Wednesday, August 19, 2015

US nuclear deal may give Rouhani the upper hand

Assuming the nuclear deal with Iran is passed in the United States, the parliamentary elections in Iran, scheduled for February, may see a rise in the representation of president Hassan Rouhani and his allies.

Yet it is a mistake to see the contest between Mr Rouhani and his rivals, who are more inflexible in defending the fundamental principles of the Iranian revolution, as a zero-sum game. The Iranian president is very much a creature of the system and, above him, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will work to maintain a balance between different factions.

However, what may be at play is Mr Rouhani’s margin of manoeuvre. The lifting of sanctions that should come as a consequence of the nuclear accord will be welcomed by many Iranians, and the president will look to reinforce his power. One factor that may help him is an assessment of what Iran’s foreign policy – which is directed by the hardliners, particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – has won Iran.

The results in the region have been mixed since the uprisings in the Arab world began. Indeed, in most places where Iran has used its influence – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – the story has been one of setbacks or obstacles, often forcing Tehran to adopt policies that only compound its difficulties.

In Syria’s war, Iran and its Shia militia allies from around the Middle East have been unable to turn the tide in favour of Bashar Al Assad. While they have managed to keep the Syrian president’s regime in place – no mean feat – they have also steadily lost territory in the face of concerted opposition attacks.

This situation led Iran to compel Mr Al Assad to adopt a different approach, namely to hold on to certain key areas – Damascus, the Syrian coast and the territories linking the two – while surrendering others. The Syrian regime has accepted this, but opposition gains north of Homs last week suggested regime efforts to retain even these areas may fail.

Iran’s plan has also effectively led to Syria’s fragmentation. That’s not surprising since the Iranians long ago learnt that exacerbating domestic divisions in Arab countries would allow them to maintain hegemony by playing contending groups off against one another. That is also what Iran did in Iraq after the American withdrawal, and is doing in Lebanon today.

Iran’s role in Syria has brought it into a proxy war with Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia, which Iran is losing. Tehran’s ability to prevail is limited, given Mr Al Assad’s depleted forces and the logistical and financial advantages from which his foes benefit.

In Iraq, pro-Iranian Shia militias have been at the forefront of anti-Sunni policies, previously backed by the pro-Iranian former prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki. This approach, however, facilitated the rise of ISIL. Iran’s reaction to ISIL, namely mobilisation of Shia militias, has only heightened sectarian tensions while marginalising prime minister Haidar Al Abadi, who is viewed as more conciliatory toward Sunnis.

Now Mr Al Abadi is striking back. Under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign, and backed by the influential Ayatollah Ali Sistani, he has sought to sideline Mr Al Maliki and remove senior pro-Maliki officers from the security forces.

One can either interpret this as having come after an Iranian green light, or as being directed against Iranian policies. Either way, it betrays recognition that the approach previously pursued by the IRGC in Iraq has not worked well. Iran will remain strong in Iraq and may try to co-opt Mr Al Abadi, but he will want to shape the system his way, as did Mr Al Maliki.

In Lebanon, Iran had its greatest success story thanks to the power enjoyed by Hizbollah. Yet what has this really brought the Shia? The party is trapped in Syria, where it has taken significant losses. And the presence in Lebanon of well over 1 million Syrian refugees, most of them Sunnis, poses a major medium-term demographic threat to the Shia.

Hizbollah has helped perpetuate a Lebanese presidential vacuum, and many believe this is designed ultimately to alter the constitution and give the Shia more representation. An Al Assad loss in Syria would certainly oblige Hizbollah to reinforce itself in Lebanon’s political order to protect its interests.

In Yemen, Iran has seen its Houthi allies lose ground in recent weeks. While Yemen may be a peripheral battle for Iran, one designed to pressure Saudi Arabia as the Saudis do the same to Iran in Syria, losing that card would confirm that Iran’s regional ambitions can be successfully reversed.

Whether Iran’s role in the Middle East will be a factor in the Iranian elections remains to be seen. But the Islamic Republic has seen the region unite against Iran. The IRGC strategy has mainly bred chaos, brought few victories and damaged Iran’s friends.

The nuclear deal means there may be a struggle over the money released by the lifting of sanctions. If Iranian voters react negatively to the chequered record of the hardliners, Mr Rouhani may find he has more latitude to impose his own priorities.

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