United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

US and Saudi Arabia: Differences on Iran

Interview with David Ottaway by Faris Al Sulayman

What came out of President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia and discussions on pressing issues of mutual concern, especially on Iran nuclear talks?
 
           Obama and King Abdullah agreed that their shared goal is to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapons capability. But Saudi Arabia is perhaps more concerned about the implications of improved U.S.-Iran relations if a nuclear agreement is reached. The Sunni kingdom is worried about a tilt in U.S. foreign policy toward Shiite Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni sheikhdoms. Obama has said that he is willing to repair the U.S.-Iran relationship. But he has not spelled out what this might mean in practice and what other issues the two countries could cooperate on.
 
     Washington and Tehran were holding secret talks for a year starting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad then under President Hassan Rouhani. The Obama administration had not shared the content of those discussions with its Arab allies, which has raised enormous suspicions in the Gulf about U.S. intentions for Iran.
 
     President Obama probably found it difficult to provide the kind of assurances that the Saudi leadership is seeking on Iran and nuclear negotiations.
 
What are the basic differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia on Iran?
 
            The United States and Saudi Arabia appear to have different visions for solving the Iranian nuclear dispute. Saudi Arabia, much like Israel, wants Iran to relinquish its uranium enrichment capabilities or at least cap enrichment at 5 percent – far below weapons grade, or 90 percent. Riyadh also wants Iran’s existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to be shipped out of the country or turned into a form that cannot be used to fuel a weapon. But the United States and the other five major world powers negotiating with Iran – Britain, China, France, Germany and China – may be open to allowing Tehran to keep limited enrichment capabilities.
 
     Riyadh also wants Washington to take a much more aggressive role in ending President Bashar Assad’s rule in Syria. Damascus is Tehran’s closest ally in the Middle East, so the main battle ground between Saudi Arabia and Iran is Syria. Riyadh is keen on the United States providing more sophisticated arms — anti-aircraft missiles in particular—to opposition forces.
 
            Washington and Riyadh also differ in their strategic approach to the Syrian conflict. Tehran has reportedly invested millions of dollars in Syria’s economy and provided training and arms to its army. So Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Syria is part of a wider effort to curb Iranian influence in the Sunni Arab world. The Sunni kingdom seems dedicated to rooting out the Alawite regime as a way to cut off Iran.
 
If the world’s six major powers and Iran reach an agreement that allows Tehran to continue enriching uranium, might Riyadh pursue its own nuclear program?
 
            Saudi Arabia is further developing its relationship with Pakistan, which became the world’s first Muslim nuclear power in the early 1970s. Riyadh has already built a new center for medium range missiles, and it has a new generation of Chinese missiles. Saudi officials have also been speaking with Chinese military and political leaders.
 
           If Tehran sprinted towards a nuclear weapons capability, Riyadh would likely call on Islamabad to provide warheads for those missiles – shortening the process of becoming a nuclear power. But Saudi Arabia is highly unlikely to enlist Pakistani help unless Iran pushes its program forward.

 Military Balance

 **
 
How are Saudi Arabia’s policies influenced by its relationship with the wider Islamic world? 
 
           First, Saudi Arabia sees itself as the religious leader of the Sunni Arab world. But it is increasingly trying to be the political leader because it has wherewithal to spend money on helping its allies. Saudi leaders feel vindicated by the failures of the Arab spring, and they would like to assert their political and financial weight in the Arab world. The problem is that they have little military throw weight. Saudi Arabia still depends on the United States for its military and security apparatuses and it has a limited ability to project force outside its borders.
 
Oil Balance

 ***
 
David Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
 
Faris Al Sulayman was a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from 2013-2014.
 
 
*Estimated spending, includes US Foreign Military Assistance via IISS
** Based on “The Gulf Military Balance” report by Anthony Cordesman and Bryan Gold. Click here for Cordesman’s chapter on Iran’s conventional military. Also see The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual assessment of worldwide military capabilities.

 

Ominous Divide : Shiite Iran v Sunni Gulf

Frederic Wehrey

What is the current state of Sunni-Shiite tension in the Gulf? How has it changed over the last 15 years?
 
            Sectarian tensions have become a major part of political life in the Gulf Arab states, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. Shiites in each state suffer varying degrees of religious discrimination and political marginalization. Tensions are typically portrayed as a spillover effect of sectarian strife elsewhere in the region (the Iraq War, and, more recently, the Syria conflict) or Iran’s deliberate incitement of local Shiite communities in the Gulf. But they are only part of the story.
 
     The roots of Shiite-Sunni tensions in the Gulf are more complex and ultimately more local. They are deeply woven into the political fabric of individual states. Sectarian identities have been further sharpened by uneven access to political and economic capital, official and quasi-official discrimination, and the absence of truly inclusive governing structures. This is true in virtually every field: government bureaucracies, the security sector, the labor market, clerical establishments, the legal system, provincial development and so on. 
 
      The recent rise in tensions is particularly tied to the failure of reforms promised at the turn of the millennium that has left young Shiites deeply embittered and frustrated. Young activists claim that their generation is susceptible to sectarian mobilization because it is shut out of the social compact, deprived of access to economic and political capital, and instilled with a sense of “otherness.”
 
            During the Iraq War, Gulf regimes—particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—increasingly viewed Shiite demands for reform as a security threat. Tensions reached an apogee after the 2011 Arab uprisings, when Sunni clerics and Gulf media attempted to portray initial demands for democracy as narrowly Shiite in character and inspired by Iran. This strategy created fissures within the reform movement by exacerbating Shiite-Sunni identities, as it implicitly highlighted the ruling families as arbiters over a fractious and divided citizenry.
 
            The war in Syria has amplified tensions. The “sectarianization” of that conflict—due to both Assad’s policies and outside intervention by Arab states and Iran—has rippled across the Gulf. Sunni clerics in the Gulf have demonized the Alawite regime and its allies, with blowback on local Shiites. Many Gulf Shiites are now ambivalent, if not opposed, to supporting the Syrian opposition, which is increasingly seen as anti-Shiite.
 
      The recent explosion of social media has deepened discord; it parallels the rise in sectarianism over the past 15 years. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have created a vast echo chamber for sectarian strife to reverberate from one corner of the region to the other. Social media is a real-time theater where audiences do not just observe but participate in ongoing conflicts in the region. The most strident purveyors of sectarianism are given disproportionate weight on social media.  
 
            Gulf regimes have been inconsistent—and even contradictory—in policing this toxic discourse. At one level, sectarianism in the media has a certain utility: It is a reminder of the monarchy’s value as the glue binding society together. Yet Gulf regimes also fear such vitriol will fuel a dangerous strain of Salafi extremism beyond their control. There are already signs of this happening.
 
            If Gulf political life had greater inclusivity and pluralism, then sectarian identities would be less politicized and less malignant. Social media and regional conflicts would also have less of a mobilizing effect on Gulf citizens. 
 
How has the tension affected the geopolitical balance between Iran and the Gulf states?
 
      The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not driven primarily by a Sunni-Shiite divide or even Arab-Persian ethnic differences. The conflict is informed by two radically different models of government—each laying claim to Islamic legitimacy—and two very different visions of regional order.   
 
      Iran’s system has enshrined the role of religious authorities in political life and given people a partial say in governance through elections. The Saudi ruling family has effectively de-politicized its clerics and continues to abhor the principle of democratic elections.  
 
            The question of U.S. power in the region is also at the heart of the struggle: Iran sees a Middle East free from U.S. military influence, whereas Saudi Arabia historically has required some sort of external balancer to serve as a check against Iran—and Iraq. The two sides have also jostled for patronage of historically pan-Arab “portfolios,” such as the Palestinian cause. The al Saud see Iran’s involvement in this issue as tremendously threatening to its regional and even domestic legitimacy.
 
            Iran has generally tried to downplay sectarianism in its media and in the way it frames its role in the region. In its proxy conflict with Iran, Saudi Arabia has not pursued an explicitly sectarian foreign policy. But both states have ended up backing local actors that are in fact sectarian—and increasingly so in light of Syria’s war. Regardless of intent, the meddling of the two powers in weak and fragmented states is fueling a dangerous form of identity politics. Yet both sides are also capable of dialing back and tempering sectarianism. This played out in Lebanon after the 2006 war. It is happening again now in Bahrain, where Iran (and Hezbollah) have lowered the tenor of their criticism of Saudi policies. 
 
