In today’s world of post-Arab Spring geopolitics, longstanding rivalries and established alliances can change on a whim. In Iran’s case, the narrative has deviated from a maniacal mullah regime seeking weapons of mass destruction to a significant partner capable of promoting peace and stability in the region. How did Iran go from movie-villain status to negotiating partner and potential ally? Granted, any geopolitical shift involves several variables, but Iran smartly played its hand when it counted most.
President Hassan Rouhani had to do little to promote himself as a reformer after his election victory. The unceremonious departure of the provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a victory in itself for whoever was to follow, not unlike President Obama’s succession from George W. Bush. Rouhani’s reputation as was already well established in Iran; hence the jubilance that followed the election. Although at times skeptical, the American media did have a hand in promoting Rouhani as a moderate. All Rouhani had to do was say the right things, and he did just that. From reaching out to Jews on Twitter to having a friendly phone conversation with Obama and conducting himself with tact and professionalism at the U.N., Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” and genuine willingness to engage worked to a tee much to the chagrin of Israel and Gulf states fearful of Iranian hegemony.
Rouhani also surrounded himself with a cerebral cabinet that holds more U.S doctorates than Obama’s cabinet and more than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, or Spain combined. Whether this results in good governance is immaterial. From a public relations strategic standpoint however, it demonstrates a shift away from a shadowy, fundamentalist theocratic regime to one that is educated, intellectually able and capable of producing change. Unlike leaders in most Muslim majority states, Rouhani knows that establishing a new, positive image is the first step towards changing diplomatic fortunes.
A successful rebrand, however is only as good as the product itself and unless the product is deemed valuable, it fades with time and becomes meaningless. Similarly, a positive image can be a boon to any regime, but regional significance cannot be understated. Given today’s political realities, to ignore Iran is to ignore the Middle East, and the current nuclear negotiations prove that Iran is indeed deemed a significant actor on the world stage. Ironically, it was the U.S. that provided the initial impetus for Iran to wield its influence in Iraq and expand its reach in the region. The Syrian gift has only emboldened Iran to again dictate the future of a strategically significant state that serves as a sphere of influence for both Iran and Hezbollah, a vital Iranian proxy that turned the tide in favour of Bashir Al-Assad in Syria.
Iran’s strategy has been orchestrated with a careful balance. Ayatollah Khamenei has acted as an effective intermediary between President Rouhani’s outreach to the West and the more conservative elements within Iran, namely the Revolutionary Guard. Formed during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution as a counter to the Iranian army, the Revolutionary Guard has grown into a lobby that has penetrated Iran’s intelligence, economic and political institutions. It seems Khamenei has used his diplomatic acumen to repair relations with the West through Rouhani on the one hand while allowing the Revolutionary Guard with a level of autonomy to dictate policy in Syria on the other. In doing so, Iran has made its adversaries think twice about the repercussions of an attack on its soil. After the invasion of Iraq, Iran was seen as a nuisance. With regards to Syria, Iran is now seen as a regional heavyweight with the image to boot.
These developments have allowed an opening of diplomatic channels between two sides that otherwise were not there. American sabre rattling combined with Ahmadinejad’s provocations only served to create a cyclical dysfunctional relationship wrought with suspicion and malice. Iran’s apparent move towards becoming a member of the international community and away from pariah status has the potential of a strategic relationship that can solve regional issues instead of creating them. This could manifest itself as an ongoing dialogue between the U.S. and Iran to work towards political and economic stability in the region. Allowing Iran to take part in Syria talks at the World Peace Conference would be the first step towards achieving such a goal. The new Iran would also allow the U.S. to exit the Syrian fiasco while maintaining face as it seeks to pivot its foreign policy towards Asia. As a major oil producer and over half the population under the age of 35, Iran is ripe for American corporations to develop new business relationships that will benefit both countries. With Iran out of the cross hairs for now, Israel and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states may increase collaboration to thwart Iranian influence. However, the prerequisite for such an arrangement would have to be some sort of settlement on the Palestinian issue before a closer alliance can be declared. Granted, the current nuclear negotiations have to bear more fruit on both sides, but coming to the table has already garnered more results than three decades of hostility.
At any rate, the West’s thawing relations with the new Iran opens up a multitude of possibilities in a region where multiple actors are trying to capitalize on waning U.S. influence. Unlike Iraq, Libya and Egypt, Iran has proven that engagement with the West can only come with domestic political flexibility and the power to shape Western interests, capped off, of course, with a new image and willingness to engage.