By Arab News
By Dr. Manuel Almeida*
Last month, in a speech to the annual gathering of the French diplomatic corps at the Elysee Palace in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron revisited his emerging foreign policy doctrine. Inevitably, much of it revolved around France’s Middle East policy, and key priorities of fighting “Islamist terrorism” and preserving regional stability.
A sentence from Macron’s speech, which stood out in that context, reveals a problematic assumption that seems to underpin Paris’ and Brussels’ attempted rapprochement with Tehran.
“One of the unspoken elements of this crisis is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and their respective allies. We will only achieve our objective of fighting terrorism if we don’t enter into these reading grids that would impose a choice between Shiites and Sunnis and, in any case, compel us to lock ourselves in one camp,” he said. “Other great powers made that choice in the past, and I have the conviction that’s an error,” he added, clearly referring to the US.
Since the Trump administration took office, the American and European approaches to Iran seem to represent two extremes. The US president looks ready to stick to his campaign promise to decertify the nuclear deal and ignore advice from all quarters to the contrary, as State Department and Pentagon officials actively seek European allies’ support to prolong restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program beyond 2025. Both the US administration and the Senate moved to impose new sanctions on Iran over its military and regional activities.
In Europe, key states such as France and Germany have tried to make the most out of Iran’s relative economic opening following the nuclear deal, with political and business delegations flocking to Tehran. Standing next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini recently warned the US: “The nuclear deal doesn’t belong to one country. It belongs to the international community, to the UN system.”
In Berlin, Brussels and Paris, the belief the fast-growing trade ties with Iran following the lifting of international sanctions will lead to major changes in the country, and by extension in its regional policies, continues to hold sway despite all evidence to the contrary. Or at least that is the justification for Europe’s business-driven approach to Iran.
According to some estimates, over 85 percent of the dozens of billion-dollar business deals signed after the nuclear deal (July 2015) involved Iranian state entities, often connected to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Macron’s assertion, in his speech to French ambassadors, that maintaining good relations with Tehran equates to good relations with the “Shiite camp” in the region, is very problematic and stereotypical. It is part of the narrative with which Iran justifies both its imperialistic agenda in the region, and its political and economic monopoly at home.
For starters, Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon are three Arab countries with Shiite majorities. Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the UAE and Yemen have Shiite populations that represent 10-40 percent of their overall populations. Plus, millions of Shiites do not identify with Iran’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist).
Lack of pluralism, and the rights of religious and ethnic groups and minorities, are major issues across the region. But Tehran has used this to pursue a destructive imperialist agenda, in the same way that empires that encroached on the region in the past used protection of minorities as justification to expand. Much of Iran’s regional agenda lies in the narrative of Muslim oppression and the need for Arabs to rise against their un-Islamic, pro-West rulers.
The preamble to Iran’s 1979 constitution makes for an illustrative read. It calls for, among other things, its security forces “not only to guard and preserve the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way.” It expresses “the hope that this century will witness the establishment of a universal holy government and the downfall of all others.”
While often avoiding playing the Shiite card explicitly — Iran has backed Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups — the instrumentalization of religion by Iranian hardliners has become ever-more evident across the region. Starting with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has become arguably more powerful than the Lebanese state, Tehran has fathered sectarian militias with transnational loyalties in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The direct and indirect effects of three and a half decades of this radical Iranian policy of undermining neighboring governments, and backing militias, extremists and mass-murderers such as Syrian President Bashar Assad, are all too evident.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with the desire, predominant in major European capitals, to pursue rapprochement with Tehran while maintaining good relations with Riyadh. In the 1970s, for example, the US approach to Gulf security was guided by the “twin pillars” policy. The choice facing America’s or Europe’s regional policy is certainly not between Sunnis and Shiites. It is one between moderates and radicals.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.