What are the implications for Western interests in the Gulf?
 
            The rise in sectarianism does not present an immediate threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf. Sectarianism is deeply embedded in the DNA of Salafi-jihadism and the al Qaeda worldview. Gulf funding and volunteers in the Syria conflict are creating new strains of al Qaeda-ism that could eventually threaten Gulf regimes and U.S. interests.  
 
            Gulf Shiites have not volunteered or provided funds to Syrian fighters to the same extent as Sunnis have. Indeed, Shiite clerics have assiduously warned against such activity. A few Shiite businessmen, particularly in Kuwait, have provided funding. But by and large, Gulf Shiites remain focused on their local rights—and within the framework of existing political process.   How long this restraint will last, given the current stalemate on reform, remains to be seen.
 
            U.S. and Western interests may eventually be threatened if Shiite opposition activity takes a more extremist turn. Already, activists from the February 14 Youth Movement in Bahrain have linked the U.S. Fifth Fleet with the repressive tactics of the ruling al Khalifa family. Whether and how this nascent anti-Americanism devolves into a more serious threat depends on how the United States is perceived as a neutral broker.
 
            U.S. officials should see sectarianism in the Gulf as a symptom, a wake-up call for meaningful political reform that could stave off more serious challenges to the monarchies down the road.
 
What are the broader implications for regional stability and even the modern map of the Middle East?
 
            The current sectarian tensions in the Gulf are not prompting a fundamental shift in the regional map. Historically, sectarian affinities were one set of identities that co-existed alongside other affiliations: national, ethnic, tribal/familial, local, urban, generational, and so forth. Looking at the Middle Eastern map in terms of sectarianism downplays the power of these other forces. For most Shiites in the Gulf, the existing nation-state remains the framework through which they conduct their activism.  
 
            There have been very few calls for secession or the creation of a united Shiite state encompassing Shiite communities in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and southern Iraq. A Shiite state enjoys little support, given the unique national histories of Shiite communities in each country, the religious and intellectual genealogies of their elites, and the power of familial and tribal bonds.
 
            Bahrain is one instance where sectarianism has contributed to a potential redrawing of the map. Since 2012, Sunni Islamists and regime hardliners have been calling for greater political and military union with Bahrain’s Sunni patron, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 
 
Iran has claimed the Arab uprisings are a continuation of its own 1979 revolution. What influence has Iran actually had on Shiites in the Gulf?
 
            Iran largely abandoned attempts to export its revolution to the Gulf in the 1990s. Gulf Shiite activists also distanced themselves from affiliation with the Iranian government, even while maintaining religious ties to Iranian clerics. Today, Gulf Shiite elites who embrace the Islamic Republic’s principle of velayet-e faqih and regard Supreme Leader Khamenei as their marja’ (clerical reference) do not enjoy wide support.   
 
            But for many Gulf leaders who came of age during that seismic event, the Iranian revolution remains the prism through which they view local Shiite activism. The phobia is partly strategic: Portraying Shiite protestors as Iranian-backed delegitimizes them and undermines the possibility of cross-sectarian cooperation between Shiites and Sunni liberals and reformists.  
 
            Iran is not backing Gulf Shiite activity to the extent that its notorious Qods Force is supporting Shiite militants in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. There may be scattered and episodic contacts between activists and elements of the Iranian government or Hezbollah. As is the case elsewhere in the region, Iran may have sleeper cells waiting to strike the oil infrastructure of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province or the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. But this does not imply that Iran is directing or orchestrating the post-2011 protests in the Gulf or that its support is crucial to their continuation. 
 
            Moving beyond the Iranian revolution’s long shadow in the Gulf, especially on sectarian relations, may be a matter of generational change. Many Shiite youth in the Gulf described themselves as post-ideological, post-sectarian and even post-clerical. Among the regimes, the ascendance of a younger generation of royalsfor whom the Iranian Revolution is less of a formative memory and sectarian dogma has less usefulness—may also change the dynamics. Yet these positive trends may also be offset by both the growing strength of Salafism among Sunnis and the new strain of sectarianism being bred by the Syria conflict.
 

Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Click here for information on Wehrey's new book, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings.

 

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Rouhani’s Next Test: Empty Coffers

Kevan Harris

What is the status of Iran’s economy three months after President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration?
     In a televised interview marking his first 100 days, President Rouhani acknowledged that the state coffers were virtually empty when he assumed the presidency. The government did not have sufficient revenue to pay public sector salaries. Iran also faced major shortages in basic commodities, such as wheat, at the same time. To compensate for the unexpected shortfall, the new government had to stop several development projects and borrow from the Central Bank.
 
            In the November 26 televised interview, Rouhani also outlined the latest economic indicators:
• Inflation was over 40 percent in the last Persian year, which ran from March 2012 to March 2013.
• Iran’s GDP declined by 5.8 percent over the same period, according to the Central Bank.
• Unemployment was above 12 percent, with youth unemployment at over double the rate. (Unemployment does not include discouraged workers, who mask problems of under-employment and part-time work.)
            Rouhani said Iran had not suffered this depth of stagflation since the revolution’s early years. 
 
            The government is also in debt to a wide variety of public and private entities:
• Iran’s Central Bank, Social Security and Retirement funds
• Municipal governments
• Provincial development contractors
• Energy and industrial producers
• Educational institutions 
 
            Rouhani put the current debt at 200 trillion tomans, or roughly $70 billion using the open market exchange rate. If true, the ratio of government debt to GDP is about 30 percent, a sizable jump from previous years even with the currency’s devaluation. In comparison, Turkey’s ratio of public debt to GDP is about 36 percent, and Egypt’s ratio is over 80 percent.
 
What role does Iran’s economy have in Rouhani’s political game plan?
            Rouhani’s foreign and domestic economic strategies are irrevocably linked. Inside Iran, the issue is not whether international sanctions or domestic mismanagement caused its economic woes, which is largely a rhetorical question used by Iran’s politicians to criticize each other. So the barriers to economic rejuvenation are mostly political.
            Iran’s economic woes will be easier to solve if it can increase access to:
• Foreign exchange
• Global financial flows
• Oil revenues 
 
      Rouhani’s team is trying to mobilize allies in parliament behind a range of new economic policies to address these issues. Given perceptions of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disastrous legacy, hardliners have little leverage – for now – to challenge the new centrist president and his reformist allies on economic policy. If reforms deliver results, conservatives can say they were part of the solution. If not, Rouhani’s initiative lessens the chance of Iran’s entire right-wing establishment attacking him – as happened during former President Mohammad Khatami’s tenure.
 
What strategy is Rouhani pursuing to improve Iran’s economy?
           Rouhani is engaged in a precarious balancing act. So far, his administration has decided not to massively curtail government spending on cash grants, energy subsidies, and other public arenas. Given the importance of government spending in the economy through various formal and informal networks, a rapid move toward austerity to reduce inflation would drive the economy into a deeper recession. Rouhani is cutting back the budget both this year and next year, but his team has argued they can spend limited revenues in smarter ways.
           Rouhani concedes that the government cannot cut enough spending to balance the budget, since Iran’s lower and middle classes rely on subsidized healthcare and income grants. The administration fears social backlash. So, for now, Rouhani is trying to establish social trust in public institutions in a way that will allow more reforms down the road.  
            At the same time, Rouhani has promised to accomplish two goals over the next two years:
      • Reduce inflation to 25 percent
      • End the recession. 
 
           His ambitious agenda will require more stringent monitoring of public spending and directing it in more productive ways, while also creating an investment climate that encourages productive, not speculative, activities by a fickle private sector. 
 
