Iran and the Middle East in 2016

Iran Review|Behzad Khoshandam: The unstable Middle East was the nearest environment for Iran’s foreign policy in 2016 in the light of the emerging post-Sykes-Picot order. Iran, along with Russia and Turkey, constituted three main poles that created new strategic trends in the Middle East during 2016. Normalization of Iran’s strategic role at international level following 2015 played a decisive role in releasing the country’s hidden energy and potentialities in the Middle East during 2016.

Moving opposite to the regional axis, which believed in “foreign intervention,” and believing in the necessity of regional convergence constituted the gravitational center of Iran’s approach to developments in the Middle East during 2016. The essence of Iran’s approach to the Middle East in 2016 was the opposite of the viewpoint of Thomas L. Freidman and was an effort to manage developments in the Middle East toward realization of a “people-centered Middle East.”

As for developments in the Middle East, the starting point for intensification of differences over management of regional issues was the official severance of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early June 2016.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been traditionally engaged in rivalries in the Middle East over management and architecture of the region, the quality and authority of the one government, which would be a model for the region, as well as their regional spheres of influence. During 2016 and after Iran and Russia formed a strategic alliance to solve the most important crisis in the region, that is, the war of attrition in Syria, differences between Tehran and Riyadh became more serious and extensive. In line with this difference in values and interests, diplomatic apparatuses of these countries tried to find new friends and attain tools for influence and bargaining. As a result, as the year 2016 drew to a close, these two important Muslim countries failed to reach a stable and mutually acceptable conclusion on their strategies and tactical views.

Turkey’s internal developments, the failed coup on July 15 and the general direction of Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East during 2016 were among other important milestones of this year. Analysis of Turkey’s developments is an essential component of any analysis of Iran’s approach to the Middle East in 2016. From many years ago, Iran, in its effort to manage and regulate equations in the Middle East, raised subtle criticism of Turkey’s westernized policies in this region.
Turkey, however, continued to pursue some of its challenging policies with regard to its neighbors, Kurds, Israel and Arabs, especially with regard to Syria and Iraq, during 2016. The biggest mistake made by the NATO-oriented Turkey was launching Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria as well as deploying military forces to parts of northern Iraq. The failed coup, which occurred in Turkey on July 15, was in fact a consequence of Ankara’s challenging measures in 2016. Due to its approach to neighboring countries, which is based on partnership, Iran cooperated with Turkey in order to thwart the coup through innovative measures and strategic collaboration. The peak of Tehran’s initiative was demonstrated during the trilateral meeting among Iran, Turkey and Russia, which was held in Moscow in December 2016. The goal of the participants was to discuss the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to find an intra-regional solution to the crisis in Syria.
Another side of Iran’s Middle Eastern diplomacy in 2016 was extra- and intra-regional confrontation with Daesh and terrorism. In parallel, Tehran tried to take measures in order to accurately manage regional developments and restore stability to the Middle East, especially with regard to crises in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Palestine. Consequences of such important global crises included the crisis of refugees and immigrants, changes in the regional order, which is based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, proxy wars, sectarianism, ethnicism, secessionism, foreign interventions, xenophobia and breakout of various civil armed conflicts in 2016, which affected various aspects of people’s welfare and citizenship rights in the Middle East. A major question facing Iran’s diplomatic apparatus in 2016 was the following question. How Iran, with a civilization background of several thousand years, can play a role in restoring peace, stability and order and dispelling anarchy in these challenging areas of the complicated global politics?

The realization of the Iranian sense of responsibility was among Iran’s immediate responses to the above question. Under these conditions, fighting against extremism and occupationism by Iran took place in Syria crisis both in diplomatic and political fronts, and in operational aspect. Iran’s options and solutions as well as soft and had power resources, were frequently both confirmed and denied in this regard. Iran’s diplomatic efforts were successful in certain cases such as putting an end to the political deadlock over the election of the president in Lebanon. On the other hand, Iran’s approach to developments in the Persian Gulf was faced with aggressive response of Arabs, pivoted on Saudi Arabia and the UK, as a result of which, the Persian Gulf region remained as a constant challenging component in global politics during 2016.
With regard to the crisis between Arabs and Israel and the resistance axis, the balance was mostly in favor of Iran in view of the nature of global politics in 2016. Iran had no direct role in the approval of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 on December 23, 2016, which condemned Israel’s settlement activities. However, this international diplomatic U-turn with regard to Palestine was construed as being in line with anti-Israel approaches. Finally, the effects of this international U-turn on Israel in 2016 were greatly convergent with those anti-Israeli interests, values and discourses, which have been supported by Iran over the past decades.

Based on lessons learned from history, Iran during 2016 was the origin of behaviors, which generated ideas for the emerging global order. The anarchy that was rampant in the Middle East during 2016 made Iran take steps toward regionalist options. Despite all these measures, however, the balance and security trends, which were desirable to Iran in the Middle East of 2016, were not realized in practice. According to realities in the Middle East of 2016, Iran pointed the accusing finger at a wide spectrum of Western-minded, dogmatic and extremist actors, who are afraid of any possible solution to regional problems.

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