Commentary

Iran Tries to Come In from the Cold

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Much to the chagrin of Iran, the Arab League voted last week to officially back the Syrian opposition, giving the seat previously held by the Tehran-aligned Assad regime to representatives of the Gulf-backed rebels. The Iranians expressed their disagreement with this decision (and others), chiding the participants that they should worry about their own internal stability rather than picking winners in another country’s civil war. Still, this development proved to highlight the growing isolation of Iran in the region. It is this isolation that Iran is trying hard to break, demonstrated by its restored relations with Egypt. Recent speeches by Iran’s Ayotallah Khamenei have also contained important hints that perhaps Iran is trying to find a way out of crippling economic sanctions.

Reacting to the Arab League’s decision, the spokesman of the Iranian Foreign tried to play down the differences between his government and others in the region: “In an exclusive interview with IRNA on Saturday, Mehmanparast said neighboring and regional countries should not base their relations with Tehran on developments in Syria. ‘Expansion of relations with regional countries, particularly our neighboring countries, is one of our top foreign policy priorities. We will do our utmost to utilize the enormous potential for cooperation… [with] neighboring and regional states,’ he stated. ...’Of course, regional countries should show more concern for the establishment of… peace and stability [in their own countries] rather than worrying about states that are thousands of kilometers away.’”

Its reconciliatory rhetoric notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Iran intends to lie low, as recent shipments from Iran to Syria demonstrate. Arab News’ Hassan Barari believes that Iran has decided to make a stand in Syria, a move that has caused its Arab neighbors to act differently than they would otherwise: “The decisions to endorse military aid for rebels and to hand the vacant seat to the Syrian opposition are seen as a game changer by many Iranians as well as Syrians....The inventory of Iran’s shipment of arms to Syria suggests that Iran may plan for a last stand. If the regime falls in the coming weeks, Iran will realize that it has bet on the wrong horse!...The summit’s decision that gave the Syrians all means of self-defense should be understood within the context of Arabs-Iran rivalry. Were it not for Iran, the Arabs may have approached the whole crisis in Syria differently.”

Struggling to be seen as influential, Iran has long attempted to take credit for the “Arab Spring” revolutions in the region, with little success.  Tehran argues that its 1979 Islamic Revolution paved the way for Islamist governments like the one in Egypt. Since the Muslim Brotherhood won power in Cairo, the Iranians and the Egyptians have tried to mend their relationship, though there are few who believe either country harbors genuine feelings of friendship for each other.

In an op-ed for UAE’s The National, Bradley Hope reports on the effect that the initiatives to bring Iranians tourists to Egypt has had: “The easing of travel restrictions for Iranian tourists visiting Egypt has raised fears among Salafists that the move will lead to a spread of Shiism in Egypt.... Diplomatic relations between the countries had been frozen since Egypt signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and Egypt allowed the deposed shah to take haven in Cairo after the Iranian revolution....Analysts say the increased interactions were more about each country trying to gain a stronger footing in regional foreign policy than a full rapprochement.”

But as Nada Badawi reminds us in an article for the Egypt Daily News, Iranian tourists will not be free to roam across Egypt proselytizing: “Iranian tourists visiting Egypt will face restrictions in the areas they are allowed to visit, and may be limited to sites such as the ancient city of Luxor and Red Sea resort areas like Sharm El-Sheikh, according to Hatem Mounir, secretary of the Tourism Chamber in the Red Sea Governorate...Hossam Hazzaa, a member of the Tourism Committee of Foreign Affairs, highlighted what he sees as possible problems with Iranian tourism in Egypt. ‘From an economic perspective, tourism sites in the Red Sea will benefit, but as for Shia sites in Cairo, such as Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah Mosque, Iranian tourism in Egypt could be a problem for Salafis,’ Hazzaa said. Members of the Salafi movement in Egypt fear that Iran could be trying to spread Shia Islam in Egypt.”

Such statements have done little to quell fears of Iranian meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs, forcing Iran’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Middle East, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, to publicly deny any nefarious plans: “At a press conference held in Cairo on Monday, Amir-Abdollahian said that Iran does not have any sectarian interests in any aspect of Egypt’s internal affairs...Iranian state news agency FARS published a letter in February, which was allegedly sent to President Mohamed Morsi by advisors to the Iranian Grand Ayatollah, offering him advice on building an Islamic state. Morsi’s office denied that such a letter was ever received.”

Iran is also aware of the public relations beating it took over its own internal instability (the “Green Revolution”) after the 2009 election. With another election coming up, Iran’s leadership has been keen on making sure the instability will not be repeated this time around. Which is why the Peninsula’s Ladane Nasseri believes Iran’s rulers will be looking for a less polarizing conservative figure for the upcoming presidential elections: “[Ali Akbar] Velayati, 67, who has been largely out of the public eye since he quit the Foreign Ministry in 1997 and became an adviser to Khamenei, is suddenly prominent again in local media, which have quoted him on a range of issues. The veteran bureaucrat may be the kind of politician Khamenei would favour as an antidote after Ahmadinejad, to ease tensions and help Iran present a united front....The qualities that appeal to Khamenei may not strike a chord with voters, though….And the ruling clerics, while concerned to avert a repeat of the opposition surge in 2009, would like evidence of public engagement in the campaign to validate the system.”

There are also hints that the supreme leader himself wants to end the isolation and get back to negotiation.  Al Ahram’s Camellia Entekhabifard reports on a recent speech: “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the sanctions in place against Iran had significant effects, but at the same time blamed the country’s governments for their failure to reduce the nation’s dependency on oil revenues over the past 30 years....Khamenei’s speech included another important element in that he also said he was not optimistic about having direct talks with the US but that he was not against them either. There seemed to be a recognition that direct talks could be more important than anything else, and even the nuclear stand-off could be solved if the two nations sat alongside each other and negotiated.”

But not everyone is convinced that Iran’s outward signs are a genuine indication of willingness to negotiate. Iran expert Ray Takeyh, for one, strikes a note of caution in an op-ed for the Peninsula: “As the great powers contemplate a solution to the Iranian nuclear conundrum, they would be prudent to appreciate how Tehran uses diplomacy to complement its quest for nuclear arms....Iran’s problem all along has been that its illicit nuclear activities were detected before it could assemble … a surge capacity. Tehran knows that as it incrementally builds its nuclear apparatus, it risks the possibility of a military strike....Should the great powers formally acquiesce to Iran’s right to enrich, the bar for a military strike would be set at a much higher level.”


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