A Shifting Middle East Chessboard, With Iran At The Center
One year since taking office, Iran President Hassan Rouhani and his government are confronted with an extremely unstable geopolitical situation across the Middle East.
Tehran had long been seen as the main beneficiary of the 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq, but it must now face unexpected difficulties in its neighboring country and former sworn enemy.
The military successes of the Islamist radical group ISIS took Iran by surprise. The declaration of a "caliphate" in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, territories mostly occupied by Sunnis, was more bad news. With the threat from this terrorist Sunni organization, very much anti-Shia, Tehran is faced with both security risks within its borders and the fate of Iraq.
The Kurdish issue is yet another obvious reason for worry in Iran, which must beware of spillover among its own Kurdish population, as well as the very probable influence that the United States and Israel would have on the policy of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Indeed, the creation of such a state would likely accelerate the overall disintegration of Iraq, with which it shares 1,599 kilometers of border. This would be a catastrophe for Iran.
Beyond Iraq, the situation in the Levant remains very worrisome for the Iranian regime. In Syria, Rouhani seems to have his hands tied and to be unable to change the course of his predecessor's policies. For that reason, he continued to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to offer the Syrian regime assistance in various forms.
But despite this massive aid, the Syrian government can't manage to reestablish itself. It is weakened, and the country's economy has been heavily damaged. At the same time, the situation militarily is at a deadlock, and Syria's unity is threatened, despite Tehran's political, financial and military support. According to some sources, at least 60 members of the "Guardians of the Islamic Revolution," a branch of Iran's military, have been killed in Syria since 2011.
The violence from Syria has spread to Lebanon, where Iranian interests have been targeted. Tehran's ally there, Hezbollah, is struggling on the ground in Syria, but also in Lebanon — as well as in public opinion across much of the Arab world.
At first sight, this summer's crisis in Gaza might appear positive for the Islamic Republic, as it degraded Israel's image. For the first time, public opinion in Iran was united around support for the Palestinians.
Still, the situation has created whole new problems for Tehran. Now Iran finds itself forced to compete with Qatar and Turkey for influence over the Palestinian movement, which is not at all to Assad's liking. The Syrian president is indeed very critical of Hamas, which he accuses of having betrayed him by supporting rebels. This could thus complicate the relationship between Syria and Iran, and it is an issue that Tehran's diplomacy is going to have to solve.
To the east, another unpleasant surprise could be ahead in Afghanistan after the American troop withdrawal at the end of this year. The country's future is still uncertain. To this day, there has been no political solution with the Taliban, and the possibility that they might take advantage of the Western withdrawal to try and retake power cannot be excluded. This would jeopardize the political and economic ties, which took many years to be built, between Tehran and Kabul.
Should the Taliban gain in strength, the Islamic Republic could find itself between Scylla and Charybdis, with radical Sunnis squeezing from both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a potentially very dangerous scenario for the Rouhani administration, especially since there are Sunni minorities living in the regions along the two borders.
But despite the recent development in Iraq, in the Levant, in Gaza and the uncertainties in Afghanistan, Rouhani and his government have had some successes over the past year with Turkey and some of the Gulf's emirates.
With his Turkish neighbor, Rouhani has played the appeasement card to rekindle a bilateral relationship that had been strained by the "Arab Spring," and more particularly by the Syrian conflict. Last November's Geneva interim agreement on Iran's nuclear program, the growing presence of radical groups in Syria that threaten Turkey's own security, the consequences of the Syrian civil war for Ankara, and, finally, the conflict between Sunnis and Shia Muslims have all allowed for new possibilities of a rapprochement between the two countries.
In the Gulf, the "Arab Spring" had also strained bilateral relationships between Iran and the oil monarchies. But as soon as he took office, Rouhani called to restart them. And again, the Geneva interim agreement on Iran's nuclear program in November 2013 paved the way for progressive steps towards a certain measure of détente.
In an attempt to build on the positive dynamic created by the interim nuclear agreement, Rouhani has taken steps towards his southern neighbors. At the end of 2013, his foreign minister Javad Zarif visited four of the Gulf's six monarchies (Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates) before, in return, officials from these countries also visited Tehran, including the emir of Kuwait in June.
These important advancements in terms of diplomacy and economy have contributed to mitigating Iran's isolation, the only drawback being its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, on which Rouhani has made no progress so far. Despite some attempts in the first semester of this year, Tehran and Riyadh were unable to appease the real "cold war" that divides them in the new Middle East.
Although they share common interests in the fight against ISIS, which constitutes a threat for both countries, the détente between the Saudi kingdom and the Islamic Republic doesn't seem to be in the cards just yet.
* Mohammad-Reza Djalili is a professor emeritus at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. Thierry Kellner is a lecturer in political sciences at the Free University of Brussels.