Iran as Regional Catalyst

Trucks wait to cross the Afghanistan-Iran border in Zaranj, Afghanistan, May 10, 2011. The crossing is part of a busy trade route between Central Asia and the Middle East. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mallory S. VanderSchans/Released)

by Shireen T. Hunter

The relative thaw in Iran’s economic and political relations with Europe and Japan, and the improvement in its economic prospects, has thus far been received with a degree of anxiety by other major regional players such Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Pakistan. These countries seem to believe that Iran’s reentry to the international scene will undermine their prospects of achieving regional leadership.

There is some basis to these anxieties. Iran’s exclusion from the international scene, which dates to the pre-sanctions period and to as early as the 1980s, indeed enhanced the positions of other key regional players. In particular, these players benefitted from the American policy of containing Iran and preventing its involvement in various regional economic schemes. For example, Turkey benefitted by becoming the principal choice as the transit route of Central Asian energy to the West, even though Iran was the cheapest and shortest route for such exports. Afghanistan and Pakistan also used Iran’s isolation to push for the export of Turkmenistan energy to the East through their countries via the TAPI route to India.

Meanwhile, US opposition prevented the building of a pipeline to carry Iranian gas to Pakistan and India. In the South Caucasus, US opposition deprived countries like Georgia and Armenia of Iranian energy. Ironically, this policy has only made them excessively dependent on Russian energy sources, providing Moscow with additional leverage, which the US and the West do not like. Moreover, the exclusion of Iranian energy has increased Europe’s dependence on Russian energy sources, especially in places such as Ukraine.

These regional countries also used the so-called Iran threat to enhance their value to the West. For example, Turkey portrayed itself as an antidote to Iran’s revolutionary Islam and a barrier to its penetration into Europe. Former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller said openly that Europe must choose between Turkey and the Iranian style of Islamism. Pakistan in 1994 promised the US that it would prevent Iran’s influence in Afghanistan and then proceeded to create the Taliban for this purpose, with disastrous consequences for itself, the region, and the West.

Counterproductive Strategies

Yet, in the final analysis, Iran’s exclusion from the regional economic and political equation has not benefitted either the West or regional countries such as Turkey and Pakistan. In the South Caucasus, for example, the West’s promotion of Turkey as the main player has served to perpetuate regional conflicts. Turkey’s prominent regional role, coupled with its excessively pro-Azerbaijani stand on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, translated into such acts as the closure of its border with Armenia, Meanwhile, the West’s discouraging of a meaningful relationship between Armenia and Iran has only exacerbated the former’s fears of encirclement by a large Turkic bloc. This situation has made it more difficult for Armenia to make any compromises in its conflict with Azerbaijan. At the same time, Turkey’s encouragement of a more hostile Azerbaijani attitude toward Iran has emboldened the former to seek a military solution to the conflict. Needless to say, the combined effect of these policies has made Armenia more and more dependent on Russia, while at the same undermining its prospects for economic development.

In Afghanistan, the consequences of Iran’s exclusion and the support of the Taliban because of their anti-Iran sentiments have been even more damaging. Following its invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US followed policies there that were informed by anti-Iran sentiments. The same was true of regional states. One consequence of such policies was the rise of groups like the Islamic State and various al-Qaeda affiliates. Ironically, such policies, by increasing Iraqi Shia fears of once again being subjected to Saddam-like rulers, have pushed them more toward Iran.

Now, in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement, there is a possibility to remedy the economic and security imbalances and distortions that Iran’s exclusion had created in this vast region. To achieve this goal, however, Western powers must exercise leadership over their regional allies rather than allow them to manipulate them. Arguing for a more rational role for Iran in regional economic and security arrangements does not mean ignoring or underestimating Turkey, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. Ignoring these countries would be as damaging as excluding Iran has been. Rather, the West should encourage regional economic and security cooperation, and promote economic schemes that involve as many countries as possible, thus increasing their mutual dependence. After all, divisive policies that pit these countries against each other only exacerbate their ethnic or sectarian divisions.

Functional Advantages

In international relations, this approach of encouraging regional cooperation is known as functionalism. Used after World War II in Europe, it formed the basis of European reconciliation and cooperation. For Iran and its neighbors, such regional cooperative schemes would also boost economic growth and hence prosperity.

A good example of such regional projects involves the networks of rail, road, and sea transportation that would include countries from the South Caucasus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It would also have the added advantage of providing rail and road links between these regions and Europe. Iran, which abuts these regions, can become a vital link in such a network. Yet, some countries, notably Turkey, still oppose such schemes. For example, Turkey prefers to run a ferry from Baku to Aktu in Kazakhstan in order to transport its goods to Central Asia rather than go through Iran. Yet the polluted and increasingly fragile Caspian Sea, with excessive use and exploitation, could become another Aral Sea. Turkey’s attitude is driven only by Ankara’s excessive ambitions of regional leadership, which the West nurtured as part of the policy of containing Iran. The same is true of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s involvement in security structures could also be productive. Like Iran, all key regional states, such as Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have their own special constituencies in the region. Efforts to exclude any of these players from various arrangements only exacerbate conflicts and undermine chances of economic development.

In short, regional states, instead of seeing Iran’s emergence from isolation as a threat to their interests, should look at it as a chance for regional economic development and for resolving outstanding conflicts. Iran’s absence from the international scene was an aberration that could not have lasted forever. Instead of nurturing excessive nationalist feelings or dreams of past empires, they should opt for coexistence and cooperation. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif hinted at this possibility in his speech at the Munich Security Conference. Regional states and Western countries should seriously take up Iran on this offer.

Photo: Trade between Iran and Afghanistan

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. People wouldn’t be so skittish if Iran’s policies changed along with its economic opportunities. Working towards a peaceful transition out of the Assad regime, halting supplies to Houthi rebels, stopping the enlistment of Afghan refugees as fighters in Syria, halting the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, these are all things that might make Iran’s neighbors mellow out quite a bit, but its seems pretty clear none of those click with Iran’s long range plans, so we’re back into another cycle of violence, war and animosity. If Iran really wanted to make lasting changes, it might think of the Chinese model of maintaining its political structure, but liberalize it and focus exclusively on economic and not military advancements.

  2. Keeping the US busy fixing what it has screwed up over the past several decades is as good an idea as getting the US to quit the region entirely. While the former would be useful, the latter might mean far less distress for the Greater Middle East.

  3. If we can fix America, we will indeed have fixed most of the ills of the world. — Harry Belafonte

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