by Eldar Mamedov
As the March deadline for a political framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran approaches, Iran’s regional rivals have ratcheted up their opposition to a deal. The preferred line of attack now seems to be that the deal will further enhance Iran’s regional influence. EU officials involved in the talks share some of these concerns. But they should not let these claims derail the deal. The goal of isolating Iran is unrealistic. And efforts to contain it can complicate what should be the top priority in the Middle East: the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Qaeda.
Although Israel’s objections to the deal with Iran are well known, other actors in the region also seem to see Iran as a bigger threat than IS and al-Qaeda. A case in point is the Future Current (FC) party in Lebanon. As the main pro-Western, moderate force in this country, the party has the ear of European officials, like the delegation of members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (MEPs) who visited Beirut on February18-19. The party’s position matters because Lebanon, despite its small size, is in many respects a pivotal country in the Middle East because of its relevance to both the Syrian civil war and, through Hezbollah, to the Israel-Iran confrontation. It is also a playground for the Saudi-Iranian rivalry for influence in the region.
The leaders of the FC declare that they favor a deal with Iran. They reckon that it would help their ongoing dialogue with Hezbollah to reduce tensions in Lebanon. But they want a deal that would keep Iran weak and isolated. Meeting with the MEPs, former prime minister Fouad Siniora repeated the position he outlined in a speech in Abu-Dhabi in January 2015: “the elimination of Iraq as a historic barrier between Mid-Asia and the Mediterranean has accelerated Iran’s meddling in the Arab world, through the policies of exporting the revolution, and the concept of Vilayat-i Faqih across national borders, thus fueling a dangerous Sunni-Shia divide. Iran’s claim of carrying the banner of Palestine has allowed it to meddle in the affairs of Iraq, Syria Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain.” To deal with the Iranian threat, the leader of the FC and another former prime minister Saad Hariri has offered a piece of advice to the West: listen to your allies in the region—presumably himself and his Saudi patrons—and don’t consider Iran your ally against IS.
Such advice is best disregarded. Contrary to Siniora’s alarmist rhetoric, there is no evidence that Iran is attempting to export its model of the Vilayat-i Faqih, or the leadership of supreme jurist, to the countries of the region. It didn’t do so in Iraq, where the conditions were arguably optimal after the U.S. removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Nor has Hezbollah, Iran’s supposed arm in Lebanon, ever tried to impose theocracy, not even in parts of the country where its influence is strongest. If the West is serious about limiting Iran’s influence, it should not strive to isolate Iran and its allies, such as Hezbollah, but rather press its own allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, to stop treating the local Shiites as second-class citizens and depriving them of their civil rights and religious freedom.
Anti-Iranian rhetoric may serve as a cover for the narrow political agendas of some of the West´s allies in the region. Saad Hariri claims that Iran has created IS by supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but this narrative ignores the role played by other actors in the region, notably Saudi Arabia, in disseminating and financing the extremist version of Islam that underpins the brutal actions of IS. Such reductionism, however, should not come as a surprise considering Hariri’s close ties with the Saudis (even to the extent of his pledging allegiance to the new Saudi King Salman). And although there is no reason to doubt Hariri’s personal commitment to fight IS, some members of his party have been embarrassingly close to some notorious Sunni jihadists. The FC’s anti-Iranianism should not obscure the question of whether the party is the truly moderate force it claims to be or simply a sectarian Sunni force.
Ultimately, achieving a nuclear deal is still the best way to address the more objectionable aspects of Iran’s regional policies. The deal is important not so much because of the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to run or other technical details, but because it would open the possibility of a broader rapprochement between the West and Iran. This would create conditions for a discussion of regional matters, including Iran´s support of organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.
By contrast, aggressive attempts to exclude Iran from the region will not only fail, but also backfire. They will encourage Tehran to assert its influence in ways that others may find problematic. In fact, such a policy toward Tehran has been pursued since 1979. It manifestly failed to either check Iranian influence or enhance stability in the Middle East. The continuation of such policies would only create a highly unwelcome distraction from the fight against IS and al-Qaeda. It’s time for the West to choose its allies in the region according to their readiness and ability to contribute to this fight, even if that approach requires a reconsideration of some traditional alliances.
Photo of Fouad Siniora
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.