Iran's five-card trick

About the author
Roger Hardy is the author of The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam (Hurst, 2010). A Middle East analyst for more than twenty years with the BBC World Service, he is currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.

The former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger has been turning his mind to the problem of Iran. Not surprisingly, his focus is on the nuclear issue; but that issue, he argues, should be seen in a large framework rather than in isolation. Iran's leaders, he says, have to decide "whether they are representing a cause or a nation – whether their basic motivation is crusading or international co-operation. The goal of…diplomacy…should be to oblige Iran to confront this choice" (see "Now Tehran's choice is cast in starker terms", International Herald Tribune, 1 August 2006).

The tone of Kissinger's article is sombre. He doesn't seem to expect Iran to make the right choice any time soon, if at all. But, interestingly, he favours comprehensive negotiations with the Iranians. He does not use the term "grand bargain", which no doubt sticks in his throat (as it does in the throat of his successor in the state department, Condoleezza Rice). Instead he comes up with a much more Kissingerian phrase – "geopolitical dialogue". But whatever term is used, the clear implication is that the alternatives to dialogue – either letting Iran develop nuclear weapons or stopping it through some form of military action – are so unattractive that dialogue is the least bad option.

Roger Hardy is a middle east and Islamic affairs specialist with the BBC World Service

Iran's five cards

Henry Kissinger is surely right in seeing the current confrontation in the middle east as essentially one between Iran and the United States, even though the actual combatants on the ground are Hizbollah and Israel. Accordingly, it is worth assessing Iran's strength as a regional power and asking what regional cards it can credibly play in its continuing confrontation with the American superpower.

Iran has in its possession five main cards:

  • its relationship with Hizbollah
  • its relations with Palestinian groups
  • its links to Shi'a groups in the Gulf
  • its role as an oil power
  • its ability to influence events in Iraq

It is important, however, to assess carefully what each card is worth, rather than taking these assets at face value.

The Hizbollah card

As the fighting has raged across the Israeli-Lebanese border, some have been quick to allege that the whole crisis was somehow cooked up in Tehran (or perhaps Damascus). There is no hard evidence for this (and the New York Times of 5 August 2006 suggests that the Bush administration, for all its suspicions, has no such proof). The links between Hizbollah and its two regional backers, Syria and Iran, are well known. However, the Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is a shrewd player who appears to exercise a good deal of independence of action. It is unwise to regard him simply as a tool of Iranian foreign policy.

It is likely he had his own – Lebanese – reasons for ordering the capture of the two Israeli soldiers on 12 July. At the same time it is likely that he knew well, without having to be told, that the skilful completion of such an operation would suit the interests of Syria and Iran.

Whether the action can indeed be so described – or whether it should be seen, as Hizbollah's critics maintain, as a piece of reckless adventurism – will depend on how the crisis ends. But the current balance-sheet suggests that all three allies – Hizbollah, Syria and Iran – have so far emerged with actual or potential gains.

On the Arab street, it is now common to see pictures of Hassan Nasrallah. Perhaps more surprisingly, his picture sometimes stands side-by-side with that of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran is exploiting the Lebanon crisis in three ways:

  • by diverting international attention from the nuclear issue
  • by presenting itself, together with Hizbollah, as the new champions of the Palestinian cause
  • by posing, credibly or otherwise, as part of the solution to a crisis of which it may, or may not, have been the cause

It is true that, despite the world's preoccupation with events in Israel and Lebanon, the United Nations Security Council did on 31 July pass an important resolution on the Iranian nuclear issue – important because it was the first time the council had issued a legally-binding declaration threatening Iran with "appropriate measures" (in plain language, sanctions) if it did not halt prohibited nuclear activities.

Nevertheless, in a neat irony, on the very day France's representative at the UN was voting for the resolution, the French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy was dining with this Iranian counterpart at the Iranian embassy in Beirut – having earlier extolled Iran as a "stabilising force" in the region.

The meeting illustrated in a concrete way what Iran has to gain from the current crisis. It may not be free from international pressure on the nuclear issue – far from it – but it has shown, crudely but effectively, that it is a regional power in the middle east and that it can use its power for good or ill.

The Palestinian card

Thus Iran is, for better or worse, a player in the Lebanese arena. Is it also a player in the Palestinian arena? It does, after all, have links to Hamas; it has given money to the Hamas-led Palestinian government; and it has even closer ties to the smaller of the two Palestinian Islamist groups, Islamic Jihad.

However, Hamas is not Hizbollah. It is true that the Palestinian movement sees the Lebanese one rather as a younger brother looks up to a successful older one. But if there is reason to doubt whether Hizbollah would ever do Iran's bidding if it thought its interests dictated otherwise, there is even more reason for doubt in the case of Hamas.

For one thing, Hamas values its independence of action. For another, as a Sunni movement enjoying support in the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf, it has little interest in putting all its eggs into the basket of Shi'a Iran. As for Islamic Jihad, its role is that of spoiler; it is more militant than Hamas and more committed to the armed struggle; but it is politically marginal.

The Shi'a card

What of the third card, Iran's links with the Arab Shi'a of the Gulf? There are certainly Shi'a minorities – and in the case of tiny Bahrain, a Shi'a majority – in sensitive oil-producing areas (including the eastern province of Saudi Arabia). But their willingness or ability to act on Iran's behalf – either against their own governments or against western interests – is distinctly limited. The idea of a "Shi'a crescent" stretching from Beirut through the Gulf to Tehran is somewhat overblown.

The oil card

The oil card is a significant one. With the price of oil around $75 a barrel, Iranian oil is very much in demand. Two questions arise:

  • would the big powers, under some sanctions arrangement, be ready to block Iranian oil exports to starve the Tehran government of cash?
  • alternatively, would the Iranians themselves stop the flow in order to send prices sky-high?

As to the first, the Americans would surely find it hard to persuade their allies to go along with sanctions of such a drastic kind. As to the second, Iran has explicitly threatened to use the oil weapon, but there's reason to suspect that it's bluffing. Iran's mullahs – ruling a population that already feels hard done by – need oil revenues to buy social peace. Nevertheless, in the short run, reminding the world of their economic muscle certainly does them no harm; it has a psychological effect which serves their interests.

The Iraq card

The Iraq factor is especially potent. The Iranians have an array of links with their western neighbour – economic, political, cultural and religious. They have allies within the current Iraqi government, and ties with all the main Shi'a factions and their militias. The latter include the Mahdi army of the radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Brigade, the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri).

At a time when the situation there is in any case going from bad to worse, Iran has the ability to use its Iraqi proxies to hurt the American – and for that matter the British – armed forces in Iraq. This is surely the Iranian regime's strongest card, and it knows it.

The conclusion? Iran is a regional power and it does have the ability to make trouble for its perceived adversaries. But its leaders also have an obvious interest in exaggerating their country's power to set the middle east ablaze.