March 1st, 2016
By Andrada Filip – Research Assistant
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the state with the largest Shia population in the world, has played an important role in the regional geopolitical configuration that has been influencing the Syrian civil war over the course of the past years. Most recently, Iran is facing a number of strategic foreign policy challenges when it comes to its relations with the US, the UN and the implementation of agreements with regards to its nuclear programme. In parallel with this ongoing challenge, Iran has chosen to remain close to its traditional ally, Syria, providing additional geopolitical challenges which have arisen as a consequence of the prolonged Syrian war: one the one hand, Iran sees the necessity of keeping Assad in power, on the other hand it faces the imminent threat posed by ISIS and the deepening Shia-Sunni divide, which has made relations with Saudi Arabia increasingly volatile in recent months. In order to predict potential shifts in Iran’s foreign policy, with the important milestone of a nuclear deal cleared, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the strategic threats and challenges it has confronted and continues to confront.
Iran is the main regional ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has provided military and economic support to the regime during Syria’s five-year-long civil war. Both regimes share certain common features: they are both authoritarian and defiantly independent, even at great political or economic cost. Iran is predominantly Shiite and although Syria’s civilian population is predominantly Sunni Muslim, its ruling family is Alawite, a Shiite sect. The Syria-Iran alliance has survived partly/primarily due to its defensive nature: for three decades, it has aimed largely at neutralizing Iraqi and Israeli capabilities and preventing American encroachment in the Middle East.
During their partnership, the Assad regime has provided crucial access to Iranian proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, allowing Iran to move people, weapons, and money to these groups through Syrian territory. Over the past couple of years Iran’s strategy in Syria has been to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power as long as possible while boosting Tehran’s ability to make use of Syrian territory and assets to pursue its regional interests. Tehran has been deploying extensive, expensive, and integrated efforts to fulfill its key objectives: building and securing Iranian regional political influence and continues to offer a line of communication between Tehran and Hezbollah. Even though the rhetoric used by high-level Iranian government officials with regard to Israel has become more tempered and conciliatory in the last couple of months, as demonstrated by a recent interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Hezbollah continues to be Iran’s most important non-state proxy. Without ensuring safe passage through Syrian territory of the armament it dispatches to Lebanon, Hezbollah would not be able to receive its lifeline. In turn both the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IRGC) Quds Force and elements of the conventional IRGC Ground Forces, as well as several Iranian intelligence organizations, have trained and advised elements of Assad’s state military and security services.
Continuing Threat Posed by ISIS
Due to its current organization and territorial expansion, ISIS represents a different kind of threat than other extremist Sunni groups operating at Iran’s borders. Many of these groups, such as Salafi group Jaish al-Adl, are based in Pakistan and operate in Iran’s south-eastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan. This Salafi group has claimed responsibility for a series of operations against Iran’s domestic security forces and Revolutionary Guards operating in the Sistan and Baluchestan province bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the detonation of mines against Revolutionary Guards vehicles and convoys, the kidnapping of Iranian border guards and attacks against military bases located in the province.
While these insurgent groups have posed tactical, often minimal, threats to Iran, including the abduction of Iranian nationals and bombings in border regions. ISIS, stands out because of its rapid territorial expansionism and the various terrorist cells it has established, thanks to its recruitment of fighters from all over the world. Additionally it has also accumulated significant financial resources by taking control of local economies, looting factories, confiscating properties and operating business networks. According to some political commentators ISIS currently appears to be a quasi-state, only lacking international recognition.
The group’s progress surprised both regional and international actors, including Iran. Unlike other terrorist organizations operating in Iran’s neighborhood, ISIS has aims that go well beyond a separatist agenda: it seeks the annihilation of Shia Muslims and the establishment of an Islamic state in accordance with a fundamentalist reading of sharia law.
