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Posts by James F. Smith

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. Read more

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Regional Implications of Egyptian President’s Iran Trip

Kayhan Barzegar

By Kayhan Barzegar

Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, Tehran; Former Belfer Center Research Fellow in the Managing the Atom Project and International Security Program

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s trip to Iran for the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) summit is also an opportunity to enhance Iranian-Egyptian relations and spark resolution of regional issues.

Iran and the new Egypt are interested in enhancing their regional roles. These two countries along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the four power blocks, each with a different approach to increasing their political-security roles in the post–Arab Spring Middle East.

Among these players, increased cooperation between Iran and Egypt is on well-prepared ground. Both countries have experienced a political-ideological revolution and a complete change of regime; they seek to enhance their national power and identity and independence in foreign relations. For both, focusing on independent trends in dealing with the regional crises, battling extremism, promoting indigenous democracy, and advancing economically are significant.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey have different situations. Saudi Arabia is a petro and financial power; its political structure necessitates balancing its dependence on the United States  and the West with its national governance based on Wahhabist principles. For instance, post–Arab Spring political-societal and security developments—fostering democracy, human rights, political reforms, the role of youth and middle-class, etc.—has highlighted the divergence between Saudi Arabia and the West. Yet, Saudi Arabia’s  policy of sending military troops to suppress the Bahraini opposition had U.S. support.

Turkey’s regional role, given its strong secular bodies (which oppose the country’s intense regional involvement and Islamic world affairs), cultural-ethnic diversity and sensitivities, and economic vulnerability, is currently based on increased relations with the West. With its “Zero Problems” regional policy, Turkey may play an active role in regional issues for a few years.

Yet, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Turkey—an economic power and soft power model for some Arab countries—is not perceived as a regional player. Turkey has had a complimentary role parallel to Iran and Syria and has gradually lost its strategic place in regional affairs.

Iran and Egypt could become significant regional players in the future. Some pessimistic views hold that closer Iranian-Egyptian relations are unlikely in the near future—even with Islamist President Morsi—due to ideological and political differences.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi embraces Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, Aug. 30, 2012 (Ap/APImages)

However, increased Iranian-Egyptian relations are based on mutual strategic needs. Iran has attempted to redefine its relations with this new Egypt according to its geopolitical interests and so far has carefully avoided any ideological rivalry with Cairo’s new Muslim Brotherhood Islamist government.

Iran perceives the new Egypt as an independent Islamist state which is an old nation-state and could be an ally, inevitably forming its regional policy according to its domestic politics and public’s political-societal demands.  Compared to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Iran and Egypt’s stands on a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, comprehensive regional security, enhanced regional cooperation for peace, non-interference of the West in regional affairs, etc., are similar. These issues are on the NAM summit agenda in Tehran.

Egypt perceives Iran as an economic and petro power with a long historical identity and Islamic ideological background that could balance Egypt’s relations with Israel, some Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and the United States and the West. Establishing closer relations with Iran could move Egypt from the passivity of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, thus giving it a greater regional role as well as bargaining power. Building a regional coalition with Iran has advocates in different political-security and societal layers of Egypt. Amr Moussa, the former secular foreign minister of Egypt, has spoken of such a coalition’s necessity.

The return of an active Egypt to the region’s political scene could be a turning point for solving regional issues; a potential that also exists in Iran’s regional policy. Potential cooperation between the two countries could start with proposing a joint solution to the Syrian crisis. Presently, the two countries’ policies are distinct. Iran supports Syrian President Basher al-Asad, focusing on a political solution with a national unity government and opposing any foreign military interventions. Egypt supports the removal of Asad while focusing on a political transition and opposing any Western military intervention.

An Iranian-Egyptian solution, however, could initiate a midway approach— accepting the process of political transition by all parties in a first phase and in a second phase, holding a peace conference with the participation all internal, regional, and trans-regional parties in which all issues including the removal of Asad could be decided.

With the new Egypt on board, Iran should take advantage of the 16th NAM Summit and propose a workable regional solution to the Syrian crisis.

This article was originally published in Persian by Tabnak.

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Netanyahu: “generous concessions” from a hard heart

Charles G. Cogan

Charles G. Cogan

By Charles G. Cogan,

Associate, Belfer Center International Security Program

During his visit to the U.S. in late May, described by some commentators as a tactical success but a strategic failure, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, stated he was prepared to make “generous concessions” in negotiations with the Palestinians. This was in a speech on May 24 before an indulgent audience of U.S. lawmakers at the Capitol in Washington. It was a bravura performance, delivered in a practiced American-English idiom. Read more

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Burns: Obama’s delicate balancing act in Egypt

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Nicholas Burns has followed up his Feb. 3 blog post on Egypt on Power & Policy with a contribution to an online forum on Foreign Policy.com. Burns says President Obama is skillfully walking a dangerous diplomatic tightrope as he works for democratic change while avoiding chaos in the region.

Burns, who was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008 before joining the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School, participated in a roundtable forum hosted by FP that called on some of the top thinkers on US policy-making in the Middle East, including Elliot Abrams, Thomas Pickering and Aaron David Miller. Read more

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Egypt: Outcome may differ from aspirations of protesters

Graham Allison

Graham Allison

Graham Allison weighs potential alternative futures for Egypt in an assessment of the potential implications for the United States in the turmoil engulfing its largest Arab ally.

In a contribution to a virtual panel of experts on The Mark, a Canadian online forum, Allison says the aspirations of those taking part in such uprisings don’t always dictate the outcome. Just think of the Iranian and Russian revolutions.

Protestors from Al Azhar University gathered in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on February 1, 2011. (Iman Mosaad photo)

Protestors from Al Azhar University gathered in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on February 1, 2011. (Iman Mosaad photo)

Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, says it is highly unlikely that any successor government in Egypt would seek to disrupt the flow of oil to the United States. However, other events in the region might do so, especially if the revolts prove contagious and spread to countries such as Saudi Arabia. Read more

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