A game of nuance

Iran reacts to mixed signals from other Gulf states

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C-L) greets Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah (C-R) upon his arrival in Tehran on June 1, 2014. Kuwait's Emir started a landmark visit to Tehran focused on mending fences between Shiite Iran and the Sunni-ruled monarchies in the Gulf. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE
Smiles and handshakes against a military-themed backdrop (Credit: ATTA KENARE | AFP)

There has been a note of triumph in Iran’s welcoming of Bashar al-Assad’s reelection. “In Syria, America is building castles in the air,” said Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, proclaiming the Syrian opposition “defeated”. And there was confidence as well as grief in the recent public mourning of Abdollah Eskandari, a retired commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), captured and beheaded by rebels in Syria.

But there is also relief. The bulk of those in Iran’s leadership are pragmatic, and part of their pragmatism consists of reacting to others. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stressed many times the importance of Iran assessing Washington’s motives, especially concerning whether it wants to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

The government’s position on Syria has been nuanced. While Iran has sent IRGC officers to Syria, helped recruit Shia fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most importantly encouraged Hezbollah’s participation, President Hassan Rouhani has advocated negotiations, albeit on the condition that Assad’s removal not be a precondition.

If Iran must react primarily to the United States, whose invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq changed the region, there has been a slow but growing sense in Tehran of a fundamental shift in the Saudis’ attitude.

This began with the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the emergence of a Shia-led order in Baghdad, but it has gathered pace with the events in Syria. Iran struggled to absorb the consequences of Saudi Arabia’s sudden decision in January 2012 to turn against Assad and was alarmed as the Syrian regime lost ground throughout that year.

While Assad has recovered in the past 12 months, Iran continues to put out feelers towards the Saudis. Meanwhile, analysts in Tehran debate the implications of a more assertive Saudi regional role intended to replace what the Saudis say is reduced US and European involvement.

The recent visit to Iran of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah marks a continuing thaw between Tehran and some of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. Khamenei said regional security depends on “good relations among all countries” and welcomed “a new chapter” of economic ties with Kuwait, with the latter announcing plans to buy Iranian gas and a memorandum of understanding on joint steel production in Iran. Ministers talked of expanding bilateral trade from an annual $220 million.

But the visit’s political impact, even with Kuwait holding the rotating presidency of the six state Gulf Cooperation Council, hinges on Saudi Arabia.

The signs are unclear. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been invited to Saudi Arabia, but has said he is unable to accept because the proposed date clashes with planned nuclear negotiations with world powers.

The Saudis meanwhile continue their rhetoric against Iranian ‘interference’ in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. And Riyadh continues to beat a military drum. Saudi military exercises in April — “Sword of Abdullah” — were its largest ever, and Saudi defense spending of $55.2 billion in 2013 far outstripped Iran’s $9.6 billion.

Military strategies are always based on political assumptions, even in a state as opaque as Saudi Arabia, but a recent paper articulating a Saudi defense doctrine would not read well in Tehran.

Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, makes clear that his paper — “A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine” — is not an official document. But while offering his fulsome thanks to Prince Turki Al Faisal, former Saudi intelligence director and architect of the Afghan intervention of the 1980s, he writes that the idea for the project “came to me several years ago when I worked for His Royal Highness during his tenures as the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the UK & Ireland, and then to the US.”

Obaid argues Saudis must aim to curb the “instability” produced by “supposed pro-democracy uprisings” and work on “containing the effects of the so-called Arab Spring”. This includes “military foreign operations by sending stabilization forces to unstable post-Arab Uprising countries such as was done in Bahrain.”

If that were not enough to ring alarm bells in Tehran, Obaid writes that the “KSA continues to limit Iran’s influence in the region through the inherent weaknesses of the Persian state.” He highlights the reference to Iran’s domestic ethnic and religious mix with a map, and the term ‘Persian state’ emphasizes the fact that only half of Iranians are Persians. Obaid is clearly envisaging heightened sectarian tension both in Iran and the wider region.

It remains to be seen how the Saudis could implement such ideas, in Syria or anywhere else. But we should not doubt they are seen as a threat by Iran.

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.

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