Iran does not make its ambitions in Iraq a secret. Before the fall of Saddam in 2003, a committee was formed to handle Iraqi affairs whose members now are part of the executive, judiciary and legislative branches in Iraq. One can easily conclude there is a clear power vacuum in the Middle East resulting from the fall of Saddam, the weakness of Syria, the retreat of Egypt and reluctant regional policy of Saudi Arabia.
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A demonstration against the United States at Azadeh (Freedom) Square in Tehran in 2002
IRAN'S REGIONAL RISE: In its modern history Iran has never had such an influential role in the Middle East as now. The late Iranian shah's dream of making Iran a regional superpower collapsed with the fall of Baghdad Pact in 1958. With the rise of Iran's religious leaders and their victory in Tehran in 1979, the dream was revived, allied with the temptation of mobilising Shia communities in Arab countries. Since the fall of Saddam and the occupation of Iraq by the US in 2003, new political realities emerged. It is difficult to believe that it was by chance, not by choice, that Iran became the most powerful stakeholder in Iraq. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- the umbrella organisation of Shia political groups -- doesn't hide its deep loyalty to Tehran. Shia militias receive funds and weapons from Iran, according to American and Iraqi military and intelligence sources. Weapons seized in Iraq during multinational force raids often bear the mark of Iran and Iranian pilgrims flood Iraq by the thousands every day, making their way to the Shia holy cities of Karbala, Najaf, Samaraa and Kufah. Some bring with them, or encourage, drugs, prostitution, weapons and other sensitive goods.
Iran, rather than Jordan, has become the main trading partner of Iraq. In 2006, it is estimated that Iranian exports to Iraq reached over $5 billion and are increasing, with the Iranian Bandar Khomeini port becoming the main export point to Iraq. In political, economic and military terms, Iran has benefited from its geographical proximity to Iraq, passing over decades of enmity and re-forging ties mainly in the interests of Iran and its foreign policy. Iran has no interest in Iraq becoming a strong state as it considers it to be its main competitor in the region. Therefore Tehran's leadership sees its best Iraq as the weakest Iraq. In order to cut its supply lines and sinews of power, Iran's political leadership also prefers not to see Iraq on good terms with its Arab hinterland; rather they capture it and keep it outside Arab influence. The eight years of war from 1980 to 1988 taught Tehran that Iraq is too dangerous to be left alone or let to grow stronger.
The new role of Iran in Iraq shouldn't be seen as a standalone issue. This role is rather part of new Iranian foreign policy in the post-Soviet era. Iran's dynamic diplomacy has been actively involved in redesigning relationships with the political fragments of the ex-Soviet Union, forging fresh cultural, scientific and commercial ties with the newly independent states in Central Asia and contracting dozens of highly skilled scientists, especially to work in Iranian nuclear installations. This new Iranian foreign policy drive marks a strong desire of Iran to fill the power vacuum that appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The removal of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of Iraq fuelled Iran's desire to spread its wings across the Gulf and Arab Middle East. The unenthusiastic foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have encouraged Tehran's political leadership to build and develop close relations with other key players in the region, especially ruling groups in Syria, Lebanon (Hizbullah) and Palestine (Islamic Jihad and Hamas), and with political groups in the Gulf, Yemen, Sudan, North Africa and even inside Egypt and Saudi Arabia, forcing retreat and a defensive approach on its regional rivals. The rise of Hizbullah has weakened the role of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon while the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine left Egyptian diplomacy paralysed, proven lately in Gaza when Hamas took control amid conspicuous anti-Egyptian sentiment. While these developments were grim for Cairo and Riyadh, Tehran looked on in celebration.
