While 2013 can be characterized as a politically successful year for the Islamic Republic of Iran who scored several economic and geopolitical victories, such as the provisional nuclear deal that prevented further economic sanctions, the crucial issue to examine is the outcome of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, particularly toward the Gulf Arab states, in the coming year.
A significant issue to address is the Gulf’s states foreign policy towards the Islamic Republic, and calls for a “softer” diplomacy with its government. Will the prospective policies, political and diplomatic moves lead to better, more formidable relations and total resolution between Tehran and the Gulf Arab States in the next year, or will ties remain the same or deteriorate?
Any scholar, politician, or analyst who has studied the Iranian political structure closely realizes that predicting future relations between the two entities must be made cautiously, as Iran’s political system is marred with unpredictably. The Iranian political system is also divided more than ever before, primarily among several political camps; the Supreme Leader, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps- who have the final say in fundamental policies- and the traditionalists, moderates, reformists, and other undermined political parties.
Having said that, several projections can be made with regards to the policy making, security, geopolitical and economic interests between Iran and Gulf Arab states in 2014.
Iran’s underlying geopolitical and diplomatic dilemmas on its domestic and foreign policies will likely emerge in 2014.
The first tension will likely come about when the difference between Iran’s stance on its nuclear enrichment program— its insistence on continuing enrichment and spinning centrifuges— and the six powers’ position (P5+1), surfaces in the second round of negotiations. Addressing the regional security landscape linked to Iran’s nuclear agenda not temporarily, but permanently, will draw out these challenges. Although the recent four-page provisional nuclear deal has addressed some of the regional geopolitical and security concerns over Tehran’s nuclear defiance, the underlying actuality of the political gap will come to the surface.
Iran’s lengthy nuclear file reveals that several similar first-step nuclear deals with P5+1 were not successful. Many of these instances ended with Iranian leaders walking out of the negotiating rooms, mainly due to the generality and ambiguity of the interim texts or because Iran indicated that the text contradicts Iran’s military legal code, specifically allowing inspections and access to particulate nuclear sites, and revelations of new clandestine underground nuclear activities. The political issue is that if Iran reaches the nuclear breakaway capacity, it would significantly impact the balance of power in the region and destabilizing the security of the area in 2014.
Despite the possible insecurity, Tehran’s fundamental position on its nuclear enrichment— the right to continue enriching uranium and processing plutonium— is unlikely to shift in 2014. As long as Tehran continues to insist on enriching uranium, with fundamental issues regarding Tehran’s nuclear defiance to be discussed in the second round of nuclear talks, the year 2014 will likely further bring about key regional security, military, and geopolitical concerns on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The second key issue that will become more prominent is linked to Iran’s role, interference, and influence in impacting the direction of the politics in another Arab country— Syria. Tehran’s support to the Syrian regime, to the tune of billions of dollars, along with Iran’s military, intelligence, advisory, and unconditional political support to the Assad regime have been a critical factor in keeping Assad’s Alawite regime in power. With Geneva II approaching, Iran’s unconditional support for Assad’s regime will become more challenging.
Tehran’s policies and Iran’s geopolitical stance towards Damascus are expected to continue in 2014 as well, due to Syria’s significance for Iran as an arms delivery gateway to proxies like Hezbollah (as well as Damascus’ importance in retaining the regional status quo in favor of Tehran). In addition, given the fact that the ultimate decision rests in the realm of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, and taking into consideration that even the moderate parts of the Iranian government does not seek change in Iran’s foreign policy, it is unlikely that we will witness a fundamental change in Iran’s foreign policy toward Syria in the next year. As a result, the political position of the Iranian leaders towards Syria will exacerbate tensions between Tehran and the Gulf states who do not support the Syrian leader.
Role in the Gulf
An additional deep fundamental tension that will come to the forefront of political debates is linked to Iran’s indisputable political role in two other Arab countries—Iraq and Bahrain. Due to the balance of power, Iran may continue to use the Shiite population of Bahrain and Iraq, with its strategic location and rich oil resources, as a platform to exercise Tehran’s geopolitical and economic interests, attempting to assume a superpower status in the Gulf, and continuing its regional hegemonic ambitions. It is politically unrealistic to argue that Tehran will carry out a totally different foreign policy approach toward Baghdad and Manama in 2014, specifically regarding its relations to Shiite groups and Tehran’s influence in the domestic dynamics of these countries in the year to come.
Although the year 2013, has assisted Hassan Rowhani’s government in gaining some geopolitical and economic interest by spreading the campaign of a “conciliatory” tone, the year 2014 will bring the real challenges, differences, and intentions considering Iran’s major foreign policies, its regional policies, and its ties with other Gulf Arab states. Cosmetic changes in the country’s diplomatic tone might have been instrumental for the Iranian government’s interests but underlying, fundamental, geopolitical and security challenges regarding Iran’s nuclear defiance, the Rowhani government’s support of Assad’s regime, and its real regional hegemonic intentions and ambitions will likely come to the forefront next year.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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