Ali Akbar Salehi is a shrewd man whose conduct of Iranian foreign policy since becoming foreign minister two years ago suggests diplomacy and courtesy can still exist in the region. But can it transform inauspicious circumstances?
Salehi’s visit to Cairo in January — when he saw both President Mohammed Morsi and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand sheikh of Al Azhar — saw him stress the need to calm Sunni-Shia tensions. Some were encouraged: after meeting Salehi, Bishop Tawadros, leader of Egypt’s 8 million Copts, praised Iran’s tolerance of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.
Others were unimpressed. Government-aligned pens in Gulf Cooperation Council states, already scratching over the Egypt visit earlier in January of Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Al Quds force, were soon scribbling fast. In Asharq Al Awsat, columnist Hamad al-Majid charged Salehi was spreading a “virus” in a “contaminated climate”. Gulf governments should reach out to Egypt’s new rulers, wrote Majid, and no longer maintain a distance from Hamas that had allowed Tehran to benefit from supporting the Palestinian group during Israel’s onslaught in November.
How far can Salehi’s diplomacy contain fallout from Syria, and the precipitating Sunni-Shia tensions across the region? Certainly, Iran’s foreign minister highlighted shared concerns over a conflict in which the United Nations says 60,000 have died in 21 months. But he did nothing tangible to bridge the differences in approach between Cairo and Tehran. Iran backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s speech early last month, when he signaled his determination to fight on; Salehi himself called the speech a “comprehensive plan”. True, Tehran has called for a peace process, but not for the president to stand down first.
This is a core argument with Egypt, which alongside Turkey and Saudi Arabia has called for Assad to leave office as a precursor to reform. Hence Salehi’s arguments over rejecting foreign “interference” in Syria — code for anyone backing the rebels — and resisting Western attempts to stoke Sunni-Shia ill-feeling will not change the policy of Egypt, a mainly Sunni state that sympathizes with Assad’s largely Sunni opponents.
Iran’s support remains key to Assad. Its value was shown last month by his decision to free 2,000 detainees in exchange for 48 Iranians held by Syrian rebels: reportedly, Assad had refused similar deals for the release of his own soldiers, including Alawite officers.
But any influence Iran might exercise to moderate Assad’s approach will be restricted as the Syrian opposition becomes increasingly marked by a militant Sunnism hostile to Iran and even to Shi’ism. This is a vicious circle in which the Syrian opposition resents Iranian support, particularly military help for Assad’s regime. Muadh al-Khatib, chairman of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, last month flatly accused Tehran of a role in killing Syrians, adding that any country backing the regime would “pay a heavy price”.
While most Western analyses now believe Assad’s fall is a matter of time, Iran’s calculations are less clear. Some officials are hinting at the possibility of change, but this is limited. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a deputy foreign minister, suggested Assad’s speech outlined a path for the opposition to achieve their goals peacefully, but Amir-Abdollahian then stressed that Assad was “legally” president of Syria until 2014.
As long as the central disagreement with regional Sunni powers remains over Assad leaving power, nothing concrete can result from Salehi’s call for talks on Syria within the quartet — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Iran — brought together in September by President Morsi. Yet without progress in Syria, regional tensions will increase. Just as Salehi was in Cairo, eyebrows were raised in Tehran by the attendance of an Egyptian presidential assistant at a conference in the same city designed to raise support for the Arabs of Iran’s Khuzestan province.
In remarks that typify Tehran’s view of the region, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a leading parliamentarian, said the conference was organized by radical Salafis “led by countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and with the aim of preventing the expansion of ties and cooperation between Iran and Egypt”. Tehran is very sensitive to separatist inclinations among its population, half of which is not Persian (including Azeris, Kurds and Baluchis as well as Arabs).
With Iran’s crude sales down 50 percent in a year due to stringent United States and European Union sanctions, this is no time to expect defeatist talk in Tehran. But the knock-on effects from Syria, already destabilizing Iraq, are raising the stakes all around.
Gareth Smyth has been reporting from around the Middle East for almost two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran