One could be led to believe that it all started in 2013 with the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency of Iran. Rouhani, along with his moderate and reformist agenda, bore much optimism among Western countries that Iran might shift direction towards a more pragmatic and less anti-Western foreign policy. But this was not what put Iran to the epicenter of the Middle East and international politics.
Iran’s increasing influence and rising role in the broader region has been prompted by three main developments: a) the Iraq war of 2003; b) the withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq by 2011; c) and the failure of Western policies in the case of Syria’s civil war in conjunction with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (henceforth, ISIS). Rouhani and the new round of negations about Iran’s nuclear program are only “the cherry on the pie.”
After the international isolation that Tehran faced following the 1979 theocratic revolution, the gradual dis-empowerment of Iraq (see, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Iraq war), especially after the 2003 United States-led invasion, allowed it to exploit the significant power vacuum that emerged. The Shiite governments of Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki that followed enhanced Iran’s influence over Iraq and triggered an intrastate sectarian conflict. This was perhaps the most important implication of the Iraq war as Iran is often called the big winner.
The withdrawal of the American troops coupled with Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” foreign policy orientation – which was a product of the changing international system and the waning American power – only deepened the power vacuum in the Middle East. Iran was now a pivotal geopolitical player not only in Syria and Lebanon, but also in Iraq. Its contribution to the resilience of the Bashar al-Assad regime amidst the raging civil war made that clear while the emergence of ISIS vindicated, at least ostensibly, both Damascus and Tehran which have been arguing that they have been fighting with terrorists.
Indeed, Iran seems to be more open to closer relations with the West; its relatively smooth negotiations with the West (P5+1) are evidence of this. Yet, it is the very results of Iraq’s war – ISIS being one of them – and their sectarian character that increased Iran’s geo-strategic significance, not only for the region but for the West as well. At the same time, Turkey’s double game, with the West on the one hand and ISIS on the other, renders it a largely unreliable partner thus creating the need for alternative partnership options that would ensure Western interests in the region. Saudi Arabia is also an important part of this equation but arguably not as important as Turkey due to the latter’s particular (institutional) linkages with the West and the historical analogies that could be drawn between Turkey and Iran.
Some may think that Iran might be on its way to replace Turkey, just like Turkey’s role for Western countries was strengthened after 1979 and Iran’s regime change. To be sure, this is a far-fetched scenario, though not an implausible one in the long-term and under certain circumstances. Although the two countries have been having good relations since the beginning of the previous decade, they are also ancient hegemonic rivals. Tensions stemming from that fact become obvious from time to time and this is one of them.
The reality is that both countries need the West, particularly the US, each for their own reasons and despite their own regional agenda. On the one hand, Iran needs to break its international isolation and re-claim a position in the international system on equal terms. This is vital for its survival, its economic development, and its regional aspirations. Thus, a rapprochement with the West would be key. Similarly, Turkey, despite its often belligerent rhetoric and leadership aspirations, has limited capabilities to achieve its proclaimed goals and vision. Moreover, its geographical proximity to all sorts of zones of conflict and instability, more often than not forces it to bandwagon with its traditional Western allies in order to be able to deal with the threats. It might also be the case that it uses its alliances opportunistically, as a means to achieving its own goals.
The bottom line is that, while Turkey has been increasingly met with suspicion, calls for Iran’s involvement in the fight against ISIS are growing stronger. And even though Iran is not part of the international anti-ISIS coalition, regional and international actors are realizing what this country can bring to the table as a significant regional power and the predominant Shiite force that has much to gain from battling Sunni extremism. But the West, and particularly United States, need Iran as well – even if they do not admit it; not only for the regional role it can play but also because this juncture seems to be ideal for a deal to be reached with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.
However, Western countries might have to first acknowledge and accept a win-win situation, that would also benefit Iran, rather than a zero-sum game where the West wins and Iran loses. They might also have to accept that, as Iran is changing and the international system is shifting, their view of the world should be more dynamic and their policies more easily adaptable to the new realities. A new world could rise out of these ashes and Iran seems to be claiming a place in it.