Hassan Hassan writes: In many ways, Iran’s behaviour in the region over the past five years has been an exception to its usual rule. The narrow sectarian politicking that has shaped much of its foreign policy since 2011 has given it a deeper foothold in its western neighbourhood. But that has also limited its influence in other areas and may well undercut the full potential of its regional standing.
The question is: will the nuclear deal lead to a shift in Iranian foreign policy towards the pre-2011 model?
For decades, Tehran was able to build influence and alliances in the region beyond the sectarian prism. Some of those alliances were often counterintuitive, such as the close ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in general. Other examples include the deep links with Syria’s religious establishments in Damascus and Aleppo, and so-called leftists and anti-imperialists throughout the region. More importantly, the brief alliance in 2006 with Qatar to rival the regional bloc led by Saudi Arabia provided Iran with huge strategic potential.
That legacy led Iran to boldly embrace the Arab uprisings in 2011. It labelled them as Islamic awakenings akin to its 1979 Islamic revolution, and it promptly reached out to the burgeoning forces of change. The uprisings presented a rare opportunity for Iran to enter the region after a decade of resistance by many of the Arab world’s traditional regimes.
Had it had its way, Tehran would have spread its arms across the region much deeper and wider. But it did not – for two reasons. The first one was the conscious decisions it has taken in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. It helped Bashar Al Assad in the military campaign to tackle the political crisis facing his regime and stepped up its military and political support for Shia groups in the wider region.
The second reason for Tehran’s sectarian drift was largely imposed on it. The situation in which its proxies have found themselves, from Yemen to Lebanon, caused Iran to back them at any cost. [Continue reading…]