The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) organized on Thursday, February 6, 2020 a talk by Mehran Kamrava, Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Kamrava is the author of a number of books, including, Inside the Arab State, a comprehensive study on the most recent upsurge of friction in Arab politics before and after the 2011 uprisings. The talk focused on the increase of tensions between the United States and Iran, in the context of American hegemony and Iranian revisionism and the extensive range of political and social variables that have molded the formations of power and the functions of the state.
The discussion was moderated by IFI Senior Fellow Rami Khouri. It is summarized below in the form of a Q&A.
Q: What are the reasons linked to the increase of Iran-US tensions and- with the increase of tensions- how do these strains play out in relation to other states within the region?
First and foremost, it is crucial to have a clear insight into the root causes of the tensions between the US and Iran. On one hand, we've got a superpower that wants to be the dominant actor in the region, and on the other hand, we have a smaller power that seeks to counter the tendency and hegemony of the superpower. The causes linked to the US-Iranian tensions in many ways, go back to the fundamentally different conceptions of what the Middle East ought to look like. In many ways, there is a 41-year-old strategic competition between these two actors. This is especially relevant to what we see today with President Trump in office. We see that these tensions have been heightened in comparison with the last few months of the Obama administration, where these tensions had been reduced. Since 1979, such deep-seated strains have characterized Iranian and American relations, and in recent years have been exacerbated by the number of different developments that have been simply combined to reinforce one another. For example, developments such as the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and leadership transitions across the Gulf, have presented a proliferation of weak states across the Middle East that have led to the strategic competition between Iran and the US in a more security oriented and balance of power dimension. Where presidencies like Ahmadinejad were present, the US too elected their very own version in the person of Donald Trump. In many ways, this represents a clash of populism and populist rhetoric between Iran and the US. Since 2013, a leadership transition in Saudi Arabia has fundamentally changed the calculus in the Gulf region and Arabian Peninsula. The assertiveness of the Saudi regime has been an important factor in the causes of the US-Iranian strained relations. The conflicting priorities between these actors can be understood by first individually emphasizing the prime concerns of the actors. The US for example is a global superpower, and as such, wants to organize the international arena. It sees itself as the rightful architect of global order, in particular a region that is of tremendous importance to it. By acting as an offshore balancer, it does so by being a power that tries to manage development in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf region, as an outside power, providing security to countries that fundamentally have a sense of insecurity predominantly vis-à-vis Iraq, and after 2003 in relation to Iran. These are namely, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman. In its own sense of identity, and its own priorities, Iran on the other hand, views itself as a regional superpower, the rightful architect in its own immediate environment. Iran having gone through a revolution, being a global middle power that acts as a counter hegemonic actor, and going against a global superpower's engineered regional order, has cultivated ties with non-state actors, building proxies through which it has thought to project its influence and power. This has led to particular consequences in the Middle East. Since 2011, a specific hierarchy of powers in the region has lent itself a great deal to the tensions. The hierarchy and regional order show a very and peculiar development in the Middle East, in which there are four countries at the top which view themselves as regional superpowers and global middle powers. On one side you have Iran and Turkey who do not agree with an American engineered regional architecture, and on the other side you have status quo powers like Saudi Arabia and Israel that agree with the American engineered architecture. Beneath these four powers stand a number of regional middle powers; countries that have in many ways been relegated to middle regional power status because they were once regional powers. A clear example would be Egypt, which since 2011 has had major internal issues, and is therefore no longer able to project power as a main player. Another example would be powers that have taken themselves out of the game, such as Algeria whereby the Middle East is no longer a main area of influence, as Africa is now. Each of these countries is now trying to expand its influence at the growing number of weak states, through different means. As a result of the Arab uprisings, there is now a proliferation of these weak states, like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, through which each of the superpowers is trying expand its own influence, either through proxies or militias. For instance, Iran does so in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, and Saudi Arabia through financial power, or outright invasion as may be the case of Yemen. The categories of powers are extremely fluid, these alliances are dynamic and changeable, but the countries at the top, through diplomacy, soft power, or various types of persuasion, try to form alliances with countries in the middle, referred to as status quo actors. This status is difficult to implement in countries that play the hedging game, much like Qatar. For example, although there is no formal alliance between Qatar and Iran, there still remains a marriage of convenience as Qatar Airways needs Iran as a route to fly over.
Q: You speak about a regional order. What does this regional order mean with regards to Iranian-American relations?
A: If we compare Iranian conduct to that of the Americans, we can see that over the last few years, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, that a war is unlikely, and there are a number of structural as well as immediate reasons for this. First, it is almost impossible to win a war against a middle power, no matter how effective or strong the superpower might be. A battle may be won, but not necessarily a war. In the short run, with the impending US elections, Donald Trump's old priorities and promise of taking America out of wars are likely in terms of his conduct towards Iran. Yes, there have been strikes, but the strikes have not led the conflict further. Despite their supposed ideological profile, the Iranians have also acted with tremendous pragmatism, seen in particular with Iranian-Israeli tensions in the Syrian theatre. Israel for instance, keeps attacking Iranian targets in Syria, with two aims in mind: first, almost like a war of attrition, they want to increase the costs of Iranian presence, but also, Israel wants to draw Iran into a bigger military conflict, assuming that it has strategic priority and military superiority over Iran – but Iranians have not necessarily taken the bait or attacked. This presents an interesting and counter intuitive level of strategic pragmatism by the Iranians that may not necessarily be assumed otherwise. Again, war is unlikely, but this does not mean that tensions will be reduced. We are more likely to see a scenario of no war, but no peace; and will see continued tensions for a number of reasons. First, Iran will not sever ties with its proxies, or let go of its regional proxies. Second, its militias have been effective, and are therefore one of Iran's resources. The Israeli wildcard, whereby Israeli strikes in Syria on Iranian targets will not be lessened anytime soon, and reinforcing these tensions show the reemergence of their convenient triangle against Iran with an actual alliance between the US and its support for Israel, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. This unholy alliance against Iran is likely to leave tensions high.
Q: What are some of the likely developments in the years and months to come? What are some of the trends to keep an eye out for?
A: It is very possible that Trump may be reelected. Historically, American presidents have acted and behaved differently in years seven and eight of their presidencies, as they are not as worried about congressional and presidential elections. The last two years of a presidency is usually where they are more concerned about their legacy. So, I believe that it is crucial to observe the years 2023 and 2024. In terms of Iranian elections, I am not too concerned about who comes to power, but more about what happens to the pattern of diplomacy that we have come to expect from Iran since 2013, especially with the election of President Rouhani and the appointment of Foreign Minister Zarif. Currently, Foreign Minister Zarif has decided to pursue foreign diplomacy aiming to reduce tensions, as well as broaden the United Sates' policy towards the Iranian government. Will those next in power take a more confrontational stand? Will we see a different rhetoric? Will Iran pursue a balance of power foreign policy or will Iranian policy become more dictated by its identity and its ideology? These are all questions that are open to debate, in particular to Iran's leadership transition, as the current leader is becoming frail. Again, it is not so much about who becomes in power, but more about what happens to civil-military relations in Iran. The nature of civil military relations, and the extent to which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) becomes active in the conduct of Iranian foreign policy, particularly when you add to the fact that Zarif may very well not be in office, ultimately all of this suggests to continued tensions between Iran and the US. So, for us who live here in the region, we are in for a rocky road in the foreseeable future.
Q: If the “American Ahmadinejad" is not reelected, and one of the American democratic contenders becomes president, would this make your point of view different for American-Iranian relations? Would there be different dynamics in the future?
A: Bernie Sanders has said openly that he will pursue Obama's policies. It is interesting because none of the other democratic candidates have come out and articulated in clear terms an Iran policy. The reason for this is that Iran is very unpopular, whether in the popular narrative, popular culture, or among the policy makers and talking heads on TV. The popular sentiment is both anti-Muslim, but particularly anti-Iranian; there's nothing to be gained by the candidates to mention improved relations with Iran. If there is a Democratic win, there are two sets of sanctions on Iran. One is by presidential order, the other is by congressional order. Whoever comes to the White House, neither can, nor is willing to spend the political capital through congress to remove these sanctions. So, in terms of the underlying tensions, I don't think that they are going to vanish, certainly, if there is a Democrat, anyone other than Trump, or another supreme leader who wants to negotiate with the Americans without removing the sanctions, then we will definitely see a reduction of the tensions. Obama was quite interesting in that he said the Iranians and Saudis need to learn to share the region together, and if that mindset prevails, then we will begin to see much more immediate reduction of tensions in the region.
Q: Having said this, would you say that there were strategic benefits in assassinating General Qasem Soleimani?
A: I do not know to what extent Soleimani was the strategic genius that he was made out to be. It was really the American and Arab media that made Soleimani into this mythical figure. Yes, he did cultivate personal ties with militias, but I am not sure if his assassination was as big a loss as the Saudi and US really believe it to be. When you are sitting where Khamenei is sitting, taking into consideration his perspective, would you rather have a live hero running around, or a dead martyr who has been killed by the US? There might be some changes in some of Iran's management of non-state actors, there might be some changes around the margins, but I sincerely doubt that there will be an overall change in the strategic profile of Iran vis-à-vis militias and non-state actors. It is however crucial to watch the eastern front like Afghanistan, whereby reports have risen in association to the US plane that was shot down carrying the prominent CIA officer who was linked to the assassination of Soleimani. What is of strategic significance is the Iranian attack on the US base through Iraq in sending a message. The Iranians did not want to cause any deaths, but rather placate their population. The attack by all accounts was devastating. That strategic message was not lost on Donald Trump, who promised to take Americans out of wars, and so that balance of fear has once again been reestablished. This idea is a clear example of the Mad Man Theory of International Relations, when Nixon would act crazy to scare the North Vietnamese so that they would accede to his demands. We can clearly depict this in relation to Donald Trump who presents a rhetoric and then pulls back at the last minute. What is too bad for Trump is that the Iranians engage in the same theory, which as a result, leads to a balance of fear.