By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Asia Times, Oct 14, 2010
Ahmadinejad called in his conversation with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for "closer coordination" between the countries to "create regional stability, especially in Lebanon", according to the Iranian press.
In light of King Abdullah's recent visit to Lebanon, reflecting a more proactive Saudi involvement in Lebanese affairs aimed atsustaining Lebanon's fragile internal peace, such diplomatic gestures by Ahmadinejad build confidence between Tehran and Riyadh as well as with other Arab capitals. This includes Cairo, which has taken a positive step in repairing ties with Iran by setting up an air link with Tehran.
Assuming Ahmadinejad's trip to Lebanon goes as planned and without any major hitches, it could go a long way in improving Iran's relations with the entire Arab world, which is somewhat weary of Tehran's politics of "sphere of influence" in Iraq and Lebanon, among other countries.
Iran's ambassador to Baghdad made it known in a recent meeting with Iraqi leaders that Tehran preferred the premiership of Nuri al-Maliki, a comment vilified in some Arab papers as tantamount to interference in Iraq's internal affairs. Maliki has been struggling since elections in March to form a government that would give him another term in power.
From Tehran's vantage point, the comment was a reminder of Iran's substantial influence in Iraq's dominant pro-Iran Shi'ite coalition - a fait accompli worthy of consideration by those pundits in the West who depict Iran as a "paper tiger". In contrast, some Arab pundits go to the other extreme and portray Iran as a "regional superpower".
The fact is, Iran is neither. It is a regional middle power benefiting from a geostrategic and geo-economic location straddling the two energy hubs of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, and it was deeply rattled by the post-September 11 infusion of Western power in its vicinity threatening its national securirty.
"The president's intention of the visit to Lebanon is several-fold," said a Tehran University political scientist who specializes in Iran's foreign relations. "First, he wants to make sure that there is no attempt to weaken Hezbollah because of the Hariri investigation." This is a reference to the United Nations-backed international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005; it is widely expected to implicate Lebanon's Hezbollah.
"Second, he [Ahmadinejad] wants to improve trade and economic ties between Iran and Lebanon. He will travel to south Lebanon to send a message to Israel that they can bet there will be a frontal attack on Israel from south Lebanon if Israel ever dares to attack Iran.
"Third, with Hezbollah's substantial arsenal of missiles, grown several-fold since the 2006 war [with Israel], that is a warning that no Israeli politician can afford to ignore. Fourth, the president is trying to improve relations with the Arab world and Lebanon is the gateway," said the political scientist, who added that the timing "is crucial because of both internal Lebanon politics and the waves of anti-Iran initiatives by the US and its allies. ... This visit is intended to elevate Iran's regional status."
Ahmadinejad is scheduled to meet President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and parliament speaker Nabih Berri. He will also meet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Given the huge publicity the two-day visit has generated, the stakes appear to be so high that Iran is worried that nervous Americans and Israelis may play mischief and resort to indirect acts of violence in Lebanon to deflect some of the attention from Ahmadinejad.
Israeli media are awash with government warnings to the Lebanese authorities not to allow Ahmadinejad to tour the border between the two countries. Some reports hinted that the president's intention to throw a stone in Israel's direction was designed to escalate tensions with Israel, a tit-for-tat for Israel's alleged complicity in a cyber-attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
According to another analyst at a Tehran think-tank, Iran has learned a precious lesson from Iraq, which was subjected to years of sanctions prior to the country's invasion in 2003. "Iran will not be another Iraq and Tehran can answer with hard power the sting of soft-power sanctions," the analyst told the author.
The United Nations, and the United States unilaterally, have imposed a raft of sanctions on Iran over its uranium-enrichment program. These are "retarding Iran's economic growth", to paraphrase some Iranian parliamentarians.
However, Tehran is not in a panic just yet, particularly since the recent US announcement of four major oil companies quitting Iran in response to the sanctions appears to have been made prematurely, according to reports from the Iranian Oil Ministry as well as news reports from outside the country. It was reported this month that France's Total, Royal Dutch Shell, Norway's Statoil and Italian Eni had agreed to abandon their business ties with Iran to avoid being hit with US sanctions.
A part of the reason Western oil majors are reluctant to end their involvement in Iran is that their lucrative contracts will most likely be taken over by Chinese companies, especially since the West has little control over China's economic relations with Iran.
Still, the Iranians continue to be worried about the adverse impact of sanctions in future foreign investment in the energy sector, which needs tens of billions of dollars to modernize its facilities. For example, a report states that while Iran's most recent five-year plan had slated some US$200 billion in investment in the oil and gas sector, only $70 billion had been earmarked to date. In other words, it is definitely in Iran's national economic interests to contain the nuclear crisis that is having an adverse economic impact on the overall economy.
Regarding the latter, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has expressed optimism on the renewal of nuclear talks "very soon"; this after coming under fire from Iran for "delaying" the dialogue.
Combining the familiar carrot and stick approach, the Europeans seem poised to restart the talks in an environment most conducive to their strategy, which is why coinciding with Ashton's statement British Foreign Secretary William Hague vowed "tougher sanctions". The aim is to garner major concessions from Tehran on the nuclear front.
In this environment, Tehran's response has been to play more overt "sphere-of-influence" politics in the region, one that conveys the impression that the lion (Iran's national symbol) is capable of roaring back if pressed too hard.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.