What shifts have occurred in the economy since Rouhani’s election—with what impact?
            The new government has largely stopped using shares of public sector companies to pay existing debts to semi-governmental holding companies, pension funds, and contractors. A recent Reuters investigation on the Imam’s Orders Headquarters detailed how one such holding company – ostensibly run by the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – invested in wide swaths of Iran’s economy. The story grabbed headlines, but it was misleading.
           This form of investment and asset management is common in Iran, not just for companies attached to the Revolutionary Guards or the Supreme Leader’s office. There are dozens of such holding companies, with ownership spread among political actors. Rouhani’s administration has made a decisive break from the Ahmadinejad era by halting government transfer of state assets into this form of ownership and rethinking how to privatize the public sector.
            The government has also put a stop to the previous administration’s huge public housing program – the Mehr Housing Plan – which is widely regarded as a major driver of Iran’s inflation. The plan was supposed to construct public housing for poor Iranians, mostly newlyweds, so they could obtain low-interest loans and move out of parents’ homes. But the plan was botched.  
           Large apartment complexes were built on the distant edges of urban centers, often without access to other public facilities. Beneficiaries of the plan were predominantly Iran’s new middle classes, not the poor. And, partly as a result of subcontracting out the work with little oversight, construction was shoddy. The Iranian press is now filled with pictures of sub-par housing complexes and stories of people refusing to move in. The Rouhani government terminated the Mehr Plan and promised to revamp it into a “social housing” program – in several years.
 
What has happened to Iran’s subsidy reform plan and income grant program?
           In his televised interview, Rouhani said the government is weighing its options. It could raise the price of energy, reduce the value of income grants, or determine some way to restrict recipients of income grants to lower-income households. But each option has its costs. Rouhani said the government could have looked at individual bank accounts to estimate household incomes, but in the end rejected this option. People must regain faith in the banking system, he said, so they would feel more comfortable about investing.
           So, for now, Iran’s subsidy system is in a holding pattern. The government is not reducing subsidies this year on fuel or energy, nor is it changing the nominal level of grants to the population. In the meantime, several industrial sectors – from gas to auto to steel – are lobbying the government for financial support because of energy costs of production.
           Overall, bolder economic policy shifts on any issue require an ever-wider political coalition. Rouhani has so far maintained a wide base of political support as his administration pursues engagement with Western powers on the nuclear issue. If he can keep this coalition intact, then he just may be able to walk the economic tightrope.
 
Kevan Harris is a sociologist and postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University.
He was a 2011-12 USIP Jennings Randolph Peace Fellow. His recent publications are available at http://kevanharris.princeton.edu.
 
 
Photo credit: President.ir, Semira Nikou

 

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Nasser Hadian on Why Iran is Ready

Nasser Hadian

      Iran’s entire socio-political landscape has changed since President Hassan Rouhani’s June election. There are a lot of hopes that things are going to get better, especially given what happened under the previous government. But this is a cautious hope or optimism, not the wild-eyed optimism of former President Mohammad Khatami’s era. Everything seemed possible in the late 1990s. Now hope is more balanced and realistic.
      Rouhani is a more pragmatic politician than Khatami, who was more of an intellectual and moral individual. Rouhani is more like former President Bill Clinton, someone who can deliver.
 

            Iran's new president is also an insider. Rouhani knows how to navigate the corridors of power in Iran. He has known the supreme leader for some 40 years. And Rouhani has been his representative for 25 years on the Supreme National Security Council. So Rouhani also knows other power centers and how to maneuver them, which Khatami was reluctant to do. No one can question Rouhani’s professionalism, credibility or national security credentials.
           Rouhani can formulate a strategy. The Scotland-educated cleric is a sophisticated politician who has the patience and knowledge required to achieve his objectives. Even conservatives, radicals and principlists cannot question his qualifications. His insider status is an asset rather than a liability.
 
Foreign Policy
      On foreign policy, Rouhani’s appointment of Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) was an important signal to the world. There were a number of alternatives. So Zarif’s appointment signaled that Rouhani cares about international affairs, wants to improve Iran’s image, and resolve the nuclear dispute. As ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007, Zarif was a key figure in diplomacy and the nuclear issue. He was also important in terms of Iran’s image abroad, particularly in the West. Zarif speaks English fluently after receiving two degrees from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in international relations from the University of Denver. He has been Iran’s best diplomat since the revolution and virtually everyone acknowledges his credentials.
 
            I’m optimistic that Iran can solve the dispute over its nuclear energy program. If an agreement is not reached, then the United States is probably creating barriers.  
            But on improving Iran-U.S. relations, I’m not very optimistic. Relations might improve but not to a great extent. In both Tehran and Washington, criticism of the other country is rewarded. A member of Iran’s parliament would pay a price for calling for better relations with the United States. And the same is true for a member of Congress. Look at previous resolutions from the House of Representatives. A total of 130 members said they wanted to give diplomacy with Iran a chance in a July 2013 letter to President Barack Obama. But once a new sanctions bill was put on the table, over 400 representatives voted for it — including more than 100 of those who signed the letter.
            Lawmakers on both sides are afraid because it’s popular and easier to criticize the other country. So this structure should be changed. But how? It’s not an easy thing to do in either capital.
 
Nuclear Program
            On the nuclear dispute, Iran and the United States want to get similar things out of a deal. Washington doesn’t want Tehran to have a bomb. And Tehran doesn’t want one either. But Iran has to give guarantees to the West that it doesn’t want a bomb. Verification systems will be a particularly important part of an agreement. An additional protocol should take care of this issue, and Iran would likely ratify that part of a deal. Tehran would also likely agree – in the end – to limit its uranium enrichment program and the size of its enriched uranium stockpile. Iran could also limit the number of centrifuges. But there are minimum requirements for Iran – such as retaining the right to enrichment and having centrifuges.
            In return, Iran wants the removal of all sanctions imposed since 2008– unilateral and multilateral. Tehran also wants the E.U. incentive proposals to be put back on the table. They included investment in the oil industry, technology transfers, airplane parts and many other things. But that would most likely be part of the end game. An agreement could be implemented stage by stage, with the whole package initially agreed upon. 
            But Iranians are very suspicious of the end game. If they come to the negotiating table, agree and implement the first and second steps of a settlement, then the United States may tell Iran that it cannot enrich uranium.
            Closing down the Fordo nuclear facility would not be an option for Iran. The government wants to retain the ability to enrich uranium. And Fordo is the one safe place for enrichment. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other nations cannot attack and destroy it. Only U.S. bunker-buster bombs could destroy the facility, which is built into the mountains.
 
The Supreme Leader
      Iran has achieved what it wanted – mastering the knowledge and technology of enrichment. Ideally, Tehran would like to have hundreds of thousands of centrifuges. But Iran achieved its minimum goals, so it is ready to make a deal. And Rouhani is fully empowered to cut one.
      The supreme leader (left), however, is not interested in restoring full diplomatic relations with the United States. He probably would not object to better relations and allowing exchanges. But Ayatollah Khamenei would not, for example, approve the opening of a new U.S. embassy.
      An agreement on the nuclear issue, however, could create momentum that would have a trickle-down effect on U.S.-Iran relations. Such momentum would have its own dynamism. But for now, the default position is hostile to full diplomatic relations with the United States. Journalists, athletes, museum directors and academics may have an easier time going to and from Iran. Exchanges, however, would not likely lead to an economic or diplomatic relationship —at least anytime soon.          
 
Obstacles to Outreach
      Some factions in Iran will almost certainly push back and make it more difficult for Rouhani (left) to improve relations with the outside world. Not many people will oppose better relations with Iran’s neighbors. But there may be some disputes about prioritizing relations with other regional powers. For example, should Iran devote more resources to strengthening ties with Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Some will call for looking east rather than west. 
      Saudi Arabia is becoming a more pressing issue in Iran. The monarchy seems to be waging war against Tehran almost everywhere. Iranian relations with Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Iraq are basically oriented toward deterrence, defense and retaliation in case of attack. Tehran’s goal is not to project power. But Saudi Arabia is projecting power in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Bahrain. The Saudi government is waging war on oil prices too by boosting production. And Saudi Arabia is even building infrastructure in Iran’s Baluchistan, Kurdistan, and Khuzestan provinces. Tehran’s policy, so far, has been a policy of appeasement but that is beginning to change. The 2011 Saudi attack on Bahraini protestors was insulting to Iran, as was the hanging of some Iranian citizens in Saudi Arabia.
            Improving relations with the West, especially the United States, will be more controversial. Some will do their utmost to prevent it. Rouhani has a chance to improve relations with Britain, but he may encounter pushback from hardliners. So Rouhani’s government will likely take gradual steps to ease tensions.
            Engaging other European countries will not be as sensitive of an issue. I’m hopeful that Iran’s image and relationship with European countries will improve within coming months, especially if steps are taken towards resolving the nuclear dispute.
            Rouhani is likely to encounter stiff opposition to improved relations with the United States. Some bazaaris have vested interests in China. Basijis, voluntary militiamen, have built their credentials on being anti-American. Some members of parliament have done the same. Some socially conservative forces fear that reestablishing relations with the United States would lead to decay of traditional values. Some radicals and principlists are opposed to rapprochement on either political grounds or social reasons.
            The Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s most powerful military organization, may not support better relations with the United States. But some commanders or factions may not oppose moves in that direction either. After the supreme leader’s recent speech, the Guards will probably go back to their barracks to build themselves up as a military force, rather than a political force. Khamenei said they need to understand politics, but warned them to not get involved in politics.
 
