The Arab Spring is giving a new strategic role to Iran in the region. In this process of adjustments and changes, the Western world should support Ahmadinejad rather than Khamenei.
The recent political crisis in Arab North Africa and the Middle East has diverted international attention from Iran. Although not directly involved in the turmoil, Iran is rapidly acquiring a new strategic role in the region. In this ongoing process the Islamic republic aims to strengthen its geopolitical position on two fronts: the Gulf and Egypt.
Since the shockwave of the North African upheavals hit Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Iran has had a historic opportunity to influence Shiite dissidents in these countries, thus increasing political instability in the region. Tensions became evident recently as diplomatic relations between Iran and the countries of the Gulf cracked. Indeed, government officials in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have heatedly criticized the Tehran regime, accusing it of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, as Iran had openly supported the rebelling Shiites against the Bahraini monarchy. Conversely, Iran has strongly criticized the Gulf Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, for the military intervention on Bahraini territory to suppress the rebellion. A Friday sermon in Tehran became the occasion to hear diatribes against the monarchs in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and protesters gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran to hurl abuse against Manama and Riyadh. Likewise, Kuwait and Bahrain threatened to freeze diplomatic relations with Iran and ousted some of its diplomats.
In Egypt, the fall of Mubarak opened a new possibility for Iran to finally gain a leading position in the region. This is Tehran’s chance, after more than 30 years, to re-open diplomatic relations with Cairo and form a new strategic alliance. Relations between the two countries have been damaged since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat gave political refuge to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Later, Hosni Mubarak’s cooperative relations with Israel pushed the two Middle Eastern countries even further apart. In the eighties, Iran, with the consent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, symbolically dedicated one of the main streets of the capital to Khaled Eslamboli, the organizer of the attack in which President Sadat was killed, inflaming the enmity of Egyptian officials.
Today, Iranian foreign policy seems to be moving towards an epochal change. Indeed, since the recent Egyptian uprising and the fall of Mubarak, Iranian senior officials have showed interest in engaging in dialogue with officials in Cairo. In the past weeks, both Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and his Egyptian counterpart Nabil al-Arabi have officially expressed their governments’ willingness to resume diplomatic relations. The Iranian Parliamentary Commission for Foreign Affairs has spoken favorably about this possibility. Moreover, in April, Tehran’s government sent its own U.N. representative on a mission to Cairo.
Iran’s new role and policy in the Middle East are directly connected to an internal fracture within the leadership of the Islamic Republic. For more than eight months, it has been clear that this leadership is divided into two antagonistic fronts: the religious ultraconservatives close to Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the national popular front close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This internal clash is getting stronger, indirectly affecting Iran’s foreign policy. Both the contenders are interested in making Iran one of the major strategic protagonists of the new Middle East. However, the goals of the two factions in foreign policy seem to be utterly divergent.
The Khameneists, mainly composed of the ultraconservative clergy and the elite of the pasdaran and basij, want to intensify their support for the internal opponents of the Arab monarchies, in order to increase the tension in those countries and strengthen and maintain the stability of an ideological/political Shiite front in the region. This front would like to consolidate the so-called “Shiite Triangle” of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon (Hezbollah) and also create new areas of supportive Shiite power. These areas could potentially be in the Gulf Arab countries and Yemen.
Ahmadinejad’s faction, backed by the emerging secular and nationalist class — led by the right-hand man of the president, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai — and by a strategic alliance of the so-called “generals/managers” (former generals who manage the economic life of the country), has kept a moderate position, trying to avoid any clash with nearby countries. The interest of this front is not to exploit the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis and fuel political tensions in the region but rather to strengthen anti-Arab Persian nationalism.
On the Egyptian front, Khamenei’s faction wants to resume diplomatic relations with Cairo, aiming at an alliance with the Muslim Brothers and the ideological Islamic faction that might have a leadership role in the future. The Ahmadinejad front, instead, would see the new military executive class rather than the Islamic components as an ideal interlocutor because of the more secular and nationalistic view of the army and the generals/managers. This political line is strongly opposed by the Khameneist front, and the recent internal conflict between the supreme guide and the president proves it.
The outcome of this conflict will be of remarkable significance, not only for the future of Iran, but for the destiny of the entire region. Should the Khameneist front prevail, Iranian foreign policy would focus on strengthening the Shiite triangle, thus promoting the emergent Shiite components of the Arab countries of the Gulf. On the other hand, if the Ahmadinejad-Mashai front wins, a policy aimed at encouraging alliances with the secular-nationalistic forces in countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon would succeed. In the latter case, an innovative alliance between Iran and Egypt, both with a more secular and nationalistic tinge — assisted by Jordan and an anti-Hezbollah and pro-Hariri Lebanon — could give birth to a new Middle Eastern bloc able to move the entire region in a more secular and reformist direction.
If this interpretation is correct, there would be major consequences for the West. Apparently, public opinion in Western democratic countries has so far perceived the Khameneist front as the more moderate and less likely to build an aggressive relationship with the West. It has judged Ahmadinejad’s idiosyncrasies and extremist and anti-Semitic behavior as more dangerous. The reality may be quite different. Analyzing the internal dynamics in Iran, it is very clear that the front headed by the president is the one that the West should favor. This faction, indeed, is interested in establishing positive relations with Arab countries in order to increase the internal public consensus and demonstrate the high level of regional power achieved by Iran.
Pejman Abdolmohammadi is adjunct professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Genoa.
Karim Mezran is director of the American Studies Institute in Rome, senior fellow at the Middle East Policy Council, and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS.