After their nuclear deal with the P5+1, Iranian officials have vacillated between confrontation and reconciliation regarding their weary neighbors. The equivocation reflects obvious divisions within the Iranian establishment on the meaning and implications of the deal.
The fact that Iran is getting ready for important election in 2016, for the parliament and Assembly of Experts, has sharpened those divisions.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif continued his charm offensive by alluding to Iran’s desire to turn a new leaf in relations with its neighbors, without coming up with substantive suggestions. In Syria and Lebanon, he acted as the patron for Assad and Hezbollah, discussing an Iranian plan to save the former and negotiating details of disengagement between Hezbollah and Syrian opposition forces.
President Hassan Rouhani sent conflicting messages as well. On Aug. 19, he sent a message, addressed to foreign audiences, saying that Iranians “should not think that after the nuclear deal they can talk and act at will (as before).”
Zarif’s and Rouhani’s reconciliatory messages have clearly agitated others in Iran. Most angered appeared to be the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and similar interventionist forces within Iran’s power structure, who sought to remove any doubts that Iran might change its regional modus operandi. IRGC Commander Mohammed Ali Jaafari challenged the peace gestures, saying last week that his forces would not allow “any opening for the enemy.”
He said pointedly, “There are those who believe that we should conduct ourselves according to the dictates of our enemies and say that we cannot talk or act as we wish, because that would cause (negative) reactions.” He added that such restrictions are “the beginning of the erosion of the independence and dignity of Iran’s revolutionary system,” warning that “officials should not destroy the values and principles of the revolution, for the sake of some temporary approval granted by the hegemonic order and Great Satan.”
Javad Larijani, deputy head of Iran’s judiciary, also criticized Rouhani, saying that “Americans keep saying that Iran’s positions should be different from now on, but our officials should take only the nation’s interests into consideration.”
What gives Rouhani’s opponents more credibility regarding Iran’s regional intentions is the actual record over the past several weeks. In Bahrain, for example, armed attacks against security forces have continued. Bahraini authorities did well to publicize confessions made by terrorists linked to Iran about smuggling of weapons and explosives and plans to destabilize the country. Similarly in Saudi Arabia, terrorists working for Iran continued their attacks against security forces and innocent civilians. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as in Iraq, Syrian, Lebanon and Yemen, attempts by Iran and its proxies to channel more weapons, explosives and money earmarked for terrorist activity and regional destabilization have intensified. Iran’s proxies have also heightened their sectarian rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. At the same time, they have intensified their attempts to impose military solutions, as we have seen in escalating bloody attacks against civilians by the Assad regime after the nuclear deal.
As the country gears up for national elections in 2016, tangible changes in Iran’s regional policy during the coming month may be unlikely. Opposing forces may opt for hardening positions instead of peace and reconciliation.
For these reasons, the GCC was quite clear, in a meeting of political and security officials last week with their United States counterparts. In a joint statement issued at the conclusion of their meeting, they reiterated the determination they expressed during the Camp David summit on May 14, and their foreign ministers’ meeting of Aug. 3 in Doha, to intensify their joint efforts to safeguard Gulf’s security, by combating both terrorism and Iran’s destabilizing activities.
In their Aug. 17-18 meeting, GCC and US officials discussed concrete measures to fight Daesh and Iranian-backed terrorist groups, and to work together to stop money and weapons’ flows from Iran, especially after sanctions relief as part of the nuclear deal, to finance terrorism and other destabilizing activities. The meeting discussed in detail recent acts in the region linked to Iran and Daesh, and vowed to work together to combat them.
There is legitimate concern that the election campaign season in Iran may be a time when opposing forces in Iran may try to challenge each other. In particular, revolutionary forces in Iran, falling largely outside Rouhani’s control, may try to seize the initiative and intensify their activities in the region, to strengthen their own grip on power, and that GCC and other neighboring countries may be theater of operations for those forces.
For GCC-Iran peace, reconciliation and dialogue to materialize, Iranians have to sort out their own differences and agree to abandon interventionist and sectarian policies once and for all.