Competing Cold Wars: Trying to Predict Iranian Strategies

The end of the Cold War brought about drastic changes in global relations between states as well as a dramatic change in international politics. These changes have brought about the need for states to maintain flexibility in their foreign policies to react to an ever-changing world as states search to answer “what is next?”

For Iran, which was ill-equipped to face such challenges, it created a foreign policy nightmare it is still dealing with. This has never been truer since the end of the Cold War, which brought about widespread international system change, not all of it good to the internal dynamics within Iran.

For example, the warming of Iran’s relations with its Gulf neighbors took a hit during the Gulf Wars. With increased relations and strengthened military presence of the US in the region, and its continuing hardline stance on Iran, reignited tensions were inevitable. The removal of the Saddam regime in Iraq also reignited fears across the Gulf of a spreading Shia influence. Saudi fears of an emerging Shia Crescent intensified. The US presence helped Saudi Arabia hold onto its grip on regional power, however, as Iran had to recalculate its own security posture in the face of a potential American strike. Adding to the tension was always the looming nuclear issue. This caused Iran to enter into somewhat of a “Cold War” period with its Arab neighbors and in particular Saudi Arabia, while also continuing to try to assert its regional dominance: in Lebanon through its use of its main proxy, Hezbollah; in Syria, through its support of Assad; and in Yemen, through the Houthi militants.

Internal changes within Iran, however, have started to bring about an external change. While Iran seeks to improve relations internationally it also in particular wants to gain a place of dominance in terms of security within the region. As the Iranian domestic landscape continues to change towards more pragmatism, it has had a marked effect on its foreign policy. Iran currently maintains good relations with Turkey, the Assad regime in Syria, and also with the Hezbollah and Shia powers in Iraq. It has also recently entered into agreements with Russia and has begun to participate in several joint operations together. It has traditionally been at odds with its Arab counterparts, mainly the GCC nations, as well as the United States, Egypt and Israel. The recent nuclear agreement appears to be part of a general warming trend, however, as the region remains hopeful that a nuclear Iran is not on the immediate horizon. A warming of the international community towards Iran, however, would most likely force Saudi Arabia into new alliances with Pakistan and Turkey, let alone Israel, along with further changes to the alliances with other GCC states in an effort to counter increased Iranian status and power.

The uranium enrichment program and an Iranian nuclear capability is also a major shaper of how Iran views its own internal security posture, as well as shaping how states within the region and beyond address Iran. Domestically Iran is divided in regards to the nuclear issue into three main groups:

  • Nuclear supporters. Those who unreservedly support Iran’s nuclear program and believe Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent against perceived external threats.
  • Nuclear detractors. Those who advocate permanently rolling back Iran’s nuclear program in favor of other national interests and domestic development priorities.
  • Nuclear centrists. Those who are willing to accept temporary constraints on Iran’s uranium-enrichment-related and reprocessing activities—thereby lowering the degree of nuclear weapons latency— to end Iran’s international isolation.

A nuclear Iran drastically changes the balance of power in the region, especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia, and has been a major factor in not only Iran’s international dealings but also for Saudi Arabia as it seeks to minimize this threat. Thus watching how the internal dynamics of those three groups within Iran jockey for authority and supremacy will be important in understanding how Saudi Arabia views Iran’s inevitable reemergence onto the regional/world stage. With its recent moves to improve relations and relieve tensions with regards to its nuclear program it is not inconceivable that Iran, while working to thaw its own Cold War with Saudi Arabia, could also be working to reignite Cold War tension between the United States and Russia. A return of Russia into the regional mix on Iran’s side, acting mostly with Iran’s interests, along with the concerns that the JCPOA agreement has created between the US and Saudi Arabia, bodes well for Iran.

On the other hand, instead of just assuming eternal discord and rivalry, Iran and Saudi Arabia need to continue to work diplomatically to reduce their mistrust and, at times, their misconstrued perceptions of one another. One potential item for the agenda should be Yemen. Yemen does not appear to be a dispute that has any core value to Iran outside of it being a target of opportunity to simply create havoc in the region and to threaten Wahhabist hegemony. Given that this does not seem to be of true strategic value to Iran, it is possible that it could work diplomatically with Saudi Arabia towards a solution that could go a long way towards easing fears within the GCC states of a post-JCPOA Iran. Because there is so much ample opportunity for a future post-JCPOA Iran to be either a new stable ally of the global community or conversely revitalized adversary, and not much consensus as to which direction it will ultimately choose, political and intelligence analysis on the Islamic Republic should prove fruitful and fascinating for years to come.