Will Iran be pleased with Biden's Middle East exit?

Despite Tehran's ambitions inside both countries, its response could be mixed

As Iran seeks to expand its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan – its neighbours to the west and east – its leaders are watching with great interest recent developments in both countries. Tehran is determined to turn Iraq into a satellite state and replicate the militia model it has created there in Afghanistan, with the declared purpose of confronting Al Qaeda and ISIS and containing a resurgent Taliban.

Iran’s leadership, which includes Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President-elect Ebrahim Raisi and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will never abandon the regime's policy of embedding militia groups inside countries they seek to tame. These well-armed and well-trained militias then create enough clout to challenge the sovereignty of the countries in which they exist and, thereby, ensure their subservience to Iran. As Tehran continues with this strategy, it is counting on silence from the western powers, including the US and the major European nations.

It is also banking on the much-needed financial windfall it could gain from the lifting of sanctions on the part of the US and other global powers in return for reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran is in dire need of money to prop up its economy and to also, presumably, fund its military operations in the region.

Currently, however, the Vienna talks are going slowly for several reasons – including Mr Raisi’s presidential transition, the US’s preoccupation with its combat troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq this year, and suspicions about Tehran’s plans to sow more unrest in Iraq to further dominate its internal affairs.

Tehran is in a hurry particularly as it tries to quell unrest inside the country over economic problems, shortage of water and other issues. An end to sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors is key to resolving some of these issues. But even as the Biden administration seems keen to revive the nuclear deal, the aforementioned factors have slowed negotiations. The regime has reached out to its so-called allies – China and Russia – for their help to expedite the talks, but to no avail.

To complicate matters for Tehran, there are signs of an internal rift among its ruling elites. The details are yet to emerge, but this could explain why a strategy meeting originally scheduled for this week has been delayed by a fortnight.

Regardless of these ebbs and flows, Iraq and Afghanistan remain key to Tehran’s strategic calculus.

The regime will have watched closely US President Joe Biden’s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi in Washington earlier in the week. Mr Biden has assured Mr Al Kadhimi of continued American support to the Iraqi government and its institutions. The US president also announced he will be withdrawing combat troops stationed in the country, although American soldiers will continue to be on the ground to provide training.

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Iran’s motivations are throwing up a range possibilities regarding Iraq’s near-term future

Iran, which has long warned against western and Arab “interference” in Iraq, will view Mr Biden’s announcement as an opportunity to complete its mission of turning that country into a satellite state. For this reason, Tehran has categorically rejected any proposal to link the Vienna talks with its regional policy. It will not be asked to restrain its operations inside Iraq, or impede its other regional projects that go through that country, which acts as a landbridge connecting Iran to Syria.

Iran’s motivations, therefore, are throwing up a range possibilities regarding Iraq’s near-term future: a change of government in Baghdad; a shift in tactics employed by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – an Iraqi government-sponsored umbrella organisation of militias considered close to Tehran; the postponement of October’s parliamentary election; or the nature of the election itself, which could either be free and fair or rigged.

Prince Turki Al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence head and diplomat, said one of the main issues confronting Mr Al Kadhimi and his government was that of internal security and stability.

“Of course we all want [Mr Al] Kadhimi to succeed,” Prince Turki told me recently. “Unfortunately, the PMF continues to launch missiles at the protected areas of Baghdad, [such as] the US embassy. He still has not managed to make it [the PMF] a component of the [Iraqi] security forces.”

However, another expert I spoke to was more optimistic about Iraq's future. Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute, said US-Iraq relations will continue to flourish – much as Iran will hope they won’t. “There will be no US military withdrawal from Iraq. It is a ‘recategorisation’ of the role of US forces in Iraq from combat to non-combat,” he said. “[But] the fact is they are already non-combat [in practice].” This, according to Mr Knights, comes as Iraqi militias in question are getting increasingly isolated.

Prince Turki, however, expressed concern about future stability in West Asia, particularly if the Iranian regime gets its way in Vienna. He is worried about the impact of Iran's “extraterritorial ambitions not just on the Arab world but also, as we've seen now, they've announced that they're establishing the PMF in Afghanistan”.

As to the rationale behind Iran’s ambitions in Afghanistan, Hoshyar Zebari, the former Iraqi foreign minister, said Tehran fears the Taliban’s influence. “It is very clear [the Iranians] are nervous,” Mr Zebari said. "They are not comfortable about the US leaving Afghanistan and the Taliban taking over their border."

While it’s always prudent to expect belligerence from Iran, might it also show an appetite for reconciliation, particularly given its internal challenges and those on its borders? As he aims for economic renewal, Mr Raisi might be keen to reassure Saudi Arabia that he is serious about seeking dialogue and eventually an accord with the Kingdom. There is chatter in Tehran about possible negotiations in August.

However, Prince Turki is not holding his breath on the possibility of such a dialogue bearing fruit. The two countries held negotiations in Iraq recently, but Tehran’s policies and actions continue along the same path. He said: “What separates us [Saudi Arabia] from the Iranians is a huge history of factual implementation of Iranian ambitions in our part of the world. [A possible accord] isn't going to happen soon, if it ever does.”

Indeed, there is no indication that Iran is working to alter its regional strategy. And so, it is time for decision makers in the West to stop pretending that they cannot hear or read what its regime is saying.

Published: August 1st 2021, 5:00 AM
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National