Increasingly, all Roads run through Iran (Damascus, Baghdad, Asia)

(By Marianna Charountaki)

“While Iran’s importance for regional politics was always there, it has only now become apparent, especially for the foreign policies of international players, writes Dr. Marianna Charountaki.”

In the aftermath of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s unsuccessful ‘zero problems’ policy with his neighbours followed by the rapprochement between the KRG and Ankara, a reactivation is now being observed of the Turkish foreign policy discourse. A second attempt is being made to apply, successfully this time, the same policy with a focus on Tehran, no longer the apple of discord but of desire from both the East and the West.

Critical developments are taking place today, the most significant being the US administrations’ secret diplomacy, which led to the November 24 agreement. The US foreign policy’s demilitarization, with the country on the verge of withdrawing from Afghanistan as well, and a looming turn to reopen its proxy policy of the 1970s are notable.

In addition to Russia’s increasing role in the region, the US economic sanctions on Iran along with the latter’s influence in the region, especially since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis which dragged Tehran out of its isolation, are all rationales that have incited the current foreign policy choices.

The region has been imbued with a controlled but severe tension with all the regional states involved. Iran is not only a political, strategic or religious regional power, but also a considerable actor in international and regional relations with the Iraqi government, Syria, and Lebanon.

In this sense, it seems that in front of a changing Middle East, a new balance of power is being steadily shaped.

As I argued in my book long before the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, the twenty-first century developments appear to have opened the ox-skin bag of Aeolus containing the great winds for reshaping the Middle East, especially with declining European influence following the Eurozone crisis and a Kurdish role to be redefined in this new regional political setting. This has also favoured Iran as a formative regional player.

The message of the times is that none of the current regional and international players alone can act with hegemony any longer. Instead, mutual compromise is imperative, due exactly to the diffusion not only of the very notion of power, namely its multiple dimensions which denote economic or military strength, or the power of ideas, cultures and ideologies that shape the identities of the actors, but also the multiple centres of power; that is, the diffusion of power to multiple actors. Partly this has been the result of the impact that the neoconservatives’ policies has had since George W. Bush.

It has been observed that there is an enforced need for alliances. Sectarian conflicts are cases in point that regional foreign policies appear not willing to submit to, among them Iran and Turkey. The joint vision currently incited by Iran and Turkey for a peaceful Middle East together with Tehran’s foreign policy openness are shaping factors of the regional balance of power. The current understanding between Tehran and Ankara seems to supersede the repercussions that the Syrian crisis had initially on mutual relations.

The policies of containment and of the balance of power are two sides of the same coin when it comes to the US foreign policy agenda. If ‘soft diplomacy’ were not a new change that Barack Obama’s tenure of office ushered in, balancing between US strategic interests and US administration’s desire to avert regional instability, but another means for the application of Washington’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (2002), then we could talk about a new shift in the US foreign policy toward the region including Iran.

While Iran’s importance for regional politics was always there, it has only now become apparent, especially for the foreign policies of international players.
While Iran’s importance for regional politics was always there, it has only now become apparent, especially for the foreign policies of international players. So far, the road to Damascus, Baghdad and Asia go through Iran. Iran is thus called to control its regional power and sell it at a high price.

Dr. Marianna Charountaki is a post-doctoral fellow at Reading University (UK). Her research interests range from international relations and foreign policy analysis to the international relations of the broader Middle East. She is the author of the book “The Kurds and US Foreign Policy: International Relations in the Middle East since 1945″ (Routledge, 2010).

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13 Responses

  1. “So far, the road to Damascus, Baghdad and Asia go through Iran.”

    Ms. Charoutaki should have restricted her “road” analogy to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Clearly, that is where Iran’s influence radiates. She undermines (what I take to be) her thesis when she adds that the road to “Asia” goes through Iran. Really? Asia? Is she writing about that region that runs from Pakistan, through India, into China, up to Mongolia, down to Mainland and Maritime Southeast Asia, and on to Japan?

    The roads to all of the above regions of Asia are already well-traveled by the United States, the Europeans, and other international players without reference to Iran. And they will continue to do so whether or not Iran’s regional influence increases in the Near East. I fear Ms. Charoutaki has bitten off a bit more than she can chew with her “all roads lead through Tehran” thesis.

