July 29, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: President Rouhani lays out vision for the new Middle East

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles during his meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad, July 27, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles during his meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad, Monday July 27, 2015. (Reuters/Ahmed Saad)

While Washington debates whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will mean a long-term shift in relations with Tehran, Iran is staking its claim for leadership in the Middle East. President Rouhani in a July 26 speech argued that US Secretary of State John Kerry’sremarks at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 23 made it clear the US should not threaten Iran and that Americans should reevaluate their polices towards the Islamic Republic. Rouhani also proclaimed:

"Iran is the safest and most stable country in the region…Iran does not differentiate between Shi’as and Sunnis…Iran will cleanse the entire region of terrorists through our unity and solidarity…If it were not for Iran…the Iraqi cities of Erbil and Baghdad would have fallen to [ISIS]."

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif seconded Rouhani’s sentiments on his first tour of Middle East capitals following the nuclear negotiations. During a Monday press conference in Iraq, Zarif stated Iran will continue to cooperate with the Iraqi government in fighting “extremism and terrorism.” In Kuwait and Qatar, the Foreign Minister also stressed the need for regional cooperation in fighting terrorism.

The idea of Iran leading the fight against terror is laughable to most observers, of course, but it is a central component of Tehran’s new narrative as the indispensable nation in the region. Iran frequently points to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and especially the United States as being the true sources of terrorism and volatility. Iran publicly blames Riyadh and Washington for the rise of ISIS and will continue to attempt to discredit the Saudi and US leadership roles in the Middle East as it tries to assert its own preeminence in the region.

But Hamas could put a new wrinkle in Iran’s growing contest with Saudi Arabia for power and influence. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) closely supported the Gaza-based Sunni militant organization for many years as part of its so-called Resistance Network against Israel and the West. Hamas leaders fell out with Iran in 2011 though, when the IRGC backed Syrian President Basar al Assad’s violent suppression campaign against his Sunni opposition, which triggered the current civil war. Efforts at rapprochement have been fitful over the subsequent years, even during Hamas’ war with Israel in Gaza last summer.

Iran is not reacting well, unsurprisingly, to Hamas’ July 17 meeting with the Saudi king, crown prince and defense minster, the first such talks between the two sides for years. Hamas leader Salah Bardwal called the visit a “breakthrough”. Hamas’ realignment towards Riyadh would undermine Iranian claims to lead the Islamic world’s fight against Israel. Even more concerning for Tehran are rumors (or perhaps disinformation) emerging from the Riyadh talks claiming that Saudi Arabia asked Hamas to help in its conflict in Yemen against Iranian-supported Houthi rebels. Saudi officials deny there has been any change in their policies towards Hamas, but it is a clever move by Riyadh in what they see as an existential struggle with Iran for power and survival in a post-nuclear deal Middle East.