NEW FOREIGN POLICY: Some political analysts don't realise -- or acknowledge -- the strong desire of Iran to become a superpower in the Middle East and Central Asia. I would argue that the history of Persia, the skilled population and their national belonging, Iran's vast and diverse resources, including oil and natural gas, the dynamic diplomacy of the Islamic Republic and Iranian leadership of Muslim Shias all over the world, are seeds of this Iranian superpower dream. The collapse of the Soviet Union to the north removed one of the main international obstacles to that dream while the removal of Saddam and the destruction of Iraq annulled the main obstacle to the west. However, for Iran to fulfil its dream it will have to make sacrifices, perhaps for a decade to come, regional realities remaining equal.
It appears that Iran's foreign policy architects are aware of this situation. One may read Iran's foreign policy objectives as follows:
First, to continue the policy adopted by father of the Iranian Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, identifying the US as the "Great Satan" of the world. Anti-US policy is one of the main principles that controls Iranian foreign policy. But even within that policy, Iran's political leaders miss no chance to reassure the American people that Iran is not their enemy and that the spirit of the great civilisation of Persia is able to bridge gaps and mend differences resulted from misguided American policies. Former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani during his term called for "dialogue between civilisations" and was keen on improving his country's relations with the US. Even the more militant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his visit to the UN in September this year to launch a propaganda campaign telling Americans that it was not only them that suffered on 9/11. Iran considers Al-Qaeda -- being representative of radical Sunnis -- one of its strategic enemies.
Second, maintaining and developing friendly and good relations with Russia, China, Japan and Europe in order to limit the damage of US anti-Iranian foreign policy. More than two decades of US economic sanctions have done little harm to the Iranian economy -- thus failing to force a change in Iran's foreign policy -- thanks to Iranian cooperation with Europe, Japan, Russia and China.
Third, work to create and maintain a solid sphere of influence in Central Asia by forging new commercial ties, encouraging cultural and religious activities and supporting anti- American policies and slogans in the region.
Fourth, to seek the leadership of the Muslim world through the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, charities and NGOs supported by Iran and its allies, and through miscellaneous international organisations.
Fifth, to create a sphere of influence in the Arab Gulf area through exploiting relations with Shia communities in the likes of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Iran's drive towards building a sphere of influence in the Arab Gulf area appeared early after the fall of the shah in 1979 by occupying the three Emariti Islands, Abu Moussa and the two Tanabs. It can be noted that Iran's political leadership, from time to time, airs threats directed at one or more of the Arab Gulf states as a reminder of Iranian influence. For example, some Iranian political leaders believe that Bahrain should become an Iranian province and state so publicly.
Sixth, to build a strong alliance with certain Arab parties (states or organisations, or even with communities and groups within Arab states). Obviously, Iran's main ally in the Arab world is Syria followed by Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Palestine, and Shia political groups in the Gulf (especially Bahrain). The scene in Iraq has added new colour to the map of Iranian allies in the region. It seems now that the sectarian government of Baghdad is by far one of the most important Iranian allies in the Arab world. It is understood in Tehran that successful Iranian foreign policy needs a deep Arab dimension -- and Arab support -- in order to become credible as a regional and Islamic policy.
Seventh, to acquire nuclear capacity sufficient enough to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, if even in primitive form. Iran's foreign policy architects are aware that Iran can't be qualified as a regional superpower without acquiring nuclear capabilities. They have attracted dozens of ex-Soviet nuclear scientists, involved deeply in the underworld trade of nuclear materials, forged reasonable relations with countries known to be rich in raw materials needed for the nuclear industry, and kept a reasonable level of support for its nuclear programme with the help of Russia and China and to some extent Europe. The clear result of Iranian nuclear policy is that Iran is moving forward on the road to acquiring military nuclear capacity. Iran's leadership is racing against time, using time-wasting tactics with the international community, in order to achieve its nuclear dream. The confrontation between the US and Iran may soon reach the point of no return.
