A more secure Iran is ‘gaining in confidence’ on the regional stage

Published in GSN, 2 November 2017

While US President Donald Trump’s administration and his supporters in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama like to portray Iran as a devious, destabilising actor in the region, Iranian observers insist the Islamic Republic is merely looking after its interests in the same way that any other country would. “Iran is a rational and accountable actor in the region,” Allameh Tabatabai University (ATU – Tehran) professor Seyed Jalal Dehghani Firoozabadi told the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank in London on 30 October. Both positions are contestable – unlike the fact that Iran has been making ground at the expense of the US and its allies in key arenas around the region over the past decade, most obviously in Iraq and Syria. And with each advance, the Islamic Republic appears to be gaining greater assuredness.

ATU associate professor Gholamali Chegnizadeh told the late October RUSI event there had been a noticeable change in approach from Iran. While past strategic thinking had been defined and informed by a combined sense of insecurity, loneliness and greatness, the insecurity was being usurped by a increasing sense of confidence. “Iranian behaviour is not based on insecurity anymore,” Chegnizadeh said. “Iran at present is more or less shaped by confidence. That confidence in regional terms in my understanding is boosted even by Trump’s illogical policies”.

From an Iranian perspective, the US looks bereft of coherent Middle East policies or strategies, and at a loss to develop a viable challenge to Iranian influence in Baghdad or Damascus. The call by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson on 22 October for Iranian militia to leave Iraq was dismissed just as quickly in Baghdad as it was in Tehran. Tillerson told a press conference in Riyadh that “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home”. This was seen as a reference to the Iranian-backed, Shia-dominated Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces). However, a Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman responded by calling the units “an inseparable part of the Iraqi forces”.

It will take far more that stern words to dislodge Iran from Iraq, given the importance that Tehran places on ensuring it faces no threat on its western border, but the US has little or no leverage. Control of Iranian foreign policy in Iraq and Syria is tightly held by Rahar (Supreme Leader) Ali Khamenei; President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have little input. Among the key considerations in Iraq is the need for a unified state, hence the strong backing for pime minister Haider Al-Abadi in the dispute over Kurdish independence. Iran has its own Kurdish minority which it struggles to keep quiescent. Itwais little surprise that Abadi was given a warm reception on 26 October in Tehran, where he held talks with Khamenei, Rouhani and vice president Eshaq Jahangiri.

In Syria, Iran’s principal current aim is said to be reshaping the calamitous war from a high-intensity to a low-intensity conflict. It is then waiting to flex its muscle in the subsequent post-war, transitional period. Iran may be able to take advantage of the disunity among Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states. The diplomatic standoff between Qatar and the GCC-3 is making itself felt in Syria, with Saudi and the UAE officials pushing for umbrella opposition group the High Negotiations Committee chairman Riyad Hijab to be replaced, as they view him as being too close to Qatar.

One thing common to Iran and the other major Gulf players in Syria is their continued provision of support to their proxies in the conflict (GSN 1,040/14). Meanwhile they are keeping an eye on the potential for a much-anticipated, post-war reconstruction boom. However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will have difficulty usurping Iran’s position, which was highlighted by the Damascus International Fair which ran from mid-August until early September, where Iran and Russia had the biggest pavilions. Both key allies expect Bashar Al-Assad’s regime will offer rewards for their vital military support during the war years, assuming a version of the Baathist leadership survives into the future, as seems increasingly likely.

Iran remains at the centre of the most active diplomatic initiative to bring the war to a close, through its membership of the Astana process alongside Russia and Turkey (GSN 1,030/1). That is a worry for some Western observers. “Astana has in some ways filled the void, but that is not a tenable long-term process, for Russia, Iran and Turkey to be the only people at the table. I think it’s a recipe for long-term instability,” said International Rescue Committee chief executive and former British foreign minister David Miliband said on 25 October.

Iran would insist that it has stability in mind. It may not be able to convince many others of that, but unless other powers can somehow decouple Tehran from Moscow – where President Vladimir Putin is also gaining in influence around the region – there appears to be little they can do to challenge the growing confidence of the mainly hardline drivers of Iran’s regional policy.