Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Tehran has invested heavily in its strategy toward the Arab World. Today, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the generals in the Revolutionary Guard are as committed as ever to remain deeply engaged in Arab countries, from Lebanon to Syria and Yemen and beyond. But what sorts of drivers shape Iran’s Arab strategy? Is it about promoting basic Iranian national interests or exporting the ideology of the Islamic Republic, or even a combination of the two? And where do Arab countries, particularly the Gulf states, stand vis-à-vis Tehran as the Iranian leadership speaks of the need to begin a new chapter of détente with the Arab World? To discuss these issues, MEI is delighted to host a panel of three leading experts, F. Gregory Gause, Mahmood Sariolghalam, and Randa Slim.
F. Gregory Gause
Professor of International Affairs and John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair, the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University
Non-resident Scholar, Middle East Institute
Senior Fellow and Director of Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program, Middle East Institute
Alex Vatanka, moderator
Director of Iran Program and Senior Fellow, Frontier Europe Initiative, Middle East Institute
Five Key Takeaways
After 1989, Iran’s strategy has been based on the regime’s regional security concerns rather than ideology: “After 1989, the Iranian approach has ideological posturing but it’s truly based on Iran’s national security and regime security concerns,” said Mahmood Sariolghalam. Iran continues to project power in a way that Arab states view as hostile, but it does so solely based on the idea of national security rather than the self-proclaimed willingness to export the ideals of the 1979 revolution seen during the 1980s.
The backlash from Iran’s involvement in “broken Arab states,” will continue to reflect the dynamic between Arab states and Iran: “If you’re sitting in the Arab world - in the Gulf states or further removed from Iran geographically - you look at this build of Iranian power and can’t help but say ‘this is a threat to us,’” said F. Gregory Gause. Whether the state in question is Iraq, broken by America’s invasion, Lebanon broken by Iran’s involvement with Hezbollah, or others, it does not matter whether or not Iran is the cause of the breakage. Rather, Arab governments will continue to look upon Iran in disdain as they continue to stir the pot in an already struggling region.
The Iranian brand of governance has failed amongst the Arab youth: Randa Slim said that “the problem with Iran right now in the Arab region is the brand. The Iranian brand has suffered especially among the Arab youth - particularly among the Shi’a youth.” Meaning, Arab youth, particularly in states like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq see Iranian influence as contributing to the failed implementation of their own states. Iran offers very little resembling a successful economic model that can appeal to one of the Arab youth’s most pressing issues, unemployment and the economy.
There is cautious optimism toward continuing regional discussions on relations between Iran and Saudi on both sides, but it remains unlikely that these discussions will bloom into a cooperative relationship: “Iran does understand that its relations with Saudi Arabia are a fundamental issue in the totality of its relations with the Arab world. Iran is pushing to expedite the restoration of diplomatic relations,” said Mahmood Sariolghalam. Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to abstain from intra-regional cooperation. Riyadh remembers all too well the 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities and is thus apprehensive to cooperate with Tehran on greater levels. Yemen currently represents the bellwether of Iran-Saudi relations, according to F. Gregory Gause; the ceasefire continues to hold and does provide a pathway to a decrease of tensions between the two regional powers.
Arab governments will never accept an Iranian regional hegemony: “Even before the Iranian revolution, Arab societies and governments, in general, would never accept an Iranian regional hegemony. It will never be accepted. Where was Iran in the Arab Spring? It was absent,” said Mahmood Sariolghalam. Arab societies across the Middle East have seen this and thus continue to reject Iran’s unwanted advances and have correctly identified Iran’s priority as its own security (from America and Israel), rather than its proclaimed ideological values.
Detailed Speaker Biographies
F. Gregory Gause
Dr. F. Gregory Gause, III, joined the Bush School in 2014 as the head of the Department of International Affairs, serving until 2022 in that capacity, and holds the John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair. He was a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center from 2012 to 2015. Dr. Gause’s research focuses on the international politics of the Middle East, with a particular interest in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.
Dr. Mahmood Sariolghalam earned his MA and PhD in international relations at the University of Southern California, and he pursued a post-doctorate at the Ohio State University. He has taught in a number of countries over nearly three decades, including in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. He specializes in the political economy of development, U.S.-Iranian relations, and Iranian foreign policy and political culture. His current research focuses on the political psychology of authoritarianism and conceptual roots of Iranian foreign policy.
Randa Slim is the Director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute. A former vice president of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, Slim has been a senior program advisor at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a guest scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, a program director at Resolve, Inc., and a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. A long-term practitioner of Track II dialogue and peace-building processes in the Middle East and Central Asia, she is the author of several studies, book chapters, and articles on conflict management, post-conflict peace-building, and Middle East politics.
Alex Vatanka is the founding Director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute. He specializes in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a particular focus on Iran. He was formerly a Senior Analyst at Jane’s Information Group in London. His most recent book is the “Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979” (Bloomsbury, 2021).
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