Certain changes in Iran’s foreign policy were caused by coming to power in Iran a new president H. Rouhani. After he was elected as a president he took new direction in Iranian foreign policy aimed to the resuming of the negotiation process with the U.S. and EU countries. This policy was dictated by Tehran’s interest to avoid the threat of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and reduce tough regime of economic sanctions adopted by the “West”, which had a negative effect on the national economy and the situation of the population.
In the views of many Western politicians, H. Rouhani seemed to be “liberal” in comparison with the former president of Iran M. Ahmadinejad, who brought a lot of trouble to the U.S. and threatened to destroy Israel. According to estimates of the Iranian political elite, H. Rouhani in regards of his political views was much closer to M. Khatami. In Iran, he was regarded as a “liberal” leader, prone to peace and stability. At the same time, H. Rouhany’s ability to act as an independent politician, freed of the will of the Rahbar and conservative clerics was still remained an open question to the “West”.
The revolutionary movements in the Arab world which have began at the turn of 2010-2011, had a direct impact on domestic and foreign policy of the Islamic state of Iran. Events of the “Arab Spring” led to a change in the balance of power and the restructuring of former military-political alliances in the Middle East.
In the past two decades, Iran has become one of the most influential powers in the Middle East region. He managed to build a zone of allied countries through Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Gaza, as well as to strengthen its influence in the Shiite communities in the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Yemen.
During the presidency of M. Mursi in Egypt, Iran significantly strengthened its activity in the Egyptian direction, in order to normalize bilateral relations with that largest country in the Arab world. The coming to power in Egypt “Muslim Brotherhood” and increase of their political activity in Syria, have contributed at some stage to closer relations between this Islamic international organizations and Iran. Thus since the spring of 2012 till April 2013 the Iranian government have hold 7 rounds closed negotiations, through the mediation of Turkey, with the Syrian “brothers.” Tehran even promised them his support in the parish in the power of the new Syrian state institutions in case of Assad’s defeat in exchange for the preservation of the former nature of Iran’s relations with Syria. In fact events in Syria have become the most serious challenge to the foreign policy of Iran to defend its conquests in the region.
Iran has had unprecedentedly supported Assad’s regime in Syria by opening in early 2012, a credit line of more than $ 3.6 billion, delivering Syria Iranian oil at a lower price, for which the Syrian regime was paying from loans provided by Tehran. At the insistence of Iran Shiite militia groups in Iraq have participated in battles with rebels. Iranian elite military groups have fought on Assad’s side. Those troops were headed by the commander of al-Quds Brigade General K. Suleimani, who since 2012 have personally organized the defense of Damascus and led military operations of IRGC units and HALISH troops who fought on the side of Assad. Thousands of Lebanese fighters from “Hezbollah” (from 10 to 14 000) participated in this battle, helping the regime to maintain control over a number of key areas of the country. At some stage, it gave an opportunity to the Syrian authorities to stop the offensive of revolutionary armed opposition to Damascus and even for a time to regain control over some strategically important areas in northern Syria.
But lately, the attitude of Iran to the Syrian armed conflict has begun to change. Bogged down in Syria due to the support of President Assad, Iranian politicians have realized that in the conditions of imminent defeat of the Syrian regime and universal condemnation in the “West” and in the Arab world of its actions, Tehran’s ability of maneuvering in the region and in the world has become increasingly difficult than ever. Iran believed that even if as a result of “the Geneva-2” talks Assad would remain in power for some time, the roots of his regime irrevocably undermined, and he and his inner circle had no political future in Syria. At the same time the position and prestige in the Arab world, one of the main pillars of Iran’s Islamic resistance –HALISH- has been dramatically weakened. Iran believed that if it would expand its military presence in Syria and continue actively support Assad, IRI might become a real military target for U.S. and Israel. Those fears intensified in summer of 2013 after threats from the U.S. to launch a military strike against Syria.
Several Western and Arab experts believed that B. Obama cancellation of missile and bomb strikes on targets in Syria has been largely associated with starting after the election of President H. Rouhani closed negotiations with Tehran. Thus, Washington has sought to put pressure on Tehran, forcing him to agree to a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment and abandon plans to build nuclear weapons.
Indeed, with the advent of the new president of Iran a number of influential military and political circles in the United States linked the new possibilities for the normalization of US-Iranian relations and taking them from the dangerous impasse caused by the events in Syria. In the past, the U.S. has repeatedly tried to negotiate with Iranian leaders, which mostly ended in vain.
An important result of the renewed US-Iran talks was the so called “nuclear deal” in November 2013, which included the gradual rapprochement between Iran and the United States, the result of which could be eventually possible failure of Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and recognition of his leading role in the Middle East. Simultaneously, the United States negotiated with the Lebanese “Hezbollah” about the future of this organization in Lebanon in relation to its current role in the Syrian armed conflict.
Under these circumstances, Tehran has tried to gain time to fully prepare for the period after the withdrawal of the government of B. Assad. Meanwhile Iran has sought to create a solid and sustainable position in Syria that would allow him to exert influence on the new Syrian leadership, even in case of power change by coming to power of the Sunni majority. With the help of “Hezbollah” in Syria Iran has created a secret network of paramilitary organizations all over the country. These groups fought alongside the regular units of the Assad regime with the rebels. Long-term goal of Iran was to have in Syria reliable operational positions in case of eventual division of this country along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Thus, Iran has continued to be an important military-political factor of the Syrian armed conflict providing its direct impact and obtaining an important bargaining chip with the “West” in the ongoing negotiations on the nuclear issue and its future role in the region. At the same time the main aspirations of Iran have already been directed not so much to protect the government of President Assad as to ensure its interests in Syria and the Middle East in the after Assad’s period.
