After the Arab Spring: Iran's Foreign Relations in the Middle East

September 28, 2011
The final arbiter of Iran's foreign policy, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Wikimedia Commons)

The transformative events of the Arab Spring have presented the Islamic Republic with new challenges and opportunities. Most notably, while the regime has been forced to confront the contradictions inherent in its foreign policy, it has nonetheless continued to project its influence using both hard and soft power tactics. Iran’s supreme leader has repeatedly claimed that the 1979 Iranian Revolution is the inspiration for the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, recently terming these events as “divine blessings.” In the case of Bahrain, Iran’s political and clerical elite have waged a propaganda campaign, loudly criticizing both the al Khalifa government for violently suppressing protests led by the Bahraini Shi’a community and Saudi Arabia for deploying its troops in support of the al Khalifa monarchy. Likewise, the Iranian government has expressed support for al Houthi rebels in Yemen while condemning Saleh loyalists for their attacks on the opposition.

In spite of Iran’s attempts to bolster its regional credibility through such rhetoric, its standing in the Middle East has been severely damaged by its support for the Assad regime in Syria and its suppression of Iran’s domestic opposition. The United States and European Union have each levied separate sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for supporting Assad in crushing the popular revolt. The Islamic Republic’s support for Assad and relative silence on atrocities committed in Syria – particularly in contrast with its unremitting commentary on the rest of the region’s developments – are rapidly unmaking its constructed image of vanguard and protector of the Islamic world. This image is a fundamental pillar of the Islamic Republic’s ideological legitimacy, and as such, the regime has stepped up its efforts to repair damage done. These efforts have been primarily humanitarian: Iran has dispatched multiple aid convoys through its Red Crescent Society to Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. To ensure that its deeds do not go unnoticed, Iran has systematically broadcasted progress reports on these activities through its English-, Persian-, and Arabic-language media outlets.

Its humanitarian efforts aside, Iran continues to foster militant activity in the region. This is evidenced by Iran’s continuous military and financial support for Shi’ite proxy militias in Iraq, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, and the terrorist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Israel. Sanctions issued by the U.S. Treasury in July 2011 confirm that the Islamic Republic has also cooperated with al Qaeda operatives in the region and provided them sanctuary within Iran. Iran’s rhetorical and materiel support for Shi’a populations in countries such as Bahrain and Yemen have fueled tensions between its government and the governments of countries such as Saudi Arabia. In spite of all this, Iran shares close ties with many regional states. For example, Oman and Iran have cooperated militarily in recent years, and the United Arab Emirates and Iran share extensive economic ties. In Egypt, Iran is attempting to exploit the post-Mubarak order to reestablish ties with Cairo.  

Iran’s relations with the Middle East States are significant and evolving. Understanding Iran’s regional ties is critical to understanding Iran’s foreign policy strategy more broadly. To that end, the Critical Threats Project has published updated summary analyses on Iran’s relations with each of the Middle Eastern countries, along with supporting data points in the following categories: nuclear, economic, diplomatic, and military (where applicable). A sample of these data is presented for each country below along with links to the full analyses.

 

Afghanistan

March 15, 2011: Commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) General David H. Petraeus confirmed at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the rockets shipment seized by ISAF forces in February in Afghanistan's western Nimroz province was directed by Iran's Qods Force. The 48 122mm rockets seized were being transported in a three-truck convoy and would nearly double the range of rockets previously used by insurgents in Afghanistan.

August 3, 2010: The U.S. Treasury designated several Iranian individuals and organizations for sanctions as a result of their “support for terrorism and terrorist organizations.” IRGC Qods Force General Hossein Musavi was designated for providing “financial and material support to the Taliban.” The Treasury’s press release further elaborated, “In Afghanistan, the IRGC-QF [Qods Force] provides select members of the Taliban with weapons, funding, logistics and training. In Iraq, the Government of Iran trains, equips, and funds Iraqi Shia militant groups.”

 

Bahrain

May 23, 2011: Bahrain announced that its bilateral deal with Iran to import natural gas has been “halted” due to “blatant Iranian interference” in its internal affairs. According to Bahraini foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed al Khalifa, “The repeated provocative statements from Tehran would no doubt be an obstacle to any agreement between the two parties.”

