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The Shifting Nature of Iran’s Regional Policy

Kayhan Barzegar

By Kayhan Barzegar

This article was first published on December 17, 2012 in Persian by Tabnak

The Arab Spring has resulted in a shift in the nature of Iran’s regional policy from  a traditional “reconciliation and resistance” approach to a “regional cooperation” approach. The new approach aims to strike a balance between strengthening cooperation with states in the region and containing threats through maintaining traditional relations with ideological movements. As a result, a new kind of pragmatism has emerged in Iran’s regional policy.

Prior to the Arab Spring, Iran was only able to enhance its role and project influence in the region through establishing close relations with the Arab Street and Islamist movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Of course, the establishment of a Shiite-majority government in Iraq and its closer relations with Iran was a turning point. But with the Arab Spring and the emergence of new nationalist-Islamist governments, such as that of Egypt, which seek an independent and active role in regional issues, an opportunity has emerged for Iran to simultaneously establish close relations with these Arab states.

This development has impacted Iran’s regional policy. Iran has sought closer relations with the new Arab governments in order to strengthen regional cooperation in addressing regional issues such as the Syrian crisis, but some new political-security rivalries have emerged between Iran and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt while dealing with the Syrian crisis.

In such circumstances, Iran’s main challenge has become a matter of strengthening its relations with states such as Egypt while also sustaining relations with ideological resistance movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran has been attempting to adjust its regional policy to a “regional approach” so that it can simultaneously preserve its geopolitical and ideological interests.

The reconciliation camp was led by the United States and also contained its regional allies i.e., Mubarak’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The resistance camp was led by Iran and also contained its regional allies i.e., Syria, Iraq, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Through the essentially Western approach of the “reconciliation and resistance” camps, Iran is preoccupied with tackling threats of the United States and those of its regional allies. International relations center upon a win-lose situation with policy implications of containment and deterrence. This approach, categorically, identifies Iran as the main regional threat, subsequently giving a pretext to Iran’s rivals to justify their adversarial policies towards Iran.

In contrast, a regional approach is based on strengthening regional cooperation between Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia and trans-regional players i.e., the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China for addressing regional issues. The only difference here is the preservation of Middle Eastern states’ interests as well as the interests of all concerned players, not merely those of great powers (especially the United States) as was the case in the past. Here, relations are based on a win-win situation with policy implications of cooperation. Such an approach undermines the justification of Iran’s rivals in continuing their containment of Iran.

In the context of strengthening a regional approach, Iran has supported the Kofi Annan Peace Plan and the activities of United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and has participated in Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s regional peace initiative that seeks to address the Syrian crisis. Such an approach is closer to the perspectives of Russia, China, and even that of the European Union.

Yet the prevailing U.S. perspective is that allowing regional issues to be handled by regional players may not serve U.S. interests and security. Recently, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice published a commentary in the Washington Post arguing explicitly that the United States is the only player which could and should find lasting solutions to regional issues. She emphasized that the United States should not leave the issue (the Syrian crisis) to regional powers (especially Iran) because this would exacerbate sectarian issues in the region.

Based on an incorrect strategic calculation, the existing view among the policy circles in Washington is that using Middle Eastern states to contain one another will best serve U.S. interests in the region. Yet, as experience in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate, ignoring increased cooperation between regional actors would exacerbate the region’s existing political-security complexity. With Arab Spring developments, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have come to realize that their divisions on regional issues would further endanger regional peace and security, especially on sectarian issues. Based on this understanding, Iran and Saudi Arabia have increased their regional cooperation. In mid-August 2012, President Ahmadinejad attended the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Mecca, and subsequently King Abdullah’s special envoy Abdulaziz bin Abdullah attended the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in Tehran in late August.

With the Arab Spring, the nature of Iran’s regional policy is shifting towards a regional approach based on the cooperation. This will make Iran’s policy more pragmatic in supporting the state system in the Middle East. In such circumstances, Iran’s policy of sustaining relations with resistance movements will depend on the degree of cooperation with the other Middle Eastern states, along with perceived threats stemming from the United States. Instead of focusing on containment, the time has come for the United States to adopt a regional cooperation approach which would better serve the interests of all the main players in the Middle East—including those of Iran and the United States.

Kayhan Barzegar is Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) in Tehran and a former fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  He is also a faculty member and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research branch of the Islamic Azad University in Tehran.



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