The Iran factor in regional stability

Manal Lotfy in London , Friday 26 May 2023

“Chaos fatigue” could open doors to an order-based regional system.

Ali Akbar Ahmadian (L) in an undated handout picture obtained from the office of Iran s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on May 22, 2023. AFP


A major Iranian official is now tasked with stabilising the improvement in relations between Tehran and its Arab neighbours, and confronting the US attempts to hinder the Arab-Iranian rapprochement.

Ali Akbar Ahmadian, who replaced Ali Shamkhani as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council following the latter’s resignation after ten years, might be seen as the architect of Arab-Iranian relations.

Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab, is a veteran military commander who served as a naval commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and as a defence minister under former President Mohammad Khatami.

He gave no reasons for his departure, but his position was in doubt after the Iranian authorities executed Alireza Akbari, a prominent Defence Ministry official close to Shamkhani, who was convicted of spying for the British intelligence services.

Ahamadian served as the head of the Strategic Centre of the IRGC for 16 years and as commander of the IRGC Navy where he championed the doctrine of asymmetric defence. He is also a member of the Expediency Council.

Ahmadian’s job description was clear after this week’s speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the annual conference of members of the diplomatic corps, entitled “Transformation in the Current World Order”.

In his speech, Khamenei urged the foreign policy establishment to work hard to improve ties with regional countries, emphasising “the need for wise dealing and flexibility while preserving principles,” and highlighting the need to “locate” Iran in the new world order and to take “personal initiatives” with “appropriate timing”.

He also warned against what he called “beggar diplomacy”, a remark some interpreted as criticism of former president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose conservative rivals have been accusing them of “softness” and pursuing “smile diplomacy” with the West in a misinterpretation to Khamenei’s principal “heroic flexibility”.

“There is no stable regional system without Iran playing a major role in it as one of the major regional powers. In this sense, the choice for Iran has always been between a turbulent and unstable regional regime in which Tehran is excluded and in which America is the region’s policeman, or a stable regional order in which Iran plays a key role alongside regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq,” a former Iranian diplomat based in London told Al-Ahram Weekly.

No wonder hardliners in Iran are arguing that recent political breakthroughs such as the return of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, the return of Syria to the Arab League after 12 years, and peace talks in Yemen that led to the longest period of ceasefire since the outbreak of the civil war, all this is due to the “No stability without Iran” doctrine.

But this self-congratulatory approach lacks subtlety, as some reformists argue. It is true that generating regional disorder and using proxy wars played a role in the current rearrangement of regional relations, but Tehran also owes thanks to America.

“America has helped us a lot in the past years without even realising, first by overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, then by trying to overthrow the Syrian regime using popular protests, and by giving up its interest in the Middle East crises to focus on East Asia and face the threat of growing Chinese influence.

Ultimately, our neighbours realised that there must be security, economic and political cooperation with Iran for the sake of a stable regional order from which the countries and the peoples of the region can benefit,” the Iranian diplomat argued.

Iranian officials do not hide their joy after recent developments, emphasising that the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Syria’s return to the Arab League is a triumph for the hardliners’ approach.

Many Iranian diplomats believe that the rush of Arab countries towards Syria is driven by fear of the success of Iran and Russia’s efforts to normalise relations between the Syrian regime and Turkey, which could leave the major Arab powers marginalised and without influence in Syria, an important country for Arab regional security, despite its weakness due to its long civil war.

The expectations in Iran are that the Syrian crisis will witness major changes in the next few months. Ankara is recalculating its priorities in Syria. Regardless of the winner in the second round of the Turkish presidential elections later this month, it is likely that the elected Turkish president will want to limit Ankara’s involvement in the Syrian crisis which is now a major influence in Turkey’s domestic politics.

There are about four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, who are putting pressure on the infrastructure, jobs, housing services, health care, and education, as many Turks complain. The Turkish military presence in northern Syria also complicated relations with Iran, Russia, Europe, and America. Moreover, there are no major strategic gains for Ankara from direct involvement in Syrian territory.

No wonder both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promised to return millions of Syrian refugees to their country after guarantees that they will not be subjected to persecution.

They also hinted that they are willing to discuss normalisation with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and the withdrawal of Turkish forces from northern Syria in exchange for guarantees that those border areas will not be exploited by Kurdish separatists to launch attacks inside Turkish territory or establish Kurdish autonomous areas on the border. This Turkish approach corresponds with the Iranian and Russian positions and contradicts Washington’s stance.

The US is adamant that Syrian Kurds should establish a share of Syrian oil and gas resources along the lines of the federal model in Iraq. America also has a military presence in Syria to guarantee its interests and protect the Kurds allied with it. Washington has made it clear to its Arab partners that it does not support normalisation with Damascus or its return to the Arab League.

All this puts the Arab powers and Ankara in strategic divergence with Washington, which will reinforce Tehran’s argument that US policies are the root of all the Middle East turmoil.

The rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the return of diplomatic relations and Arab normalisation with the Syrian regime open the door to Iran reaping more strategic fruits, which is the return of ambassadors between Tehran and Cairo.

Fada-Hossein Maleki, Iranian lawmaker and member of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in an interview with Tasnim news agency last week, “Restoring relations between Iran and Egypt is very important... Shortly, bilateral relations will be restored, and we will witness the opening of embassies in both countries.”

Nonetheless, Iran’s hope for a new regional security architecture is a long way off. America, which for several years now has been saying that it no longer considers the Middle East a region vital to its interests, is now rushing to prevent the establishment of security and political arrangements in isolation from its influence and views.

In the last few days, Washington announced that it will be boosting its military presence in the Gulf, arguing that Tehran has deepened its defence cooperation with Russia which poses a threat to Iran’s neighbours in the Middle East. From Iran’s viewpoint, Washington will not stand still watching the most significant shift in the Middle East dynamics since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But US efforts to impede attempts to build a stable regional system may not yield the desired results. After decades of a disorderly system that led to the disintegration of the central state in many Arab countries, there is fatigue from the chaos which could open the door to an order-based regional system.

A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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