Dr. Seyed Mohammad Marandi is an associate professor at the University of Tehran and an expert on North American studies and postcolonial literature. He was previously Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran. Foreign Policy Concepts spoke with Dr. Marandi about Iran’s evolving role on the world stage after the landmark nuclear agreement.
The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as Iran Deal, has sparked debates among many observers of international relations on the possible emergence of a new Iran on the world stage. Observers’ characterization of Iran’s evolving post-JCPOA role has ranged from one of cooperative and conciliatory to outright aggressive. What do you see as key influencing factors in Iran’s evolving role on the world stage?
I believe the JCPOA is important, and if the Americans abide by the terms of the agreement, it would be to the benefit of the US as well as to Iran’s. However, I think that there are even more important events taking place in the region that will affect the world for decades to come.
Probably, the most important shift that is taking place is the changing attitudes across the globe towards Wahhabism and countries like Saudi Arabia. The rise of Saudi-backed violent extremism in our contemporary world began in the 1980s in Pakistan and Afghanistan with western support and this ultimately led to the attacks on September 11 in the US as well as attacks in other countries. However, Western countries failed to come to terms with reality and confront Saudi Arabia and its well-funded Wahhabi schools and clerics.
With the unfolding of subsequent events in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and the rise of ISIL, al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda affiliates in these countries—with thanks to the US, European, Saudi, Israeli, Qatari and Turkish coalition—we began to see an unprecedented spread of extremists across the globe and today even Western countries are no longer safe from terrorism. As a result, countries like Russia, China, India as well as Central Asian countries began shifting their views away from Saudi Arabia and started tilting towards Iran. Their concerns about Wahhabism and its spread to their countries was a major incentive in their tilt toward Iran.
With regards to European attitudes, one specific turning point was the second major attack on Paris, which coincided with the Turkish government’s support of mass exodus of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Europe. This created an enormous change in attitudes among Europeans towards Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and even the Emirates. Key public figures, both inside European governments and outside, began advocating better relations with Iran while directed their criticism towards Saudi Arabia, its war on Yemen, its support for terrorists in Syria, and its sky-rocketing support for Wahhabism in the region. The JCPOA helped speed up the above shift, but the sea change in attitudes has more to do with the destructive nature of Wahhabism and its backers than anything else. Needless to say, Western governments and policy makers are quite guilty for helping create this dangerous situation in the first place.
With all its complex dynamics, the war in Syria appears to have developed new dimensions. Do you think the Russian intervention (supported by Iran) has added new dimensions to the conflict? Does the alliance of Sunni regional states led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey have the same objectives as it did before the Russian intervention in Syria?
I would not call it an alliance of Sunni states. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both Wahhabi regimes, and the United Arab Emirates along with Saudi Arabia were the only two countries that ever recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan back in the ‘90s. The Turkish President, on the other hand, has neo-Ottoman ambitions, which he has pursued through an alliance with the above Wahhabi regimes. Ironically, this unholy alliance has also led to the rise of extremism in Turkey, while Turkey did not have a tradition of extremism in the past.
The Russian intervention, alongside increased Iranian and Hezbollah support for the Syrian government, has changed the balance of power dramatically on the ground. Al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and ISIL have been severely weakened and no longer have the capability to overthrow the Syrian state. The tens of thousands of foreign fighters along with many home grown extremists in Syria and Iraq are contemplating their future. This is definitely a major concern for the Turkish, Saudi, and EU governments as extremists begin to look for new locations for their activities as well as new targets to strike such as what we saw in Belgium last week. It seems that the slowest country to recognize the change that has taken place in Syria is Saudi Arabia itself. However, ultimately the Saudis have no option but to come to terms with the new reality in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. If the Saudis continue to export Wahhabi extremism unabated, their country will face greater economic crisis and even instability.
