Iran: A Difficult Neighbour or an Essential Element of Regional Security?

21.02.2018

The seventh session of the Valdai Club conference "Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields" was devoted to Iran's role in the region and difficulties to strengthen security in the Middle East.

The role of Iran in the Middle Eastern affairs for many years sparked heated discussions both in the region and beyond. Iran claims that it has no plans for regional hegemony, but the neighbors are wary of its actions, and countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia consider Iran as the main threat to the stability in the Middle East and their national security.

According to Kayhan Barzegar, Director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (Tehran), when analyzing the role of Iran in the region, its objective national interests are often overlooked. We are talking about the repelling of threats not only to Iran’s national security, but, with the advent of ISIS, real threats to its existence as a national state. Barzegar noted, that almost all threats to Iran come from the region, so Tehran should be active at the regional level.

In this regard, the key issue is the use by Iran of non-state actors to achieve foreign policy goals. This was recalled by Mustafa Aydin, Rector of the Kadir Has University (Istanbul). Despite the fact, that these actors are often considered as legitimate parts of their societies, their ties with Iran are perceived as a threat. Aydin believes that in order to increase the level of trust in relations with neighbors, Iran should limit this practice.

Barzegar noted in response, that the use of non-state actors for foreign policy purposes is characteristic not only for Iran, but also for other powers. In particular, the pro-Turkish formations are fighting in Syria, the United States supports the Kurds both in Syria and Iraq, and previously Qatar and Saudi Arabia were also involved in supporting non-state groups. But the main thing, according to Barzegar, is that Iran mobilizes non-state actors only in moments of vulnerability. As an example, he mentioned Iraq: withdrawing its troops from there, the United States feared that Iran would fill the vacuum and undermine the Iraqi statehood. But this did not happen, and today between Iran and Iraq there are normal working relations.

Barzegar specifically drew attention to the perception of Iran's role by Russia. According to him, Moscow wisely and far-sightedly makes efforts to legitimize Iran's role in the regional agenda, including the fight against terrorism. "Russia is well aware of Iran's potential “on the ground" and therefore does not try to ignore its role," the expert said. Teheran for its part does not perceive Moscow as a threat to its security and this gives the potential for the development of bilateral relations.

Nevertheless, there are tensions in Iran's relations with most countries in the region. The central conflict concerns the contradictions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to Robin Wright, Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace, these contradictions are connected to a relatively small extent with the dogmatic differences between Sunnis and Shiites. There is a fight for the status of key US ally in the region. Before the Islamic revolution, Iran played this role, afterwards it moved to Saudi Arabia. After the conclusion of the "nuclear deal", Saudi Arabia and Israel began to fear seriously the normalization of relations between the United States and Iran, and the return of Tehran's status as the privileged partner of Washington.

Everything has changed under the current US administration. According to Wright, she deals with Iran problems for more than forty years and watched the evolution of Iranian-American relations under seven US presidents, but there has never been such a radical change of their vector as after the transfer of power from Obama to Trump. Today Iran seeks to become an equal and respected player in the region, and the US will do everything to ensure that this does not happen, Wright stressed.

The USA under Trump is investing in two countries of the region - Israel and Saudi Arabia, Wright said. They are categorically against the inclusion of Iran in the regional security architecture (as discussed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the first session of the Valdai Club Middle East conference). The same goes for Iraq: Washington will prevent the country from participating in any agreements that include Iran, seeking to expand cooperation between Baghdad and the GCC countries.

Normalization of relations between the United States and Iran under Trump is impossible, Wright concluded, and deterrence against Iran is one of the reasons why Washington retains its presence in Syria.

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