April 25, 2011: In a report sent to the United Nations, Bahrain accused Hezbollah of training Bahraini opposition groups in Lebanon and Iran. Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohamed al Khalifa, is quoted in the report: “Some foreign countries have actively provided logistical support to Hezbollah to assist in destabilizing Bahrain over recent months.” American intelligence officials are also reported to have observed communication between Bahraini opposition groups, Hezbollah, and Iran since the protests emerged in February.

 

Egypt

April 17, 2011: Egyptian foreign ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhour asserted, “We are prepared to take a different view of Iran. The former regime used to see Iran as an enemy, but we don’t.”

February 22, 2011: Two Iranian warships passed through the Suez Canal en route to Latakia, Syria after Egyptian authorities granted the vessels access through the waterway. It was the first such passage by Iranian naval vessels since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

 

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

July 2, 2011: The six GCC member states unanimously approved an internal proposal to bolster their combined military force, the Peninsula Shield. The proposal would increase it troop levels from 50,000 to 100,000 by the end of 2012. Security, defense and intelligence advisor, Dr. Sami Alfaraj, stated that the decision was made in order to counter a growing threat from Iran “and its subversive terrorist elements across the GCC.”

April 11, 2011: The GCC and EU issued a joint statement calling for Iran to “fully comply with the resolutions adopted by the UNSC and IAEA.”

 

Iraq

July 25, 2011: Iran, Iraq and Syria signed a $10 billion natural gas agreement. According to the agreement, the three countries will construct a pipeline running from Iran’s natural gas fields to Iraq and Syria. The pipeline will eventually be extended to the Mediterranean via Lebanon. Iraq would initially receive 20 million cubic meters per day, and Syria 20 to 25 million cubic meters per day.

June 30, 2011: On his last day in office, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that Iran is still actively interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs. Secretary Gates said that Iran is “facilitating weapons, they’re facilitating training, there’s new technology that they’re providing…. They’re stepping this up, and it’s a concern.”

 

Israel

June 29, 2011: The Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, stated that “U.S. targets in the region and Israel are within the range of Iran’s missiles.” He added, “the range of our missiles has been designed based on American bases in the region as well as the Zionist regime.”

May 24, 2011: In a speech before U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran “the greatest danger facing humanity.”[14] He asserted that “a nuclear-armed Iran would ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East…give terrorists a nuclear umbrella [and] make the nightmare of nuclear terrorism a clear and present danger throughout the world.” Prime Minister Netanyahu also reiterated his nation’s right to defend itself and urged the U.S. government to maintain its commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

 

Jordan

May 11, 2011: Gulf Cooperation Council officials (GCC) began meeting to discuss Jordan’s request to join the GCC. The GCC originally formed in response to regional security concerns, including the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its expressed intent to export its revolution abroad. Observers have speculated that Jordan’s bid to join the GCC was born out of its unease with Iranian efforts to undermine regional security. Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs Taher Adwan supported this conclusion in statements made to the media in which he expressed his country’s support for GCC foreign policy and its opposition to Iran’s interference in the domestic affairs of regional states.

March 16, 2011: Iranian officials announced that a visit by Jordan’s King Abdullah II during Iranian Nowruz celebrations had been cancelled. “This trip has been called off due to intense popular opposition and the opposition of decision-making institutions,” said a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran’s Parliament, Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash. He added, “Malik Abdullah's trip [to Iran], which…has been cancelled, could delay the downfall of Jordan's dictatorial regime.”

 

Kuwait

May 18, 2011: Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi met with his counterpart in Kuwait and announced: “It was decided that the ambassadors of the two countries will return to their posts as soon as possible.” On May 23, 2011, the new Iranian Ambassador to Kuwait, Rouhollah Qahremani Chabok arrived in Kuwait. Iran had not had an ambassador in Kuwait for over a year.

April 2, 2011: Kuwait expelled three Iranian diplomats accused of spying for Iran since 2003. “There will be action against a group of Iranian diplomats....They will be considered persona non grata and expelled from Kuwait,” announced Kuwait’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammad Sabah al Salem al Sabah. According to the minister, the spy network planned to attack “strategic” sites inside Kuwait: “We are talking about a cell whose task was not only to monitor and record the (U.S.) military presence that is in their view hostile…but it exceeded that.” He added, “[t]hey had explosives and the intention to explode vital Kuwaiti facilities. They had names of officers and they had extremely sensitive information. This indicates bad intentions to harm Kuwaiti security.”

 

Lebanon

July 22, 2011: Iranian Parliament Vice-Speaker Reza Bahonar reiterated the Islamic Republic’s support for Lebanon and Hezbollah during a meeting in Beirut with Hezbollah Secretary General Seyed Hassan Nasrallah.

November 29, 2010: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Iran. During their meeting Khamenei called on Lebanon to “consolidate relations” with the Islamic Republic in order to form a deterrent “against the occupying Zionist regime.”

 

Oman

July 11, 2011: Iran’s deputy oil minister announced that his country will start pumping natural gas to Oman through an undersea pipeline by March 2012. He added that Iran and Oman signed the initial contract but the final contract will not be signed until the end of the Iranian calendar year (March 20, 2012).

March 16, 2011: Two Iranian warships docked at an Omani report on a return trip from the Mediterranean Sea. Members of the Iranian navy also met with Omani governmental and military officials and foreign diplomats.

 

Qatar

May 2, 2011: Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al Thani in Doha to discuss “bilateral ties, regional developments, and other issues of mutual interest.”’

December 24, 2010: General Alireza Nasseri, an officer in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGC-N), met with the commander of the Qatari navy, Mohamed Nasser Mubarak al-Mohammadadi. The Qatari official urged closer cooperation between Qatari and Iranian naval forces, noting that “IRGC and Qatar's navy can have close cooperation in intelligence, security and training fields.”

 

Saudi Arabia

July 11, 2011: Officials of Saudi Arabian Oil Co., the state-owned oil company, suggested that Saudi Arabia could provide crude oil to India in order to make up for shortages resulting from a payment dispute between Iran and India. International sanctions placed on Iran over its nuclear program have inhibited the ability of oil refineries in India to locate banks willing to transfer payments to Iran.

July 2, 2011: The six GCC member states, including Saudi Arabia, unanimously approved an internal proposal to bolster their combined military force, the Peninsula Shield. The proposal would increase it troop levels from 50,000 to 100,000 by the end of 2012. Security, defense and intelligence advisor, Dr. Sami Alfaraj, stated that the decision was made in order to counter a growing threat from Iran “and its subversive terrorist elements across the GCC.”

 

Syria

August 13, 2011: The Iranian regime agreed to provide $23 million to construct a military base in Latakia, Syria following a June 2011 meeting in Tehran between Syrian deputy vice president Muhammad Nasif Kheirbek and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani. The base, to be built by the end of 2012, will house IRGC officers who will coordinate weapons shipments from Iran to Syria. According to a Western security official, "The direct route is being set up to make it easier to pass advanced Iranian weapons and equipment to Syria."

March 23, 2011: Turkey’s government seized Iranian cargo bound for Syria. The shipment, which included light weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket launchers and mortars, violated U.N. sanctions that ban the export of arms from Iran.

 

United Arab Emirates

June 23, 2011: The United States charged several firms based in the United Arab Emirates and France for plotting to provide Iran with components for fighter jets and attack helicopters without appropriate licensure. The two UAE-based defendants named in the Justice Department report were Aletra General Trading – doing business in Dubai as “Erman & Sultan Trading Co.” – and one of its purchasing agents, Syed Amir Ahmed Najifi. Najifi is an Iranian national and remains a fugitive. Three defendants based in Iran were also charged: Sabanican Company, its managing director Reza Seifi, and its president Hassan Seifi.

April 21, 2011: UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahayan called on Iran to “reconsider its policies” and to “respect the unity and sovereignty of Gulf countries” by refraining from interfering in their domestic affairs.[39] The minister added, “I'm trying to choose my words carefully. I don't want to act like some Iranian officials who throw their words in an abrasive and indecent way.”

 

Yemen

July 9, 2011: Head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society’s Relief and Rescue Organization Mahmoud Mozaffar announced plans to send humanitarian aid to Yemen. He added that the International Committee of the Red Cross office in Yemen had assisted in gaining approval for the delivery of the cargo.

April 14, 2011: American intelligence officials reported Iran was attempting to aid Shi’ite groups in Bahrain and Yemen. The assessment was based on intercepted communication between officials in the Islamic Republic and opposition figures in Yemen and Bahrain.