Iran’s positive attitude in its negotiations with the US, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia over its nuclear programme marks a clear shift in policy.
This welcome development, seen recently in talks in Geneva, follows Tehran’s willingness to go along with the Russian-initiated deal on chemical weapons in Syria – where Iran is backing the Assad regime. The Islamic Republic appears to be softening its longstanding policies in favour of a more conciliatory approach. The shift is caused by the country’s long-term decline in the Middle East – and Tehran’s recognition that it must act on this decline. Iran’s stance will hold the key to a number of interlocking regional conflicts, so identifying its cause helps shape policy responses to it.
If an agreement with Iran does come to pass, many will argue that economic sanctions, imposed by the UN Security Council, the EU and the US, have achieved their objective. President Hassan Rouhani was elected this year with a mandate to ease the economic plight of his people. Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, has at least partly conceded that the country needs to achieve this by proffering an olive branch to the international community, and the US in particular. But the economic factor is only part of a bigger picture.
Iran is slowly but perceptibly losing the struggle for power in the Middle East. The messages it has propagated in various forms since the 1979 revolution are sounding tired and losing popularity at home and abroad. Its attempts to lead anti-western and anti-Israeli resistance fail to excite as they used to. The Sunni-Shia conflict, which now seems to permeate the politics of the region, has reduced Shia Iran to the status of a sectarian power. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution whose vision was of Iran at the forefront of the entire Islamic world, would be turning in his grave.
The Assad regime is being shaken to its foundations. If it falls, the core of Iran regional policy – which rests on its decades-long alliance with Syria – will disintegrate. Admittedly, Iran’s position in Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq is assured – although that regime is being rocked by an almost daily string of murderous attacks.
But Iran’s failing fortunes in the region should not be gauged only in material terms. Its bid for regional leadership has never rested solely on such crude measures. At its core was a self-appointed role as Islamic champion of the anti-western camp, forged in the 1979 revolution. It is on this most crucial ideological front that Iran is losing out.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 revealed this most poignantly to anyone in Tehran who cared to look. When the revolts broke out, the Iranian leadership hoped that they signified a popular turn to Islamism as they understood it. However, it soon became clear that the rebellious youth were neither driven by an anti-western animus nor by a desire for an Islamist system. In Egypt and Tunisia, Islamist movements capitalised on the fall of presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. However, even in these countries (especially Egypt), their popularity declined rapidly.
As the impact of the Arab uprisings reverberated through the Middle East, the Islamic Republic continued to lose out. The Assad regime’s brutal tactics have delegitimised it in the eyes of many in the region, even those who had sympathised with its longstanding anti-western, anti-Israeli stand. Hizbollah’s support of the Assad regime has similarly dented its legitimacy. Gone are the days when Hassan Nasrallah, its secretary-general, was the hero of the Arab street – Sunni and Shia – for his position at the forefront of the struggle against Israel. If anyone has taken over that role, at least until recently, it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister. Iran’s appeal has been tainted by the brutal tactics of its allies, in Damascus and Beirut, who may remain strong materially but have lost out in terms of image and ideas.
The long-term decline of the Islamic Republic in the Middle East presents an opportunity for peace in the region, particularly in Syria. However, when it comes to the nuclear issue, it may prove a double-edged sword: opting for nuclear weapons can be seen as the only way to avoid being pushed into a corner. Preventing this scenario depends on the skill of the negotiating teams in Geneva and, ultimately, on the ability of the administration of US President Barack Obama to overcome resistance by Congress and offer a meaningful deal to Tehran.
This article originally appeared in theFinancial Times on Monday 21 October.