At the same time, the US-Iranian talks on “nuclear deal” revealed many gaps in approaches between Washington and Tehran, not only in Syria but also in a number of other regional issues. These differences give Tehran good reason not to rush into a decision on the Syrian issue and its nuclear program. Under certain circumstances, they could even strengthen the position of Iran in negotiations with the West, including on the question of the future role of Iran in the Middle East. Under the conditions prevailing favorable regional environment for Tehran, Iran might well accept the fact that, in exchange for their renunciation of nuclear weapons, to become a regional superpower with U.S. support.
However, this scenario assumed that the first step in this line that was to happen was a rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh. At the end of November 2013 the chairman of the Lebanese Parliament N. Berry (representative of the Shiite community in power) offered the Iranian leadership to mediate in the normalization of Iranian-Saudi relations. Iran expressed its agreement in principle to normalize relations with the KSA, to jointly maintain stability in the region. However, Riyadh has not shown, in terms of IRI, “demanded” flexibility in the approach to the implementation of relations with Tehran.
Further developments in the region after the beginning of the “Arab Spring” only increased in some ranks of the Saudi leadership their desire to “intercept” a role of regional leader in the Middle East and the Islamic world, relying on its oil and financial resources. Besides Kingdom itself as “small” Gulf monarchies, unlike other Arab states actually haven’t suffered much from the effects of civil unrest movements caused by the events of the “Arab Spring.” Those Saudis aspirations that were mentioned above have revealed particularly notable is the role that Riyadh have played in a military coup in Egypt on June 2013.
Indeed, the events of the “Arab Spring” have left Egypt permanently damaged. Syrian crisis, in the development of which from the end of 2012 the KSA was to take an increasingly active part, seriously destabilized the situation in the neighboring Arab countries and weakened the position of Turkey on the regional level. In fact, the main competitors of the KSA in the struggle for regional leadership were seriously weakened by events in Syria, Turkey and Iran (which balances several chances Kingdom in competition with them) and Israel, which has maintained its military and economic potential in the previous form.
However, the KSA claim to regional leadership and leading role in the Islamic world have oppose by a new U.S. policy toward Iran. Saudi leadership fears that in case of the implementation of this policy the U.S. could eventually make a bet on Tehran as its new regional leader in the Middle East.
Convergence of U.S. and charted IRI has also changed the position of Turkey in the Syrian issue. So in the last months of 2013 Western observers recorded the refusal of the Turkish military from the previous level of support for major Islamist groups (mainly ISIL) in Syrian armed resistance operating in the northern parts of the country. On the basis of resolution of the Syrian crisis, Turkey seeks closer ties with Iran. Trade turnover between the two countries in 2013 amounted to about U.S. $ 30 billion, despite sanctions. The visit in November 2013 of Turkish Foreign Minister A. Davutoglu in Iran has resulted by a joint statement to keep the ceasefire in Syria on the eve of “the Geneva-2”. Its discontent with U.S. policy KSA clearly expressed by refusal to take a seat in the UN Security Council in October 2013, that long before this sought with U.S. support.
Indeed the successful implementation of the US-Iranian agreements can radically change the balance of forces in the Middle East region. One of the first signs of possible future changes is a problem in the resolution of the Syrian crisis. Thus, the victory of the Islamic armed opposition, which it reached in early winter 2013 during fierce fighting in the province of Damascus and Aleppo, many experts associated with the influence of US-Iranian rapprochement, which negatively affected the coordination between Assad troops and groups of “Hezbollah” and Iraqi Shiite militias.
However, the actual failure of the Geneva talks on Syria held in January-February 2014, to ensure a peaceful transition of power in Damascus, demonstrated the complexity and uncertainty of successful implementation of the previously reached US-Iranian agreements. Iran has refused to take part in «Geneva-2″ negotiations, on the proposed by U.S. and EU conditions involving actual consent Tehran one Assad’s resign from power. Moreover, Iran continues to provide direct military support to the Syrian regime, although, as noted by some Western military experts, the quality and amount of this aid since March 2014 have been slightly declined. Tehran hopes that changing the position of Egypt on Syria after the overthrow of M. Mursi and exacerbation of the Saudi-Qatari differences on the Syrian issue, in particular on the future role of the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Syria, deepened the split in the Arab community, which, along with the deterioration of relations Russia and the United States because of the events in Ukraine, allow Tehran to buy time and get a better deal on the nuclear issue.
Perhaps scheduled the recent visit of B. Obama to KSA could give new impetus to regional processes, including in and around Syria. However, taking into account recent friction in US-Saudi relations against the backdrop of difficult processes of the struggle for power in Saudi leadership assume that the U.S. president can hardly hope for “light” talks with Saudis.
In this situation an important role could play Russia and Vladimir Putin himself, whom has lately a number of influential circles, both in Russia and in Iran actively push to make an official visit to Tehran. Moscow may either join the West’s position on Iran, intensifying pressure on Tehran in exchange for managing differences with the West caused by Crimea, or wait and see how will transform the West’s position on Ukraine regards the latest’s development there.
The views of the author don’t necessarily reflect the official position of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
This article was written in collaboration with Dr. Lyudmila Kulagina