By Uri Marantz
Iran. The country is without a doubt one of the most geopolitically sensitive states in the international system. It is also one of the most challenging and chimerical countries for its immediate neighbours, the region’s rising powers, the world’s great powers and the international community as a whole to fathom. Just this past weekend (April 14, 2012), the first nuclear talks between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S. – and Germany) and Iran in 15 months took place. During the past decade, subsequent rounds of these talks have led to little or no progress. The most recent talks in Istanbul have been hailed by the Americans, Europeans and Iranians as ‘constructive and useful’, although nothing of substance was actually achieved at these negotiations. If the universally positive atmosphere emanating from Istanbul lasts for another month, the real negotiations on Iranian uranium enrichment and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections will begin in earnest on May 23 in Baghdad.
This tenuous breakthrough in Western-Iranian relations is as fragile as it is unexpected. The West is understandably uneasy with Iran; as a Shiite Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, it is unique in the world and wholly alien to the Westphalian conception of secular politics and sovereign statehood. Already at odds with traditional Western norms of international order and ideology, Iranians are also wary of foreign interference in their internal affairs after centuries of colonial adventurism and imperial domination from abroad. The damage done to Iranian-American relations after the 444-day hostage crisis following the 1979 Islamic Revolution certainly did nothing to alter the situation. As it exists today, Iran is naturally poised to play a role as a regional power at least on par with that of Egypt or Turkey. All three dwarf their immediate neighbours in size, population, military might, strategic location, systems of alliances, and so on. This enables them to effectively craft their own spheres of geopolitical influence, and Iran has done an exceptionally good job of manipulating Middle Eastern politics to its advantage.
Take the conflict with Israel as an example. Opposition to Zionism and any peacemaking or normalization of relations with Israel has been a hallmark of the Iranian regime’s domestic national identity and coloured its foreign policy priorities since the Ayatollahs assumed power in 1979. This policy has been championed with a renewed urgency since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the beginning of the Madrid to Oslo Palestinian-Israeli peace process, a fact which has arguably derailed Middle Eastern peace talks for nearly twenty years. Iranian supreme leaders Khomeini and Khamenei have both prophesied Israel’s impending demise before, but fast forward to the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and the increasingly anti-Israeli genocidal rhetoric coupled with his by now infamous habit of flamboyantly denying the Holocaust and it is easy to see why Israeli security interests would be threatened. Israel has for its part loudly beaten the drums of a preventative war with Iran if nuclear negotiations with Western countries fail to disarm its potential nuclear arsenal, but Iran has done nothing to assuage Israeli fears or alleviate international concerns about its nuclear program.
Another factor complicating American and Israeli relations with Iran is the so-called Arab Spring. As the domino-effects of revolutionary upheavals in key Arab states permeate throughout North Africa and the Middle East, geostrategic relationships of power are shifting in similarly revolutionary ways. Since Ben Ali fled Tunisia in a panic and Mubarak stepped down from the Egyptian leadership over a year ago, the Arab World has witnessed unprecedented institutional pressures. Libya has inaugurated a new chapter in its history with the elimination of Qaddafi while Yemen has initiated a transitional period of governmental change without Saleh in power. Some Arab monarchies like Morocco and Jordan have ushered in constitutional reforms and allowed for modest political democratization while oil-rich Gulf sheikhdoms spend their way to security.
But the most delicate power play of all is materializing in Syria, where the Assad government is a critical component of the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Gaza link. The Palestinian militant resistance group Hamas has even pulled its headquarters out of Syria’s capital, evidently finding it no longer defensible given its vocal support for popular revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world. Despite repeated rounds of sanctions and diplomacy from the Arab League and the United Nations, including Kofi Annan’s latest 6-point plan and the inbound monitors meant to stabilize a days-old and already faltering ceasefire, conflict between the Syrian opposition movement based in Turkey and the Damascus-based Assad government will persist because the fundamental issues at the core of it remain unresolved.
Clearly, Iran’s unfaltering support for Assad in this regard is rooted in its strategic interest in the Syrian government’s survival. Aside from support among Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon – which is not representative of the majority of public opinion in either of those countries – Assad’s Syria is Iran’s only lever of influence in the Arab Middle East and represents one of its closest strategic allies in the never-ending hostility against Israel. The irony is that while Iran originally praised the Arab masses for ousting secular autocrats and facilitating Islamist competition in Tunisian and Egyptian elections, the regime has found itself in an extremely awkward position in Syria by taking the exact opposite approach.
This pragmatic reality has pitted Iran’s interests diametrically opposed to Turkey’s in the Syrian theatre of conflict. As Turkey shelters tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and protects the military defectors of the Free Syrian Army, Iran has found it doubly awkward to attend the latest round of talks on its nuclear program in Istanbul – the very same city that hosted the ‘Friends of Syria’ conferences attended by dozens of countries’ representatives in support of the opposition Syrian National Council and aimed at ultimately dislodging Syrian President Assad from power. Iran almost cancelled these talks completely less than two weeks before they were set to begin because of Turkey’s outspoken role in criticizing the Syrian government’s brutality and aiding the opposition’s efforts. All this merely indicates the unpredictable and counterintuitive nature of the Arab Spring on the Middle East’s balance of power.
One final observation: the next round of nuclear talks will take place in May in Baghdad, an interesting venue given Iraq’s relative isolation from the region for the past two decades. The recent Arab League Summit hosted by Baghdad in late March was widely seen as a key step for Iraq along the arduous path towards renewed integration into Arab affairs and largely focused on the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Syria. Given the long-simmering fears of Iranian influence over Iraq, especially with a Shiite-led government in a Shiite-majority country, even the locale for these talks could be explosive. Only time will tell if the Iranian government will genuinely compromise with Western powers over its nuclear ambitions, but the P5+1 countries will need to accommodate Iran’s legitimate national interests in terms of energy and security as well. One thing is for sure, though: the Iranian enigma continues to confound and beguile policymakers and pundit machines alike.
Uri Marantz has worked as a researcher for the Hudson Institute in New York and the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He wields a Master of Public Policy from the University of Michigan and Master of Arts in Political Science from the University of Windsor. Based in Toronto, he is currently working as a writer and policy analyst and has contributed regular essays to several newspapers, magazines and online forums.