Iran and the Middle East
persiran.se | Thu, 14.05.2015, 17:31
Peaceful or belligerent?
Iran sends mixed signals about its regional policy after a nuclear deal
May 1st 2015
TO HEAR Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tell it, the nuclear deal with the world’s powers that he is trying to conclude next month is just the start of a wider process of regional co-operation to soothe the turbulence of the Middle East. As he put it in a recent op-ed in the New York Times:
“A regional dialogue could help promote understanding and interaction at the levels of government, the private sector and civil society, and lead to agreement on a broad spectrum of issues, including confidence- and security-building measures; combating terrorism, extremism and sectarianism; ensuring freedom of navigation and the free flow of oil and other resources; and protection of the environment. A regional dialogue could eventually include more formal nonaggression and security cooperation arrangements.”
But if Iran is preparing to normalise relations with its Arab neighbours, and with the wider world, it has a strange way of showing it. It is menacing two of the world’s vital shipping lanes that run up either side of the Arabian peninsula, like carotid arteries of the world economy. The most overt pressure is being applied in the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf, where Iranian naval forces seized a passing container ship, MV Maersk Tigris, and forced it to divert to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on April 28th. Both Iran and Maersk, which charters the ship, say the affair is linked to a commercial dispute from 2005.
Mr Zarif insists that Iran is committed to freedom of navigation in the strait, where the shipping lane enters Iranian territorial waters under the right of innocent passage. But Iran’s move has sufficiently worried America, which responded by deploying warships to the strait to stand guard over passing American-flagged vessels.
On the other side of Arabia, meanwhile, Arab and Iranian forces are shadow-boxing around the Bab al-Mandab, the strait leading into the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March to try to halt the advance of Shia rebels, who are seen as a proxy for Iran in Saudi Arabia’s back yard. Arab navies are blockading Yemen’s ports as their air forces pound the rebels, known as Houthis, and army units loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's former president, who was ousted in 2012. The coalition intervened when the rebels moved to take over the country from the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
An Iranian convoy had at one point seemed ready to run the blockade, then backed away when America mobilised an aircraft carrier to shadow the Iranians and support Arab forces. But on April 30th Iran announced two of its destroyers had deployed at the entrance to the Bab al-Mandab, the strait leading into the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. "We are present in the Gulf of Aden in accordance with international regulations to ensure the safety of commercial ships of our country against the threat of pirates," said the head of the Iranian navy, Rear-Admiral Habibollah Sayari.
Separately, Saudi jets bombed the runway of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, to prevent an Iranian plane from carrying a cargo of humanitarian aid. Gulf officials said the Iranian jet ignored requests that it land first at a Saudi airfield to be inspected to ensure it was not carrying weapons.
Iran denies Arab accusations that it is supporting the Houthis with weapons and training. But it has certainly turned up the war of words against Saudi Arabia. Take recent comments by the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari:
“Today, Saudi Arabia is brazenly and obnoxiously bombarding and massacring a nation, which is seeking the denial of the hegemonic system…Today, Al Saud is teetering on the edge of collapse.”
Though they will not say so publicly, Gulf monarchies are as worried as Israel about the “bad deal” that America is negotiating with Iran. In their view America would, in effect, be recognising Iran as a regional hegemon; and with sanctions lifted, Iran would have more resources to support its allies and proxies around the Arab world. As Gulf rulers prepare to meet Barack Obama in Camp David later this month, they want some kind of formal commitment that America will endeavour to help contain Iran.
Iran’s sabre-rattling will make it harder for Mr Obama to sell the agreement to a hostile Congress. But Iran’s signals are, as ever, contradictory. For all of his suspicions about America’s intentions, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that a nuclear deal with America may open the way to co-operation in other areas.
At home he has tried to dampen the enthusiasm after ordinary Iranians joyfully took to the streets last month when Iran and world powers signed the “framework” of the deal. Chants of “Death to America” remain part of Iran's political ritual. That said, there are tentative signs of efforts to prepare Iranians for better relations with the Great Satan.
Last month, for instance, a group of two dozen American businessmen, academics and other visitors turned up in the Iranian capital. Unusually, they were allowed to visit the former American embassy in Teheran where more than 60 diplomatic staff members were infamously held hostage by revolutionary students in 1979. The visitors also met clerics who told them anti-American rhetoric was outdated. Iranian officials were keen to promote the virtues of investing in Iran.
But as ever, the opaque and factional political system makes Iran hard to read. While President Hassan Rohani may be seeking accommodation with America, the Revolutionary Guards boast of extending their influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and of dominating vital waterways. Ayatollah Khamenei hovers inscrutably over them all.
As one reform-minded analyst with close ties to the government of President Rohani puts it: “There is so much distrust that the regime thinks America will interfere and try and change the factional relationships in Tehran. If America supports Mr Rohani that will only add to the fear. So while Mr Rohani may be opening the gate to cooperation, Mr Khamenei will always be close enough to close it to preserve unity.”