Keep Expectations of Iran’s New Regional Role Realistic

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.

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. “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.”

    Most observers, especially Israelis, know that Israel has been playing for time for years to make the two-state solution non-viable.

    Further, it has been Iran’s stated policy for just as many years to endorse whatever the Palestinian people agree to in a free and fair expression of their wishes.

    It’s disappointing that Dr. Hunter lets Israel off the hook and acts as if the Palestinian people would not be imprisoned, starved, killed but for Iranian intransigence.

    In addition — Yossi Alpher recently discussed his book about Israel’s periphery doctrine with Bruce Reidel at Brookings and also at Belfer Center. Alpher said that Israelis consider the Palestinian situation to be “there in the background” but we have “more serious, existential issues to worry about.”
    Alpher explained a notion at the heart of Israeli angst wrt Iran:

    “We Israelis . . . to this day, have a need, a deep need to be recognized and accepted by the region. You see, Bibi’s demand, which is supported by most Israelis, that the Palestinians recognize us as a Jewish state, or the state of the Jewish people — the nation-state of the Jewish people — this goes way back, this need to be recognized. . . .[T]here’s this sense that the ancient peoples of the Middle East have created an alliance, the people who precede the Arabs, okay. We go back with Iran, we just celebrated Purim, all right, we go back 2,600 years with Iran. …So, this is almost a biblical — a new biblical chapter.
    This is how some people in Israel felt. . . .[If you believe, as Israelis do] that we are somehow Middle Eastern, ancient blood brothers, then who’s Khomeini? This wasn’t meant to be. . . .”

    Alpher then explained how Israelis subscribe to “magical thinking,” “periphery nostalgia” — “If only the mullahs were gone then everything would go back to the way it was with the Shah . . .”

    The talking points the Israel lobby is paying for are based on this “magical thinking.” In the appearances of congressmen and commentary by senators the theme of regime change is still front-and-center.

    It always was.
    It was never about Iran’s supposed interference with an impossible two-state solution.

  2. In other words after the west and their dog on leash have made a freaking mess out of the ME and NA for the past 70 years and because they’re unable to get out of their own created quagmire NOW they are dumping their own responsibility on Iran to clean up after them!!
    This is a new political sanction against Iran and they are saying “If you (Iran) would like to join the international community then you have to clean up our freaking mess in the ME”
    Distrusting the west in Iran just got deeper!!

  3. @ “[I]f [Iran] 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.”

    I stopped reading the article at the end of that sentence. The two-state solution was never viable and since 1967 has only served as U.S./Zionist justification for maintaining an apartheid government throughout Palestine. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either a fool or a fraud (or both).

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