The recent standoff between Western powers and the Gulf Cooperation Council against the Assad regime’s principle allies, Russia and Iran, over the use of chemical weapons in Syria has polarized the Middle East and the international system between competing blocs. This polarization has entrenched Assad’s alliances and has escalated pressures for military intervention. However, the foreign policy of Iran, Assad’s closest ally, has become increasingly incoherent, as Iran’s continued support for Assad has coincided with an apparent willingness to engage in dialogue with the West over the nuclear program. The geopolitical crisis in Syria has highlighted the myriad of competing political interests in Iran, which stem from the fractious relationship between hardliners in the clerical and military establishment and more moderate clerics and politicians. These competing interests have caused Iran under Hassan Rouhani to pursue a foreign policy approach that paradoxically combines blithe defiance of the West with a willingness to engage in diplomacy.
The explanation for the contradictions within Rouhani’s foreign policy can be derived from a unique conglomeration of systemic and domestic interests that have developed over the past three decades and have formulated the identity Iran projects internationally. While Egypt’s simultaneous pursuit of US and Soviet aid to maximize its geopolitical influence during the Cold War provides a relevant precedent for Iran’s vacillations on a pendulum of hostility and reconciliation with the West, the Iranian approach to foreign policy is exceptional.
Rouhani’s approach can be explained by two distinct features of Iran’s foreign policy: Iran’s propensity to engage in durable alliances with regional and transnational actors like Syria and Hezbollah, and a foreign policy that rhetorically aligns with public opinion to mitigate the risks of popular protests and intra-elite conflicts between hardliners and moderates.
Iran and Ba’athist Syria: The Middle East’s most durable “Special Relationship”
Since the 1979 revolution in Iran and Syria’s desire to counter the rising military power of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran and Syria have forged a highly durable alliance. The “Axis of Resistance” that emerged from the Syria-Iran alliance was an unlikely alliance considering their vastly different identities: Syria was a secular Ba’athist state and Iran was a theocracy in which the ultimate power was wielded by Islamist clerics. The refusal of Hafez Al-Assad and Ayatollah Khomeini to meet with one another during the 1980s officially highlights the apparent ideological incompatibility of an alliance between both countries.
Considering their vastly different ideologies, Iran’s continued support for the Assad regime has been viewed as a strategic defensive partnership generated by the coalescence of mutual interests in containing the power of the United States and Israel in the Middle East and maintaining the Shia crescent. However, there is growing evidence that Iranian support for Assad could actually be counter-productive for Iran’s interests due to Iran’s disdain for chemical weapons use after Saddam Hussein’s use of WMDs in the Iran-Iraq War, the declining leverage of its allies Hamas and Hezbollah, and the destabilization of Lebanon and Iraq.
The egregious nature of Assad’s violations of international norms and rules of war resemble the flagrant disregard for national sovereignty in Iraq’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait. However, Iran under Rouhani has entrenched its position as a foreign policy outlier by not band-wagoning with the West during the chemical weapons standoff like Egypt and Syria did during the Gulf War and by not succumbing to the almost pathological predilection to vacillate in foreign entanglements exhibited by Iran’s strategic rivals, Turkey and Qatar.
Rouhani’s accusations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian rebels further exemplifies the unconditional nature of Iran’s support for Assad and runs contrary to Iranian interests. Partial withdrawal of support for Assad would have a potential positive impact on diplomacy with the West and as it would bolster the chances of loosening sanctions that have led to surging inflation and unemployment rates.
Despite the disadvantages of Iran’s continued alliance with Ba’athist Syria, the durability of the relationship stems from the need to preserve elite cohesion in Iran to ensure regime stability as the hard-liners who dominate Iranian politics view Iran as the principle agent of Shia leadership in the Middle East in conflict with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West. The interests that underlie the special relationship are not power maximalist but defensive and the appearance of moderation, as evidenced by Rouhani’s ostensible willingness to cooperate with any Syrian regime display the conundrum Iran faces in mitigating and pre-empting potential intra-elite conflicts.
Public Opinion and Foreign Policy in Iran
The second major trend in Iranian foreign policy that has been exemplified by Rouhani’s policies is the important role public opinion plays in the fostering the image Iran projects internationally. Iran’s overt hostility towards Israel is a manifestation of public opinion’s role in shaping the belligerent nature of Iran’s foreign policy identity, in contrast to Egypt’s “cold peace” and the use of carefully calibrated and restricted antagonism by Assad’s Syria. Therefore, the ostensible softening of Iran’s rhetoric towards Israel as displayed by Rouhani’s Rosh Hashanah tweet to Iranian Jews can be viewed as part of a larger trend of popular support for a more moderate foreign policy.
The softening of political rhetoric highlights the deep schisms and the prospect of intra-elite conflict in the Iranian government. Iranian election results in recent have resulted in hard-liners and soft-liners alternately taking power. Indeed, Rouhani’s apparently moderate foreign policy towards Israel and the West is reminiscent of Khatami’s calls for a “dialogue of civilizations” which occurred simultaneously with the expansion of the Iranian nuclear program and continued sponsorship of terrorist organizations. In reaction to the decreased popularity of Ahmadinejad’s belligerent rhetoric, Iran’s leadership seems to have concluded that fusing rhetorical moderation with the continuation of old policies is the optimal approach to preventing the political destabilization of the 2009 Green Revolution.
Where Iran’s Foreign Policy is Headed
The worsening of the economic decline caused by the UN sanctions policy and a myriad of regional pressures stemming from the continued Syrian civil war, the recent coup in Egypt and longstanding hostile relations with Israel present a daunting challenge for Iranian foreign policymakers. Rouhani’s failure thus-far to convert rhetorical moderation into tangible diplomatic progress indicates that these crises will continue to destabilize Iran. However, the historical precedents of exceptionally strong elite cohesion in regimes founded by revolutionary ideologies combined with the absence of mass election protests in 2013 indicate that an existential crisis is unlikely to emerge in Iran in the short to medium-term. Ultimately, however, the ability of Iran to maintain its leadership as a Shi’a counterweight to the GCC, which is an important element of its domestic legitimacy, depends on resolving the incoherence that has so often stymied diplomatic progress. Whether Rouhani can rise to the challenge of mitigating intra-elite conflicts and establishing a moderate foreign policy for Iran aligned with public opinion will be vital in determining Iran’s relative power in the region in the years to come.