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Two years after Soleimani killing: more shadows than light for Iran

Tehran vowed to purge American influence from the region. On that score, their record is decidedly mixed.

Analysis | Middle East

Exactly two years ago, I was in Tehran attending, at the invitation of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), Iran’s foreign ministry’s think tank, a conference on Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE), an initiative to create a platform for an inclusive regional dialogue in the Persian Gulf. 

However, it was the U.S. assassination a few days earlier of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Al-Qods group of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), that overshadowed the conference. The Iranian hosts inevitably emphasized U.S. withdrawal from West Asia as their top strategic imperative and, by implication, the benchmark by which to measure the success of their foreign policy.

Two years later, Iran’s record sheet on these accounts presents a decidedly mixed picture. 

Regionally, the goal of Washington’s military withdrawal from West Asia was unrealistic to begin with as many countries in the region relied on alliance with Washington for their security needs. Predictably then, there is not a slightest sign of Qatar wanting to expel the U.S. airbase in al-Udeid, nor Turkey leaving NATO, despite its mercurial president’s own disagreements with the U.S. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates all have their own extensive security relationships with Washington. To think that they would give them up, short of revolutions toppling their regimes, is delusional.

On the practical level, however, the continuing U.S. presence notwithstanding, Iran has shown flexibility by engaging in negotiations with Saudi Arabia and UAE, its foremost adversaries among the Persian Gulf nations. In that sense, the increased synergy between the “battlefield” and diplomacy, initiated by the Raisi administration, may have played a positive role in eliminating Riyadh’s excuse for not engaging seriously with Tehran. De-escalation with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi shows that Tehran is capable of separating its strategic goals from pragmatic tactical steps aimed at lowering tensions.

Ironically, where the U.S. has withdrawn or reduced its engagement, Iran’s interests have  suffered. To Iran’s east, Afghanistan is an obvious example. Although the Islamic Republic prudently engaged with the Taliban prior to its takeover of Kabul, the militant Sunni Pashtun group harbors no sympathy for Shiite Iran and now enjoys the freedom to attack Iran’s interests. The downfall of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul led to the marginalization of Iran’s traditional allies in Afghanistan — the Persian-speaking Tajiks — and obliged Tehran to rely mostly on Shia Hazaras. Some of them may have acquired military experience in Syria fighting alongside the IRGC on behalf of the Assad regime, but their numbers make it very difficult for them to pose any serious challenge to the Taliban.

The situation is not much better for Iran to its north. Azerbaijan’s swift victory against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh region threatens to remove Iran’s border with Armenia and incite Azeri irredentism against Tehran. Azerbaijan’s success was achieved thanks to extensive Turkish military and diplomatic support. That marked a key difference with the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s; back then Turkey didn’t go beyond mostly political and moral support for Azerbaijan. 

What changed is that now Turkey feels sufficiently unconstrained by its NATO membership and U.S. ties to pursue a more assertive foreign policy. While the Islamic Republic’s ideologues mostly welcomed that liberation from the United States, they did not foresee its double-edged nature and ultimately threaten Iran’s interests — a point painfully driven home by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks in Baku in 2020 in which he appeared to have set his sights on Iran’s territory.

Even in Iraq, where Iran’s position is arguably the strongest among Baghdad’s neighbors, full U.S. withdrawal may prove a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it would symbolically avenge the assassination of Soleimani; on the other, however, it would remove a tacit ally against a potentially resurgent ISIS — a point of which Soleimani himself was acutely aware as he fought ISIS de factoalongside the U.S.

In other words, propaganda about the triumphant march of the “Axis of Resistance” aside, the Islamic Republic has so far not succeeded in advancing its goal of forcing the U.S. out of West Asia. And where the U.S. did withdraw, as from Afghanistan, the outcome was not favorable to Tehran’s interests.

The fixation on opposing the U.S. at all cost undermines Iran’s interests in other ways as well. Tehran’s stubborn refusal to negotiate directly with the U.S. on the revival of the nuclear agreement, or JCPOA, has made Russia a de facto lawyer for Iran. Iranian conservatives may laud that as a success for their “turn to East” policy. Many observers, however, saw in it a dereliction of diplomatic duty to defend the country’s interests and an affront to Iran’s sovereignty and dignity. 

Rightly so, as Russia, naturally, has its own, not Iran’s, interests at heart. Although the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, has emerged as a key player in efforts to restore the JCPOA, Moscow pursued policies at odds with Tehran’s interests in other domains. In South Caucasus, for example, it has made it clear that its priority was to appease the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem, rather than cater to Iran. And in Syria it has amply tolerated Israel’s strikes on Iranian assets.

Even more damaging to Iran’s international standing is the fact that even smaller neighbors, such as Azerbaijan, are keenly aware of Iran’s relatively weak position due to its dysfunctional relations with the West and do not hesitate to exploit it to their advantage. That includes making deals with Iran when convenient such as the recent trilateral Iran-Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan gas swap deal, while ignoring Iran’s security concerns, such as Baku’s close cooperation with Israel and Turkey and territorial claims on the chunk of the Armenian land that borders Iran.

Finally, all the talk of “resistance”, “expelling the U.S.” and “turning to East” ignores the truly existential threat that Iran faces just like the rest of the humanity — climate change. The Iranians who recently protested water scarcity in the city of Isfahan are not interested in their leaders rhapsodizing about the “decline of American power” or the future “world without Zionism.” They need solutions to make their cities livable again. Fighting climate change, just like pandemics, requires international cooperation, not outdated ideological slogans. 

Two years after Gen. Soleimani’s assassination, the Islamic Republic might best be served by discarding the quixotic pursuit of unattainable goals and focusing instead on what its rulers are supposed to do: providing for the security and well-being of their citizens. That may well include shifting from the goal of “expelling the U.S.” to trying to redefine the relationship based on a degree of mutual acceptance, at least for as long as the Democratic administration is in power.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.  

Funeral of Qassem Suleimani assassinated by American drones, Qasem Soleimani was an Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran Tehran, Jan 7, 2020.(Saeediex/Shutterstock)
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