Can Iran be part of the Arab future?
From a strategic point of view, Iran seems to be the principal beneficiary of the geopolitical upheavals shaking the Arab world since 2011. The Arab regional order, which has prevailed since the war with Israel in 1973, was destabilised during the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, shaken by the fall of Iraq; but has totally crumbled only following the “Arab spring”.
In spite of its weaknesses, or even its vicissitudes, the system that was somehow kept together by the Arab League, guaranteed a peaceful resolution of conflicts and made it possible for the Arab states to preserve a modus vivendi based on not crossing certain red lines related essentially to the sacred principle of state sovereignty and the intangibility of borders inherited from colonialism.
Internal political changes, still under way in the MENA region, have had major repercussions on relations between Arab states and therefore changed prevailing alliances and called into question the principles of peaceful coexistence and recourse to mediation in crisis situations.
The tendency to seek confrontations, even armed ones, is accentuated today primarily because of foreign meddling in Arab affairs. The “traditional” political or economic interference by great powers, such as the United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom, were based on certain rules set up during the Cold War and followed diplomatic practices that usually avoided or circumvented recourse to violence.
Today, the devastating interference by Iran and Turkey in the entire MENA region cannot be explained solely by some vengeful spirit born of historical resentments. The strategic vacuum created following the fall of Iraq and the weakening of post-Mubarak Egypt, was very quickly filled by these two powers.
Unlike Turkey, whose return on the Arab scene is recent and without vision, Iran, since the shah regime then with the advent of the Islamic Republic, has never relinquished its hegemonic intent towards its Arab neighbours. Iranian leaders have the strong conviction that the Arab revolutions of 2011 were based on the same causes and therefore must have the same effects as the Islamic revolution as preached by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Whatever the outcome of negotiations on the nuclear question, Iran has already clinched an international standing that will enhance its stature in the region to the detriment of Arab states. Once rid of the shackles of the embargo imposed by Western powers, the Islamic Republic will soon be the only power of the region with a frighteningly effective power of influence.
Its force is in its political religious project, as relayed by a number of increasingly active and openly proselytising Shia communities. The Tunisian example is striking. Hardly numbering a few hundred in 2011, the Shia community in Tunisia is currently estimated at more than 20,000 people among the elites of the country. A similar phenomenon can also be noted in Algeria and Morocco.
A true strategy of influence gives to Iranian activism an unequalled dimension that makes it a genuine strategic threat to the Arab states, perhaps even more destabilising in the long run than the Israeli threat. The latter remains primarily military and cannot consequently have determining consequences on social balance inside Arab societies. It is also foreseeable and can be effectively managed through diplomatic channels.
Iran seems to project itself in time by betting on the fraying of Arab political regimes, including those in transition. Although avoiding for the moment direct attacks on religious, social and cultural fundamental values, Iranian foreign policy agenda is clearly centred on a new societal project, even if such premises remain evanescent for now.
Any power, even regional, can legitimately claim the right to use its power assets to exercise what it considers its right to intervene in its zone of influence. The destroy-and-rule approach will inevitably mortgage Iran’s own future and invite foreign interference that could threaten Iran’s own survival as a regional power. An increasingly confident and resolutely dominant Iran will not encourage the emergence of a new Muslim world capable of facing the real challenge in the region, namely the unstoppable Israeli hegemony.
Admittedly, the Arab world is reaping the consequences of its divisions and bad choices by going through the most chaotic and uncertain period of its contemporary history. It is additionally in a strategic position of isolation along with Turkey which has become a new frontier for terrorism; and with the Sahel-Sahara region becoming a source of all uncertainties. But its resilience is strengthened with each crisis and it is preserving all of its potential for the future.
Iranian leaders should be betting on a promising future, if not a common destiny, if they want to remain influential actors in the region and not to be relegated, once again, to the hidden recesses of history.