In many ways, Iran’s behaviour in the region over the past five years has been an exception to its usual rule. The narrow sectarian politicking that has shaped much of its foreign policy since 2011 has given it a deeper foothold in its western neighbourhood. But that has also limited its influence in other areas and may well undercut the full potential of its regional standing.
The question is: will the nuclear deal lead to a shift in Iranian foreign policy towards the pre-2011 model?
For decades, Tehran was able to build influence and alliances in the region beyond the sectarian prism. Some of those alliances were often counterintuitive, such as the close ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in general. Other examples include the deep links with Syria’s religious establishments in Damascus and Aleppo, and so-called leftists and anti-imperialists throughout the region. More importantly, the brief alliance in 2006 with Qatar to rival the regional bloc led by Saudi Arabia provided Iran with huge strategic potential.
That legacy led Iran to boldly embrace the Arab uprisings in 2011. It labelled them as Islamic awakenings akin to its 1979 Islamic revolution, and it promptly reached out to the burgeoning forces of change. The uprisings presented a rare opportunity for Iran to enter the region after a decade of resistance by many of the Arab world’s traditional regimes.
Had it had its way, Tehran would have spread its arms across the region much deeper and wider. But it did not – for two reasons. The first one was the conscious decisions it has taken in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. It helped Bashar Al Assad in the military campaign to tackle the political crisis facing his regime and stepped up its military and political support for Shia groups in the wider region.
The second reason for Tehran’s sectarian drift was largely imposed on it. The situation in which its proxies have found themselves, from Yemen to Lebanon, caused Iran to back them at any cost. Hizbollah entered the Syrian civil war to defend its old patron and to avoid being shrunk in size if the minority regime in Damascus collapsed. The Houthis in Yemen also took decisions – including the takeover of the capital Sanaa – that Iran reportedly advised against. ISIL took over Mosul and much of northwestern Iraq and marched towards Baghdad.
Although Iran denied the support was sectarian-based, it was perception that mattered. And the perception of Iran as primarily a custodian of Shia groups inhibited many from building ties with it for fear of losing following or credibility. Claims that the Iranian foothold in the region has deepened because of such policies ignore what Iran could achieve otherwise, what it could lose if its opponents become similarly hawkish in the way they seek their interests, and the growing hostility towards it in the region.
Take Iraq, where Iran presumably has unrivalled influence. After the fall of Mosul, its Shia allies abruptly lost hold of Iraq as a country. As one senior Arab official told me, Iraq is nothing like it was before the fall of Mosul. He meant that Iran’s allies no longer decide the fate of all Iraq, because the Kurds had also broken away from Baghdad.
Iran’s allies in Baghdad and southern Iraq are also deeply divided, and militias putatively beholden to it sometimes fail to cooperate even on the battlefield against the existential threat of ISIL. Iran’s incoherent influence and the sudden reduction in how much of Iraq its allies controlled went unnoticed by many, and the myth about Iranian pre-eminence persisted. Iran bounced back but the situation revealed the limits of its influence.
Given its acclaimed “strategic patience”, Iran could do much better. Suggestions that Iran might be shifting its policy come amid growing voices calling for an Arab alliance with Tehran after the nuclear deal that was reached in Vienna last month. Mohammed Hassanain Haykal, a prominent Egyptian journalist and former adviser to the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, claimed recently that Cairo was seeking rapprochement with Iran – a possibility that he and some others endorsed. Egypt has offered to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran, which was taken by many as an attempt to reach out to Tehran while avoiding angering its Gulf allies. It is no secret that Egypt’s vision towards the conflicts in Iraq and Syria is almost identical to that of Iran.
Indeed, Iran’s next move will probably be to steadily revert to its pre-2011 outlook regarding its neighbourhood. This has been indicated by the diplomatic activity over the past few days: Iran offered a revised proposal for resolving the Syrian conflict; Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Moallem visited Oman; Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk reportedly visited Saudi Arabia; and Adel Al Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, is due to visit Moscow today.
Such moves were expected. Both Iran and its rivals will reach out to each other to resume economic and political ties. But the support for proxies will not end and will probably increase. Even if they are sincere, the two sides will find that their differences, particularly in Syria, are too deep to bridge in the foreseeable future. The diplomatic activity appears to be an attempt to pave the way for an opening more than a serious move to end the conflict in Syria. But that opening might lead Tehran to try to salvage the image it had before 2011.
Hassan Hassan is associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan