By Dr. Ali M. Pedram

Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to remain at odds with each other through deepening disagreements which could plunge the whole region into an unprecedented level of turmoil. If this trajectory continues, these conflicts, along with the United States of America’s ongoing lack of focus over its Middle Eastern policy and Russia’s robust development of its military arsenal, could lead to aggression on a global scale.   

On the same day that Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared the end of the war against ISIS, referring to the militant group’s recent defeat in Iraq, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, writing for The New York Times, urged Europeans not to follow Trump’s lead in further pressuring Iran beyond the nuclear deal. Zarif asked Europeans to appreciate what he believes is a unique opportunity stemming from the nuclear deal, instead of falling into the gridlock of hawkish American policy to diminish Iran’s power and influence in the region.

Javad Zarif, an articulate and seasoned diplomat, knows only too well that although the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to be on the winning side of regional conflicts today, Iran’s recent successes cannot be sustained unless Europe counters the upcoming avalanche of internal and external pressures accumulating against the theological establishment.

For nearly three decades, the world viewed Iranian politics through a series of divisions between moderates and reformists, radicals and ideologues. These divisions within the Iranian establishment — in which moderates were thought to be different from radicals, and as a result, needed to be supported against radicals — have come to an end.

Consecutive Iranian presidents — voted in directly by the electorate but carefully selected by the establishment — regardless of their political constituencies, have proven that this kind of division is a myth.

All of Iran’s presidents took office with a strong popular vote, off the back of promises to improve the lives of Iranian citizens while having the apparent blessing of the supreme leader. At the end of their term in office, every president left with a catalog of failures and widespread public dissatisfaction, each confessing that under the current constitution, the office of president had no real authority to define and lead internal affairs, or foreign policy.

The incumbents, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shared one common legacy, and that was their inability to fulfil any of their pre-election promises, regardless of whether they rose to office from a moderate or a radical base.

The awkward position of Rouhani’s government after his landslide re-election in May 2017 shows a clear realignment with the establishment to ensure Rouhani’s administration remains within the executive branch, despite tectonic regional threats facing Iran. Presidents, then, have to find an impossible balance between pleasing Iran’s people, staying in the establishment’s good graces and fending off international aggression.

Trying to achieve that balance in an often opaque system is difficult. Very little has been written about the underlying reason for putting the two leading presidential candidates of the 2009 contested election under house arrest. For more than a year, after the disputed election of 2009, both Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were still free to stage their protests against the official results in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. For 15 months, internal dissent was somehow tolerated, at least for the leaders who previously held the high offices of prime minister and speaker of Parliament. Mousavi was an Islamist devotee and a favorite prime minister for eight years during Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership in the 1980s, and Karroubi was Majlis Speaker for four years in the 1990s and Khomeini’s representative and the head of the powerful Martyr Foundation, as well as his commissioner for pilgrimage affairs in 1988.

By early 2011 and with the Arab Spring spreading onto Damascus’ streets, moderates and reformists in Iran found a new avenue to further protest the establishment’s determination to ratify the declared election results. The slogan of “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, my life be sacrificed for Iran” proved to be the last nail in the coffin of what used to be known as tolerated reformism within the establishment.

It did not take long for a forceful and inescapable crackdown against anyone opposing or voicing different opinions from the official narrative advocated by the supreme leader and his staunch supporters.

The dramatic surrender of any viable reform since 2009 proves that the ultimate red line for the establishment under the supreme leader is Iran’s regional policy, influence and reach. In this light, any hope that the nuclear deal might offer is unlikely to have any positive impact on moderating Iran’s regional policy.

Critics, including major Arab states and Israel, point out that removing nuclear sanctions around Iran and welcoming it back into the international community would not only soften Iran’s regional policy, but would also bolster its resolve to push harder in its regional expansionism. On the other hand, advocates, including Europe, supported the accord and saw it as a building block to ring-fence Iran’s military adventures in the region and as an incentive to kickstart mutually beneficial negotiations with Iran.

The military defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq along with the reinforcement of Assad’s regime in Syria, thanks to both Russia and Iran’s military support, have once again provided Iran with a considerable range of regional influence in the Levant.

There is no point in arguing about who created ISIS. It has become common knowledge that the idea of removing Assad in the aftermath of Arab Spring uprising, along with the disastrous mismanagement of fragile Iraqi politics by Nuri Al-Maliki, offered a breeding ground for a new force to rise and fill the power vacuum left by a weakened Syrian regime and a sectarian Iraqi government.

For Iran, supporting Assad became its top priority, as Iran realized that once Assad was removed, and Syria was ruled by a non-Ba’ath regime, the old alliance between Iran and Syria would expire. Iran also understood that this would mean the link to support Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria would be cut off, and would signal the end of Iran’s deterrence mechanism in Lebanon, aimed at keeping Israel and its security forces in check.

At the same time, for the West and the majority of Arab countries, the end of the Ba’ath regime in Syria was a welcome phenomenon — a Syria freed of an authoritarian regime allied with Iran.

The dynamics of these actions reveal a pattern in which the West and Sunni Arab states have been consolidating a wide and at the same time contradictory range of forces to push back a growing Shia crescent stretching from Iran into Iraq and through Syria, ending in Lebanon.   

But a lack of coherent strategy within this loose and colorful alliance when confronted with Iran and Russia’s pragmatic and focused aim of preserving the Assad regime in Syria and reinforcing their military presence on the ground, has back fired. The move by Saad Hariri to resign in the hope of parlayzing Hezbollah in Lebanon is the most recent example of a hasty and overly optimistic perspective in shaping desirable outcomes. If he had gone, there would have been no guarantee that the vacuum this would have created was guaranteed to bring about the desired result.

The rise of Trump to the Oval Office transformed the most probable scenario for Iran’s moderates — whereby the US and the EU would be able to welcome Iran back into  the international community and, at the same time, scale back their regional policy and focus on internal reform. Some in the West also hoped they could achieve this by supporting those moderates represented by President Rouhani.

However, America’s antagonism towards Iran has only served to empower the Iranian government’s position and fuel radicals in the region. Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN, in the widely covered press conference in which she claimed without evidence that the remains of a rocket were of Iranian origin, offered further evidence of moves by the US administration to halt Iran’s influence.

Trump seemed to have been given a chance to broker a breakthrough deal with Iran, so both the nuclear agreement and other issues of concern could be resolved. This opportunity arose during the last UN General Assembly in September 2017, when the White House involved the French President, who hinted at possible meetings with the president or Secretaries of State, if their Iranian counterparts were willing and able to meet. A tall order, given that Iran consciously keeps America at arm’s length.

As a matter of principle, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has not authorized any high-level and inclusive negotiations with Americans, since any understanding between Iranian officials and American politicians means the end of the only context that the Islamic Republic has managed to deliver and sustain since its inception back in 1979 — which is constant enmity with the United States of America.

When what has been left of the popular uprising of 1979 is pure antagonism towards the United States and whatever it stands for, then any rapprochement, logically and inevitably, implies self-destruction of the establishment. Continuous economic mismanagement of Iranian governments over the last 40 years has resulted in the collapse of a once productive economy, with soaring interest rates and staggering inflation mixed together. This has led to a widespread recession, which has brought Rouhani’s administration to its knees. Rouhani’s survival now depends on the support of radicals, for security reasons and to keep any dissent at bay. At the same time, radicals need Rouhani to keep them in power. It is this paradox which underscores politics in Iran today.