Iran’s Old Aspirations and New Role in the Region

In examining Iran’s attitudes towards the Arab world in light of the Iranian nuclear deal, it is important to remember that Iranian interests in the Arab world have a long history beyond the 1979 Iranian Revolution. From Persia to the Islamic Iran, the country has consistently demonstrated its desires for the land and wealth of the Arab states and the rest of the region. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s views are only the most recent iteration of these expressed desires.

In his July Eid al-Fitr speech, Khamenei stated that, “Whether or not the draft text of the nuclear agreement is ratified, Iran will not relinquish its support for the government of Syria, the oppressed people of Yemen and Bahrain, or the loyal fighters of Lebanon and Palestine”. Khamenei’s words underscore longstanding Iranian policy, with Iran’s effective occupation of the three Emirati Islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa, along with Iran’s indirect meddling through proxy forces such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine.

Nor has Iranian actions suggested a policy different from that outlined by the Ayatollah. Iran has proved particularly obtrusive in Bahrain, where according to Sky News Arabia, Bahrain Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa recently accused Tehran of opening terrorist training camps, sheltering wanted individuals, and smuggling explosives, weapons and ammunition into the country.

Moreover, it is clear that at least some Iranian officials are presenting Iranian expansionism in the context of ancient Persian territorial goals. Rouhani’s advisor and former Minister of Intelligence Ali Younis, in a forum titled “The Iranian Identity” held in Tehran this March, stated that, “Today, Iran has once again become an empire as it has been throughout history. This empire’s capital is Baghdad, the center of our civilization, culture, and identity today as it was in the past.” These remarks are a clear reference to an attempted restoration of the pre-Islamic Sassanian Empire, which occupied Iraq and took the city of al-Mada’in (Csestephon) as its capital. Younis continued in this vein, stating that “The entire Middle Eastern region is Iranian…we will defend all of the region’s people because we consider them part of Iran. We will stand against Islamic extremists who label others as infidels as well as the neo-Ottomans, the Wahhabis, the West, and the Zionists.”

All of these examples confirm the aspirations of the Islamic Republic of Iran to take on a new role in the region through which it can achieve its undying dreams of past glory. And these sentiments have created noticeable effect on Arab states’ understanding of and responses to current Iran-centric issues such as the nuclear deal.

For many in the Arab world and greater international community, Ayatollah’s statements suggest little interest in neighborly cooperation and a state policy incompatible with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s outward presentations of Iran’s goals. Gulf Cooperation Council General Secretary Abdullatif al-Zayani and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry have responded by denouncing Khamenei’s remarks, describing them as contradictory and damaging to the establishment of good relations. Non-Arab states have also expressed concern, with US Secretary of State John Kerry describing Khamenei’s words as “disturbing” to Al Arabiya.

Many facets of Arab media have recognized Iran’s expansionist tendencies and the Iran nuclear deal’s potential boost of them. Writing in the Egyptian government newspaper al-Ahram, former Egyptian Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the United States Nabil Fahmy has written several articles presenting different aspects of this issue. In the articles, Fahmy calls on the Arab states to safeguard their own interests and end their reliance on the West — represented by the United States. Fahmy’s article alludes to the growing lack of confidence between the countries of the region — particularly the Gulf countries — and the United States, previously considered their first line of defense against Iranian aggressions.

It is unfortunate that the Iranian state has not followed a policy of neighborliness supported by many Arab states and even Iranian politicians like President Rouhani, since Iran and Arab states’ close proximity in the region can produce nuanced economic and territorial relationships. Iranian and Arab heads of state have exchanged a variety of visits sin the past decade. Economic considerations also demonstrate the complicated ties between Iran and Arab states. Despite Iran’s occupation of the Emirati islands, the Emirates tops the list of Arab trade with Iran by exchanging 17 billion dollars of trade in 2014. Prior to the most recent batch of sanctions imposed on Iran in 2011, the Emirates’ trade with Tehran was even hire, reaching a record 23 billion dollars. Both Kuwait and Bahrain also engage in trade and economic cooperation with Tehran, although the volume of trade is somewhat less significant than that of the Emirates. During the Morsi presidency, Egypt also engaged in trade with Iran, although this quickly ceased after his overthrow, and Sisi’s decision to not invite President Rouhani to the opining of the extended Suez canal demonstrates the poor quality of relations.

Meanwhile, Tehran and Doha are connected by a massive natural gas reserve, 38% of which lies in Iranian waters and the remainder belonging to Qatar. According to a study published by the Arab-Gulf Center for Strategy Research, the reserve is considered the largest in the world and could supply all of the world’s natural gas needs for a decade.
Nevertheless, Tehran continues to exhibit aggressive expansionist policies towards region that includes valuable trade partners, prompting Arab states to respond with military buildup and intra-Arab alliances. Most notably, Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi’s announced a joint Arab force during his opening statements at the March Arab Summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh, which coincided with a nine state Saudi-led coalition beginning to involve itself in Yemen against Houthi rebels in Operation Decisive Storm.

Additionally, Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi and Saudi Arabian Minister of Defense and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman presented what has been termed the Cairo Declaration in July. The declaration calls for, among other things, “the development of military cooperation and the establishment of a unified Arab force.” In what many experts and analysts consider a direct message to Iran, the document was signed by “those who represent the two wings of the Arab-Islamic Ummah and who cooperate to ensure the security of the Arab and Muslim people.”
International cooperation with concerned Arab states has also continued, albeit in a weakened state due to the Iran nuclear deal. At the outset of this month, Sisi and US Secretary of State John Kerry met in talks leading to the announcement of the resumption of strategic communication and cooperation between the two countries after a six-year gap. The US Embassy in Cairo immediately followed the talks by announcing that a shipment of weapons from the United States had been delivered to Egypt.

From Cairo, Kerry headed directly to Doha to meet with his counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to discuss the nuclear deal, building on President Obama’s Camp David meeting with GCC countries and French Preident François Hollande’s visit to Riyadh.

Countries are also unilaterally building their national arms stockpile, creating what amounts to an arms race in response to Iranian expansionism. In 2013, the total military expenditures in the Middle East for 2013 reached 150 billion dollars. And in 2014, Saudi Arabia’s military expenditures alone were estimated at 80.8 billion dollars. According to a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Saudi Arabia is now among the top four military spenders in the world. Additionally, Saudi Arabia pledged three billion dollars to purchase weapons from France in order to strengthen the Lebanese Army in its fight against Hezbollah and its allies. Both Qatar and the Emirates have also entered into arms deals recently and even Egypt, despite its precarious economic situation, has purchased weapons with the support of Gulf nations. Most recently, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have expressed their desire to purchase two Mistral helicopter carriers from France.

The arms deals in the region are unending and the list of providers continues to grow longer. Disappointed by its traditional partner, the United States, Saudi Arabia has sought a more balanced position by also reaching out to Russia. Meanwhile, as new alliances are formed and old ones rekindled, the situation appears volatile — and perhaps explosive. In the midst of direct and proxy wars, the antagonistic statements from Tehran continue right up to the writing of these lines.

Ultimately, while the framing of Iran’s expansion is clear, the Arab response has been cautious, yet pessimistic. Today, anxiety, maneuvering, new alliances and an arms race are all visible Arab responses to Iran’s recent maneuvers. In light of these developments, it has become incumbent on the Arabs to shoulder their own responsibilities and to coordinate with one another completely and totally in a manner displayed only by Cairo and Riyadh thus far. Other than Saudi Arabia and Egypt, there is no one more aware of the coming danger and more capable of meeting the challenge than Tel Aviv. Therefore, there must be discussion of the possibility of benefiting from Israel’s capabilities, either openly or secretly, in order to ensure the peaceful and free coexistence of the people of our region and to avoid a nuclear arms’ race, the results of which would be disastrous not only for the region but for the entire world.

About the Author
Ramy Aziz, an Egyptian writer & Political analyst for Middle East affairs. working on a master's degree in political science from La Sapienza University of Rome.
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