Mar. 31, 2015 by Darius
[Today is the deadline for nuclear negotiations with Iran. Last week, I saw a panel discussion “Assessing Iran’s Strategy Toward the Arab World.” Yesterday I shared the comments of panelists Harith al Qarawee and Richard LeBaron. Today I am sharing the comments of Randa Slim and Alireza Nader.]
Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute talked about Iran’s Syria policy. She said there are four drivers on Iranian policy towards Syria. (1) The need to defend an old ally. Syria has been Iran’s ally since the 1979 revolution and was the only Arab state to stand by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Iran feels the need to repay that loyalty. (2) The need to maintain the weaponry and strategic depth of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Consider the difference in efficacy between Hamas and Hezbollah. A major part of that difference, according to Slim, is the fact that Hamas has the Egyptian government at its back, while Hezbollah has Assad’s government, willing to resupply and support it. (3) The need to stand up against a regional wave of Sunni extremism dedicated, in part, to weakening Shia influence. (4) The need to prevent the emergence of a Sunni sectarian anti-Iran regime in Syria.
According to Slim, Iran doesn’t see a credible, trustworthy replacement for President Assad from within the Alawite community or Syrian military. This is a marked contrast to the situation in Iraq, where pressure from Iran allowed for the replacement of Prime Minister Maliki. Iran saw several acceptable alternatives to Maliki in Iraq but at this point sees no alternatives to Assad in Syria.
Slim said that Hezbollah has lost approximately 1,000 fighters in Syria. That number might seem small, but Slim cautioned that the Lebanese Shia community “is not the People’s Republic of China.” Given Hezbollah’s limited pool of recruits, the loss of 1,000 fighters is a big deal, and casualties may be reaching a tipping point in Lebanon. However, Slim noted that Iran and its allies feel the tide of the war in Syria is shifting in their favor.
Slim said that no matter the outcome, Iran deserves a place at the negotiating table. Any deal without Iran is sure to fail.
Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation talked about internal Iranian politics and viewpoints. Nader said there is a fundamental question at the heart of Iran. Is the Islamic Republic of Iran a nation-state or a cause? According to Nader, President Rouhani wants Iran to be a regular nation-state first and foremost, but Supreme Leader Khamenei sees Iran as a cause. Hardliners in Iran, who also see the Islamic Republic as a cause, do not want any nuclear deal to be more than a transactional sanctions-for-nukes affair. They certainly don’t want anything that would open the door to change in Iran itself. For this reason, we can expect that any deal arrived at will be more transactional than transformational: there will be no Grand Bargain normalizing Iran’s relations with the US.
Nader said that Iran, no surprise, sees Saudi Arabia as an economic and geopolitical competitor. But most of all, both countries aspire to be the leader of Muslims worldwide. Within Iran, there is a perception that Saudi Arabia is supporting and funding anti-Shia, anti-Iran movements across the Middle East.
Nader also pointed out that Iran can only make a play for regional influence because it’s there for the taking. None of this would have been possible without the collapse of the old order of Arab regimes. Fifteen years ago, for example, Iran had a hostile Sunni-run Iraq to its west and a hostile Sunni Afghan Taliban to its east. Neither of those regimes exist anymore, giving Iran more room to maneuver.
An example of Iranian opportunism would be Yemen’s Houthi movement. The Houthis are often described in the popular press as Shia and Iran-backed. However, the truth is much more complex. The Houthis’ Shia beliefs are quite different than the Iranians’ Shia beliefs, and, according to Nader, Iran didn’t start to take an interest in the Houthis until after “the Saudis expressed concern that Iran was taking an interest in the Houthis.”
However, according to Nader, Iran is running two big risks. The first is that Iran is no longer seen as pan-Islamic but rather as sectarian and narrow in its interests. The second is that Iran simply overextends itself.