Iran’s darker purpose

The discussion on Iran’s nuclear program has been conducted without connection to other regional issues where Iran exerts decisive influence

Zarif and Kerry at Iran nuclear talks in Geneva 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool)
Zarif and Kerry at Iran nuclear talks in Geneva 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool)
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.Give me the map there…
King Lear
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his new chosen instrument,  President Sayyed Hassan Rouhani, have already given the world a glimpse of Iran’s darker purpose in entering into negotiation with the world powers.
After the initial round of talks early in November 2013, Rouhani gave a speech in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, under the title, “Iran Did Not Go to the Negotiations Because of the Sanctions.”
“The significance of the talks’ success,” he said, “is that Iran will be able to fulfill its role better in the world and the region. The world must recognize that without Iran’s presence and participation, the problems of the region will either remain unsolved or will be solved at a high price. There is no doubt that Iran’s involvement in international issues will play a constructive and effective role. The reason we have agreed to sit with the powers at the negotiating table is that they are convinced that the sanctions are not the solution.”
In other words, Iran is using the sanctions/nuclear development issue – and the eagerness of the western powers to reach an agreement on it – as a key to unlock the door that has so far barred its way to the world’s top table.  For it is only by sitting as of right with global leaders that Iran’s essential strategic aim – preeminence in the Middle East – can be asserted and strengthened. 
No doubt Iran will be bidding for a seat at the Geneva-II Syrian peace conference, to be held on January 22, 2014. Aimed at a democratic political transition, the conference is billed as bringing the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table for the first time since the conflict started in March 2011.  Iran is heavily engaged in the civil war. It supports and equips a substantial Hezbollah fighting force with the aim of maintaining Bashar Assad in power, and ensuring that Syria emerges from the conflict as a key element in the “Shia Muslim crescent” under Iran’s leadership.
Iran’s wider expectations flowing from the interim agreement reached with the P5+1 powers seem to be matched by the US and the UK.  Reports on November 28 claim that the UK is acting as honest broker in secret negotiations currently being conducted between Hezbollah and the US, which cannot act independently because, unlike the UK, it has categorized both Hezbollah’s military and its political wing as “terrorist”.  Senior British diplomatic sources, quoted in a report in the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai, said the backstairs discussions are intended to “prepare for the upcoming return of Iran to the international community.”
And indeed so far the discussion on Iran’s nuclear program has been conducted without connection to other regional issues where Iran exerts decisive influence. These include the ongoing crisis in Syria, and Hezbollah’s involvement in it – described by one Saudi spokesman as an Iranian invasion; Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon; Iran’s continued support for groups opposed to a political settlement with Israel; Iran’s subversive activities in the Gulf States, particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; and, to cast the net wider, the reshaping of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Do the US and the UK envisage bringing Iran into discussions on these matters, should a final agreement be reached on the nuclear issue?
Such an aspiration would have profound repercussions across the Middle East, and nowhere more so than in Saudi Arabia, hitherto regarded as the US’s main ally after Israel in the region.
Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization, which is under its control,  together with that part of Syria still governed by Bashar Assad, form the bulk of the key Shi’ite grouping dedicated to opposing the Sunni world, led by Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian-Saudi rivalry is essentially about power and money, but as political risk analyst Primoz Manfreda has pointed out, the two governments are also ideological rivals.  Saudi royals have spent vast amounts funding the spread of the Sunni Wahabi school, an ultra-conservative, literal interpretation of Islam, which is the state religion in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, is dedicated to its own version of political Islam. The founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a passionate advocate of government by strict Sharia law, condemned the Saudi monarchy as a tyrannical, illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, rather than God.    The vacillating image conveyed recently by the United States in respect of Egypt, of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and of Iran’s nuclear ambitions has raised great concern among its neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia. Turki al-Faisal is a former Saudi ambassador to the United States. In his recent address to the annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference he revealed that, should the Iranian leadership succeed in building a nuclear weapon, he has advised Gulf Cooperation Council members to consider acquiring their own nuclear deterrent.
As regards the endemic Shia-Sunni power struggle, he said:  “Iran portrays itself as the leader of not just the minority Shiite world, but of all Muslim revolutionaries interested in standing up to the West.” He continued: “Another concern we need to address in the coming decade, is the Iranian leadership’s meddling and destabilizing efforts in countries with Shia majorities, Iraq and Bahrain, as well as those countries with significant minority Shia communities, such as Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen, and the fact that it still occupies the three Emirati islands in the Gulf and refuses to talk about them.”
The fact is that Iran remains what it has been since the Islamic Revolution – a rogue state that supports and exports terror in pursuit of its aims.  The list of kidnappings, bombings, assassinations and guerrilla warfare conducted under Iranian auspices across the world from Argentina to Berlin to Kenya is frighteningly long, and Iran shows no sign of withdrawing its support from terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban. 
In short, Iran’s regional, ideological and political aims are unlikely to undergo a sea change on account of the interim agreement. On the contrary, its reasons for coming to the nuclear negotiating table – its “darker purpose” – extend well beyond the nuclear issue. They reflect, as Michael Segall recently wrote, “a wide range of regional and international interests, along with Iran’s assessment of the United States’ declining regional and international status and its own expanding reach.”
This is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that the western world seems eager to embrace.
The writer is the author of “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal”