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Iran’s future in a world of shifting sands

Iran is no longer at the center of global attention. (Iranian Presidency/AFP)
Iran is no longer at the center of global attention. (Iranian Presidency/AFP)
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07 May 2022 11:05:19 GMT9
07 May 2022 11:05:19 GMT9

Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s visit to Saudi Arabia last month ushered in a new era of cooperation between the two countries. The UAE, once an adversary of Turkey, is also now its friend. Meanwhile the US is preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, and a revived nuclear deal with Tehran, which seemed imminent only a few weeks ago, is now elusive. What do all these changes mean for Iran?

Tectonic shifts are underway in the region. The main trend is the dissolution of axes that were formed at the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2010, when Turkey supported Islamist movements and Saudi Arabia and the UAE were vehemently opposed. The Gulf diplomatic spat with Qatar, which began in 2017, deepened that rift with Turkey. Tension manifested itself in the Libyan conflict, where the two axes supported opposing sides.

Recently, however, things have changed. The main trigger came when Ankara realized the futility of siding with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose narrative has been faltering — and as the Islamist wave lost its popular appeal, it was no longer a threat to the Gulf states. The Erdogan government realized that animosity toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE was counterproductive, and had a negative effect on the Turkish economy, with its currency in freefall. When Turkey extended its hand for reconciliation, the UAE immediately accepted it, and in November last year it set up a $10 billion fund for investment in Turkey. Add to that Erdogan’s visit to Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, and it is clear that the two axes are dissolving. Turkey is reconciling with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and this is being reflected in deescalating regional conflicts. In Libya, despite the hurdles facingthe UN-led peace process, there are signs of progress.

All of this is bad news for Iran, which thrives on conflict. The Turkish-Arab rivalry gave it room to maneuver, but now that this rivalry is dissipating the Iranian regime has less oxygen. In addition, Iran is no longer at the center of global attention. The US is busy with Ukraine and seems to have had enough of catering to the whims of Tehran. The Biden administration was ready to revive the nuclear deal, but at the last minute the Iranians demanded the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations. However, Iran is no longer the diva of world geopolitics, and seems to be losing its power to blackmail the international community. Global nervousness about Iran becoming a nuclear power has been replaced by concern about Russian escalation on NATO’s eastern borders. Nevertheless, Iran is unwilling to relinquish its role as regional troublemaker. It needs belligerence to feed its narrative, its concept of being arevolution rather than a state. As the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed: “Iran has to take a decision whether it wants to be a nation or a cause.” There is no sign of its choosing the former.

Iran knows that the ongoing reconciliation is not in its interest, because it will lead to coordinated policies that will greatly weaken Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Iran is also unlikely to join the reconciliation club with Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Talks in Iraq between Saudi Arabia and Iran handled only tactical issues such as the number of Iranian pilgrims for Hajj and Umrah, and restoring embassies; there was no progress at a strategic level because the two countries have diverging goals. However, the Iranians are uncomfortable that a possible Arab-Turkish rapprochement will further entrench their regional and international isolation. Turkey is Iran’s gateway to Europe, and the average Iranian sees how neighboring countries are reconciling while Iran is stuck on the outside looking in.

Iran wants to spread its influence in the region. It seeks a complete departure of the US from the Middle East,while the Gulf states see the American presence a buffer against Iranian domination. Iran wants to remain relevant, to keep up the pressure, to maintain the threat. Its influence is threatened in Iraq, where Tehran seems unable to control the government, so the best it can do is block the process of forming one. In Yemen, the Houthis are exhausted by the war and have agreed to a truce. In Lebanon, there is a strong movement against Hezbollah, and the electorate’s main concern in this month’s parliamentary election is to vote them out.

As it loses political influence, Iran will compensate with more hard power. It is creating a base for Hamas in Lebanon. Iran knows that the ongoing reconciliation is not in its interest, because it will lead to coordinated policies that will greatly weaken Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Nevertheless, it is not all bad news for Iran. Russia, facing international isolation over the war in Ukraine, needs Iran more than ever. Will the agreement between Moscow and Tel Aviv allowing Israel to strike Iranian targets inside Syria still hold? We have yet to see. However, Russia’s increasing isolation definitely plays in Iran’s favor. In a nutshell, we do not yet know how these changes in regional and global alliances will play out.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.
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