Iranian Geopolitics after the Arab Spring

Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi have an article in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs on the Arab Spring as seen from what they consider to be the perspective of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their analysis explores Iran’s regional ambitions and calculations during an IRI-perceived decline in the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex. According to the authors, like Turkey “Iran sees itself as the odd man out in a region that it nevertheless seeks to lead” and currently friendly Iran-Turkey relations could become uncomfortable as both countries vie for similar regional gains. I’ve highlighted some quotes of interest (not all consecutive) below.

On Iranian perception and strategy:

Overall, Iran’s geopolitical strategy aims to consolidate the Islamic Republic as a regional power. The cornerstones of its strategy are: 1) Improving, or at the very least managing, ties with immediate neighbors and key Islamic countries. Relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia are key factors in Iran’s regional positioning for influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere. 2) Consolidating Iranian regional preeminence with indigenous technical capabilities. The country’s nuclear program, missile tests, and satellite launch are all facets of this strategic track. 3) Standing up to the West. In the words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran intends “not to give in” to Western pressure.3 Iran’s approach in the nuclear standoff is a good example of this conviction.

Historical precedent has shown Iran that Western powers tend to accept the status of a regional power when that power becomes formidable; China, India, and Brazil are often cited as examples. The Islamic Republic is counting on such an eventual acceptance. The key virtue from Iran’s perspective has been patience.

The Iranian government’s reluctance to negotiate with the U.S. is not necessarily rooted in an ideological opposition to the idea of talking or improving relations with Washington. Instead, hard-liners in Tehran fear that any relationship with the U.S. would require Iranian acquiescence to status quo regional policies, thereby stripping Tehran of its independence and forcing it to follow America’s investment in Arab dictatorships rather than the Arab street.

Despite showing significant ideological flexibility in the past, Iran’s knows that its ability to adjust to new realities over the long term is limited. A more democratic Middle East would highlight Iran’s own political, economic, and social shortcomings; a more autocratic region would continue using Shiite Iran as a pretext for its own domestic crackdowns.

Because the primary concern for decision-makers in Tehran is regime survival, they fear the unpredictable consequences of proactive decision-making at home and abroad. Iran’s own internal problems and paralysis among domestic political elites reinforce its reactive posture. It displays less foresight than cognizance. Nevertheless, Iran knows that success for its regional strategy does not require the same level of certitude or stability as it does for its rivals, and it therefore stands to benefit most from continued popular unrest. In the foreseeable future, this is arguably the most likely scenario.

On the decline of the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex:

In Iran’s view, the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex is in a decline set in motion by the invasion of Iraq and increasingly evident through region-wide protests, creating a power and leadership vacuum that the Islamic Republic seeks to fill. Although Iran has long anticipated this moment, it knows that there are additional contenders for power. It also understands how its ambitions could be thwarted both by the nature of the vacuum and by its own position in the region.

On Iran’s relations with a rising Turkey:

The greatest challenge that Iran sees going forward is the emergence in the region of a foreign policy realignment by states that have traditionally followed America’s lead. The impact of Turkey’s shift is evident to Tehran: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an is one of only two world leaders to poll higher among Arabs than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Despite growing economic and political cooperation, decision-makers in Tehran know that competition over regional clout will test Turkish–Iranian ties in the long run. Thus, as the situation on the Arab street remains fluid, Iran is preparing itself for the possibility that the balance of its competition and collaboration vis-à-vis Turkey may tilt toward the former.

To the Islamic Republic, recent developments have shaken up not only existing political systems (including its own), but also its rivalry for regional influence with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. on one side, and Turkey as the third vertex in what can be seen as an emerging triangle of competition. Iranian decision-makers see this shock as changing the context of the rivalry rather than ending it, and creating challenges and opportunities for all sides.

Turkey’s significant political, economic, and cultural influence have steadily increased in Iraq, as it rebalanced its strategic approach and maneuvered to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S.14 Unlike Iran, however, Turkey has been able to increase its influence in Iraq—and by extension work against the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi status quo—without the burden of historical mistrust (the Iran–Iraq War), international hostility (sanctions, the nuclear impasse), or democracy deficits (Turkey’s democratic model versus Iran’s model of militaristic theocracy).

One observer in Tehran quipped to one of the authors that Iran had done all the groundwork “in the resistance against Israel,” and at the last minute the Turks stole the show. Turkey’s comprehensive soft power in the region, including cultural affinity, economic ties, and a balanced approach toward Israel, may present Iran with a major challenge in any future competition for leadership in the region.15 Insofar as Turkey’s new assertive foreign policy continues to challenge the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex in the long run, Iran will feel the uniqueness of its regional position—and its source of soft power—to be increasingly at risk.

On a post-Mubarak Egypt:

As Iran jockeys for regional preeminence, Egypt will become a new geopolitical battlefield for its soft-power projection. Widely regarded as the beacon of the Arab world, Egypt is also the wild card that can potentially tip the scales in favor of any one of these three aspiring regional hegemons. It is already being pulled in three very different directions. Egyptians took an important step toward democracy with the toppling of Mubarak, but many daunting challenges remain—not least of which is the fact that each of the key Egyptian leaders serving in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was a high-level member of the Mubarak regime. A transition to democracy through free and fair elections has been promised, but concerns linger regarding the timing of elections and the demonstrably non-democratic behavior exhibited by the council on issues including freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Precisely because Egypt’s revolution remains unfinished, and domestic stability in the short to medium term is unlikely, Iranian decision-makers see an opportunity to exert regional influence while capitalizing on Egypt’s inward orientation.

On Syria:

At best, Iran sees an opportunity to maintain a semblance of the status quo in its alliance with Syria: together they stand a better chance to survive and achieve their long-term goals. Syria wants to regain the Golan Heights from Israel and maintain its influence in Lebanese politics, both goals that are aided by Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, who maintain instability on Israel’s flanks and increase the costs of Israel’s occupation. In return, Syria aids the Islamic Republic’s quest to assume preeminence in the Persian Gulf by helping to neutralize Israeli capabilities and American encroachment. Any change in Syria’s government increases the likelihood that Damascus will adopt regional policies more in line with its Arab brethren, such as support for Sunni political forces in Iraq. It could also lead to Syria becoming a full-fledged Saudi client. That could strip Iran of its strongest Arab ally, and a notable element of leverage it holds over regional rivals. The Islamic Republic would prefer to see a weakened Al-Assad regime remain in power; such a scenario hedges against Damascus swinging toward the U.S. and increases Syrian dependence on Iranian support.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.