The sanctions have ended, and Iran can pick up where it left off in its Middle East strategy, but with more money, and much more international legitimacy.
The great bogeyman that had haunted it for years – being treated unfairly by the United States and the West – is vanishing, and matters can go on to a new plane.
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This is good news in that a possible war in the Middle East has been averted, or at the very least deferred, and Iran can play a more natural role in global and regional affairs.
The only fly in the ointment is that large chunks of the Sunni Arab world are resentful and anxious about what this portends. That world, represented politically by Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states, and by many Sunnis in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, looks at this shift as a disaster. A rising and hegemonic Iran has just got stronger in their eyes.
Not all Arabs feel this way. Many Shia, Christian and some Sunnis respect Iran’s rise and its capacity to manage its affairs efficiently. They see it as a counterbalance to Sunni radicalism or simply a smart and effective nation state.
When it partakes in brutality, it is excused as part and parcel of Middle East affairs, “kill or be killed”. The same efficacy is not imputed to Saudi Arabia, in its attempts to counter Iran in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, nor, for that matter, to Turkey, which has confused, confusing and contradictory policies on the Kurds, ISIL and Iran.
As Hamid Dabashi explains: “None of its regional adversaries – from Turkey to Israel to Saudi Arabia – are a match for the Iranian version of soft and smart power.”
The lens of identity
However, Iran rising during a period of severe weakness for many Arab states is a large problem. Governance from Iraq to Yemen can be described as varying forms of chaos, and regional relations are a mixture of impulse and radicalisation.
A large number of Sunni Arabs will resent Persian and Shia dominance, feel disenfranchised, and create a mightier kickback than we already see today. (Some may dislike looking at the Middle East through the lens of identity; however, it is a reality in the minds of actors large and small. Iran just plays that card better than its Sunni opponents.)
Some may dislike looking at the Middle East through the lens of identity; however, it is a reality in the minds of actors large and small.
Iranian officials often indicate that matters do not have to be so. They say that, although Iran wants its rightful place in the region, it is also ready for talks on new regional arrangements. This diplomatic stance, however, is belied by interventions in at least four Arab countries, including support for militias, that have helped to hollow out those states, weak though they already were.
Some may feel that it is within Iran’s rights to pursue its regional interests. Iran will claim that many of those groups, from Houthis to Hezbollah, are very much local, even if they derive support from Iran. However, for many Sunni Arabs, the contradictions between Iranian diplomacy and its actions on the ground do not add up to an occasion for dialogue.
The core problem is that, today, Iran will negotiate out of strength and its opponents out of weakness – a dangerous state of affairs when Sunnis Arabs are the majority in the region. This will lead to further Saudi stratagems to achieve balance, countersteps by Iran, and so on.
This core clash is compounded by the stance of the US. It reiterates that it is aware of Sunni concerns, but, for many in the region, rising Iranian power is seen as more relevant than Washington’s words.
Consequences of the nuclear deal
If the US had been active earlier in balancing the consequences of the nuclear deal with Iran – especially in Syria and Iraq – the region may have been left less awry. The argument that the problem lies in Arab governance is true but only goes so far; Iran is complicit in many of the crises.
The other missing piece is that great regional balancer, the moderate centre of Sunni gravity, Egypt. Although the Egyptian security system is very wary of Iran, and the two have had difficulties since the Iranian revolution, Egypt is not as vehemently against the Iranian rise. This more moderate position may be critical in developing geopolitical balance in the region, but Egypt is deeply preoccupied with domestic questions.
Between Arab weakness, an absent Egypt and, a perceived US shift, matters may not bode well. Those who conclude that Iran deserves to win because of superior organisation, commitment and sophistication, while Arabs are sore losers in the game of power, are underestimating the reactions of defeat.
Many Sunni groups and nations, and their non-Sunni supporters, will fight Iranian power from now until kingdom comes. That battle may grow not only in scope but also in its morphing fanaticism.
As Arab states weaken further, the wilder gangs will only strengthen. This has already happened in Iraq and Syria; others are also under threat. Sir John Jenkins, the former diplomat and executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, presents five reasons why Saudi Arabia feels under considerable pressure today due to the challenge of radicalism, the rise of Iran, the collapse of Arab states following the recent uprisings, the fall in oil prices and the sense that US support is weakening.
Western countries, especially in Europe, may need to, counter-intuitively, pay greater attention to Arab states and their interests at a time when they are drawn to Iran’s treasure and culture.
Furthermore, Iranian diplomacy will need to infuse much wisdom and patience in its operations to manage such a regional scenario. To what degree will the tougher side of Iran’s strategy, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s regional strategies, be contained in Iran’s new world?
Otherwise, Iran itself may find itself to be the ultimate victim of its current strengths. It, and its allies and proxies, will inherit an angry, resentful and uncontrolled sea of Sunni Arabs. The Middle East may well be a fundamentally ungovernable region due to Arab weakness, but taking advantage of that weakness is certain not to help.
John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.