by Derek Davison
The nature of Iran’s role in the Middle East has recently been a popular discussion topic among Washington policymakers as they considered the impact that reduced sanctions against Tehran might have on the region. As part of their case against lifting sanctions, opponents of the nuclear talks have argued that Iran is the root of many of the Middle East’s woes. Supporters of the deal, meanwhile, have argued for a more nuanced understanding of Iran’s regional role and its intentions.
However, those same policymakers have paid little attention to the debate over Iran’s regional role that has been taking place inside Iran, particularly now that a nuclear deal has been reached. Earlier this week, the Atlantic Council published a new paper by University of Tehran political scientist Nasser Hadian that outlines a substantial difference of opinion within Iran between two coalescing factions: a “pro-stabilization” faction (which he says is the dominant faction at the moment) and a “pro-minimal engagement” one. As Hadian describes them: proponents of the pro-stabilization view
posit that Iran cannot be an island of stability surrounded by unpredictable states and ongoing conflict. Moreover, considering the multiethnic nature of Iranian society, it is hard to imagine that this insecurity would not have a “trickle-down” effect within Iran itself. Thus, proponents argue that, for the next ten to fifteen years, Iran must act strongly to try to re-establish security and stability throughout the region. If a prerequisite for this security is cooperation with the Saudi government, or even with the United States, that is fine.
The second orientation argues that Iranian engagement in the region should be reduced to a bare minimum. Adherents to this view assert that Iran is already overstretched as a result of its commitments in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and that the war against the group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is not Iran’s to fight. By taking such a prominent role in fighting ISIS, they argue, Iran has essentially made itself a target for the group’s attacks. If ISIS or similar groups have not exploded bombs in Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad, or elsewhere, it is not because they do not have the capability, but simply because they have not yet decided to do so.
This second faction, Hadian writes, believes that Iran’s regional interests can be served by defending only core Shi?a and Alawite areas of Syria and Iraq while giving up any fight against the Islamic State in majority Sunni regions. Though the “pro-stabilization” ideology is driving Iranian foreign policy at the moment, Hadian explains that certain signs—the Iraqi government’s lack of urgency to retake Mosul, Assad’s recent decision to pull his forces back from much of Syria—indicate that the minimalist ideology is gaining ground.
Hadian’s paper does not identify any specific Iranian political figures in either camp, but in an interview with Al-Monitor’s Barbara Slavin he did say that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif belong to the “pro-stabilization” faction.
Implications for US
If Hadian’s analysis is correct, a shift in Iran’s foreign policy toward a less interventionist stance may help reduce Gulf fears about the nuclear deal and what it means for Iran’s ability to project power throughout the Middle East. Hadian suggests that “the United States may want to try to encourage [a] compromise” between the two Iranian factions in order to “reduce the anxiety of its traditional allies.”
Hadian argues that American policymakers, in order to better understand and influence Iranian foreign policy, must “disabuse themselves of several myths about Iran.” Among these is the long-held but dubious notion that Iran, as the supposed “leader” of Shi?a Islam, has been trying to provoke a regional sectarian war with Sunni Saudi Arabia. Hadian writes that Iran’s foreign policy has instead been driven by support of “revolutionary” governments and movements with little regard for the Sunni-Shi?a divide but with a realist sense of the threats to Iranian national security. Iran’s support for the Alawite Assad regime is less about sectarianism (Alawites have not historically been considered Shi?a except for purely political purposes) than because Assad’s survival guarantees Iran a secure link to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which Tehran sees as a necessary deterrent to any military threat from Israel.
On the other hand, Hadian says that “Iran has little interest in challenging the Saudis,” because it simply doesn’t consider Saudi Arabia a major threat to its security. However, “the reverse is true for the Saudis,” for reasons both ideological (Wahhabi intolerance for Shi?ism) and practical (Saudi fears about the revolutionary nature of Iran’s government). He recommended that Iran and the Saudis take immediate steps to improve military and economic cooperation, and that the United States and Iran, along with other regional actors, work together to solve ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Differing Perceptions of Stabilization
At a Monday event to introduce Hadian’s paper, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Bilal Saab suggested that actions that Tehran’s “pro-stabilization” camp sees as “stabilizing” are perceived quite differently by Iran’s Gulf neighbors:
Iranian capabilities are a very mixed bag…The proxy wars in which Iran is involved today have stabilized not a single state, and have failed to build peace. Iran may have succeeded in bleeding its Saudi adversary, but that comes with a heavy price.
Iran’s support for Assad, for Hezbollah, for sectarian Shi?a militias in Iraq, and for the Houthi rebels in Yemen has, according to Saab, “alienat[ed] the entire Sunni world” and “awaken[ed] Gulf and Arab nationalism because of this excessive intervention in their affairs; anti-Iranianism is at an all-time high in the Sunni world today.”
Saab’s criticism overstates the case against Iran’s regional actions: for example, he referred to Yemen’s Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi as “an elected, legitimate president” without acknowledging that Hadi’s “election” was held under, to be charitable, less than ideal democratic conditions. Still, his comments reflect prevailing Gulf sentiment regarding Iran’s behavior. But if Hadian is correct, and there is a movement inside the Iranian government for reducing Iran’s regional footprint, then constructive dialogue between Tehran and the Gulf states (as well as the U.S.) that leads to the stabilization of crises in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere may boost the influence of that minimalist camp and ease the Gulf states’ concerns.