By Hassan Ahmadian*
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy has been subject of many disputes. Some of these disputes have reached a final conclusion and have guided Iranian diplomats in the form of consensual policies. Some other disputes, however, are still far from a domestic consensus despite the fact that they have been underway for a long time. Among age-old disputes in this field is the difference of viewpoints about the country’s interaction preferences in foreign relations. The two sides of this dispute can be summarily explained as such:
The first side is a regionalist group, which gives priority to the policy of détente through interaction with Iran’s neighboring countries, especially its southern neighbors. From the viewpoint of this group, reduction of tensions with neighboring countries is the best way to promote Iran’s regional and international standing. The second group is made up of internationalists who argue that ending international challenges is the best way to improve regional conditions for the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies. This latter group believes that Arab countries lack necessary independence from the global power structure. There is also a third side, which has been entering this dispute gradually and believes that Iran must work with all sides at the same time. This group can be considered as being committed to multilateralism.
Following election of President Hassan Rouhani, the old dispute among regionalists and internationalists, and this time along with their multilateralist critics, rekindled again. The administration of President Rouhani came up with multilateralist arguments and gave the main priority to working with international community in order to do away with the strategic deadlock, which had surrounded Iran’s nuclear case. However, the output of Rouhani’s foreign policy was by no means multilateral and the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was an international agreement without any equivalent at the regional level. Therefore, the question is why Rouhani’s multilateralism did not lead to any change in Iran’s relations with Arab countries.
Two major arguments have been given here. Firstly, critical conditions in the region and uncontrollable rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia have practically aborted Rouhani administration’s regional discourse and Arab policy. Secondly, in comparison to the administration’s international activities, its presence and plans for the region have not been remarkable as a result of which, it has not acted strongly in this regard. Apart from these two arguments, the negative impact of the tense atmosphere in the Middle East on Iran’s relations with Arab countries has been considered as a basis on which all parties have consensus.
Absence of mutual determination as a necessity factor can be considered as the main impediment to promotion of Iran’s relations with Arabs. There are many reasons for this situation. In fact, Saudi Arabia saw increasing power of Iran in the tense environment of the Middle East as a foreign threat to itself. This issue not only made improvement of bilateral relations very difficult, but also led to a basic change in the model of Iran’s relations with Arabs. According to the old model, when Iran’s relations with international powers moved toward détente, Iran’s relations with Arabs also underwent a period of calm and improvement and vice versa. Rouhani’s tenure was a time for a major change in the old model. In other words, Iran’s agreement with international community and even the United States’ encouragement for improvement of Iran’s relations with Arabs did not convince Riyadh and its Arab allies to move toward “constructive interaction” with Rouhani’s administration. In fact, unlike the past, Arab countries tried more to convince international community that constructive interaction with Iran was very harmful and even dangerous. After Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States, this discourse found its way into the White House and it seems that we must expect similar arguments from some other Western countries as well.
Therefore, in the new period, internationalism cannot be a good solution for doing away with regional challenges that face Iran. The fear that Saudi Arabia has about further increase in Iran’s regional power and possible withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East have been two main pillars of the aforesaid major change in the way that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies interact with Iran. Of course, the priority given by the Iranian government to internationalism can be defended on the one hand, because Iran had to get out of the strategic deadlock caused by tough sanctions, which were imposed on it as a result of its nuclear program, and that program should have been taken out of the Security Council’s agenda. However, following the JCPOA, further emphasis on internationalism despite continuation of tensions with Arab neighbors cannot be considered in line with Iran’s national interests for a good reason. The reason is that regional issues and the Iranophobic discourse used by Iran’s regional rivals could, and has been relatively able to, undermine economic interests and international potentialities, which have been activated as a result of the JCPOA.
Election of Trump made the impact of the relationship between regional and international developments on Iran’s interests and national security more evident. During the new period, Iran must regulate its foreign policy on the basis of the necessity of reducing tensions in its relations with Arab countries. Doing away with differences with Arab countries is a must, so that, in addition to promoting regional security and stability, any negative impact of regional developments on positive outcomes of the JCPOA and termination of Iran’s strategic deadlock would be reduced. Of course, this does not mean forgetting about constructive interaction with international community and global powers. However, it is important to redefine the relationship that exists between Iran’s regional and international ties under new conditions, which have been brought about by Trump’s rise to power.
The best foreign policy model for Iran in the new period is one, which would consist of multilateralism with a preference for regional relations. In other words, Iran’s multilateral foreign policy has been so far more inclined toward internationalism, but must now tilt more toward regionalism. Adoption of this model will reduce the negative impact of regional tensions and confrontations on Iran’s interaction with international community. In this way, the JCPOA’s positive outcomes would not be affected by Iranophobic policies, especially with regard to economic issues, and Iran can hope to live in a safer region at a lower cost and with more profits.
* Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D. Senior Researcher; IRI Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research (CSR)