Nasser Hadian is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran.
 
 

Marriage and Divorce of Hamas and Hezbollah

Hanin Ghaddar

            Iran has always been the element that tied Sunni Hamas and Shiite Hezbollah together. The Islamic Republic’s priority was to foster organizations that would be part of the “resistance” against Israel and the West. Hanin Ghaddar analyzes the split between the two organizations and Iran’s role in their relationship.
 

Hamas and Hezbollah have been allies since the 1980s, when they were both founded. How is their relationship today?

      Hamas and Hezbollah have had a dramatic breakup after the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. Part of the breakup is due to sectarian differences; another part is due to rival regional alliances. Hamas is a predominantly Sunni group. Hezbollah is overwhelmingly Shiite. The split has played out between their forces on the ground as well as between their political leaders.
      Both movements—which are political parties as well as militias—have been allied with Syria and Iran since they were both founded in the 1980s. The rupture is one of the most profound shifts in Islamist politics over the past three decades.
            Relations have steadily soured between the two organizations since protesters took to the streets against the regime of President Bashar Assad in March 2011. Hezbollah remained loyal to the Damascus regime, while Hamas relations with Assad eroded.
            Sectarian differences began to redefine their relationship in later 2011, as the Syrian conflict devolved into a confrontation between Sunni rebels and a government led by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot. In January 2012, Hamas moved its headquarters from Syria to Qatar, which is a Sunni sheikhdom. Within weeks, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh formally announced support for Sunni rebels.
            In early 2013, Hezbollah increased its presence in the conflict, dispatching troops to fight alongside Syrian forces. By mid-2013, Hezbollah and Hamas were reportedly fighting each other in the Syrian town of Qusayr, which is near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah fought side-by-side with the Syrian Army against rebels boosted by Hamas operatives.
           In June 2013, the two organizations tried to patch things up at a high-level meeting in Beirut. They reportedly agreed to disagree about the Syrian crisis and not allow political differences to affect their bilateral ties. But relations are almost certain to remain strained as long as they are both on the ground in Syria.
           For the wider Middle East, the Hamas-Hezbollah split is a dangerous microcosm of a growing trend. The Sunni-Shiite rivalry is now the main fault line on the ground and in politics, and it may impact the Syrian crisis most of all.

How has their relationship changed? What role has Iran played?
           Iran has always been the element that tied (Sunni) Hamas and (Shiite) Hezbollah together. The Islamic Republic’s priority was to foster organizations that would be part of “resistance” against Israel and the West. Tehran’s elite Revolutionary Guards basically created Hezbollah soon after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Iran has reportedly provided the organization with millions of dollars in funding and advanced weapons as a frontline resistance in Lebanon against Israel.
            Tehran was not involved in the creation of Hamas, which grew out Muslim Brotherhood remnants in the Gaza Stip. Hamas formally announced its formation when the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, erupted against Israeli occupation in 1987. Tehran reportedly started providing Hamas financial aid and military training in the early 1990s. Thousands of Hamas militants have reportedly trained at Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran and Lebanon, while Hamas opened an office in Tehran.
            Iran continued support for Hamas during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. It increased aid to Hamas after Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004 and Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. It also helped bail out Hamas after it took control of Gaza in 2007. Tehran also allegedly provided Hamas military equipment used in the 2008 and 2012 conflicts with Israel.
            Hezbollah developed close ties to Hamas as a result of Tehran’s sponsorship. In Lebanon, Hezbollah hosted Hamas leaders for years. But in mid-2013, Hezbollah reportedly asked Hamas leaders to leave Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs of Beirut.
            Tehran reportedly reduced its funding for Hamas over its involvement in Syria. “For supporting the Syrian revolution, we lost very much,” Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’ deputy foreign minister, said in May 2013.
            But Hamas may be reconsidering its strained relationship with Hezbollah and Tehran. Hamas may feel its position has weakened since the July 3, 2013 toppling of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader. A few weeks later, Hamas official Ahmad Youssef told the press that the movement had met with Iranian and Hezbollah representatives in Beirut. “Both sides stressed that their common enemy is Israel, with the understanding that each side understands the other’s position regarding areas of difference,” Youssef said, “particularly when it comes to the situation in Syria.”
 
