The Iranian obstacles slowing any detente with its neighbors

The Iranian obstacles slowing any detente with its neighbors

Iran is engaged in double-dealing when it comes to its regional policy (File/AFP)
Iran is engaged in double-dealing when it comes to its regional policy (File/AFP)
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Iran is engaged in double-dealing when it comes to its regional policy. The plurality of institutional actors that play a role in the implementation of Iranian foreign policy sometimes makes it difficult to determine what the official Iranian diplomatic position is. Several institutional bodies can present the official posture regarding what Tehran calls “regionalism” in its foreign policy approach. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, president, supreme leader and his office or a general of the Revolutionary Guards can present contradictory diplomatic positions on the same topic without any official clarification.

This diplomacy with several voices is a strength in the context of developing a strategy of destabilization because it makes it impossible to determine the responsibility of the state incriminated for its actions. In the context of the Iranian support to the so-called axis of resistance, the country’s regional strategy of plausible deniability is designed to confuse the adversary.

Conversely, in the context of regional reintegration of the Iranian state, notably after the Iran-Saudi rapprochement deal signed in March 2023, the inability to adopt a unified and coherent position may constitute an obstacle to Iran’s participation in the search for a political solution to regional crises, the Yemen war in particular.

Indeed, it is essential that the Iranian diplomatic apparatus manages the process of challenging US influence in the Middle East with the building of trust in its neighborhood policy. The current management of this process explains why the regional perception of the neighborhood policy of Iran remains built on caution rather than trust.

The regional perception of the neighborhood policy of Iran remains built on caution rather than trust

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

In Iran, there is no elite consensus or political elite self-confidence regarding what should be the country’s regional policy. Most of the Iranian decision-makers agree on the need for minimal foreign intervention in the region, but they disagree on whether the great powers involved should be Russia or China, on the one hand, or the US and its European allies on the other. One has to consider that the internal fragmentation among the different Iranian factions and institutions may lead to some decisions that could destroy any agreement between Iran and other countries, including Saudi Arabia.

If we consider that the Iranian president is a decisive actor in the decision-making process, it is clear that the Gulf region is — as during Mohammed Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005) — a factor in pushing Iran and the US to de-escalate. Overall, the main foreign policy body is the Supreme National Security Council. Regarding the Gulf, it was Ali Shamkhani, the former defense minister under Khatami and Supreme National Security Council secretary, who used to summarize the positions presented by the different political actors in Iran. After the Iran-Saudi deal, Shamkhani was replaced by Ali Akbar Ahmadian.

The Supreme National Security Council is the institution in charge of coordinating and implementing Iran’s foreign policy with the goal of safeguarding the national interest and preserving the Islamic revolution, along with the country’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. In practice, since 1989 and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, it has been very difficult to develop a common strategy between the different decision-making centers.

Nevertheless, the international strategy defined by the Supreme National Security Council aims to defend several positions at the same time. This strategy allows the head of each of the foreign policy institutions — government, parliament, presidency, supreme leader’s office, Revolutionary Guards, army, etc. — to exist on the international diplomatic scene and thereby legitimize their existence domestically. These different decision-making centers only compete to a certain point. In other words, the limits are set by the supreme leader and the institutions attached to him. Any excess is punished by an accusation of treason or compromise with “enemy elements.”

Khamenei last week delivered another anti-US, anti-Israel speech, implicitly also attacking the Kingdom

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

For the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, the US military presence in the region is an existential threat to the survival of the Islamic revolution. Therefore, the targeting of US military bases is not a means to protect Iranian territory but rather an end. This ideological dimension is key to explaining the lack of trust between Iran and its neighbors.

Also, regarding the relationship with Saudi Arabia and the future of the rapprochement deal, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last week delivered another anti-US, anti-Israel speech, implicitly also attacking the Kingdom, saying that “anyone who extends a hand of friendship to America and Israel is an oppressor.” This speech was meant to be a guide for Iranians planning to perform Hajj, but it turned out to be mainly about regional issues linked to the possible rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iran is this year sending 87,550 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.

As in the diplomatic strategy, while targeting Saudi officials, Khamenei contradicted himself by calling for “unity and communication among Muslims.” The repeated call for Islamic unity must be understood in terms of the legacy of Khomeini’s ideological framework. The Iranian perception of the future of the Muslim world is to extend the Iranian ideological sphere of influence, insisting on the ayatollah’s specific interpretation of what should be the true Islam.

This ideological battle of the Islamic Republic of Iran is also a factor, alongside the military tensions with the US, that complicates the possibility of building trust. Overall, the revolutionary nature of the Iranian regional policy is a hurdle to a successful rapprochement with its neighbors. Consequently, even if a direct diplomatic dialogue were restored between Iran and its neighbors, the future of the regional detente would depend on Tehran downplaying its call for militarism, including the possibility of the militarization of its nuclear program and the use of missiles as a diplomatic tool to deter regional and international foes.

The possibility of Iran developing propaganda activities during the pilgrimage and its apparent readiness to use the region as a military battlefield are today the main obstacles for the establishment of regional stability and a long-term detente process between Iran and its neighbors.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
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