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11/21/11

It's Time for Iran to Overhaul its Middle East Policy

By Nader Habibi

Ever since the Islamic revolution Iran's Middle East policy has been based on an alliance with the Alawite government of Syria. This alliance has allowed Iran to develop strategic relations with Hizbollah and Hamas. But the current regime in Syria is no longer sustainable. The Arab world and Turkey have turned against it. They are assisting the opposition forces which are getting stronger day by day. It is now clear that Syria will either sink into a sectarian civil war which under most optimistic scenarios will reduce the Alawis to a minority partner in a coalition government or the Assad regime will be defeated by majority Sunni opposition. In either case the Iran-Syria alliance in its current format is over. Public sentiment among majority opponents of Assad is currently very hostile toward Iran and it is very unlikely that there will be much interest in continuation of the Iran-Syria alliance in the post-Assad Syria. Without such an alliance Iran will no longer able to assist Hizbollah or Hamas in a substantial way.

It is time for Iran to abandon its costly policy of intervention in the Arab world. This senseless policy began with calls for Islamic revolts against the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Sheikhdoms soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The result was a regional animosity and billions of dollars of Saudi and Kuwaiti assistance to Saddam Husain's war Against Iran. At the same time Iran became a self-declared champion of the Palestinian cause with calls for destruction of Israel. This policy resulted in the U.S. and Israeli animosity toward Iran for more than three decades.

If Iran insists on assisting Hizbolah or Hamas after the fall of Assad regime, it will only make matters worse for these groups and for itself. The Sunni Arab countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, will react by putting more pressure on any group that gets close to Iran. They will also offer more support to the United States in its effort to put military and economic pressure on Iran.

With its open military intervention in Bahrain and active support for the Syrian opposition forces, Saudi Arabia is directly challenging Iran's interests. This new confrontational attitude of Saudis represents a newly gained self-confidence with reliance on the U.S. support. Iran is now isolated and would not be able to answer these Saudi provocations. Under current circumstances continuation of tensions with Saudi Arabia will not be in Iran's interest because it can escalate into a costly war. In any direct military confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States will intervene forcefully in support of the Saudis.

If Iran is counting on support of China and Russia it should think twice. China will at best be a reluctant and distant supporter of Iran in any conflict with Saudis. It has too much economic interest with the US and GCC countries at stake to openly side with Iran. Russia is trying to assert itself in the Middle East but its military power is no match for the U.S./NATO and there is a limit to how much power it can project in the region. The best option for Iran is to abandon its regional ambitions and adopt a more cooperative diplomacy toward its Arab neighbors.

On Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran must concede that Arab world has every right to take the lead in this issue and non-Arab countries such as Iran and Turkey should offer support to the Arab position rather than pursuing their own independent policies for supporting the Palestinians. Before the recent sectarian tensions in Syria and Bahrain, Iran's assistance to Palestinians led to considerable goodwill and support among ordinary Arab citizens. But now even the Arab street in many Arab countries has turned against Iran because of the Sunni-Shiite tensions.

Iran should also stop calling for removal of American Military presence in the Persian Gulf. It is not going to happen. The GCC ruling regimes depend on U.S. security umbrella and welcome the U.S. presence. Iran should try to resolve its tensions with these countries and accept their security alliances with the United States. Indeed fear of Iran and a desire to counter what they perceive as the growing influence of Iran in Arab countries, is a primary motive for their continuing reliance on American security protection. In this regard Iran is in the same predicament as China. Just as China has accepted the alliances of its smaller neighbors with the United States Iran must also accept the similar arrangements in the Persian Gulf and try to focus on improvement of relations with its Arab neighbors without questioning their military relations with foreign powers.

On top of all of these strategic considerations Iran does not have the economic and financial resources to intervene in other countries. The international and unilateral sanctions against Iran are likely to get worse in the coming months and the country will need all of its financial resources to deal with its domestic economic problems such as stagnation of the industrial units and high youth unemployment. Insisting on spending large amounts to support Hizbolah and Hamas can result in domestic anger and calls for redirection of these resources to domestic needs. Perhaps Iran can learn a lesson from the United States with this regards. The United States engaged in a costly intervention in Iraq despite its limited resources and strong domestic opposition. The result has been large annual budget deficits and a huge debt crisis.

Finally, Iran should change its policy toward Arab world because the Arab world is changing. As liberated Arab Spring countries experiment with democracy, Islamist parties will play an active role in their future governments. Iran can have better relations with the future Arab governments if it can contain the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divides and adhere to the principals of neutrality and noninterference in domestic affairs of its Arab neighbors. This approach is visible in Turkey's new attitude toward the Arab world which seems to have been successful so far. It is not too late for Iran to declare neutrality toward the Syrian uprising and perhaps by doing so it can construct a new relation with future Syrian governments. Or perhaps it is too late to salvage the relations with Syria, but not too late to set a new course toward the rest of the Arab world. 

About the author: Nader Habibi is professor of Middle East Economics in the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University

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