What happens inside Iran does not stay inside Iran. With the disputes and geopolitical changes in the Middle East today, a closer look at Iran’s foreign policy must be taken into great consideration, particularly in the light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Islamic leaders at the Arab Islamic American Summit.
The summit is scheduled to address ways of building more robust and effective security partnerships to counter and prevent the growing threat of terrorism and violent extremism across the globe through promotion of tolerance and moderation.
Unofficially, Iran is on top of the summit’s agenda.
Reformist Hassan Rouhani, who sought to frame Friday’s presidential election as a choice to the Iranian people between greater civil liberties and “extremism” during his campaign, was re-elected to the presidency for a second term. President Rouhani is Iran's seventh president and has held the position since 2013. He won this term against rival Ibrahim Raisi, who is said to be backed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as the likely pick of the country's powerful Revolutionary Guards and clergy.
Raisi, who has accused Rouhani of mismanaging the economy, supports stricter foreign policies towards the West and the Arab Gulf and has styled himself as the defender of the poor. The Iranian people seem to not have liked Raisi’s tone, finding it too similar to that of former president Ahmed Najadi, who caused Iran to fall under huge economic sanctions and international isolation.
Rouhani swept into office four years ago on a promise to reduce Iran's international isolation and set his sights toward the U.S. and Europe to ease economic sanctions on the Iranian state. Rouhani has managed to curb the isolation imposed on Iran because of its nuclear activities, in spite of economic setbacks and criticism. He also managed to downsize inflation by 40 percent an increase oil sales since taking office in 2013.
In spite of Rouhani’s rise to power in Iran and the fact that he is trying to curb the state of imposed isolation and adopts a tone advocating freedoms and a less hostile foreign policy, it is Khameini and the Revolution Guards that really control Iranian foreign policy towards states in conflict with Iran.
The nuclear deal with the U.S. is seen as one of Rouhani’s greatest achievements during his presidency, allowing the opening of Iran to the world and efforts to rebuild its stagnant economy.
Dr. Mohamed al-Zaghoul, head of the Iranian Studies Unit at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, told Egypt Today in a phone interview Saturday that, “it was a wise move to choose a less controversial president for Iran today.”
However, the re-elected president will have to handle a tricky relationship with Washington under Donald Trump’s rule; Trump has repeatedly described the nuclear deal with Iran as "one of the worst deals ever signed." His administration, however, re-authorized waivers from sanctions this week.
With Trump’s decision to visit Saudia Arabia, Iran's biggest regional enemy, for his first trip abroad, speculation is rising about a hard push by the Saudis for trump to turn his back on the nuclear deal with Iran. With the U.S. sealing a weapons deal worth nearly $110 billion immediately, $350 billion over 10 years, with its Saudi counterpart on the sidelines of the Arab Islamic American Summit, speculation is also interpreting this as an act of strengthening the U.S. position against Iran in the region.
All Iranian presidential candidates have vowed to continue abiding by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal signed in 2015, in which Iran agreed to rein in elements of its nuclear program in exchange for partial sanctions relief from the U.S. and the European Union (EU). Iran is compliant to the deal, in spite of the difference in tone between Trump and the Obama administration. El-Zaghoul told Egypt Today that, “Iran’s foreign policy does not depend much on which president is taking the lead, though it depends on the Revolution Gurads and the house of Khameini, since it is they who manage the foreign policy files in that matter.”
He added that Saudia Arabia “focuses on curbing the Iranian influence spreading in the region in countries like Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.”
Regionally speaking, Iran is expected to continue its support to regional countries in conflict, such as Syria, Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which Saudia Arabia totally opposes. Yet Iran is not expected to adopt a hostile policy against the U.S.-led coalition in those countries of conflict. Iran’s support and main player in the region is Hezbollah, and its considers Syria the ‘governorate number 355’ of Iran’s backyard and not in the intervention sense as perceived by Bahrain or other Gulf countries. On the contrary, Iran’s intervention in Syria is seen as support and under a direct invitation of the Syrian regime against terrorism faced by Syria, and this is the main drive behind the current U.S.-Saudi alignment. Iran itself faced terrorism in Syrian territories when one of its leading generals, Hosseini Hamadani, was assassinated near Hommah 2015.
Iran has an important card in the region, which is Iraq. Iran provides huge support to the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. El-Zaghoul told ET that Iran’s Revolution Guards chose one of their leaders, Iraj Masjadi, as ambassador to Iraq.
Iraq is considered an ally of the U.S., and falling back into Iranian influence would jeopardize the retake of the cities of Mosul and Raqqa from the extremist Islamic State group, which Iran finds in its own interest as well.
In regards to Egypt, Iran exerts effort in befriending Egypt and a new approach is taken towards Egypt in unifying views on certain issues. “Ambitions of grouping Egypt into the so-called axis of resistance is an over-wished-for ambition, because Egypt has historic relations with the Gulf that would not allow it to join the axis completely,” El-Zaghoul said, “even if it has a supportive vision over Syria and integrity of its territories.”