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Understanding Iran and the Greater Middle East

February 14, 2008

Washington DC – The United States’ misread of Iran and its influence in the Middle East and the sometimes misplaced efforts to counter that nation’s regional ambitions were the topic of a day long conference organized by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

Recent offers of multi-million arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel by US President George Bush signal that Washington continuously worries about a rising Iran and strives to contain it. However, as Professor Gary Sick of Columbia University argued, the current administration seems to overlook the reality that other policies it pursued across the Muslim world in recent years might have actually contributed to conferring increasing centrality to Iran in the Middle East. “Iran is emerging as the leading regional power in the Gulf. The reason for that is really quite simple – it is us,” Professor Sick said.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, the US overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Iran’s worst enemy to the east. Then it decided to topple Saddam Hussein’s government, Teheran’s worst enemy to the west. Finally, “we were kind enough to oversee the establishment of a Shi’a government in Baghdad for the first time in history,” Sick pointed out. “At the end of that game Iran was a lot stronger than they had been before,” he said, noting that the US doesn’t seem to be aware of the consequences that its own policies have in the Middle East. A dangerous perception is emerging among the leadership across Arab states; “I think most of the Arabs actually suspect that we are in fact promoting Iran to a position of primary,” Professor Sick said.

Fundamentally, countries in the Gulf and in the Levant demand a higher consideration for their role in the region and the acknowledgment that they have national interests that are separate and independent of both the US and Iran.

The View from the Gulf

On the on hand, the Middle East is still thwarted by the struggle between the two Muslim branches of the Shi’ites and the Sunnis and the tensions between them remain at the root of the animosity generally felt toward Iran. Saudi Arabia is particularly worried that Teheran is challenging the status-quo in the Muslim world to emerge as the new predominant power. Because of the widespread fear that Washington will strike a deal with Teheran, the US approach toward the Middle East is often ill-received by leaders in the Gulf States; “They are not going to forget the Shah era when his country was the police of the area on their account,” said at the Middle East Institute Wahid Hashim, an Associate Professor of Political Science at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.

On the other hand, the enmity of the Arab countries toward Iran is only truly hard-felt at the government level while people across the region seem to be eager to engage in a closer relationship, both economically and culturally. “There is a fever in the area, anti-America, anti-Israel, and Iran is the only knight who will stand up to America. That is why many people support the Iranians,” Professor Hashim explained.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) are preoccupied with the growing influence Iran is projecting in the region for the effect it could have on its own Iranian community – 400,000 according to the most recent estimates – and the country’s domestic stability. These concerns, mixed with the fear that the US might be looking for the opportunity to cut its losses in Iraq leaving the region to deal with an emergent Shi’a Islam, “has led the Gulf States to feel that it is better to engage Iran than to leave it to its devices,” said Ibtisam Al-Kitbi, Assistant Professor of Political Science at UAE University.

In fact there are mounting signs of a push for engagement; Ahmadinejad attended a GCC summit in Qatar and later traveled to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Saudi King to observe the annual hajj ritual. There have been high-level exchanges between the Iranian and Kuwaiti foreign ministries. Egypt started discussing restoring diplomatic relations with Teheran and Ali Larijani of the Supreme National Security Council recently visited Cairo. Egyptian President Mubarak met with Haddad-Adel, Chairman of the Iranian Parliament, for the highest-level contact between the two countries since 1980. In the meantime, the UAE and Iran have begun talks on a trade agreement.

The View from the Levant

A similar guarded approach marks the foreign policy of countries in the Levant, although at least two of them – Lebanon and Syria – have a traditionally closer engagement with Iran. Even these countries, however, might be ready to swing both ways depending on where they feel their demands may be more promptly met.

The alliance between Damascus and Teheran for example, the longest standing in the Middle East, is not free of problems. Their relationship is not, as many might think, centered on economics, or even ideology. Syria is a secular regime that views itself as the champion of Arab nationalism while Iran is a devoted theocracy. “Syria and Iran are truly the odd couple,” said Murhaf Jouejati, Adjunct Professor at the National Defense University in Washington DC. “Their alliance is interests-driven. It is truly a marriage of convenience. For Iran, Syria gives it the reach into the Arab-Israeli conflict. For Syria, Iran is the big brother on the block – a block that is a very threatening environment to the Syrians,” Professor Jouejati added. In his opinion, the alliance could end if Syria were to find the security guarantees it demands somewhere else; “Syria is trying to signal the United States that it could and would do away with its alliance with Iran if it were able to resume talks with Israel, if it were able to have ironclad guarantees that it is going to recover the Golan Heights,” Murhaf Jouejati concluded.

Iran’s interests in Lebanon are a function of Teheran’s desire to end its regional isolation. “These goals are achieved by supporting an organization struggling to recoup Arab land occupied by Israel – Hezbollah,” explained Judith P. Harik, the President of Matn University in Beirut and leading expert on Hezbollah. Iran’s strategy in Lebanon follows a dual path; Teheran provides financial and economic support to the Shi’ite community and simultaneously backs Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel. The latter has taken the form, over the past 25 years, of training, equipment and financial resources. As far as Teheran’s support to the Shi’ite community, Professor Harik, who maintains close sources in Iran and within the Hezbollah movement, reported what she was told by Iranian engineer Hossam Khoshnevis, who “would take up residence in Lebanon so as to quickly implement and manage reconstruction and rehabilitation of a wide range of institutions and infrastructure,” she said. Khoshnevis’ projects include working on 330 damaged or destroyed schools serving an estimated 700,000 students, repairing 20 hospitals and infirmaries and rehabilitating nearly 550 miles of roads.

Despite the support offered by Teheran, Professor Harik is convinced that Hezbollah works as an independent organization and that Teheran’s leaders may not have as much leverage over them as previously thought. “It appears that Iran’s Lebanese ally may thus have to be dealt with as a partner of Iran rather than its client and as such Hezbollah should be considered and addressed directly as Lebanese actors with a Lebanese agenda rather than a simple agent of Iran,” Harik explained.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the following six years of war have contributed, in the eyes of neighboring countries, to further deteriorate these already tense dynamics. Teheran has been taking advantage of the power-vacuum that the war created in Iraq. “It increased its support to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and for the military wing of that organization (Badr). It also supported all the new political elites in Iraq and established strong contacts with them while Arab states have remained outside the immediate political intervention inside Iraq,” said Fares Braizat, the Director and Senior Researcher of University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies. For Jordan, Braizat explained, the invasion of Iraq has been a major security and humanitarian problem. “Terrorists crossed the border from Iraq and three hotels in Amman were bombed,” he explained and added; “We have around 700,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan today. That puts a lot of pressure on basic infrastructure in Jordan, in terms of health, education, water and all that.”

The View from Inside Iran

Not only is the region as a whole ridden with suspicion and antagonism, but Iran itself is shaped by complex domestic dynamics. “I have always believed that if we could somehow get Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, if we could tie him up to a chair sitting right there and pump him full of sodium pentothal and get him to speak for 12 hours about the Iranian regime, he could not tell us exactly what was going on,” said eloquently Ken Pollack – the Director of Research at Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institutions – in his remarks at the Middle East Institute.

Dwelling on the intentions of the Iranian leadership can be a tricky game, at the center of which is the country’s complicated structure of power. “The question of who speaks for Iran and what are the intentions of Iran come to the point of who really runs the country,” said Hooshang Amirahmadi, Professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and founder and President of the American Iranian Council. Compared to other Middle Eastern countries where the power rests within a limited group of oligarchs, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran has a multilayered structure. Amirahmadi attributes the intricacies typical of Iranian politics to the constitution written in 1979 with the purpose of reconciling the tensions between religion and democracy that are at the foundation of the Islamic Republic. It is the constitution that gave birth to the two branches of government, the elected and the unelected ones, and their several bodies. “The struggle within the constitution is always how to maintain the dominance of Islam in a society where the population is also given some voice,” Amirahmadi said, “and the solution was that it created a series of parallel – and not just parallel but multiple – centers of power to deal with that issue.”

The Iranian government is not only multifaceted but is also undergoing important transformations. President Ahmadinejad himself has started a trend toward progressive decentralization, which is slowly empowering the provincial governors against the government ministers. Amirahmadi believes that the power structure in Iran is experiencing a process of securitization and militarization, causing the rise of the military establishment in the form of the National Security Council, the Army, the IRGC, the Qods Forces, the Basiji forces and the police forces. “Of course this is the byproduct of the United States’ counterproductive policies toward Iran because the environment around which Iran now lives is a military/security environment,” the President of the American Iranian Council told the audience at the Middle East Institute.

These trends are destined to accelerate exponentially while Iran also experiences a generational change in its leadership, a culminating moment being the general elections of 2009. The current elite is an aging circle of people who has ran the country continuously for the past 29 years and is now facing two new constituencies trying to get their hands on power, explained John Limbert, a former Ambassador and hostage of the Iranian government during the Iran hostage crisis that lasted from 1979 to 1981. On one side “there are the veterans of the Iran-Iraq War and of the fierce political battles of the 1980s,” Limbert said. On the other there are “what the Iranians call gheyr-e-khodi, the outsiders,” among which for example are the huge numbers of newly educated Iranian women. These groups are challenging the traditional power centers and, in the opinion of Limbert, are destined to reshape the political landscape of the country.

In focusing solely on the institution of the Presidency and in viewing Iran as a political monolith united behind Ahmadinejad, the US is missing out on the country’s several and conflicting centers of power and on the fundamental evolutions that are taking place within the political system. Where exactly Iran is headed is very hard to tell. Ambassador John Limbert said; “I look at Iran today and to me the 29-year-old revolution is like a train. It has gone into a tunnel and it is still there. It has not come out yet. Maybe it has not come out because the engineers and the passengers are still arguing about its ultimate destination.” It easier instead to predict that, unless the US stops assuming that Iran will simply stay as it is and unless it begins to gain a better understanding of the many conflicting dynamics that traverse the region, counterproductive policies will keep flowing from Washington to the Middle East.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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