A Shifting Middle East Chessboard, With Iran At The Center

A woman helds up a poster of Iran president Hassan Rouhani
A woman helds up a poster of Iran president Hassan Rouhani
Mohammad-Reza Djalili and Thierry Kellner*


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.

Gaza puzzle

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.

Wider gulf

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.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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