by Shireen T. Hunter
Only a few short weeks ago, Iran was considered the main instigator of all the troubles in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and, according to some, even in Latin America. Some in the US and in the region still continue to believe this fantasy.
Some of the same people, especially in Europe, are expecting, or at least hoping, that Iran’s return from the cold will herald a new era in regional politics and open up all sorts of opportunities to resolve outstanding regional conflicts. For example, according to press reports, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, during his trip to Tehran, intended to discuss the political deadlock that has prevented Lebanon from electing a president. Fabius fully expects that Iran will, indeed, provide the key to unlock this thorny problem. The French foreign minister has, in fact, made clear that Iran’s willingness to help resolve these problems will show whether it is serious about reconciling with the international community. The EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini, meanwhile was even more enthusiastic about the potential changes Iran’s potential reintegration in the international community will bring about.
Mogherini, Fabius, and others hope that Iran will provide the answer to the Syrian crisis, defeat ISIS, restrain Hezbollah, convince Hamas to make peace with Israel, and reassure Saudi Arabia and others in the Middle East.
What Can Iran Really Do in Lebanon?
It would of course be wonderful if Iran could meet all these expectations, and certainly there is much that Iran can do to help reduce regional tensions and frictions. Although Iran has not been the only or even the main source of all regional problems, aspects of its policies at different junctures have certainly aggravated some problems. It would certainly be helpful if Iran changed these dimensions of its policies. As an example, if it were to accept openly and unequivocally the principle of a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, it might improve, at least slightly, the prospects of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.
Nevertheless, the excessive expectations of what Iran can do to help resolve regional problems will certainly be disappointed—for two reasons. First, these expectations are based on the premise that the Middle East’s current problems are Iran’s fault. For example, take Lebanon’s presidential deadlock. It has more to do with Lebanon’s own fractured society and polity and sharp disagreements between two political coalitions over a suitable president. The issue also directly involves Saudi Arabia, which has been supporting Lebanon’s March 14 coalition and its candidate for the presidency, Samir Geagea. The rival group, the March 8 coalition, supports the candidacy of Michel Aoun, claiming that he represents the Christians better than Geagea. Iran and Hezbollah also favor Aoun.
When Laurent Fabius says that Iran must help resolve the problem of Lebanon’s deadlocked presidency, what he has really in mind is that Iran should allow the March 14 coalition’s candidate to be elected, which would enhance Saudi influence in the country. In light of the by-now-well-documented Saudi attitudes and policies towards Iran and the Shias in general—Prince Bandar bin Sultan wants all of them dead—this is an unrealistic demand made on Iran. Moreover, Iran is not in a position to dictate to various Lebanese factions, including Hezbollah. No one mentions that perhaps someone other than the two candidates of the competing coalitions should be nominated for the job, or that Saudi Arabia should end this crusade against the Shias.
Addressing Iraq and Syria
The same applies to Syria’s case. Despite all the accusations against Iran, the Syrian civil war came about because of the Western powers’ wrong-headed policies and the regional ambitions of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They made the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad their non-negotiable condition and therefore foreclosed the option of a political solution that in time could have led to Assad’s removal in a more peaceful fashion. Since a declared intention of Assad’s removal was to cut Iran’s ties with the Lebanese Shias and also make it easier at some point to launch a military strike against it, it was foolish to expect that Iran would not help Assad. More fundamentally, the idea that Assad’s removal, although in itself an attractive idea, will stabilize Syria is sheer fantasy. After Assad’s departure, the various armed groups that have emerged in the last few years and that have conflicting regional loyalties—as well as ideological differences and diverging power ambitions—will engage in a lengthy struggle to dominate the country. Therefore, even if Iran agreed to Assad’s removal, this would not be sufficient to resolve the Syrian problem.
In Iraq, too, demands on Iran are unrealistic. Iran is not going to abandon the Shias in Iraq. It’s not going to forgo the legitimate desire for a reasonable economic and political presence in a country that has been a source of trouble for it since 1958. It’s not going to agree to a return of Sunni dominance that enhances the position of regional rivals—and that in the past financed Saddam’s war against Iran—and basically surrender the field to the Saudis, Qataris, and the Turks. At the same time, Iran is not about to fight ISIS while all the time being accused of destabilizing Iraq and the entire Middle East.
Expectations regarding what Iran might be able to do regarding Hamas are even more unreasonable. HAMAS was never a handmaiden of Iran. In 2006, after winning the parliamentary election, the leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, made his first foreign visit to Riyadh and not Teheran. In the last few years, Iran’s relations with Hamas have reached near- breaking point and Mashal is looking more and more towards Riyadh. In fact, despite cooperating with Tel Aviv against Iran, Saudi Arabia has not recognized Israel as Egypt did.
Acknowledging Iran’s Security Interests
The second reason that Western expectations of what Iran can do to help resolve regional issues will be disappointed is Western equation of cooperation with complete acceptance of its priorities without any concern for Iran’s own security and other interests. In view of Iran’s bitter experience of cooperation with the West in Afghanistan—Iran supported anti-Taliban forces and later delivered the Northern Alliance to the Americans—and even to some degree in Iraq, such an expectation would be unreasonable. If Western countries want Iran’s cooperation, they should also pay attention to its security and other concerns.
The Iran nuclear deal and the more realistic and pragmatic policies of the Rouhani administration, coupled with Iran’s own experience in the region, give reason to hope that the country will indeed play a more constructive role. However, in order to avoid disappointment, it is vitally important first to realize and admit that Iran has not been the source of all problems in the region. Second, Iran cannot realistically provide answers to all problems.
Other countries—such as Saudi Arabia and more recently Turkey—have contributed to regional turmoil. They need to do their share in calming the situation. Third, cooperation with Iran should not be equated with its surrender. In any regional arrangements, Iran’s concerns and interests also need to be kept in mind. Finally, the Middle East crisis cannot be resolved by a single country, even one as powerful as the United States. Rather it requires the participation and cooperation of all stakeholders and especially key international players which have an interest in the region, including the Europeans, China, Russia, and Japan, preferably within a multilateral framework.