Meanwhile, perennial critics of the Iranian regime, have warned that the apparently friendly tone coming out of Tehran is unlikely to signify anything other than a change of strategy. They tend to argue that the regime is willing to make superficial changes to try to limit its crippling international isolation, but reliably refuses to make actual concessions that might weaken the mullahs’ hold on power.
Such critics have been at least partly vindicated by the latest developments – or lack thereof – in the nuclear negotiations and loosely related IAEA probe into the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei welcomed the latest round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 by reiterating the country’s unacceptable demands for limitless uranium enrichment capability. Meanwhile, the IAEA has called for more Iranian cooperation following its latest visit to Tehran, pointing out that formerly promised transparency measures have never been carried out in full.
In general, relations between Iran and much of the world seem to have been characterized by initial optimism and disappointing follow-through. The dichotomy suggests that future relations are presently up in the air. They will depend, no doubt, on a variety of factors, including to what extent Iran persists in its nuclear intransigence, how much the West is willing to put up with that intransigence, and whether the US sees itself as being in need of Iranian help in the conflict with the Islamic State.
Already, one of the positive outgrowths of Iran’s policy change has fallen apart, partly due to the situation with ISIS. The apparent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been spotty and short-lived. Saudi Arabia may have formerly felt obligated to open up to its historical adversary because it realized it couldn’t compete politically or militarily against an Iran that had the support of Western powers. But with Iran now working to leverage the IS conflict in its favor, Saudi Arabia likely feels that it cannot avoid competing with its adversary, for fear that Iran will only grow more dangerous the longer the West looks away.
One aspect of this escalating danger relates to Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria – a regime that gives Iran a strategic foothold on the Mediterranean. Just as Iran has been unwilling to relinquish its own enrichment capacity, it has been unwilling to let go of its support for Assad, even as newfound US efforts in the region serve to strengthen the moderate rebel groups that formerly threatened Assad’s hold on power. Iran has repeatedly criticized US-led bombing campaigns on ISIS targets in Syria, arguing that they should have been carried out only in coordination with the Assad regime. Claiming that the multinational coalition against ISIS is ineffectual, Iran has been intent on convincing foreign powers to adopt the Islamic Republic’s own pro-Assad strategy in that same conflict.
To date, the US and Iran have reportedly been ignoring each other in Iraq, the main ISIS battleground, and thus the US has not seriously pushed back against Iran’s demands for strategic compliance. But the same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia, which publicly called upon Iran to pull out of Syria on Monday. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal issued this statement in a joint news conference with Germany Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, suggesting the possibility that the latest pushback against Iranian regional influence may have some support from Germany, one of the six members of the negotiating group discussing Iran’s nuclear program.
It remains to be seen whether other nations will join in Saudi Arabia’s public call for a reduction in Iran’s regional influence. Much will depend upon the United States. To date, Iran’s criticism and demands have clearly been based in large part upon Tehran’s belief that the US is unwilling to expand its own investment in the region, and will embrace Iranian help in resolving the conflict, even if that help comes at the cost of greater nuclear concessions and sanctions relief.
But although Ayatollah Khamenei claimed to have received and rejected an offer of military cooperation from the US State Department, the White House has repeatedly said that no such coordination is on the table. Iran’s expectations may thus be based on the widespread optimism that has characterized much of the world’s relations with the Islamic Republic in the last year. But those expectations will only prove realistic if current Western policies are based on that optimism, and not on the disappointing follow-through that has been equally prevalent.