Three scenarios may appear on the horizon, one of them presenting an exit strategy out of the crisis. First, the US may carry out military strikes against Iran's nuclear installations, basic infrastructure and sensitive scientific and economic centres. This option has some supporters among Republicans and the White House but is unlikely given huge international opposition to military strikes. Second, political and economic pressure may lead to a voluntary Iranian retreat from the nuclear dream. Third, the 2008 US presidential election may bring a Democrat to the White House who will review American policy towards Iran and try to reach a compromise with other allies (especially Russia and China) in order to contain Iran's nuclear programme.
It is difficult now to see the US involved in another military confrontation in the Middle East while its troops are trapped in Iraq. Israel and the US may already have lost their ability to force military action against Iran and may have to opt to peaceful means, as happened with North Korea. Iran would surely insist on keeping nuclear power, leaving Israel and the US to seek guarantees that a nuclear Iran will not use its capabilities against Israeli or American interests. Iran, on the other hand, may drop or delay its nuclear dream if it is granted a special regional role in the Middle East and is recognised as a regional superpower.
The fear of Iran becoming a nuclear power also extends to its capacity to make engines, carriers and communication systems capable of launching a nuclear weapon. The Americans and the Israelis have a lot at stake in this respect. Russia, which lost influence in the Middle East, is fighting a hard battle to keep a foot in the region through supporting Iran and Syria. A nuclear Iran may not pose a threat to Russia. Past experience in helping India to acquire nuclear capabilities proved no harm to Moscow though Pakistan received the same help from Washington. It may be reasonable to think in Moscow that nuclear balance in the Middle East can be achieved through creating a second nuclear power (Israel being the present one) as happened in South Asia with India and Pakistan. The current balance of power in the region leans heavily in favour of the US and its allies.
LOOKING AHEAD: These seven features seem to represent the most important objectives of Iran's foreign policy since the end of the war with Iraq in 1988. New developments in the world and the region in the following two decades have provided the political leadership in Tehran with new elements of power and political advantage. The fall of the Soviet Union, the emergence of the European Union, and the central role of the French- German alliance in Europe, the 11 September attacks in the US and the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and Saddam from power in Iraq have played in the favour of Iran. As some Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, became targets to Al-Qaeda attacks, the leadership of the Islamic Republic felt the time had come to start an offensive campaign of mobilising Shia minorities in the Gulf, mainly those who come historically from Persian and not Arab origin. Some Shia political figures have appeared moderate reformers, as in the Eastern province in Saudi Arabia, while some took the fundamentalist route as their way to confront Sunni political elites, as in Bahrain, Kuwait and also Yemen. But both appear to have the same goal; to put the credibility of their countries' political regimes in question and to gain more ground in political life.
Can victorious Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East bring stability to the region? There's a lot of doubt about that. On the contrary, it may bring more elements of instability and insecurity. Arab Gulf states will feel more insecure and will enter an arms race against Iran. They will also rely more on US military protection. Even with a nuclear Iran, Israel will feel free to pursue its policies in Palestine as no nuclear power can initiate a nuclear strike against another. The situation in Kashmir proves that nuclear weapons can do nothing to secure a decisive victory for one party when there is a balance of nuclear power between the two conflicting parties. The same conclusion may also suggest that the two parties -- Israel and a potentially nuclear Iran -- may embark on a nuclear arms race that would eat up their economic resources.
The Middle East balance of power has clearly shifted in Iran's favour and Iran's leadership is trying to make the most out of it. Meanwhile, Arab Gulf states feel more vulnerable than ever as Tehran makes it clear that targets in neighbouring countries will not be excluded in case of any retaliation against the US. Such threats may push the arms race in the region to unprecedented levels. They also create more military reliance on the US in the Arab Gulf region. Moreover, the aggressive foreign policy of Iran may invite political retaliation by other regional powers, especially Turkey and Israel. In short, Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East will not bring stability or enhance security. Turkish military movements around northern Iraq may prove much more than operations to root out the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Iraqi Kurdistan.
* The writer is chairman of the Arab Organisation for Freedom of the Press and has worked as an adviser to the United Nations mission to Iraq.