Sunday,23 July, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Sunday,23 July, 2017
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iran seeks attention

Iran needs to weigh any gains it may see from its long-standing enmity with Saudi Arabia with the losses it may experience from it, writes Walid M. Abdelnasser

The Iranian intelligentsia, as is the case with the intelligentsia in most countries with ancient civilisations, have always believed that their country lies at the “centre of the universe”, and there is even a vast literature of books and articles about Iran, whether by Iranian or foreign authors, carrying this description as a title.

Over the past few months, Iran has indeed attracted the world’s attention due to a number of domestic and regional developments. This started with the new US administration talking about either repudiating, or at best revising, the nuclear deal with Iran arrived at during the former administration.

Such world attention towards Iran has gained momentum since the Iranian presidential elections in May. These led to a second mandate for the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, an outcome which motivated aspirations for a path of relative moderation, domestically, regionally and globally. This has been the case despite the fact that such moderation did not always come smoothly during the president’s first term, but occasionally suffered from disruptions and faced a number of hurdles.

Another source of the focus of the world’s attention on Iran has been the escalation of an ongoing phenomenon, namely Iran’s deep involvement in the affairs of the surrounding region, particularly the Arab region. It is accused by many countries in the region and the wider world of intervening in the internal affairs of a number of Arab countries. This goes back to pre-revolutionary Iran, as was shown by Iran’s actions during the rule of the former shah, but it took different forms after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

 It was first characterised as an attempt to “export the revolution”, but later was diagnosed, particularly by some predominantly Sunni Muslim countries and institutions, as being an attempt to export Shia Islam as well as to project Iran as the patron of the Shia in the world as a whole, particularly in the Arab world, and to use Shia communities in the region as a tool to boost Iran’s role in the Middle East and the Muslim world, entailing an increase in Iran’s global weight.

Such attempts by Iran saw tremendous growth, both in scope and in depth, during and after the Arab Spring in 2011, though the Iranian positions varied on the developments in the Arab countries that experienced the uprisings. While Iran clearly welcomed the developments in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, it has stood vehemently in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. It has also sought to promote its view that events taking place in Bahrain have been part of the Arab Spring.

On Yemen, Iran’s influence became visible once the political situation there had changed from being a revolutionary one and had become one characterised by sectarian and tribal polarisation. It ended up supporting the allies of the deposed former president who was originally the target of the revolutionary wrath.

In the context of the above-mentioned positions, as well as in the light of Iran’s earlier projection as the bastion of Shia Islam and its followers in the region and the world, recent years have witnessed growing animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, deepened by the ideological confrontation between Sunni Wahhabism, the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia, and Twelver Shiism, the official doctrine in Iran.

Iran was viewed as the main winner of both the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003, as through these actions the US got rid of two arch-enemies of Iran, namely the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and the semi-secular pan-Arab regime of former president Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Saudi-Iranian rivalry has proliferated over recent years in Syria and Yemen, as it has in terms of positions towards Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, to name the clearest cases. It has become almost straightforward to anticipate the position of either country towards a given conflict, since it is likely to be the exact opposite of the other. Adding ideological rivalry between the two countries to the incompatibility of their geo-political strategies make things more complicated, however, particularly if this is compared to the cordial relations of each to another rival regional Sunni Muslim, but non-Arab, power, namely Turkey.

The recent crisis between Saudi Arabia and the Arab and Muslim countries that are allied with it and Qatar has served as a new case of Iranian-Saudi confrontation due to the Iranian involvement in the crisis. Qatar is one of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states maintaining strong relations with Iran, and the latter has tried to use the crisis in order to exhaust the Saudis on a new front, but this time in a direct area of Saudi influence, namely the GCC.

The fact that Iran rushed to send planes full of consumer and other goods to Qatar following the shutdown of the land borders between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates clearly demonstrated that Iran is adamant about not letting this opportunity pass by without sending an explicit message both to GCC member states and to other Arab countries to the effect that any of them running into trouble with Saudi Arabia can count on Iranian support.

The Iranian position regarding the present crisis has been much more pro-Doha than the milder Turkish position seeking reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha, despite the strong existing relations between Doha and Ankara.

However, Iran needs to realise that the Arab and Muslim countries that have joined Saudi Arabia in its moves against Qatar have done so not only out of solidarity with Riyadh, but also because of the bilateral problems they have had with Qatar themselves, as is the case with Bahrain and Egypt, for example.

The coming days will show whether the Iranian position is well-calculated, adding to its assets in the region and to its long-standing rivalry, if not enmity, with Saudi Arabia, or if it has overestimated the degree to which the deterioration of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia could go and the degree of determination on the part of a number of international and regional players in putting pressure on Qatar to secure concessions on a number of issues.

Among these is Qatar’s support for Islamist groups accused of terrorism and the role of the Al-Jazeera TV channel. Iran needs to weigh the gains it may get from its involvement in the Qatari situation with the losses it may experience from it, including being targeted for retaliation whether by Saudi Arabia or by third parties, as was clear from the attacks that took place in Tehran recently for which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility. 

The writer is a commentator.

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