Mar. 30, 2015 by Darius
Less than 24 hours remains to the deadline for a nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Whether or not a deal happens, Iran will remain, for better and for worse, a key player in a difficult neighborhood. Last week, I saw a panel discussion “Assessing Iran’s Strategy Toward the Arab World.” I’ll share the comments of panelists Harith al Qarawee and Richard LeBaron today and Randa Slim and Alireza Nader tomorrow.
According to the panel’s moderator, Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani promised changes to Iran’s policy towards its Arab neighbors before he was elected. However, Rouhani has not delivered on these promises. Vatanka characterized this failure as less of a broken promise and more because Rouhani knows how to pick his battles. Rouhani has a mandate from the Supreme Leader to act on the nuclear issue. Rouhani does not have a mandate to fundamentally adjust Iran’s foreign policy, especially because Iran’s policy towards the Arab world is run primarily by the Revolutionary Guards corps.
Panelist Harith al Qarawee, an Iraqi political scientist at Harvard’s Ratcliffe Institute, spoke about Iran’s dealings with Iraq specifically. According to al Qarawee, Iran has two primary goals vis-à-vis Iraq. The first is to prevent the establishment of a pro-Western government in Iraq. The second is to bring Iraq fully into Iran’s orbit. Iran has achieved its first goal. However, the second goal has proven harder to attain, particularly because Iran would also prefer being able to keep Iraq together.
Al Qarawee said that not only the Sunni Arabs but also the Kurds in Iraq feel very threatened by the Shia militias fighting ISIS. In fact, the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, has actually said that the Shia militias are a bigger threat to the Kurds than is ISIS. The Kurds are so anxious about the Shia militias because they fear the militias could redeploy to challenge the Kurdish peshmerga’s control of so-called “Disputed Areas” within Iraq.
Even though Iraq’s Shia community generally looks positively on Iran, there remain some complications there too. For example, Moqtada al-Sadr, a leading Shia cleric, is suspicious of Iran because he sees Iran as a competitor for influence with Iraq’s Shia community.
Al Qarawee concluded by stating that Iran will always have influence in Iraq, but that Iraq is too big and complicated for Iran to fully control Iraq. Al Qarawee advised Iran that instead of trying to use Iraq as a battlefield for its regional fights, Iran should work to stabilize Iraq over the long term.
Former US ambassador Richard LeBaron, currently with the Atlantic Council, discussed Iran’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council. He said the US and world shouldn’t regard the Saudi-Iranian rivalry as something new, and in fact, the US itself has “been playing a game of counterweights” for decades, using the Shah to counterbalance the Saudis, for example. Additionally, according to LeBaron, the US fails to appreciate the significance and complexities of the relationships between the Gulf countries and Iran.
He said there is no “GCC view” on Iran. Each country within the GCC has its own unique relationship with and policy towards Iran. For example, LeBaron said that while the Saudis want to give Iran no quarter, the United Arab Emirates stands to “make more than anyone else” in trade with Iran as soon as sanctions are lifted. Oman, for its part, has made it clear it isn’t willing to go along with the hardline Saudi stance towards Iran. In the Gulf, Iran is seen as “a normal place.” There are five direct flights every day from Dubai to Tehran. All six Gulf countries have embassies in Iran, whereas only the US and Israel do not.
According to LeBaron, speaking of Gulf monarchies, “fear of various threats is the guiding principle of their existence.” Specifically, LeBaron said the Gulf monarchies do not fear the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Instead, they fear that US-Iran relations will normalize, and the US will again turn to Iran as a counter to Gulf monarchy interests.
However, LeBaron pointed out that the military balance between the Gulf states and Iran is not even close—it is vastly in favor of the Gulf. In 2009, for example, US general David Petraeus said the UAE’s air force alone could destroy Iran’s air force in an afternoon. After all, the US has dumped billions of dollars of military equipment into the Gulf for decades. As a result, according to LeBaron, when Iranian military planners look across the water, they see Star Wars. By contrast, the Iranians have “some pretty good rockets and some pretty good speedboats and a willingness to fight.”
However, LeBaron cautioned against the US forming a stronger relationship or a formal alliance with the Gulf countries. As he put it, “These are countries with which we share interests, not values.”
LeBaron concluded by blasting the ignorance behind US foreign policy. He said, “We don’t know a Houthi from a Zulu.” He emphasized not just the need for greater understanding of the Arab world among US policymakers, but also exchange programs and other ways to promote real understanding between Americans and Arabs. LeBaron said these programs could be funded with the cost of “a third of a drone.” 🙂