Meanwhile, religious, economic and political interdependence between Iran and Iraq has deepened since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, especially after the threat posed by ISIS became increasingly evident. Today, Washington and Tehran share the same goals for Iraq: avoiding partition and a potentially devastating sectarian civil war, and defeating ISIS. Nevertheless, according to a report published by Bloomberg a few weeks ago, Iran has withdrawn most of the Revolutionary Guards fighters it deployed to Syria four months ago. The decision to withdraw the forces was likely made due to the rising number of casualties among Iranian soldiers fighting in Syria and the subsequent growing public outcry back home.
In October 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to experts’ assessments there were more than 7,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps members and other militia volunteers aiding the Syrian regime. Despite the apparent retreat of Iranian troops from Syria, it is important to acknowledge that it is still possible to exert a substantial degree of influence through other channels.
Relations between Iran and Russia
Iran could continue to show increased support for Russia’s intervention in Syria, as Putin is also a strong Assad ally. This way Iran may wield considerable political leverage during the ongoing Syrian peace negotiations, and push for a political settlement that would keep Assad in power ̶ which is also Russia’s objective. It was after all Russia who extended an invitation to Iran to participate in the Syria peace talks in the first place. Furthermore, now that economic sanctions have been lifted and an economic revival is expected to take place in Iran, the government will be able to dispose of a greater arsenal which could be sent to Damascus, along with intelligence capabilities.
Further cooperation between the two nations relates to military communication and cooperation in Syria. Russia started an overt military campaign in Syria on September 30th 2015, in response to a formal request by the Syrian government to join its battle against rebel terrorist groups. This operation was backed by an entire coalition, including Iranian-backed Shia militias operating on the ground. A meeting took place between Vladimir Putin and Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran on November 23rd in order to put forward a unified Russian-Iranian stance to end the Syrian civil war. Iran has also shipped tones of low-enriched uranium to Russia in the past two months, seeking to comply with the conditions set by the P5+1 nuclear agreement. This collaborative partnership and joint response demonstrates a new phase in the conflict and in Iran’s position of influence globally.
Escalating Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia
Most recently, Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran, as an escalating war of words between the two arch-rivals threatened to derail a renewed international bid to halt the conflict in Syria. The decision of Saudi-Arabia to go ahead with the execution of the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr prompted the most recent diplomatic storm, likely to influence the ongoing Syria peace talks.
Riyadh remains fiercely critical and suspicious of Iran’s foreign policy, a recent article by the Saudi foreign minister not leaving a shred of doubt about its position: claiming Iran has been using attacks on diplomatic sites as an instrument of foreign policy as well as engaging in and sponsoring terrorist activities in other countries. Furthermore, relations between Tehran and Riyadh have become increasingly volatile because of the ongoing Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, as several accusations were made that Iran has been supporting the Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shia minority. Iran continuously dismisses such accusations made by Gulf Arab states regarding its alleged support for Houthi rebels. Moreover, the US Secretary of State John Kerry has issued a warning to the Iranian government in this respect back in April 2015, arguing that the US would not stand by if Iran destabilizes the Middle East.
Iran is currently experiencing a highly tense phase in its foreign relations with Saudi Arabia, and the conflict in Yemen is the site where their competition for regional influence is being played out.
Iran and the West
Iran has arguably managed to rekindle its relations with Western powers, almost three years into Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. By and large the rapprochement has been enabled by Rouhani’s less extremist policies as opposed to those of its predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described by many as a ‘conservative religious hardliner’. The landmark nuclear deal was reached after a series of exhaustive negotiations in Vienna between Iran, the US and other key stakeholders and marks the long awaited conclusion to a nuclear saga that has been going on for almost a decade. The deal foresees that Iran will remain subject to a UN arms embargo for the next five years and the existing UN ban on the import of ballistic missile technology will remain in place for up to eight years. Through the ratification of the Additional Protocol to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards IAEA inspectors are granted increased powers to monitor Iran’s nuclear plants and other facilities.
President Rouhani sought to speed up the implementation process in order to bring in long awaited and tangible relief from the sanctions imposed by the US and the UN. Now that crippling economic sanctions have been lifted, an array of foreign investors is waiting to invest in a country of 80-million people. Despite the progress, the existing UN ban on the import of ballistic missile technology will remain in place for up to eight years.
