Iran: A Global power player ?
Iran’s ability to shape the course of events in Iraq, the broader Middle East and beyond, and particularly its ability to impact world energy markets, and consequently global commerce and security, has made it a dominant regional power broker with significant international influence and a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century.
Even in Central Asia, Iran is conveniently positioned geographically to serve as a conduit for the region’s energy supplies through the Gulf. Its shared border with Afghanistan inevitably makes Iran a central actor in the war-torn nation’s future. Furthermore, the proposed energy pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and India and China’s growing dependence on Iranian oil highlight Iran’s increasing importance beyond the Middle East.
Iran’s “last-minute decision” to participate in the international conference on Iraq’s future at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh should have come as absolutely no surprise. The pretext for its initial refusal to attend was the detention of five Iranians by US authorities in Iraq. This amounted to posturing and an attempt to increase its leverage at the meeting. In simple terms, it was trying to play “hard to get.” It is obvious that progress at Sharm el-Sheikh, and the broader region, would not be possible without Iranian participation, thus elevating it to the status of indispensable player. Accordingly, Iran cannot afford not to be present at the conference. Its absence would damage its credibility in its increasingly growing role, risking increased diplomatic isolation and being branded as “irresponsible indispensable player.” Some in the Middle East and many in the West already hold this to be true.
In the ongoing competition of diplomatic brinkmanship in recent years between Iran and the West, Iran has largely played an astute game, as demonstrated by the recent detention of 15 British sailors. Its ability to take situations to the limit and then show its pragmatic side has yielded diplomatic dividends. However, mounting international pressure over the nuclear issue in the past year, coupled with the approval of UN sanctions, have contributed to increased uncertainty, despite Iran’s bold rhetoric and public display of defiance.
Iran’s increasing confidence as a dominant regional player and inevitable rise as a 21st-century regional power entails the assumption of greater responsibilities. Its survival in an increasingly interdependent world of globalization requires it to play a more cautious and prudent game of brinkmanship. Iran must increasingly calibrate itself and strike a balance between the extent to which its interests are attainable and not overplaying its hand. Failure to do so may result in disastrous consequences.
In order to sustain long-term growth and efficiency of its national lifeline, the energy sector, Iran is dependent upon international investment. Its credibility as a globally reliable energy supplier remains essential to its existence. Uncertainty can lead to severe, and potentially irreversible, damage.
The unpredictable security situation in Iraq requires Iran’s participation for broader regional stability but also for its own domestic national security. Iran will not remain immune from the effects of a potential spillover of the Iraq conflict. Iran has a direct vested interest in containing and abating the violence and contributing to a stable environment that will allow Iraq’s elected government to focus on reconstruction.
Iraq’s future will inevitably be dominated by its Shiite majority and the form, composition and policies of any future Iraqi government will not escape Iranian influence. Although Iran will prefer a central government capable of providing basic domestic order, it will also favor one that is pliant, vulnerable and ultimately dependent upon its hegemony.
There is little doubt that Iran provides support for elements and factions of Iraq’s fragmented insurgency but to what extent stirs greater debate. The US decision to engage Iran within a multilateral context at Sharm el-Sheikh does not constitute a major re-think in US policy in Iraq or the broader Middle East. It is a reactive response to events on the ground and muddling through different policy alternatives since the invasion. It is currently pursuing the present course out of necessity since it appears to be the only reasonable alternative to other options, which thus far have failed to yield the necessary dividends in Iraq.
The US has made clear, at least on the surface, that it will de-link Iran’s nuclear issue from the security situation in Iraq, particularly at the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, where Iraq was intended to be the sole focus. America’s gradualist multilateral approach with members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany has slowly produced some results, including sanctions. However, many in US foreign policy circles remain far from satisfied.
Some may attribute Iran’s foreign-affairs decision-making to a policy of constructive ambiguity, that is, a good cop/bad cop approach, led by a wily and calculating supreme leader and a mercurial and enigmatic president whose occasional diplomatic outbursts and esoteric statements leave many international policy-makers and analysts perplexed.
A more pragmatic view of Iran’s foreign-policy making may point to the intricacies of a dynamic power struggle taking place within the upper and inner circles of Iran’s political establishment, particularly within the diplomatic and national security realms.
There is no doubt that the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shaken up the regime’s political establishment, which has dominated public life since the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but there must be even less doubt as to who is Islamic Republic’s ultimate decision-maker, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Over the past year, Khamenei has devised means, such as the creation of “advisory” structures and elevating conservative pragmatists to positions of influence to curb the president’s influence. Many in the traditional revolutionary power elite, who have dominated Iran for the past quarter-century, have been wary of the president’s growing influence in both domestic and foreign policy. He is regarded as a threat to their vested interests.
Much of the president’s appeal is as a straight-talker, an ordinary and modest man of humble origins who speaks his mind, whether on domestic corruption in Iran or launching a tirade against the West, particularly the US and Israel. Such rhetoric has appeal not only in the streets of the Muslim world but throughout many quarters of the developing world.
The recurrent question in Western, and particularly US, foreign-policy circles concerns when and how “change” will occur in Iran. It is more than likely to occur within the context of a generational shift in power. With over two-thirds of the population under the age of 30, eventual “change” appears inevitable but is likely to take longer than many in Iran, and most in the West, may hope for. Furthermore, the notion of “change” in itself will be the subject of intense debate. Fundamental concepts, such as secularism and the relation between the state and religion, will continue to dominate political debate in Iran. The influence of more than a quarter-century of clerical rule is unlikely to be eradicated overnight. Any attempt to do so forcibly may trigger a fierce reaction.
Furthermore, the complex and diverse ethnic mosaic of the Iranian nation will also play a key role in shaping the course of change. With a population of 80 million, Iran has a 50 percent Farsi-speaking Persian majority, while the other 50 percent is composed of ethnic minorities including Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs. The status of relations between the government and certain minorities remains far from ideal, often resulting in outbreaks of unrest, which will undoubtedly impact future developments.
Ultimately, the extent to which the principles of the Islamic Revolution have become part of the social fabric of Iranian society, and the degree to which they have trickled down through its ranks, will play a determining role in the eventual outcome of when, and if, transformation takes place in Iran.