Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran’s view of regional security in the Middle East has been constant – namely that security in the region can be ensured only through cooperation among regional states and without any foreign interference. In this sense, dialogue and diplomacy are not only accepted but necessary. Notwithstanding this official position, Iran’s actual policies – from trying to ‘export’1 its revolution to supporting non-state armed actors and developing advanced missile capabilities – have been among the factors that contribute to the emergence and consolidation of a ‘security dilemma’ in the Middle East.2 Therefore, what characterizes Iran’s regional security approach over the past four decades is an enduring contradiction between a political desire to enjoy stable and favourable relations with other regional states and practical behaviour that is based on competition and balance of power.
This contradiction makes achieving a framework for multilateral regional security dialogue that includes Iran very difficult, but not impossible. On the one hand, the US disengagement from the Middle East may convince Iran that the time is ripe for dialogue among regional countries based on mutual interests and without American ‘interference’ and pressure. On the other hand, emerging alignments between Washington’s traditional Middle Eastern allies in response to the changing US role have raised concerns in Iran. To prevent those alignments from transforming into solid anti-Iran coalitions, Tehran has already begun its own outreach to neighbouring Arab states. This new trend could be elevated to a multilateral framework. The Iraqi government’s initiative in hosting Iran–Saudi dialogue has already been complemented by Baghdad facilitating similar dialogues between Iran and other Arab states, such as Jordan and Egypt. However, Iran’s uncompromising hostility towards Israel would prevent a multilateral framework from becoming a comprehensive and inclusive process, as evolved through the Helsinki process in Europe. Also, Tehran’s engagement in diplomatic dialogue with neighbours is often prompted by a desire to tackle what it perceives as imminent security challenges, in the sense of potential ‘hard security’ threats against the Islamic Republic. This suggests the lack of a long-term strategic vision for diplomatic engagement, which is another barrier to establishing a regional framework.
Iran’s evolving threat perception
Since 2018, two main factors have influenced Iran’s threat perception of the region: first, the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal; and second, the Arab states’ growing desire to establish and strengthen formal ties with Israel. In May 2018, while withdrawing from the JCPOA, then US President Donald Trump announced the launch of the so-called ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran. Iranian leaders firmly believed that Trump’s main objective was to trigger regime change in Iran by maximizing external and, by extension, domestic pressure on the Islamic Republic. The maximum pressure policy directly affected Iran’s threat perception of the US. As a result, Tehran escalated tensions with the US by expanding its nuclear programme. At the same time, US regional allies, chiefly Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), backed Trump’s anti-Iran approach. This reinforced the belief among Iranian leaders that maximum pressure also had a strong regional element3 – especially when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke of taking ‘the war’ with the Islamic Republic inside Iran.4 Consequently, any Iranian plan to counter maximum pressure would necessarily include a confrontation with US regional allies. Iran’s growing sense of insecurity regarding the US allies partly explained why Tehran escalated tensions in the Persian Gulf, specifically against Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Tehran also viewed the Trump administration’s initiative in fostering the ‘Abraham Accords’ between Israel and several Arab states as an attempt to create a regional anti-Iranian front.
Trump’s departure from the White House raised cautious hopes in Iran that the new US administration would return to the JCPOA and revoke the policy of maximum pressure. In Tehran’s view, the US Democrats’ critical approach to Saudi Arabia and their seemingly different regional agenda could mean a weakening of the anti-Iranian front. So far, however, the Biden administration’s actual record in the region has had mixed implications for Iran. President Joe Biden’s decisions to start negotiations to return to the JCPOA, withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, and change the US role in Iraq, have been interpreted by Iran as potentially positive developments that could reduce the level of ‘American threat’. Yet these same developments, along with concerns among US regional allies about an empowered Iran as a result of the JCPOA’s revival, have led to those allies closing ranks and expanding security cooperation. Israel’s increasing ties with Iran’s neighbours in the Persian Gulf, along with its growing presence on Iran’s northern borders in the South Caucasus, have increased Tehran’s threat perception in an unprecedented way – leading to the belief that the Israelis are pursuing a policy of Iran’s strategic encirclement. Turkey’s initiative to improve relations with Iran’s Arab neighbours also caused concerns in Tehran. As such, the changing US role in the Middle East over the past year has arguably altered but not alleviated Iran’s threat perception towards the region.5 It is also noteworthy that despite the Biden administration’s expressed desire to revive the JCPOA, more recent trends in Washington’s Middle East policy are only exacerbating the Iranian threat perception. This includes renewed US interest in maintaining close ties with Arab allies to win their support in the intensifying great power rivalry with Russia and China, along with ideas such as integrating Arab and Israeli air defence systems to counter Iran.6
Iran’s two-pronged response: escalation and dialogue
Despite the change in the nature of perceived threats, Iran’s regional approach over the past four years has been a combination of sabre-rattling and sporadic military escalation on the one hand and an expressed desire for regional diplomacy and dialogue on the other.7 Numerous incidents could be linked to Iran’s escalation in the Persian Gulf in response to the maximum pressure campaign. A sabotage operation against oil tankers at the UAE port of Fujairah in May 2019, attacks on two other tankers the following month, and an unprecedented increase in Houthi missile attacks against critical targets in Saudi Arabia all bear the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ fingerprints. Officially, Tehran denied any involvement in those incidents.
