It has taken more than a decade for Iranians to see their president travel to western countries respectfully and pursue restoration of diplomatic relations and economic partnerships.
President Hassan Rowhani arrived in Rome on Jan. 25 accompanied by a large business delegation. After signing deals to expand economic ties with Italy he is scheduled to visit France on Jan. 27. Both the trips are primarily aimed at highlighting the success of the country’s diplomacy and to attract foreign investors in the post-sanctions era.
The visits are aimed at giving Iran political weight, considering its tense relations with its neighbors. In fact the diplomatic path of cooperation and multilateral engagement seems limited to western powers because of Tehran’s soured relations with most of its neighbors.
On Jan. 26, Rowhani tweeted about a letter to the heads of neighboring states saying: “Hope we seize the #PostImplementationDay opportunities to cooperate on many levels.”
Provoking unnecessary escalation of conflict would deprive Iran of the leverage it is trying to gain and boost the economyCamelia Entekhabi-Fard
Notwithstanding the opportunities available, Iran’s adversaries perceive that Tehran is trying to gain maximum benefit from its renewed engagement with the international community. However, apprehensions regarding Iran remain following escalation of hostile rhetoric in recent weeks.
Some people attribute the ongoing tension in the region to the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr el-Nimr and the ransacking of Saudi diplomatic facilities in Tehran and Mashad. However, Saudi Arabia’s suspension of diplomatic ties with Tehran exposes more fundamental issues.
Some Arab states, which hoped improvement of relations with Tehran after Rowhani’s rise to power, now see arrogance in Iran’s efforts to gain international leverage following the implementation of the nuclear deal.
Political leaders in Tehran also don’t understand that it stands to achieve much more power and influence by pursuing policies of multilateral cooperation and peace building. Trying to stand its ground or provoking unnecessary escalation of conflict would deprive Iran of the leverage it is trying to gain and boost the economy.
Iran’s growing ability to use diplomatic and military power appears more worrisome for its neighbors. Unlike Iran, not all its neighbors have diversified economies, large, well-educated and technologically advanced populations or a relatively pluralistic political process open to debate and disagreement.
Theoretically, Iran’s adversaries want the country to go back to using military solutions as that is how they will gain the upper hand. They can do this in two ways: by creating conditions in which they can point to Iran’s renewed militancy thereby eroding its international support, or by ramping up support for proxies that bleed it of personnel and resources.
It seems that Hassan Rowhani’s moderate government is not taking such scenarios into account. Regardless of whether the attacks on Saudi Arabia's diplomatic facilities were spontaneous or orchestrated by hardliners, they ended up tarnishing Iran’s image.
The image that emerged was that diplomatic lives and property is threatened in Iran, which as a nation it is duty-bound to respect and protect. It also played into the hands of those who want Iran to abandon the path of cooperation and flexibility in Syria and to turn away from diplomatic successes back toward using military confrontation to resolve regional conflicts.
Hardliners and vested interests in Iran will exploit these crises to their own narrow advantages. They will appeal to the argument that force is a means to assert and defend national honor. This is what scares the neighbors and will have an influence on Syria peace talks.
While Rowhani is much welcomed in Rome and Paris, western nations expect Tehran to closely examine their policies in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. This is irrespective of the strength of the trade delegation accompanying the president and the business opportunities that are available in Iran. The West would also like to hear more about its approach toward Syria.
Iran’s participation in Syria talks will determine whether its policies are in any way fueling suspicion over Tehran’s intentions in the region. Following this fanfare in the West, Syria talks on Jan. 29 in Geneva, we will give us a better glimpse of Iranian diplomacy in post implementation time.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth - A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard