The current historical moment we are witnessing is a rare moment of Arab interaction with Iran. The Islamic Republic is currently present in almost every heated arena in the region, either directly by means of its military and intelligence forces or its local agents, or indirectly by means of its soft power through its political and religious relations with Shia Muslims in the Arab world.
Despite the chaotic and confusing situation between the Arab states and Iran, it may be beneficial for Arab officials and leaders to learn from Tehran. Adopting similar strategies themselves may help them to put their states on the map of influence in the Middle East rather than be content with having things happen to them rather than making things happen.
The first thing the Arabs can learn from Iran is the importance of recognising the strengths they possess and how to use them; as well as the need to resort to specific strengths based on the situation, depending on the superiority of the opponent and the nature of the battle.
While Iran has worked since the Islamic revolution in 1979 to build and form a powerful hand of influence and pressure cards in the region, the Arabs on the other hand failed to recognise the importance of their states and their human, spiritual, and financial resources. They did not take action, nor did they use their capabilities to obtain the position they deserve on the map of regional countries in the Middle East.
Iran realised long ago that it possess three major factors that qualify it to play a pivotal role in the region: human resources, energy, and ideology.
In the years immediately after the Islamic revolution, Iran worked to invest in the human energies available to it, promoting scientific training in natural resources and economics in order to benefit from the financial revenue entering the Iranian treasury from the export of oil and gas. Iran also began to build and streamline its gains in the field of military industrialisation and nuclear energy.
While the scale and nature of this industrial renaissance has been difficult to independently ascertain, and caused a significant amount of political fallout, Iran does not hide the fact that it was able to get its name on the list of counties manufacturing military equipment and weapons and, at least nominally, join the “nuclear club”, especially after the signing of the Lausanne agreement a few weeks ago.
However, Iran did not stop at building its military, financial, and armament power. Tehran realised that following the revolution, it possessed an ideological and religious case to champion the rights of “the oppressed” – i.e. the Shia minority branch of Islam. It was under this guise that Iran launched its notorious campaign to “export the revolution”, which, despite fading on a discursive level a few years after the revolution, still remains present in Iranian foreign policy to this day. Tehran incorporated this ideological-humanitarian-sectarian mix into the core of its soft power, which expanded from Iran to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, and Afghanistan. It also reached Palestine through the support for the resistance, which is also classified under the slogan of “helping the vulnerable against the oppressive forces”; in this way, the Islamic Republic was able to tap into the underlying political and social trends in the region and incorporate them into its own ideological vision and strategy.
Meanwhile, the Arab countries, who possessed extremely valuable energy resources, remained content with racking up the dollars, and failed to develop true human and industrial forces and resources.
Since their independence from colonial rule, successive Arab governments failed to agree on a cohesive ideological project that benefits from the common ground bringing together the Arab people, including language, religion, and heritage. Adopting a successful pan-Arabist vision could have been an important factor in building an Arab soft power to rival or even defeat the Iranian, and even the Turkish influence. The failure of pan-Arabism has thus, inadvertently, opened the door for an alternative regional vision that has been seized upon by Iran and other major regional players.
The second thing the Arabs can learn from Iran is the practice of creating and maintaining a varied portfolio of allies and partners. They could also learn how to deal patiently with them and to continuously support them without disappointing them or abandoning them in critical moments.
Since the revolution, Iran diversified its allies and tried to fill the gaps in the neighbouring countries. Iran formed alliances with countries with different ideologies, as in the case of Syria, and it contributed establishing and supporting ideological, sectarian, and paramilitary groups, as in the case of Hezbollah and the Shia militias in Iraq post-2003. Iran also supported Christian countries against Muslim countries, as was the case with Armenia, which Iran supported against Azerbaijan (which has a majority Shia population) while also establishing close ties with Sunni resistance forces, as in the case of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In other words, despite its often firebrand sectarian rhetoric, Iran’s regional and global strategies were informed more by tactics and logic than sheer sectarian interest – despite what some Arab countries may believe.
This partial map of Iran’s alliances suggests that Iran expanded its circle of relations and alliances geographically, religiously and tactically. Tehran also exercised patience in building these alliances, as they did not directly ask for immediate political fruit from the relationship. Instead, Tehran waited until the time was suitable to ask for the price of these alliances.
In addition to this, Tehran continued to support its allies for many years and has not abandoned them; whether they moved from a place of vulnerability to a place of power (Houthis, Shia groups in Iraq, and Hezbollah) or remained helpless and vulnerable ( such as the Shia opposition groups in Bahrain and opposition figures in eastern Saudi Arabia).
Contrary to Iran’s well-thought out and sustainable policy in alliance making, some influential Arab countries relied only on making temporary alliances in one arena or another and many Arab countries abandoned their allied in times of distress. Meanwhile, other countries sought to reap the fruits of their alliances too soon. Even worse than this, many of the alliances formed by major Arab countries were mainly formed against other Arab countries (Algeria-Morocco/ Baathist Iraq-Baathist Syria/ Nasser’s Egypt-Wahhabi Saudi).
The third thing the Arabs can learn from Iran is therefore how to adopt and execute an active and dynamic foreign policy – a policy based on adopting the right approach to address and deal with each portfolio or issue separately. It also involves adopting the traditional concept of foreign policy based on the equation of interests, not friendships.
This active and changing foreign policy can represent an alternative explanation to the present reductive and conspiratorial theories peddled by some of Arab countries to explain the Iranian relationship with the United States. Rather than the changing relations between the two countries being explained by the existence of a “secret alliance” between Washington and Tehran, it should instead be understood as a reflection of the strategic and dynamic nature of both countries.
Iran has declared its hostility towards the “Great Satan” since the revolution, but despite this, it has exercised all types of politics with American – including direct war, as was the case with the kidnapping of diplomats from the American embassy in Tehran; indirect war, as is the case in Lebanon; indirect cooperation, as in Afghanistan and Iraq; and international treaties such as the recent nuclear programme agreement.
As is the case with Iran’s policy towards the US, Tehran’s policies have changed with other international players at difference times and places. Iran declares its hostility on a daily basis against Salafist Jihadists, but there is evidence to suggest that it cooperated with Al-Qaeda after the occupation of Afghanistan and facilitated its work. Iran also overlooked the fact that its ally, President Bashar Al-Assad or Syria, facilitated the entry of Sunni Jihadist groups into Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Tehran also opposed Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, because of his war with the Houthis from 2006 and 2011; but eventually allied with him after the signing of the Gulf initiative.
Unlike this active Iranian policy, the policies of the major Arab countries have suffered from stagnation in recent decades. They have continuously been dependent on Washington and have publically and secretly described their relationship with the US as a “marriage of convenience”, as stated by Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy. This has given Washington a sense of reassurance with regards to the Arabs, who have maintained their alliance with Washington at great cost to the people of those countries.
As for Iran, it engineered things as to always get something in exchange for its occasional cooperation with America. According to the veteran American Middle Eastern expert, Michael Hudson, America was lucky that its support for Israel and its positions in the region did not anger the Arabs enough to affect America’s oil and security interests.
While Iran dealt with its allies based on its political and national interests, the disputes between major Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have led to the persecution of grassroots political movements everywhere without taking into consideration the national interests of these countries. Egypt has recently fought Hamas despite the fact that they are governing Gaza, which is an important pillar in Egyptian national security, and Saudi Arabia abandoned the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, which led to the Houthis – the allies of its historical enemy Iran – coming to power in Yemen. However, it would have been more beneficial for these two countries to deal with each area separately rather than employing the logic of tribal conflicts in contrast to the active foreign policy adopted by Tehran.
Hence, there are numerous lessons Arab countries can learn from Iran; and even if there are diplomatic clashes, which may sometimes be severe, this should not prevent the Arabs from learning from Iran’s foreign policies, which have proven to be immensely successful.
Translated from Al-Jazeera on 6 May 2015.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.