Iran does not need a nuclear deal to execute its regional policies. However, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could have a great impact on its approach, thereby facilitating cooperation with Western and Arab countries.
A key argument of those brushing off the utility of regional collaboration with Iran is that Middle East policy falls under the purview of the Quds Force, the foreign operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and not the Foreign Ministry. While this has been the case in past years, domestic and international developments — including the JCPOA — are changing dynamics.
Iranian sources have repeatedly conveyed to Al-Monitor that Tehran’s four-point plans for Yemen and Syria are not solely the work of the Foreign Ministry, but the result of coordination with the Quds Force. And if there were any doubts about the extent of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s portfolio, US Secretary of State John Kerry clarified things July 31 to The Atlantic: “Zarif specifically said to me … ‘If we get this [JCPOA] finished, I am now empowered to work with and talk to you about regional issues.’”
The 2012-13 initiative to bring together major regional powers — Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — for talks on Syria failed primarily due to Saudi reticence. Parallel meetings on Syria under UN auspices in Geneva, from which Iran was excluded, have also failed.
However, in the aftermath of the JCPOA, multiple games appear at play to jumpstart regional engagement.
First, Iran is intensifying its regional outreach. Zarif’s recent tour of Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq was not a victory lap, but a signal that all will benefit from the new international dynamics on the cusp. It also appeared designed to invite Western pressure on Saudi Arabia to engage through projection of a willingness to assume a more constructive approach. This seems to have worked, as Kerry publicly said that Zarif “was just in Kuwait, he was in Qatar, he was moving around. They’re engaging.” Zarif’s tour additionally appears to be aimed at elevating cooperation with Iran on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) agenda, via outreach to less hostile GCC members. Indeed, Zarif tweeted about his meetings: “Excellent talks … more to come. To those still in doubt: Neighbors are [a] priority: an imperative. And a rewarding choice.” The last part of the tweet appears specifically designed to convey Iran’s quest for regional engagement as a positive initiative rather than forced necessity. Zarif is set to soon embark on a second post-JCPOA regional tour, with Lebanon so far reportedly on his itinerary.
Second, the United States is making active and successful efforts to sell the JCPOA to its Arab allies, and through recent meetings with GCC foreign ministers gathered in Qatar, Kerry managed to get the issuing of a public GCC statement in support of the nuclear deal. Whatever the price of this endorsement, the transaction appears completed.
Third, Russia is making active efforts to engage with the United States and regional powers — including both the GCC and Iran — to promote regional cooperation. Fear of losing out to anticipated Iranian-American coordination should not be discounted as an important factor in this respect. Of note, in connection with Kerry’s meetings with the GCC in Qatar, the Russian, American and Saudi foreign ministers held a trilateral discussion on Syria, among other matters. Days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East paid a visit to Tehran to meet with the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers. Clearly, the element of Russian-American political willingness to engage with each other as well as all relevant regional powers is a promising element in this new equation.
Despite these positive developments, regional powers continue to pursue their current policies with vigor — as Plan Bs, but also to strengthen leverage ahead of anticipated talks this September.
Iran is strengthening its cooperation with its Iraqi and Syrian partners, and Syrian-Iraqi coordination is also being stepped up in this vein. As Zarif was visiting Iraq — including Najaf, where the Shiite clerical leadership including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is based — Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayad, formal coordinator of the Popular Mobilization Units, met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Days later, Quds Force Cmdr. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was spotted along with key Popular Mobilization Unit leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, while reportedly sending “positive messages” to Iran, is seemingly pursuing indirect pushback against Iran. As Zarif was kicking off his regional tour, Bahrain — a close ally of Riyadh and the recipient of significant Saudi military and political support to put down a 2011 Shiite revolt — announced that it is recalling its envoy to Tehran over arms smuggling allegations. Iran immediately hit back, accusing Bahrain of “seeking to create a climate of tension in the region.”
Moreover, Saudi-backed forces have been making headway in southern Yemen. In addition to previous reports of Saudi forces on the ground, there are now reports of Emirati troops also taking part in anti-Houthi operations. Of note, the Emirati foreign minister also accused Iran of foreign meddling amid Zarif’s regional tour, which excluded the United Arab Emirates. The latest reported GCC operations in Yemen appear backed by the United States; on Aug. 5, US President Barack Obama said Iran needs to be countered “by training our allies’ special forces so they can more effectively respond to situations like Yemen.”
The wild card appears to be Turkey, torn between battling the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkish operations in the aftermath of a bloody IS bombing on its soil appear primarily aimed at the PKK, whose Syrian offshoot is the premier anti-IS force in northern Syria.
Moving forward, it is natural to expect maneuvering to strengthen positions ahead of talks anticipated in connection with the UN General Assembly in September. However, it would be extremely dangerous if perceptions of potential battlefield victories as bargaining chips would give way to illusions of grandeur. If anything, the damaging dynamic of means turning into ends was seen for years in the nuclear negotiations, to the detriment of all.