For instance, the Islamic Republic is still keeping up at least the appearance of negotiations with the US and five other nations, ostensibly in hopes that it will be able to forge an agreement that will bring an end to crippling economic sanctions. But on the other hand, Iran’s repeatedly reinforced position at those negotiations has demonstrated its continued commitment to pursuing nuclear weapons, or at least the national status associated with being on the verge of nuclear weapons development.
Critics of US President Barack Obama have accused him of being so obsessed with securing a nuclear deal that he is willing to make unjustifiable concessions, allowing Iran to retain most of its unclear infrastructure and essentially giving it the go-ahead to be a nuclear threshold state. Others worry that the president is willing to work together with Iran to confront the Islamic State militants in Syria and Iran.
This was made abundantly clear on Monday when Saudi Arabia publicly called for Iran to leave Syria. If Iran does not acquiesce to this demand and Assad falls anyway, it may undermine Iran’s efforts to portray itself as being personally in control of the ISIS situation. This may in turn weaken the overall perception of Iran’s regional strength.
That strength is also more directly threatened in other domains. YNetNews on Monday published a report detailing the breakdown in relations between Iran and Sudan. Last month the African Sunni Muslim country shuttered Iranian cultural centers and limited relations with Iran for fear that its agents were attempting to spread Shiism. Indeed, Iran has been a major source of sectarian conflict throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and this has often served Iranian interests, even as it has contributed to the rise of adversarial Sunni powers like the Islamic State.
In the case of Sudan, Iran’s interests are potentially harmed by the fact that the alienation of its former ally cuts off a major route for Iranian arms smuggling, specifically that aimed at Hamas. This reflects a recurrent contradiction in Iranian policy. The Islamic Republic aims at once to unify all extremist Muslim groups in opposition to Israel, and to unify all Shiite Muslims in opposition to the moderate Sunni governments in the Middle East.
These goals cannot coexist, and the attempt to pursue them both may threaten Iran’s ability to maintain a coherent regional and global policy. The same contradictions affect Iran’s approach to the ISIS conflict, the Assad regime, and nuclear negotiations. For the time being, Tehran appears to be walking the line between each of its contradictory position, but ultimately something will have to be sacrificed in each case.
The issue of which Iranian policies cannot be sustained surely depends upon foreign actors, who can exert pressure on Iran to privilege one policy over another. Saudi Arabia has arguably begun this process by suggesting that Iran cannot support Assad and also give the illusion of widespread rapprochement with former adversaries. But it will naturally take more than one such statement to budge Iran from its strategy of fence-sitting.