Concurrently, the administration of then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was producing ideas for creating a regional security framework. In October 2019, Rouhani proposed the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) and invited Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to join.8 His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, proposed a regional dialogue forum in the Persian Gulf followed by the idea of signing a non-aggression pact with the Arab neighbours. Iran’s reaction to the growing ties between Arab states and Israel was also a combination of threat and diplomacy. Iran-backed Yemeni Houthis in early 2022 launched a series of attacks against the UAE – the leading actor in the Arab–Israeli normalization process. Meanwhile, the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi has put forward its ‘neighbourhood policy’, which calls for dialogue and improving relations with Iran’s Arab – and non-Arab – neighbours. 9
In both administrations, the first element of Iran’s strategy, that is, escalation, has been aimed at discouraging neighbours from cooperating with the country’s enemies – first the Trump administration and then Israel – by raising the costs of such cooperation. But considerable differences exist between the Rouhani and Raisi administrations regarding the second element, dialogue. Rouhani and his foreign policy team, led by Zarif, presented the idea of regional multilateralism as an alternative to confrontation and security competition. Their approach was based on a liberal view of international relations, according to which the creation of a regional system based on collective security could serve the interests of all the countries involved. External challenges aside, one of the factors that thwarted Rouhani’s initiatives was that his ideas contrasted with those of Iran’s hardline faction, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which believes in achieving security by maximizing hard power.
Raisi and his team belong to the hardline faction. For them, regional dialogue and diplomacy are a complement, not an alternative, to military power. From this perspective, dialogue is only effective and beneficial when backed by military might. According to Defence Minister Brigadier General Mohammad-Reza Gharaei Ashtiani, ‘developing relations with neighbours’ along with military power and support for the non-state allies are components of Iran’s ‘deterrence’ policy.10 It could be said that the Raisi administration – and the Iranian government as a whole – has an instrumental view of dialogue that contrasts with the rather strategic view of the Rouhani administration. Unlike Rouhani, Raisi’s regional policy is based on improving bilateral relations with neighbours rather than arising from an inclination towards multilateralism. Tehran’s calculation is that by developing a credible military threat while also showing openness to dialogue, neighbouring states can be prevented from cooperating with Israel against Iran’s interests. But this strategy has already backfired. The perceived threat from Iran has prompted an increasingly strengthened alignment between Israel and Arab states, supported by the US. Yet Iran’s assessment is that the formation of any solid ‘anti-Iran coalition’ in the region will be stymied by underlying disagreements among Arab states, especially their different views on the extent to which Iran actually is a threat and how it should be dealt with.11 From this perspective, Tehran’s two-pronged approach of dialogue and threat has already successfully sown division among Arab states and will continue to be effective in the foreseeable future.
Is a regional security dialogue possible?
Understanding Iran’s threat perception and its current leaders’ approach to security and dialogue makes it easier to discuss the potential and limitations of a regional dialogue process. To sum up Iran’s view, it sees the presence and involvement of extra-regional powers, specifically the US, as the main cause of insecurity in the Middle East. Second, the Raisi administration’s approach to dialogue is essentially reactive, in response to newly emerging threats, with the Arab–Israeli normalization being top of the list. Closely connected to the latter point, Tehran’s approach to dialogue is also exclusive, as it is based on a desire to exclude Israel from security arrangements in the region. This, in turn, means that Iran will not accept the establishment of an all-inclusive framework for regional dialogue in the Middle East.
Relatedly, the third point concerns Iran’s view of the geographical scope of a potential regional dialogue forum. Both Rouhani’s proposals and the Raisi administration’s neighbourhood policy have focused solely on the Persian Gulf, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iraq. As such, the best outcome to expect in terms of a multilateral framework involving Iran appears to be some sort of ‘sub-regional’ format in the Persian Gulf. The fourth and final point is that since the Iranian leadership sees military power and diplomacy not as opposites but as part of a single strategy, the leaders would not agree with any proposal to limit their strategic military programmes, especially the missile programme, as part of a regional diplomatic process. This does not rule out the possibility of Iran and its neighbours engaging in small issue-oriented formats to discuss mutual concerns such as environmental problems or food security. But even on those issues, Iran usually shows little willingness towards any cooperative approach unless the issue at hand has already become highly securitized and is in need of urgent attention. Tehran’s recent engagement in dialogue with Turkey over the management of shared water resources12 is a clear example, which happened only when the issue had already begun to create tensions between the countries.13
Iran might be also interested in exploring ways to build trade networks with Arab neighbours, given that the Iranian economy is experiencing unprecedented hardships due to the unilateral US sanctions. But those very sanctions seem to be a barrier to even discussing enhanced trade relations. This may only change if the JCPOA is revived and economic sanctions against Iran are removed in a meaningful way.
A more realistic proposal
Considering these limitations, Iran’s involvement in a comprehensive regional dialogue process does not seem likely. Instead, a more realistic objective could be to encourage Iran and neighbouring Arab states to start a dialogue aimed at signing a mutual non-aggression pact. In this scenario, Iran is likely to demand a formal guarantee from its neighbours that they will not allow any third party – particularly Israel – to use their territory to act against Iran. A fundamental challenge would be whether in return, Iran has the willingness – and the ability – to include its non-state allies in such a multilateral pact.
Given Iran’s deep scepticism regarding Western powers, any diplomatic process should be initiated from within the region. Here, Qatar seems well positioned to act as a facilitator between Iran and the GCC. Qatar’s favourable relations with all key regional actors, its recent diplomatic activism, and its policy of not joining the normalization process with Israel – at least so far – make Doha a viable option to fulfil this task. Another option is Iraq, based on its recent facilitation of dialogue with Iran and other states. Further afield, Russia and China could be considered realistic options as facilitators. Iran has shown a rather positive response to Russia’s proposal for Persian Gulf security, although it did reject Moscow’s idea for a broader format including Israel.14 The revival of the JCPOA is also needed at the transregional level. The revival would alleviate Iran’s threat perception of the US and its allies, while potentially further motivating Arab states to improve relations with Iran. Without the JCPOA, Iran would most likely prioritize military escalation in its regional strategy, which would thwart the formation of any meaningful multilateral pact.
This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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