North Africa, West Asia

Iran and the Arab world: a change in foreign policy

Maged Mandour

Iran has lost a significant component of its soft power in the Middle East. No longer viewed as a Muslim nation, it is regarded as a Shiite nation. This might be very costly for Iran in the long run. 

Maged Mandour
16 January 2014

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has been following a foreign policy that a number of observers have called “radical”, sometimes even “extremist”. Iran was cast aside as an irrational actor, driven by religious zeal and ideological extremism to extend the grip of religious fundamentalism across the Middle East. Iran was sometimes compared to the Soviet Union, the prime example of the “evil empire” archetype, both regimes having been born out of great social revolutions, and both actively supporting similarly minded, anti-western, actors abroad. But a fundamental shift has occurred in Iranian foreign policy with its decision for heavy involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Prior to 1979, the Shah, as a client regime of the United States - on which Iran was heavily reliant for survival at the time - allowed Iran to act as a pillar for American foreign policy in the region. Iran found itself in the same camp as Saudi Arabia, facing the tide of Arab nationalism that threatened American goals in the region. One only needs to remember Iranian support for the Yemeni Royals during the Yemeni civil war, as well as, the Iranian intervention in Oman, which alienated the Arab masses. Iranian foreign policy at the time aimed at stopping the tide of progressive and radical forces that were sweeping the Middle East.

After 1979, the situation altered. The left wing of the Islamic revolution, led by Ayatollah Montazeri, initiated a policy of supporting radical allies abroad, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. This policy was not just driven by ideological zeal, as some might argue, it was also driven by the desire to create inroads into the Arab world to increase Iranian prestige and soft power in the region. Iran became one of the strongest supporters of the Palestinian cause, sometimes taking more radical stances than the now de-radicalized Palestinian leadership. The aim was to transcend the isolation imposed on Iran as a Persian Shiite state surrounded by Arab Sunni neighbors, an isolation that arguably dates back to 1501 when Iran was converted from Sunnism to Shiisim under the Safavid.

Until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Iran was relatively successful in bridging the gap. Iran, together with regional allies like Hezbollah, was seen as a bastion of resistance against imperialism. Numerous Arab nationals wished their governments would adopt similar foreign policies to Iran. Iran was no longer seen as a Shiite state - rather as a Muslim state that supported the Palestinians and opposed American imperialism. The Pan-Islamic rhetoric employed by Iran seemed effective. There was even Arab popular support for Iran to produce nuclear weapons and act as a deterrent against the vast nuclear weapon arsenal that Israel possesses. Iran finally became the “good guy”.

This perception of Iran withstood the bloody sectarian strife in Iraq, as it was not seen to be directly intervening in the conflict defending the Shiite population. This put it in an advantageous position, especially after the elimination of its main regional rivals by the American military; namely the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Iran seemed to be poised to take a historical step in spreading its hegemony on an unprecedented scale over its neighbourly Sunni Arab populations. This however has not occurred.

The relationship between Iran and the Syrian regime is both deep and historic; it is enough to note that Syria supported Iran against Iraq during the first Gulf War, while all the Arab states supported Iraq. From this perspective, Iranian support for the Syrian regime is understandable. Syria is not only a close regional ally, it also gives Iran strategic depth in the Levant. Syria is also an ally of Hezbollah, which is also a close ally of Iran. The support for Assad allows Iran to apply pressure on the United States for recognition as a regional powerhouse and an important player in the region. Iran wants to reclaim its international position and hopes that its continuous support for Assad will allow it to do so. This has yet to occur, as Iran has yet to be invited to the international peace conference on the Syrian crisis due to be held in Geneva.

Furthermore, Iran has lost the sympathy of a large mass of Sunni Arabs who now see it as a Persian Shiite State, supporting the Shiites in a sectarian war. The increased sectarian nature of the Arab revolutions, mainly due to the Syrian civil war, has placed Iran in a role it had hoped to avoid.

Iran has also lost a large part of its investment in the Palestinian cause, which it used as a bulldozer to clear its way into the heartlands of the Arab world. This is due to a number of reasons. First, with the advent of the Arab revolutions, the Palestinian cause is no longer the premier cause in the Middle East. Second, Hamas - the Arab Sunni ally of Iran - has distanced itself deliberately from both the Syrian regime and the Islamic Republic. Hamas meanwhile has been under severe attack by the Egyptian military-backed government, which accuses them of allying with Iran in order to destroy the Egyptian state; a demonization campaign that Hamas has been trying to avoid. This significantly reduces the ability of Iran to make inroads into the Arab world. It turns support for the Palestinian cause into at best a tool for domestic consumption, and domestic legitimacy building, rather than a tool for enhancing Iranian prestige abroad.

All in all, one can safely argue, that Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war on such a wide scale has damaged Iranian soft power in the Arab world. Iran has tactically gained: it can potentially be included in drawing up the future of Syria and appears to have achieved recognition from the United States as a regional powerhouse that can no longer be ignored. However, Iran has lost a significant component of its soft power. This might cost Iran heavily in the long run. With its support for Assad, it has also significantly prolonged the conflict, possibly leading to the destabilization of neighbouring countries across sectarian lines; and as these lines become deeper and Iranian Shiism become more prominent, it is very likely that the isolation of Iran will be expedited.            

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