    • This piece reads like a condensed version of a much longer essay. The particular claim about “Asia” isn’t spelled out at all, so it’s impossible to understand what she’s talking about.

  2. As an additional thought regarding Ms. Charountaki’s piece about “All Roads Run Through Iran…To Asia,” geography might lead one to think Iran will wield great influence in Central Asia. I doubt this will be the case. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence of the ‘Stans of Central Asia, Turkey tried to wield influence in the region. Turkey, far more than Iran, would appear to potentially have more influence in the region due to historical, religious, and linguistic reasons. The region is primarily Sunni Muslim and Turkic-speaking and Sunni. Yet Turkey got nowhere in its attempt to wield influence.

  3. Wow, great essay.

    Iran has not been a normal country on the world stage in over thirty years. It was a revolutionary country, then a war-torn country, and then an international pariah.

    Charountaki writes, “Iran is thus called to control its regional power and sell it at a high price.” Perhaps this has been the plan all along with the nuclear program: to exchange it for an opportunity to come in out of the cold.

    • “Perhaps this has been the plan all along with the nuclear program: to exchange it for an opportunity to come in out of the cold.”

      Assuming there is a nuclear program, it would have been a very expensive and circuitous route to develop it as a chip to be used in exchange for coming in out of the cold. And totally unnecessary. Iran could have come in from the cold at any time during the past 30 years if it had simply adhered to accepted international standards of conduct and indicated a willingness to join the international community.

      Iran has its own idiosyncratic revolutionary ideology that placed it at odds with so many in the international community to thank for its isolation. That was Iran’s choice, but it did not have to go in that direction. If there is a nuclear weapons program, I seriously doubt it was engineered to exchange for coming in from the cold.

      • “If there is a nuclear weapons program, I seriously doubt it was engineered to exchange for coming in from the cold.”

        I doubt it too. If it exists it is far more likely to have been created to deter Israel’s nuclear program and to enhance Iran’s regional power and influence.

        • What makes this idea plausible to me is the relative openness with which the Iranians have advanced their program. Look and India and Pakistan – they kept everything under wraps under they were ready to surprise the world with their offensive nuclear capability. Look at Israel.

          Iran is operating more like North Korea – Hey, everyone, we did this! We achieved that! – every step of the way. We know that North Korea spent a decade trading pieces of its program for US government cheese.

          Now, the deterrence argument is plausible as well, but I ask you, if you were the Iranian government, concerned about American and Israeli aggression, what would be a more effective way to protect yourself? With nuclear breakout capacity intended to serve as a deterrent, or by reaching a deal to eliminate American hostility?

        • Re the “relative openness” of Iranian vs Israeli and Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs, the notion that the latter three were a “surprise to the world” would probably be a huge surprise to the various “intelligence services” who were WELL aware of what each of the sets of people in each of those nations that were dedicated to spreading the nuclear weaponizing disease to their own states, for “power.” And ego, and whatever else…

          And how is Iran more like North Korea? What is that conjunction supposed to get the rest of us to be thinking? Khameini is just like Kim Dot Dum? Or the Rev Guard is just like the insane NK military rulership? Axis of Evil redivivus?

          I know, it’s just complicated…

        • I lived in Pakistan in the 1980s. Everyone, including US consular officials, knew it was building a nuclear weapon. Reagan asked them not to assemble it.

      • Iran could have come in from the cold at any time during the past 30 years if it had simply adhered to accepted international standards of conduct and indicated a willingness to join the international community.

        Oh, bull. Look at the forces working to undermine the Obama’s administration’s warming of relations, in Israel and the US. There is a longstanding grudge against the Iranian government. The notion that, say, the Cheney/Bush administration would have happen to make friends is without basis. Have you not read about their decision to slap away the olive branch Iran offered in 2002?

        • ” The notion that, say, the Cheney/Bush administration would have happen to make friends is without basis. Have you not read about their decision to slap away the olive branch Iran offered in 2002?”

          You are placing way too much emphasis on the Bush/Cheney Administration. For one thing, there were good reasons to believe that the so-called “olive branch” was much less than met the eye at the time. But the much larger issue is that Iran had not only behaved (and continued to behave) outside international norms with regard to the United States, it had done so with regard to Europe and the international community at large as well, touting its idiosyncratic revolutionary credentials and supporting terrorist groups and activities.

          Do you not remember the prolonged talks between Iran and the British, French, and Germans that got nowhere in the early 2000s? Do you not remember how Iran drew out those talks to stall and then ditched them altogether? Don’t let your antipathy toward Bush and Cheney color your view of the history of Iran’s relations with the West since 1979.

          That Iran appears to be in a more conciliatory mood for discussions now is all to the good, assuming they eventually bear fruit. But that is a function of the bite that a strict sanctions regime is having. And Iran could have attempted to come in from the cold at any time during the past 30 years if it had made a genuine effort to do so.

        • Well, Bill, since the claim you wrote was “any time during the past 30 years,” I get to use the Bush/Cheney administration to falsify your statement. Were they not in charge for a good chunk of the past 30 years?

          You’ll have to excuse me, but the actual record of that administration, and the actual evidence of their rejection of an Iranian olive branch, count for a great deal more than the empty phrase “less than it appeared,” and the – is it mean to be a pejorative charge – charge that I have “antipathy” towards the Bush administration.

          It is interesting how reliably you leap to their defense, even to the point of arguing that they were not disinterested in a rapprochement with Iran.

  4. Kind of fun to sit back and watch our anonymous “possibly insiders” go at each other for a change. Kind of illustrates my basic thesis about the nature of humanity and the likelihood of losing that long-term top-of-the-food-chain status, when Empire-lovers can’t even get along…

    On a substantive note, there was a little article in the Guardian, which is earning its name in my little opinion, about complexity and its relationship to achieving any kind of sociopolitical homeostasis, almost anywhere on the planet given the scope and nature of human drives, but particularly in South Sudan. The headline, “How Hollywood cloaked South Sudan in celebrity and fell for the ‘big lie’,” really obscures the important reminder of the details that actually constitute the elements, or dissociating fragments, of a polity, and the difficulty, thanks to Great Game play and the way us geopoliticofixationists want to impose our own “simplifying assumptions”, e.g. Shia vs Sunni, “Taliban” vs “UN” vs Karzai et al., on situations, in support of various arguments and strategies and initiatives and profit-making opportunities from continued conflict, in this case in “the world’s newest nation” (whatever that means, relative to the ground truths). link to theguardian.com

    “The war had been brought to life in the US by broadcast evangelicals such as Billy Graham, who cast it as a heroic battle by Christian and African underdogs against a more powerful Muslim and Arab foe. The fact that religious and geographical lines were never remotely this clear and clean-cut was routinely ignored. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), under the leadership of the charismatic John Garang, was not fighting for an independent south but a democratic “new Sudan”. Its forces were drawn from areas far beyond what are now the borders of South Sudan. And its battles were, for the most part, not against the national army, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) but against rival militia groups, often drawn from the same great southern tribes, such as the Dinka and Nuer, that the SPLA leadership came from.

    Much of the fighting and dying took place in the south, often with funding and encouragement from the north. This meant that a new country would have to be built in what had been the main theatre of the war, with a nation drawn from opposing sides in much of that conflict. No serious effort was made by any side in the post-2005 cooling-off period to reconcile the north and south. The US, Europe, the UN and the south’s near-neighbours, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, all pushed for the country to be broken up. This effort was formalised in a referendum in 2011.

    The pursuit of separation at all costs made it harder to admit certain truths such as ethnic divisions and created the need for the “big lie”, as one senior UN official calls it. “The big lie is that there was no ethnic problem in South Sudan. There is a political problem.”"

    Of course, that’s just one little bit of one little article (there’s many more, of course, maybe more or less “true” and “accurate” and “complete”), one person’s take on a complex situation, one person’s attempt to clarify the nature of the complexity for armchair geopoliticians and maybe even Rulers…

    Must drive diligent students and explicators like Dr. Cole a little crazy, trying to keep all the bits and friction-generating pieces in mind as he thinks and writes.

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