Nevertheless, it seems that the Saud family and the Turkish president are still determined to force President Assad out of power, but Assad’s position is much better than it was six months ago. Hence, the Iranians believe that the only way forward is for these countries to submit to the idea of free and fair elections in Syria, and for the Syrian people to determine whether or not they would like President Assad to remain in office. It is highly unlikely that the Saudis and other family led oil-rich regimes in the Persian Gulf would like to see free and fair elections in Syria, because they know that President Assad would most probably win and, in addition, these regimes do not want their own people to start demanding for public participation in politics.
What does it take for Arab-Iranian affairs to return to a state of normalcy?
I do not see the Arab world as a monolithic entity. Iran has extremely good relations with Syria, Iraq, the governments in Sana’a and Lebanon. Countries like Oman, Algeria, and even Tunisia are highly concerned about Saudi extremism. Even countries like Egypt have serious problems with Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabism, but because of their financial dependency on Riyadh they do not normally voice their concerns publicly. Therefore, Iran’s problem is basically with Saudi Arabia and Saudi support of Wahhabi extremism. It is difficult to see when this crisis in relations will come to an end, but it’s obvious that Saudi Arabia cannot continue down this path for much longer. Perhaps, once Saudi Arabia is convinced that it has reached a dead-end, then the process of rapprochement between the two countries can begin. The old order in the Arab world is declining rapidly and the Saudis must adapt in order to survive.
Will the growing integration of the Iranian economy into the international trade system compel Iran to strike a balance of its interests among competing global power blocs (EU, U.S., China, Russia)?
It is too early to say because the US is still slow and somewhat haphazard in allowing the JCPOA to be implemented, as we saw with the new visa restriction laws in the US. In addition, the global economic climate is not ideal and Western countries in particular are facing serious economic and social challenges at home. I believe Iran will continue to improve relations with different players, but there is no doubt that the potential for Iranian-Chinese economic relations exceeds all others at the moment. Also, Iranian-Russian military and political cooperation is of extreme importance. If the Americans and the Europeans want to compete with the Chinese and the Russians, they have a lot of work to do, and the US in particular must significantly change its policies and attitudes towards Iran.
Does Russia view Iran as a geo-strategic bulwark against the influence and potential spread of Saudi-inspired Sunni radical Islam in the Central Asian land mass?
The Russians increasingly see Iran as the single most important force that is preventing the spread of Wahhabism to Central Asia, and in the eyes of Russian policy makers this has made comprehensive cooperation with Iran much more important.
Iran’s involvement in China’s OneBelt-OneRoad (OBOR) initiative is set to further deepen the ties between the two countries. Do Beijing and Tehran consider their ties reciprocally to be of strategic nature? How could Tehran’s participation in OBOR shape the dynamics of its relations with the states in Central Asia?
The OBOR initiative is very important for Iran because it opens enormous opportunities for economic growth and trade with East Asia and Central Asia. I believe that the revival of the Silk Road is of such great significance that it cannot be easily explained. When one takes into account the growing convergence of security interests between Iran, Russia and China, the enormous wealth and potential of Central Asia, and the Chinese government’s decision to focus on the development of Western China, the importance of this initiative as well as the strategic nature of the relationships become more evident.
Do you expect Iran to be a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)? In what ways would a full membership serve Iran’s strategic imperatives?
I think Iran will ultimately become a full member of the SCO. Taking into account the fact that the OBOR initiative is of such importance, it is obvious that membership in the SCO is necessary for the initiative to succeed. Iran is key to the Silk Road’s revival and to the stability of key parts of Asia. In fact, Saudi backed extremism has actually enhanced this perception among many Asian policymakers. Also, the fact that the US consistently antagonizes China, Russia and Iran actually makes it more essential for the latter three to move towards greater economic, security, and political cooperation. I think the US is often its own worst enemy.
What’s next in store for U.S—Iran relations?
It is difficult to say. I do not believe that Obama is willing to take any major steps towards improving relations in a meaningful way in the final months of his presidency. On the other hand, at the moment the US presidential candidates seem to be in a race to see who can demonize Iran the most. My crystal ball is pretty dark at the moment, but if the US doesn’t make serious moves for meaningful rapprochement, in the current environment I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that it loses much more than Iran does.