Iran was invited last summer for the first time to talk about the Syria situation. This followed the Nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran. In the Middle East Iran is a major actor in the region and it was unrealistic to think that a solution for the current situation might be found without Teheran.
Domestically, Iran has to face different agendas. The Pasdaran wish to keep the nuclear program and for the International Community to stop the ban against Iran, whereas President Rouhani thinks that it is necessary to make concessions. In addition, there is a large feeling of nationalism among the Iranian population. This nationalism is different from the idea of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a concept that is limited by its affirmation of the Shiism. The US intervention in 2003 in Iraq had opened the door to Iranian territorial influence in the region. In 2006 the Hezbollah became the hero of the pan-Arabism during the Lebanon war. But 6 months later, with the execution of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni community turned anti-Shiites (even maybe more than before).
The Arab-spring introduced nationalism within the politics. Patriotism has replaced pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism. Countries turned inwards and the neighbouring country has become the enemy. The Syrian conflict turned to civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. Minorities as Alawites or Zaydis have become religious hardliners more for strategic advantages than in order to follow a theological path. This race to confessionalism is obviously fed by Saudi Arabia as Iran establishes itself as the protector of Shiism. With the intervention of Hezbollah in the 2013 conflict, Iran with both conservative and moderate parties, sticks to its Shiism main line.
There was also a major shift within the Arab world. The Israel/Palestine conflict has lost its strategic dimension. The Enemy No 1 is not Israel anymore but Shiism. The struggle for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia has bolstered. As a consequence, the Kingdom is trying to broaden its influence and is conducting a direct military intervention in Yemen (previously made by proxy). Iran and Saudi Arabia feed the conflicts in the Middle East with a tint of faith, fight for territories of influence, and do not pretend any more to be the best hedge against Zionism.But Teheran has to realise that this strategy is a dead-end. Middle East is Sunni. It is a fact. Shiism represents a minority, roughly 15%. So Iran has already reached its widest influence (Iraq, Hezbollah and maintaining Bashar El Assad in power). We can see now what I describe as “cantonalisation”, where each side defends its own territory.
Is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia capable of regional leadership?
The Kingdom’s armed forces are weak. In comparison, Iran possesses motivated armed forces and local relays. Furthermore the Saudis in Yemen are doing the same mistakes as the U.S., air strikes and tribes funding. And the Saudi Royalty is widely critised in the region. The Kingdom can buy support but money does not buy loyalty.
What solutions lie ahead?
First solution would be a territorial redistribution on a confessional basis. Do we really want to do the same thing as we already did in the Balkans? For the same results?Find a deal with ISIS? No one in the Middle East really wants their disappearance. Because ISIS is the main enemy of nobody. Without ISIS, Iran might get its hands on Iraq, something that is just not an option for Riyadh. And the Turks are too afraid with the emergence of a Kurd nation that is for now, only obstructed by the Caliphate. Iran wants ISIS to be contained but not defeated. Otherwise it would have to administrate Sunni territories.Another odd result is that Iran is becoming an ally to the U.S. while Bashar El-Assad is able to claim, and be heard: “it is Daesh or me”.
Time for negotiations?
The solution would be an agreement between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, on the same model as the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, with a clear definition of the limits and the gains. With the results we all know…