Muslim Kurds in Iran are predominantly Shiite

Baghdad lies between Tehran and Riyadh

Iran is described as an emerging regional power. But nothing has changed in terms of its strategic isolation. On the contrary, it has been tightened over the past year.

Iran is generally described as a regional power whose rise began with the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. This impression was reinforced by the ambitious nuclear program of the Islamic Republic and the election victories of Tehran by friendly politicians in Iraq and Palestine. And finally, the successful resistance of the Lebanese Hezbollah against the Israeli army in the summer of 2006 is seen as a success for Tehran. As important as all of these successes are, nothing has changed about Tehran's strategic isolation. On the contrary, it has been tightened over the past year.

The fact that with the new government in Baghdad groups have come to power that had been active in the Shiite fundamentalist underground for years, and that Iraq has thus pulled out of the pan-Arab-Sunni camp, has raised the Arab-Sunni worries about a Shiite arch, which supposedly extends from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean Sea, only encouraged. However, these Arab fears are more imagined and instrumentalized than actually believed. Hardly any Arab government assumes that the Iranians can harness the Arab Shiites of the region to their carts. So why the theatrical thunder?

One aspect was to counter the sympathy that President Ahmadinejad enjoyed in the Arab population - if only the dull religious prejudices from the Middle Ages. This calculation only worked when the Baghdad government lost almost all sympathy among Sunni Muslims with the execution of Saddam Hussein on a major Islamic holiday. As a result of collateral damage, so to speak, the reputation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region also declined. By then, sectarian violence had escalated in Iraq, but the populist president of Iran enjoyed unbroken popularity in the region.

Shiite danger talked about

However, putting Tehran in its place was only one reason to talk about the Shiite danger in the public debate. Equally important was probably the intention to thwart the American democratization project in the region without having to take a stand against the USA. Arab fears that free elections would produce unpredictable and at least undesirable results were confirmed in Iraq. Since then, the drum has been busily beating that elections would only bring extremists allied with Tehran to power. The Americans only believed this argument after the fundamentalist Hamas had won the election.

Political legitimacy for Hamas

Since then it has become quiet in Washington about the democratization of the Arab world. Instead, the authoritarian regimes are praised as moderate Arabs in the public debate and contrasted with the supposed threat of a global Shiite conspiracy controlled by Tehran. In order to make the most of it, it was also possible to move the anti-Shiite al-Qaeda, whose members largely come from the extreme Sunni milieu of the Arabian Peninsula, closer to Tehran. Not a bad success for the country from which 15 of the 25 assassins of September 11th came. As always, when the antagonism between Shiites and Sunnis in the region is played up, it is again a confrontation between the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran and the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

For the Saudis, anti-Shiite propaganda was only of interest to the extent that it could contain Tehran's influence. Certainly, should Iraq collapse, the Saudis would have little choice but to support Sunni groups, just as Tehran would side with the Shiites. But that is neither in the interests of Tehran and Riyadh, nor is it in the interests of sectarian hostilities in Lebanon or a Palestinian civil war. In both cases, however, Saudi diplomacy managed to take the initiative and expand its own room for maneuver vis-à-vis Tehran, and not just Tehran. With the Mecca Agreement, for example, the Saudis succeeded in breaking Hamas out of the already half-hearted embrace of Tehran and bringing it back into the Arab Sunni mainstream via a coalition government. At the same time, however, the Saudis have also granted Hamas political legitimacy, which the USA and Israel expressly reject.

A similar tendency appears to be emerging in Lebanon. The fault lines between Hezbollah and its allies and the government are only partly denominational. Equally important are social tensions and the question of who will inherit the hegemony of the Maronite Christians, which was valid until the civil war, after the withdrawal of the Syrians. Tehran cannot offer much here besides arms deliveries, and Hezbollah boss Nasrallah is too sly and, since the last however questionable success against Israel, too self-confident to allow himself to be tamed by Tehran. The same applies to Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, one of the most important representatives of the high Shiite clergy, who is neither financially nor politically dependent on Tehran. Both have shown so much political realism and pragmatism over the past few years that a compromise solution à la libanaise between the government camp supported by the Saudis and Hezbollah seems possible - even without consulting Tehran.

Do not isolate Tehran

At the same time, Saudi diplomacy was smart enough not to offend and isolate Tehran. Another goal of containing Iranian influence was to put a stop to Ahmadinejad's foreign policy in order to prevent a possible military escalation between Iran and the USA. Saudis and Iranians therefore used visiting diplomacy, which in some cases successfully served to build trust. The lack of trust between Tehran and its Arab neighbors, as well as between Tehran and the international community over its nuclear program, is the negative framework that makes it impossible to solve the problems facing the Islamic Republic. In both cases, it is important to show Tehran its borders, while at the same time making it unmistakably clear that it is neither interested in a total isolation of Iran nor in humiliation of the regime.

Last chance for Iraq-USA rapprochement

Against this background, the Baghdad Conference offers what is probably the last chance for rapprochement between the US and Iran. Assuming both sides seize the opportunity, a positive dynamic on the nuclear issue could actually be set in motion. For the Iraqi government, an American rapprochement with Iran (and Syria) would initially mean that no bills between the said adversaries would be settled on its territory. As a result, a mechanism could even be set in motion that ended the civil war in Kurdistan in the 1990s. Until then, however, the old Iraqi elites (mostly Sunnis) and the new, predominantly Shiite elites will fight for their respective spheres of influence in the country. The daily violence in Iraq will therefore hardly change in the medium term.