Iran's New President: Foreign Policy Challenges for Rohani

07 Aug, 2013    ·   4073

Kai Fürstenberg discusses the major issues on Iran's foreign policy agenda vis-a-vis Rohani's election 

The presidential elections in Iran on 14 June 2013 brought Hassan Rohani, a moderate candidate, to power. The issue of Iran’s nuclear policy is the main issue standing between the western community and Iran. Rohani’s biggest challenge in this regard is that the so called western community is not that much of a coherent community. He faces two different groups: First the U.S.-Israeli group, which is guarded, even hostile towards; and secondly the EU which is more open for negotiations and an eventual end of the sanctions.

Rohani has very few alternatives to negotiations and is seemingly willing to return to the table. 

While the nuclear policy issue receives probably far more international attention, another foreign affair is far more pressing for a resolution: Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and its alignment with Hezbollah. Since the Syrian regime came under pressure by rebels, Iran has supported the government’s war effort with material and even troops and it seems that Rohani is not willing to back away from that. Such a position will complicate matters in the region and it will complicate negotiations with the western community on the nuclear policy matter. For the U.S. this involvement is a good stand-alone reason to uphold sanctions and for Israel it is a huge security concern.

On the other hand Iran’s strategic goals in Syria are more than obvious: If Assad falls, it is very probable that a Sunni-Islamic regime will come to power in Syria which will be generally hostile towards the Shia majority nation of Iran. Another concern is the Kurdish minority in Syria. As Syria drifts further into chaos, the Kurdish areas will be consolidated and stabilised by the local Kurdish defence organisations. With a sizeable Kurdish minority (approx. 10% of the population are Kurdish) mainly along the Iraqi border in Iran and a quasi-independent Kurdish area in Iraq, the goal of an establishment of a greater Kurdish nation in Syria, Iraq and Iran can become a real threat to Iranian authority.

That leads directly to the Iraq problem. Iran has and will continue to influence Iraqi politics to ensure the dominance of the Shia majority and to establish a new ally in the region. But Rohani also needs a united Iraq, if he wants to keep the Kurds in north Iraq in check. He has to be careful that his influence does not lead to civil war between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority. Such a civil war would only strengthen the Kurdish position.

A further challenge for the Rohani administration will be the retreat of the western alliance from Afghanistan and the expectable destabilisation of the country afterwards. With a Shia minority up to 20% of the population, Iran could be involved in a possible civil war as the protector of that Shia minority. 

For economic reasons Rohani has to convince the western community that they should lift the sanctions against the country, but at the same time his administration has to manoeuvre between the economic interest and Iran’s strategic concerns in the region as a middle power and “protector” of Shia interests in the middle east. 

Economically it would be wise for Iran to look east towards India. Already partners in a big pipeline project which would provide the power-hungry nation of India with crude oil, the cooperation between both rising economic powers being advantageous for both: India lacks resources like oil and Iran needs foreign exchange and investments to modernise their refineries. Additionally, China has become a major economic partner. Able to provide cheap consumer goods in exchange for crude oil, the cooperation between the two nations could alleviate some of the huge economic problems within Iran’s domestic market. At the same time, the cooperation with China and India comes without judgment on Iran’s domestic and foreign policies in the region, making those nations even more attractive for long term partnerships. Iran could economically become much more independent from trade with the EU and the U.S., basically diminishing the effect of the sanctions and the political pressure western governments can apply on the Iranian leadership. 

All in all, Rohani will face a lot of problems in his term. The foreign situation is the worst in decades. Iran is isolated from the western community by sanctions. Its allied regime in Syria is in disarray and might fall, which could lead to a hostile regime in the country. Its neighbouring country of Iraq is not stable at all and might fall into civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, which would probably involve Iran in some way.
Afghanistan’s situation is unstable at best as it is and the country could very well have a civil war too after the allied nations leave it. And then there is also the potential danger of a Kurdish insurgency, if the Kurds can stabilise their position in Syria, while being largely autonomous in Iraq and having ended their combat operations in Turkey for good.