Iran’s three main foreign policy objectives are regime survival, national security and regional influence. The Rouhani administration is trying to lead a détente towards both the west and the South. This policy has its historical roots in the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami. The current administration’s opening towards the west centers on the nuclear issue, while the policy towards the South focuses on convincing the Persian Gulf states that Iran does not pose a threat to them. The historic animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran runs deep and rests on several structural barriers to rapprochement. These obstacles include the different regime types and a stark asymmetry in their regional policy. With varying degrees of intensity, relations between Riyadh and Teheran have been defined by a zero sum mentality for the past three decades.
Some Iranian political elites inside the country assume that Saudi Arabia is too ideologically driven to accept Iran as a legitimate part of the International Community. The Saudis fail to recognize that there is a degree of continuity in Iran’s political system that no President will change.
Iran is a Shia regional power by its shier size, population, vast energy resources, old culture and military capabilities. Some GCC countries and KSA in particular, perceive Iran as a threat to their traditional order. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain refuse to engage with Iran partly because they fear the IRI could undermine the loyalty of their Shiite citizens. On Tehran’s part, a rapprochement with the Persian Gulf countries demands a sensitive approach with regard to the Shiite population in the Arab Gulf states. The Persian Gulf states, on the other hand, need to realize that hostility towards their Shia Community merely serves Iran’s ability to meddle in their internal affairs.
Political and economic relations between the smaller Gulf states and Iran are rather diverse: Kuwait and Iran, for example have had positive relations since 1991 and are currently expanding their economic ties. Oman and Qatar have a long history of fairly good relations towards Iran. While the UAE has had a troublesome relation with Iran in the past, in particular due to the three island dispute, their relationship is currently improving. All this indicates that Saudi Arabia might not be able to hold its own house together when it comes to confrontation with a regional power like Iran. Many GCC states welcomed the election of President Rouhani but remain skeptical about the depth of change in Tehran especially the overall influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Iran’s policies towards Syria are mainly motivated by two factors: 1)the role of Syria in strengthening Hezbollah as a deterrent towards Israel and 2) the fact that Syria is Iran’s only loyal state ally in the region. Iran’s support for Assad is based on pragmatic calculations rather than ideological commitment. Tehran might agree to give up Assad in exchange for a comprehensive nuclear deal, and recognition of Iran as a defining and indispensible power in the region by the west.
Iran has consolidated its power in Lebanon and in Syria through Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a key political actor in Lebanon today. While the current political vacuum in Lebanon is not new , Hezbollah now for the first time does not wait for a green light from Assad to move ahead. Hezbollah’s primary goal is gaining domestic power in Lebanon-a goal for which it need financial and military support of Iran. Both Hezbollah and Iran fear the empowerment of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The US and Europe should provide the framework for Iran to turn from a potential spoiler into a constructive member of the International Community. The negotiation table in the nuclear crisis might not succeed. But not including Iran in the regional deliberations, however, guarantees that the crisis will not be solved.
Dr Fariborz Saremi is a regular contributor for Freepressers.com, World Tribune.com and Defense & Foreign Affairs. Dr Saremi is a member of The International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA).