When Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi stated on 16 July that Iran is not in pursuit of forging a regional coalition with Syria, Iraq and Turkey against the US many observers with an interest in Iran believed that words mattered less than actions in Iranian politics. This attitude is best considered in the context of regional events that have occurred since 2011.
Despite its general endorsement of opposition movements calling for change during the Arab Spring, Iran was selective when change was sought in areas of strategic interest such as Syria, where it developed a different discourse to justify its support for the Assad regime in Damascus. Thus, the aforementioned statement on the rumoured regional coalition might be abandoned by Iran, similar to its stance on the Arab Spring.
This policy of muscle-flexing in Syria that Iran pursues has undermined its leverage over the Syrian regime. Despite the alliance that was formed in Syria, it is no secret that rifts exist between the projects of Russia and Iran in Syria. Moreover, reports show that Hezbollah – which is heavily involved in the Syrian civil war alongside the Assad regime – is showing signs of discontent because constituents in the organisation believe Iran regards them as easily replaceable Arab cannon fodder.
It would not be an exaggeration if it were to be claimed that Hezbollah’s image in the eyes of the Arab, Muslim world in 2017 has changed considerably after their involvement with Syria compared to the period that preceded its war with Israel in 2006.
There is an often-ignored fact about Iran’s regional alliances – that they are either non-state actors or failed-states. Apart from its long-standing alliance with Hezbollah and other armed groups in the region, both of Iran’s main regional allies – Iraq and Syria – are failed states. For a country which promotes itself as an island of stability in a region engulfed by chaos and instability, this lack of ‘proper’ allies and being associated with non-state proxies and failed states might create a boomerang effect in future.
While proxies can disappear any time they lose their function, the sustained failure of states in the region will continue to trigger further instabilities as they come under the control of Iran. Demographic changes in Syria (and Iraq to a lesser extent) suggest that Iran is undertaking policies aimed at sustaining instabilities in the region.
In the midst of Iran’s endeavor to forge alliances with ‘proper states,’ the embargo imposed by the US-aligned camp of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt on Qatar in mid-2017 has presented a unique opportunity to Iran. While siding with Iran was one of the reasons behind the imposed embargo, the harsh measures enacted by the blockade countries has apparently brought Qatar and Iran closer.
While the latter is taking an ostensibly neutral stance on the crisis, Russia’s more neutral position might have signaled to Iran that there is more room to manoeuvre. The outcome of the crisis will benefit Iran regionally, notably in Syria.
Previously, Iran took advantage of Arab divisions when it felt isolated in the Middle East as it did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait after ending a costly war with Iran and all countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) embargoed Iraq. At that time, Iran took advantage of the schism between Iraq and the GCC countries to develop its relations with the latter.
Similarly, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran sought to improve its relations with the Gulf and Turkey (even the US) as a means to get involved in the reconstruction of the war-ridden country. Thanks to this orientation, the GCC and Iran became closer. As a salient component of this policy at that time, the discourse of being an island of stability was used again.
A similar development that is now evolving in the region took place following the collapse of the Soviet Union. To put this in the context of a centre-periphery dichotomy, a new centre was built in the region with the US retaining its position as the sole superpower and consolidating its ties with allies such Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to form a front to this new order at that time.
On the other side Iran, together with Syria and Iraq, was excluded and pushed into the periphery. In order to dismantle this state of isolation Iran has made efforts to move towards the centre and strengthen its alliances with other actors in the periphery, simultaneously drawing Syria in. Such consolidation of ties in the centre and periphery is witnessed again. Along with Iran, Turkey and Qatar are now enjoying this position. This could transform into a fragile coalition considering the latest regional context and positive signatures in bilateral relations of this trio.
As part of this, bilateral relations between Turkey and Iran are ostensibly getting better. Though the Syrian civil war intensified rivalry between the two countries both have the experience of preventing their conflict of interests developing into physical confrontations, thanks to their historical legacy of managing differences. Therefore, both countries could sit at the same table to determine the future of Syria, as the Astana Peace Process shows.
In exchange for being neglected for what it does in northern Syria in its fight against PKK-linked PYD/YPG units, Turkey gave up its harsh stance against the Assad regime. Trade volume between the two countries has fallen in recent years. According to data released by the Turkish Statistical Institute, bilateral trade stood at $21.89 billion in 2012. This figure has fallen to $2.94 billion in the first six months of the year 2016. Yet there is a strong will in both capitals to bring this figure back to pre-Syrian civil war levels. Moreover, both countries publicly declared their disapproval to the independence referendum of Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
Not far from its stance on Turkey’s policies in Syria, Iran was also at odds with Qatar for its support to opposition movements in the civil war as well as being under the influence of Saudi Arabia on regional issues. Since January 2016 diplomatic relations between both countries have been at their lowest after Qatar recalled its ambassador following the attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran as a reaction for the execution of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr and 46 others.
Yet the latest crisis in the Gulf paved the way for both countries to mend fences. Iran offered Qatari airlines to use its airspace and both countries sought opportunities to develop economic relations since they share the biggest natural gas field in the world.
Despite underlining the possibility of increased cooperation, there are some reasons that will turn this coalition into a fragile one. For instance, even though the conflict with the Kurds in Syria and Iraq forced Ankara and Tehran to act together in the region, Iran seems to be enjoying the upper hand in this context. Describing this position “an example of omnibalancing,” Tehran have willingly stoked the fires of the PKK in previous periods as a tactical weapon whereas it prudently cooperated with Ankara when the Kurdish insurgency threat rebounds domestically.
In addition, the growing influence of Iran on its war-ridden neighbour via its Quds Force – operating under the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – might pose a threat to Turkey in the future considering the zealotry and militant stance of the group which act without consulting officials in government. Although the government would absolutely avoid having conflicts with a NATO member and a country that has strategic relations with Russia – which is also militarily superior to Iran – there is no guarantee that IRGC can be kept on a short leash.
Secondly, with regard to Qatar’s position on the Gulf Crisis, it cannot be accepted as eligible that it fully sided with Iran against the Saudis and others in the embargo camp. Rather, it embraced a neutral position in the rift in which it defended its rights but at the same time acted cautiously.
For Qatar’s attitude, it can even be said that Iran knew such a neutral stance would surface since there have been similar cases of rifts and crises between Qatar and Saudi Arabia-led camp in the GCC. In other words, Tehran did not jump into the fault line that emerged between the Arab states and acted more tacitly with the experience gathered from previous cases.
Finally, it is of capital importance for these countries to find a common ground in order to make this coalition durable. This common point can only be found by revealing areas of common interests, instead of one compelling another to accept its stance as a ‘moral standing’.
It seems as if Turkey and Qatar compromised their stance on a number of regional dossiers especially in the case of the Syrian civil war. However, Iran is seemingly moving in the opposite direction. It regards its achievements in Syria by the virtue of ‘moral standing’ on regional dossiers and seems captivated with this success. Accordingly, this would prevent a flexible attitude that is a prerequisite for setting up a constructive dialogue among actors, which would lead to the establishment of a regional coalition.
The region is about to give birth to a new order in the centennial anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement. In this new order, efforts to form new coalitions and collaborations are accordingly intensified.
Nevertheless, the previous order has a legacy of long-standing conflicts and crises and they have already brought enough failures, and the deepening of fault lines between actors. Based on such fragile ground, those coalitions and collaborations are presumably infertile. In other words fragilities will be seen more in this new order.
On the basis of such a shaky ground, states would prefer to ‘act’ more than ‘speak’ or disregard whether its discourse and actions are coherent or not. Iran is one of the countries (probably the best) that plays well in the region according to this reality. Perhaps this explains why Iran is successful in bearing the fruits of its strategies in regional conflicts by focusing on actions within a context increasingly ruled by realpolitik rather than idealism.