What are the similarities and differences in their agendas? How have their goals and strategies changed since the 1980s?
      Hezbollah have Hamas have both undergone profound transformations since they were founded. In their early years, both were considered underground movements associated with violence and suicide bombings. But they later gained reputations for delivering social services. Hamas and Hezbollah built bases of support that allowed them to establish influential political parties.
      Since its inception, Hezbollah has been committed to resisting Israel. The Party of God has also been loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Its agenda has almost always aligned with Tehran’s interests. But it has accepted that Lebanon’s diverse population may necessitate a multi-sectarian state rather than an Islamic government.
            Hamas has had parallel goals to Hezbollah. It has been committed to the destruction of Israel and creating an Islamic state in Palestine, although some leaders have indicated in recent years that they might accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders—next to a Jewish state. But the organization has retained its right to resist Israel with violence.
            Hamas and Hezbollah had similar goals and objectives as long as they considered Israel the main enemy. But the Syrian uprising changed everything. Hezbollah shifted its primary focus to defending the Assad regime rather than confronting Israel.
 
What countries influence, army and train Hamas and Hezbollah funds?
           Qatar stepped in to provide Hamas with money and arms once Iran reduced for support for Hamas. Qatar’s influence over Hamas also increased after Khaled Mashaal moved to Doha in 2012. He reportedly had a close relationship with the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. In October 2012, Sheikh Hamad became the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007. He pledged $400 million to build homes and rehabilitate roads. But Qatar’s relationship with Hamas has been merely political, not military.
            Hezbollah’s main benefactor is still Iran. But their relationship runs much deeper than any relationship Hamas has ever had with a sponsor. Hezbollah is significantly dependent on Iranian support, particularly the Revolutionary Guards.
            Hezbollah initially resisted getting involved in Syria because of the potential costs. But Iran’s needs have trumped Hezbollah’s interests. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has visited Iran twice since the Syrian uprising began. Hezbollah eventually entered Syria on the side of Assad, almost certainly under Iranian pressure.
 
What have Hamas and Hezbollah achieved politically?
            Hezbollah entered electoral politics in 1992, winning eight parliamentary seats. It gradually gained more influence as a member of coalition governments but did not play a major role until Syria’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon. Hezbollah effectively inherited the Syrian role, including influence over state institutions. By 2010, it was powerful enough to force the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri by pulling out of the coalition government, although the move cost it some support.
            Hezbollah is now entrenched in the Lebanese state. It has sufficient clout to prevent the creation of any government that would try to exclude it. Its hold extends into some branches of the Lebanese Army and intelligence services.
            Hamas entered politics much later than Hezbollah. In 2006, it won a stunning victory against the long-dominant Fatah Party of Yasser Arafat in parliamentary elections--and quickly had to learn how to govern. In 2007, clashes between Hamas and Fatah left Hamas in uncontested control of Gaza, which it still held six years later.
            The electoral victories of Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco boosted Hamas’ status after the 2011 uprisings. Two years later, however, its popular support may be ebbing. Ironically, Hamas now faces challenges from other Islamists, notably ultraconservative Salafis and jihadi groups in Gaza.
 
For more information on Hezbollah's interests in Syria, watch Ghaddar's July 25 presentation at the Wilson Center.
 
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW Lebanon and was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars Middle East Program in 2012.
 
Photo credits: Khaled Meshaal by Trango (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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