Iran’s new political chapter?

Assessing the political implications that the lifting of the sanctions against Iran can have for the Teheran-Riyadh relationship in the region

Since 1979, when the Shah was eventually overthrown after his steadiness on the throne had been decreasing by the day and Khomeini took that crucial Air France flight that brought him back home, Iran has been politically isolated in the Middle East and marginalized in the international community. In addition, since 2006, because of its nuclear program, it has been subject to economic sanctions imposed by USA, EU and UN that have reined in the country’s economic potential and condemned its population to economic hardships.
Now all this might change.
On 17th January 2016, after the IAEA confirmed Iran was complying with what agreed upon in last summer’s nuclear deal by sensibly reducing its nuclear activities, those sanctions that over the past years had doomed Iran to face a double-digit inflation were lifted. A breakthrough development, capable of opening –in Rouhani’s words- a “new chapter” for the country, a major event whose consequences will not interest Iran only but will affect the whole region – economically as well as politically.

On the economic side it is where the consequences are clear the most. With the country back in the international economy, new prospects and opportunities are on the horizon and optimism is slightly reappearing in the streets of Teheran.

Though, it is in the political field, where clear and certain predictions are much more difficult to be made -especially in a region as complex as the Middle East, where any new day brings about new crucial events and developments- that consequences are interesting the most.
As said, Teheran is considerably isolated since the earliest days of life of the Islamic Republic –an isolation that first emerged with undeniable clarity during the war with Iraq and that is still reflected in today’s regional dynamics- new scenarios might be now opening up.
Over the past years, the Middle East has witnessed a progressive disengagement of the United States -whose major strategic interests are shifting towards the Pacific and for which the Middle East is becoming nothing more than a source of continuous failures and worries- and a progressive heightening of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever more engaged in a struggle for power in which any loss is a rival’s gain, the two regional powers have turned Syria and Yemen into the preferred fields of a bloody proxy war whose prize is supremacy over the region, prestige and political sway.
Resisting the temptation of reducing everything to a Sunni-Shia divide that this time is just in the background, it is to be reckoned we are in front of a struggle for power whose balance is leaning in favor of Teheran – at all expense of a Saudi monarchy that its own most recent moves are dragging ever down. In front of a rival getting closer to the international community thanks to the nuclear deal, Riyadh has responded by escalating the conflict in Yemen -now destined to become a new endless, Syrian-like bloody stalemate- and by escalating sectarian and political divides through the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Both disputable choices that are not leading Saudi Arabia anywhere. Especially when on the other side of the Gulf’s waters Iran is on the rise and strengthening its standing at international and regional level.
Indeed, the reality that is now unfolding in the area, and that is bringing worries to the Saudis as much as it is bringing hopes to the Iranians, is that Iran, by signing a nuclear deal the population had been waiting (and asking) for long, is not only reaping the economic advantages that the lifting of sanctions brings. It is seen itself recognized as a power capable of sitting at a table with the world leaders, negotiate agreements and keep its promise. It might seem nothing big at a first look, but it actually is. The fact that today the international community begins to regard Iran not as a radical Islamic country, led by bearded religious leaders and ambiguous political figures, but as a country with which dialogue is possible and agreements are reachable, creates the possibilities for a new chapter to begin for real. Politics is made of perceptions, of ideas we have of ourselves and of the others, and of behaviors that by those ideas are instructed. A change in perceptions is therefore a change in behavior, and the perception today is that Iran is on the rise and that the future dynamics of the Middle East will depend much more on Teheran’s moves than on Saudi Arabia’s.
With an opening economy, political leaders such as Zarif who are giving the country a new face, and an educated population willing to work, travel and enter in relations with the outer world, Iran’s capacity of expanding its influence in the region goes now beyond the “proxy war rationale” through which Teheran and Riyadh have used to confront each other. Iran is now increasingly on the rise because it is believing in the possibility of founding its strength and regional influence on elements other than material capabilities: a new international image, new economic opportunities, new capacity of building relations with the outside.

That said, it is clear that Teheran will not reduce its indirect presence in Yemen, will not abandon its intervention in Syria, nor will it moderate its support to Hezbollah and other regional Shia militias. However, attention must be given to the fact that it is giving to its foreign policy a new dimension, competitive because centered on soft power. A dimension that Riyadh is proving it does not know how to compete with.


The game the Middle East does not need

The sectarian rivalries the Saudis are trying to ignite in an anti-Iran logic are a direct threat to the whole region, and the Middle East’s near future is now dependent on Teheran’s responses

Too fast have the events of the past two days unfolded before our eyes.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia carried out the execution of 47 prisoners – some of them accused of involvement in the Al-Qaeda-led terror attacks that have hit the country over the past years, others of incitement of violence against the government.
Bearing in mind that in 2015 alone Saudi Arabia executed 175 people, the executions of the 2nd January might look as nothing more than the prosecution of a grim record that ensures Saudi Arabia a place in all the statistics on human rights violations. However, this time it is different and worse, because beyond the human rights dimension there is a political one, that comes to give a particular significance to the executions of Saturday and has the potential of spreading instability and violence across the whole region.

Among the 47 people executed on Saturday, in fact, one individual stands out: Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Arrested in 2012 with the charge of inciting the wave of anti-government protests that in the framework of the Arab Spring did not spare the Saudi Kingdom, Nimr al-Nimr was more than a critic of the House of Saud. He was also more than a Shia expressing his resentment towards a Sunni government that has always relegated the Shia minority of the country in a marginalized position: he was the face of all the Saudi Shias who in 2011-12 took to the streets asking for the end of discrimination. He was expression of the Shia soul of a Wahhabist country that one day though will have to deal with its Shia side in a more inclusive way, if it aspires to be something more than a regional power. He was a man and an icon, and the execution of a figure like him cannot but have consequences in the broader region, there where the axis Sunni-Shia is still the main definer of the individuals’ identity and one of the major driver of the countries’ foreign policies.

Not surprisingly, Nimr al-Nimr’s execution sparked a wave of protests than spread from the Gulf to Indian Kashmir, going through Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
And it is indeed at Iran that we have to look to understand what lies behind Saudi Arabia’s move.

Putting on the lenses of Realism to look at the region’s reality, it immediately emerges how Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two protagonists of a zero-sum struggle for power. The champion of Sunnism and the exponent of Shiism are indeed involved in a struggle whose price is nothing less than influence on the region, and whose battlefields are Syria as much as Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to carry out Nimr al-Nimr’s execution has the effect of dramatically escalating the tensions between Riyadh and Teheran: on Saturday itself, the Saudi Embassy in the Iranian capital was set on fire and on Sunday Saudi Arabia announced the end of any diplomatic tie with Iran.

Why do so then? Precisely to achieve this result: escalate tensions with the region’s number one rival.

In the bilateral competition for power of which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the players, the former has emerged over the past year as the weakest one. Since Salman became king last January, global economy and international diplomacy have played against Riyadh and given King Salman sleepless nights.
As if the fall of oil prices was not enough to dramatically weaken the influence of a country whose contracting power and strength has since its foundation relied on its black oil, the nuclear agreement reached by the P5+1 with the ayatollah has made Saudis’ position even more staggering.
Iran has indeed emerged over the last months as a growing regional power, whose re-integration in the international economic and political system represents a direct threat to Riyadh’s national interests. If to this we add the increasing possibility of negotiations emerging on the horizon of the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars that would improve Iran’s image worldwide, it emerges the necessity for the Saudis of curbing the rival’s rise.
The execution of Nimr al-Nimr find thus explanation within such framework. It is the last, exasperate card played by a country in economic and political decline trying to preserve what still remains of its traditional role of major regional actor. A role the Saudis are trying to preserve igniting the sectarian conflict in the Middle East; pushing Iran to react harshly and thus lose the possibility of a full (re)integration in the international system; strengthening Sunnis’ anti-Shia feeling in the whole region; protracting the wars in Yemen and Syria to prevent Iran exploiting the benefits of diplomatic negotiation.

As of now, Iran has reacted verbally only and the ayatollah – though obviously condemning Nimr al-Nimr’s execution – has also avoided leaving unpunished those who attacked the Saudi embassy in Teheran.
By so doing, Iran is following not only a positive path that might succeed in keeping the sectarian tensions under check, but also a strategic one. It is playing the Saudis’ card against the Saudis themselves. It is presenting itself as a reasonable regional power who reacts by words without inciting violence as the Saudis hoped, and it is making all the responsibility of sectarian clashes fall on Riyadh, thus impairing even more their international image, when not even legitimacy.
A route of action that, if maintained with coherence and avoidance of any reprisal, will confirm even more Iran’s rise – despite the dangerous game the Saudis have initiated and that could turn into an added element to their recent weakness.