Iran: Soft power with the West, hard power in the Mideast

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

There have been two crucial shifts in Iran’s foreign policy: increased diplomacy with the West, and unprecedented use of hard power with Middle East governments. Tehran is also persuading its allies to increase their military interventions.

An intriguing new development is that its use of hard power in the region is linked to military cooperation with Russia. Tehran has successfully lobbied Moscow for airstrikes and military intervention in Syria. Reuters reported that four Russian cruise missiles, which were launched from the Caspian Sea and meant for Syrian targets, landed in Iran instead.

Iran’s application of hard power in the region is likely to escalate in the wake of the nuclear deal and intensified diplomacy with the West.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) removed the news from its site after it reported an unidentified flying object on Thursday morning in the province of West Azerbaijan, which is close to the Syrian and Turkish borders. A video released by the Russian Defense Ministry displays the route of the cruise missile launch, and clearly shows that they pass West Azerbaijan en route to Syria.

This illustrates Tehran’s influence in persuading Moscow to utilize Iranian territory to conduct airstrikes in Syria. Iranian General Qassem Soleimani traveled to Moscow to push for militarily intervention in Syria, the Associated Press reported, citing an Iraqi government official. An intelligence-sharing center has been built in Baghdad, which integrates communication between the governments of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Russia.

It is hard to fathom that Russia would have accepted Tehran’s lobbying without the impact of the recent Iran nuclear deal, which gave Tehran more global legitimacy, and so likely boosted Russian confidence in a military partnership with Iran. Since the deal, Tehran has apparently been emboldened to use its army and push its allies to utilize theirs. This results in an increase in Tehran’s pursuit of its regional hegemonic ambitions.

Dual foreign policy

Iran has been able to carrying out these policies because of its two-sided foreign policy. From Tehran’s perspective, diplomacy with the West is needed in order to enhance Iran’s global legitimacy and force the lifting of economic and political sanctions, which were endangering the hold on power of the ruling establishment.

These benefits from improved diplomacy with the West will be orchestrated for the purpose of achieving Iran’s revolutionary norms by increasing its military and political roles in the region, particularly in Arab countries.

The nuclear deal has considerably removed diplomatic, geopolitical and financial pressures on Iran. It has opened up the path for Tehran to escape regional and international isolation. It has also enhanced Iran’s legitimacy on the global stage.

President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, plays a crucial role in handling ties with Europe and the United States. However, when it comes to regional policies, the hardliners - particularly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the senior cadre of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) - call the shots.

Unintended consequences

Tehran’s increasing military involvement in other nations is also partially due to the unintended consequences and excesses of its foreign policy over the last three decades. Its military engagement in the region has been on the rise since Rouhani came to power. Inflammatory statements from Khamenei and senior IRGC officials, such as threatening regional countries including Saudi Arabia, have increased as well.

Although the IRGC and Khamenei feel more empowered due to the nuclear deal and improving ties with the West, Tehran would still have preferred to employ soft power by supporting Shiite proxies rather than deploy its own military.

Although for decades Tehran has been able to exert and expand its influence via proxies, its approach has finally backfired, leading to unintended consequences that instigated wars in the region, dragged Tehran’s military into the conflicts, and forced it to project hard power and be more publicly confrontational.

It is impossible for Iranian leaders to break this cycle due to long-established foreign policy pillars: sectarian (Shiite vs Sunni), ethnic (Arab vs Persian) and geopolitical. Iran’s application of hard power in the region is likely to escalate in the wake of the nuclear deal and intensified diplomacy with the West.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: Dr.Rafizadeh@post.harvard.edu, or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.