international analysis and commentary

Assessing Iran’s troubling regional role

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Ever since the so-called “Islamic Revolution” of 1979, Iran has been a constant source of turmoil and tension for its neighbors in the region. Indeed, it seems that the Middle East is destined, perhaps for many years to come, to deal with the consequences of that coup, which not only saw the ousting of the US-backed Pahlavi Dynasty, but the establishment of a violent, extremist and expansionist regime. The current Iranian government now finances and backs or directly operates paramilitary terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Yemen among others.

Of course, both the US and its traditional allies in the region – such as Saudi Arabia – have always been aligned when it came to the threat which Tehran imposes on the region and global stability; particularly when Tehran made it clear that it intended to develop a nuclear weapons program – although it never officially admitted as much.

For years, the topic of Iran’s nuclear ambitions was at the heart of severe international scrutiny, economic sanctions and intense efforts to pressure the Islamic Republic out of its ability to develop such weapons.

To Saudi Arabia and many other US allies in the region who were suffering from Iran’s blatant state-support of some of the region’s nastiest terrorist groups, these sanctions served more than one purpose; on one hand, they slowed down Tehran’s nuclear program, and on the other hand, they also limited Iran’s access to cash and its ability to finance the likes of Asaaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

It is important to note that Iran – according to US State and Treasury Department reports – doesn’t only support Shiite terrorist groups, but Sunni ones too, such as Al-Qaeda, which aim to destabilize neighboring Sunni countries they deem to be “too moderate”.

So what is new?
These Iranian activities are fairly well-known and documented; and up until last July’s Iran nuclear deal (which saw Tehran agree with the US and the world super powers to lift economic sanctions in exchange for halting plans of building nuclear weapons), assessing Tehran’s influence on the region would have been relatively easy to predict in line with its policies and behavior over the past 36 years.   

However, the nuclear deal is likely to be a “game-changer” for the region in every way imaginable; in fact, many fear that the impact will be predominantly negative.

The main concern of most US allies in the Gulf is quite simple and logical: if Iran, despite decades of sanctions, was still able to finance and sponsor terror groups and activities; then what guarantees can the Obama administration (which is the biggest advocate of the nuclear deal) provide to its traditional allies that an unshackled Iran will not engage in more destabilizing activities?

To put this into perspective, the Washington Times recently reported that – based on findings in a US government report ordered by Senator Mark Kirk – Iran is currently spending between $14 – $30 billion a year to support regional terrorism activities.

Based on this information, it is only legitimate to assume that Tehran will be able to – significantly – increase its spending on such activities after sanctions are lifted. Of course, advocates of the nuclear deal will try to lobby otherwise. They seem to think that a sanction-free Iran will focus more on economic development and less on devastating proxy wars; however, there are no signs whatsoever that this is happening.

On the contrary, the Iranian rhetoric, both during and after the negotiations, has been quite challenging towards its neighbors. For instance, local media have been playing up the (otherwise secretive) role of General Qassem Solaymani, leader of the Quds Brigade, publishing images of him and his troops fighting in Iraq. In addition, there were extremely provocative statements made by Iranian officials suggesting that Iran is now an empire which occupies four Arab countries and that Baghdad is the new capital of this empire.

More recently, Iranian President Rouhani used his UN General Assembly speech to wage an attack on the main regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Addressing world leaders and international media, Rouhani demanded an investigation into the stampede which has left more than 700 people (including 131 Iranians) dead during the recent Hajj (pilgrimage) season in Mecca. The Iranian President even made a wild assumption that the tragedy was caused by the fact that Saudi Arabia could not guarantee the safety of the pilgrims in Mecca after having sent more-experienced troops to fight the Houthis in Yemen (a militia which Iran has backed in its bid to overthrow the legitimate government headed by President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi).

Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that Iran is sending ground troops to Syria, where Russia is now waging what its Orthodox Church calls a “Holy War” against ISIS terrorism (but in reality is targeting the Free Syrian Army and other non-ISIS affiliated rebel groups).

Russia claims its interference is legitimate due to a request by the Assad regime, which it sees as an elected representative of the people; however, it was this regime (with Iranian support via the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah) that has caused the biggest human catastrophe of modern times, with nearly 300,000 causalities and 12,000 million refugees since 2011.

Potential benefits, if security concerns are taken seriously
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have not been this intense since the end of the Iran-Iraq war almost three decades ago; and with ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen as well as Tehran-instigated tensions in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of the Kingdom, there are no signs that the relationship between the two longtime rivals is going to improve anytime soon.

However, not all Gulf countries have such troubled relations with Iran. Oman for example is well positioned, given that the nuclear talks between the Americans and the Iranians were secretly held in Muscat to start with.

Qatar instead doesn’t have much at stake, apart from losing the vast amounts it invested in training and backing Syrian opposition rebel groups.

The United Arab Emirates is politically aligned with Saudi Arabia and it is a major ally in the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen. However, this Gulf country, reportedly Iran’s second biggest trading partner, is also an unexpected top beneficiary of the Iranian nuclear deal. Three of the Iranian sectors which were most affected by the crippling sanctions are ones which Dubai excels in. The first is air transport, where Iran lacks spare parts for its ageing fleet of planes, and both Dubai and Abu Dhabi via aviation giants Emirates and Ettihad and their respective state-of-the-art airports can play a major role in filling the gap.

The second industry is oilfields, where Iran also lags behind due to missing equipment and lack of maintenance, according to The Economist much of the investment in the new Iranian infrastructure will run through the Dubai port of Jebel Ali.

Last but certainly not least, there is finance, where sanctions have left Iran out of the global system in contrast to Dubai which has now become a regional hub and a global player in financial services due to accessibility, regulations and a positive business environment. 

If anything, the UAE model proves that there is much benefit and much mutual ground that can be established with Iran. However, this can’t be achieved unless Tehran abandons its mischief and vows to end its support of terrorist groups; something which arguably could have been agreed as part of the nuclear discussion had the Obama administration taken the concerns of its regional allies seriously during the process.