by Shireen T. Hunter
Throughout the last seven decades, Iran’s direct or indirect involvement in Middle-East-related issues has been a source of difficulties for its foreign relations and domestic politics. The most consequential of these issues has been the Palestinian question and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Iran’s approach to this dispute, especially its position regarding Israel, has played a critical role in defining its regional politics and in shaping the character of its relations with Arab states.
In 1947, conscious of the sensitivities of the country’s clerical establishment, the Iranian government voted against the UN plan to partition Palestine. It also voted against admitting Israel to the United Nations. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Iran showed tacit support for Arabs. Despite pressure from the clerics and some nationalists, however, it did not become engaged in the war. Notwithstanding the close relations between pre-revolutionary Iran and Israel, the Iranian government recognized Israel de facto and not de jure.
The principal impetus to closer Iran-Israel relations was the rise of revolutionary governments in the Arab world that over time established close relations with the Soviet Union. These revolutionary governments—Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, successive revolutionary governments in Iraq beginning in 1958, and similar regimes in Syria and Libya—pursued anti-Iran policies. Their animosity toward Iran had several sources. They all were against Middle East monarchies, including that of Iran. But it also derived from the Arab nationalist ethos and pan-Arabist ambitions of these regimes. For example, Nasser’s ambitions in the Persian Gulf, which he renamed the Arabian Gulf, contributed to his anti-Iran policies.
The inability of Arab revolutionaries to appreciate Iran’s concerns about Soviet intentions brought Iran closer to Israel. Located miles away from the USSR, they could not understand why Iran, which lay next to the Soviet Union and had been the subject of both Russian and Soviet aggression, was so preoccupied with it.
During the 1960s, Nasser helped the Iranian opposition. In 1964, members of the Iranian opposition, including those of the National Front, visited Cairo and met with him. Islamists were also in touch with Nasser and received help from Egypt.
After the 1958 revolution, General Qasim declared Khuzestan to be part of Iraq and claimed the entire Shatt al-Arab. Such a mindset eventually led Saddam Hussein to attack Iran when the country was in the throes of revolutionary turmoil.
The PLO and other Palestinian groups, such as George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, trained Iranian opposition in their camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Libya covered the financial costs. Many of these groups took part in the revolution, established the Revolutionary Guards, and acquired high positions within the Islamic government.
Thus, it was not so much Iran’s pro-Israel stance that caused revolutionary Arabs to turn against it. Rather, it was Arab attitudes toward Iran that pushed it closer to Israel. Yet, Iran always condemned Israeli acquisition of Arab lands after the 1967 war (and before the 1979 revolution).
Concerned about Soviet influence in the Arab world, Iran tried to reach a modus vivendi with Syria and the PLO. However, the Shah was rebuffed by the PLO’s Yasser Arafat and only coolly received by Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. Meanwhile, the Shah’s overtures might have caused Israel to see him as becoming unreliable. It might have even encouraged America to take a second look at him.
The revolution of 1979 reversed the situation. At a time when Arab revolutionary fervor had subsided, Iran took on the mantle of revolution, this time in the name of Islam. Overnight, Iran was transformed into Israel’s most implacable foe and has remained so until now.
However, Iran’s anti-Israel stand has not endeared it to Arabs. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, the same PLO that had before gloried in helping to topple Iran’s monarchy, joined Iraq, showing that blood is thicker than ideology.
Since then, Iran’s position on the Palestinian issue and on Israel has become a major bone of contention in its relations with Arab states. This could be partly because of Iran’s bad timing. In the pre-revolutionary era, when Palestine mattered to Arabs because of other security preoccupations, Iran moved perhaps too close to Israel, thus antagonizing Arabs.
After the revolution, not realizing that Arab priorities had shifted, Iran has succeeded with its policies to antagonize both Arabs and Israelis, and now faces a joint Arab-Israeli challenge to its very survival.
Iran’s Middle East Experience
Geopolitically, Iran is peripheral to the Arab Middle East and Israel. Its usefulness lies in its function as a balancing factor in intra-Arab and Arab-Israeli politics. However, Iran never has and never will be a determining force either in Arab politics or in Arab-Israeli dynamics. Over-involvement in favor of either side works against Iran’s interests. When the Shah tried to act independently of Israeli preferences, he antagonized the Jewish state. The Islamic Republic’s excessive anti-Israel posture has earned it the enmity of both Arabs and Israel.
Now, the conservative Arab governments support Iranian opposition groups inside and outside the country, as the revolutionary Arabs did during the monarchy.
In short, Iran can never be part of the Arab political order, nor can it shape the direction of Arab-Israeli relations. It will always be an outsider and at best a very distant connection.
In addition to geopolitics, this situation is influenced by ethnic, sectarian, and cultural factors. Despite Iran’s Islamic claims, identities in the Middle East are based primarily on ethnicity and language and the kinship that these bonds create. In this context, Iran is alone in the region. Iran’s Shia character further isolates it in the largely Sunni Arab world.
A look at Iran’s relations with Syria and post-Saddam Iraq demonstrates again that Iran’s over-involvement in Middle East politics has never been and will not be in its interest. Although Iran has invested billions of dollars in Syria and shed much blood in the current conflict, the Assad regime still supports the UAE’s claim to Iranian islands. It is Russia that will reap the economic benefits in Syria, if there are any, once the war is over. Russia has already signed a 50-year agreement to exploit Syria phosphate mines. In fact, Iran’s relations with Syria have been extremely one-sided, in the latter’s favor.
The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has not recognized the Algiers agreement on the resolution of its border conflicts with Iran. It has not signed a peace treaty and imposes severe limits on trade with Iran.
Even more seriously, Iran’s Middle East adventures could lead to a military confrontation with the United States. If that happens, Iran can be sure that none of the regional powers will come to its aid. On the contrary, some of them would hover around to see which part of Iran they could seize.
A Better Strategy
A wiser strategy for Iran regarding the Middle East is to focus on issues that have a direct impact on its security and vital economic interests. This approach would limit Iran’s focus to Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Clearly, Iran cannot be indifferent to Iraq’s political evolution, given its turbulent relations with that country from 1958 to 2003.
In the Persian Gulf, too, Iran should not take sides in intra-Arab disputes. It should not even volunteer to mediate in such disputes unless asked by the parties involved.
In general, Iran must realize that its geopolitical and cultural loneliness requires that it not become embroiled in the disputes of others. To balance regional forces, it should expand its relations with countries outside the region, in Europe as well as Asia. Iran’s regional interests would be best served by constructive relations with all major players. Certainly, Iran should not get involved in any kind of crusade or pursue ambitions that are beyond its reach. The Shah paid a price for such behavior and so has the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian leadership has a choice. It can possess the foresight to realize Iran’s geopolitical and cultural limits and adjust its policies accordingly. Or it can exhaust the country and open it to military attacks by pursuing an unrealistic, unrealizable, and ideologically determined agenda.