These changes will have a profound impact on Iran’s foreign relations, and furthermore its population will suffer a psychological uplift, now that Iran will be able to import manufactured goods. In spite of remaining embargos and continuing IAEA monitoring, through the lifting of the sanctions Iran gains access to $100 bullion of frozen Iranian assets, and will also be in a position to sells its oil and other commodities to other states.
When making predictions about Iran’s future it is important to take into account the perspectives and aspirations of its population. The vast majority of the Iranian population has been bearing the brunt of the dire consequences produced by strict economic sanctions.
Ordinary Iranians, especially its youth represent the country’s future, as they will be able to influence the course of its foreign policy through their voting behavior in the upcoming presidential elections. It is pertinent for young people to see the US and the West as their allies, instead of their enemies as the Central Asian and the Middle Eastern region grows more and more volatile, with the growing influence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, increasingly frequent terrorist attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the ongoing war in Yemen. Of course, the position of Israel, and Iran’s traditional support for Hezbollah are not to be excluded from this equation. Nevertheless, it is crucial for the US and the West to rekindle their relations with Iran and in the long run win the sympathy of the Iranian population. The latest agreement regarding the nuclear deal represents good progress in the matter. It would have been near impossible to expect a population faced with economic distress, the possibility of foreign military strikes on its nuclear facilities and an infectious national political rhetoric demonizing the US and the West to contemplate democratic aspirations and make concrete steps towards modernizing its political and social sphere.
Saudi Arabia undoubtedly feels threatened by the latest turn of events concerning Iran’s nuclear deal – however, their current antagonism is understandable given current crises in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other historical conflicts. The economic prosperity that may surge out of Iran in the near future is likely to increase Iran’s military capabilities, making Iran either a more formidable adversary – or ally. The crux of the matter depends on the way in which economic revenues are to be invested in the future in a country where elite social groups or individuals hold great control over the economy. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are already in possession of vast financial resources, enabling them to finance insurgent groups and covert military activities in several states. Their influence is likely to grow even more intense in the post-sanctions era, as Islamic clerics continue to supply their bank accounts with funds. Hope lies with Iran’s well-educated populace, which in previous years faced increasing financial distress and will hopefully find relief as trade and economy take off.
In order to engage with Iran and further rekindle diplomatic relations, the following points should be taken into consideration by Western governments:
- Stick to multilateralism, try to find common ground when it comes to foreign policy discourses, like the need to defeat ISIS and maintain a unitary Iraq;
- Take notice of any movements or agreements which may lead to closer political or economic ties between Russia and Iran and ensure these have positive and peaceful aims
- Support economic development in Iran through foreign direct investment in key areas which are more likely to foster cooperation between Iran and other two nations;
- Support the promotion of human rights in Iran, as these values are representative for many states across the world, and is a key tenet of states’ foreign policies, including the European Union
- Acknowledge the importance of education in shaping the attitudes and beliefs of the upcoming generation and promote scientific exchange programmes in the future between universities across the world and Iranian Universities;
Maintain a cautious approach, but acknowledge that Iran is a country with immense potential, especially when it comes to stabilizing the Middle East and Afghanistan.
 Fulton, Will et.al ‘Iran Strategy in Syria’ (May 2013), p. 9, Joint Report by AEI’s Critical Threats Project & Institute for the Study of War
 Fulton, Will et.al ‘Iran Strategy in Syria’ (May 2013), Joint Report by AEI’s Critical Threats Project & Institute for the Study of War, p. 10
 Esfandiary & Tabatabai, (2015),’Iran’s ISIS policy’, International Affairs, Vol. 91(1), p. 2
 Esfandiary & Tabatabai (2015), ‘Iran’s ISIS policy’, International Affairs, Vol. 91(1), p.4
 Mohsen Milani (August 2014), ‘This is what détente looks like’, Foreign Affairs