Ahmadinejad called in his conversation with Saudi Arabia’s KingAbdullah for „closer coordination” between the countries to „createregional stability, especially in Lebanon”, according to the Iranianpress. In light of King Abdullah’s recent visit to Lebanon, reflecting a moreproactive Saudi involvement in Lebanese affairs aimed atsustainingLebanon’s fragile internal peace, such diplomatic gestures byAhmadinejad build confidence between Tehran and Riyadh as well as withother Arab capitals. This includes Cairo, which has taken a positivestep in repairing ties with Iran by setting up an air link withTehran. Assuming Ahmadinejad’s trip to Lebanon goes as planned and without anymajor hitches, it could go a long way in improving Iran’s relationswith the entire Arab world, which is somewhat weary of Tehran’spolitics of „sphere of influence” in Iraq and Lebanon, among othercountries. Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad made it known in a recent meeting withIraqi leaders that Tehran preferred the premiership of Nuri al-Maliki,a comment vilified in some Arab papers as tantamount to interferencein Iraq’s internal affairs. Maliki has been struggling since electionsin March to form a government that would give him another term inpower. From Tehran’s vantage point, the comment was a reminder of Iran’ssubstantial influence in Iraq’s dominant pro-Iran Shi’ite coalition -a fait accompli worthy of consideration by those pundits in the Westwho depict Iran as a „paper tiger”. In contrast, some Arab pundits goto the other extreme and portray Iran as a „regional superpower”. The fact is, Iran is neither. It is a regional middle power benefitingfrom a geostrategic and geo-economic location straddling the twoenergy hubs of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, and it was deeplyrattled by the post-September 11 infusion of Western power in itsvicinity 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’sforeign relations. „First, he wants to make sure that there is noattempt to weaken Hezbollah because of the Hariri investigation.” Thisis a reference to the United Nations-backed international tribunalinvestigating the assassination of former Lebanese president RafikHariri in Beirut in 2005; it is widely expected to implicate Lebanon’sHezbollah. „Second, he [Ahmadinejad] wants to improve trade and economic tiesbetween Iran and Lebanon. He will travel to south Lebanon to send amessage to Israel that they can bet there will be a frontal attack onIsrael from south Lebanon if Israel ever dares to attack Iran. „Third, with Hezbollah’s substantial arsenal of missiles, grownseveral-fold since the 2006 war [with Israel], that is a warning thatno Israeli politician can afford to ignore. Fourth, the president istrying to improve relations with the Arab world and Lebanon is thegateway,” said the political scientist, who added that the timing „iscrucial because of both internal Lebanon politics and the waves ofanti-Iran initiatives by the US and its allies. … This visit isintended to elevate Iran’s regional status.” Ahmadinejad is scheduled to meet President Michel Suleiman, PrimeMinister Saad Hariri and parliament speaker Nabih Berri. He will alsomeet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Given the huge publicity the two-day visit has generated, the stakesappear to be so high that Iran is worried that nervous Americans andIsraelis may play mischief and resort to indirect acts of violence inLebanon to deflect some of the attention from Ahmadinejad. Israeli media are awash with government warnings to the Lebaneseauthorities not to allow Ahmadinejad to tour the border between thetwo countries. Some reports hinted that the president’s intention tothrow a stone in Israel’s direction was designed to escalate tensionswith Israel, a tit-for-tat for Israel’s alleged complicity in acyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. According to another analyst at a Tehran think-tank, Iran has learneda precious lesson from Iraq, which was subjected to years of sanctionsprior to the country’s invasion in 2003. „Iran will not be anotherIraq and Tehran can answer with hard power the sting of soft-powersanctions,” the analyst told the author. The United Nations, and the United States unilaterally, have imposed araft of sanctions on Iran over its uranium-enrichment program. Theseare „retarding Iran’s economic growth”, to paraphrase some Iranianparliamentarians. However, Tehran is not in a panic just yet, particularly since therecent US announcement of four major oil companies quitting Iran inresponse to the sanctions appears to have been made prematurely,according to reports from the Iranian Oil Ministry as well as newsreports from outside the country. It was reported this month thatFrance’s Total, Royal Dutch Shell, Norway’s Statoil and Italian Enihad agreed to abandon their business ties with Iran to avoid being hitwith US sanctions. A part of the reason Western oil majors are reluctant to end theirinvolvement in Iran is that their lucrative contracts will most likelybe taken over by Chinese companies, especially since the West haslittle control over China’s economic relations with Iran. Still, the Iranians continue to be worried about the adverse impact ofsanctions in future foreign investment in the energy sector, whichneeds tens of billions of dollars to modernize its facilities. Forexample, a report states that while Iran’s most recent five-year planhad slated some US$200 billion in investment in the oil and gassector, only $70 billion had been earmarked to date. In other words,it is definitely in Iran’s national economic interests to contain thenuclear crisis that is having an adverse economic impact on theoverall economy. Regarding the latter, European Union foreign policy chief CatherineAshton has expressed optimism on the renewal of nuclear talks „verysoon”; this after coming under fire from Iran for „delaying” thedialogue. Combining the familiar carrot and stick approach, the Europeans seempoised to restart the talks in an environment most conducive to theirstrategy, which is why coinciding with Ashton’s statement BritishForeign Secretary William Hague vowed „tougher sanctions”. The aim isto 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 theimpression that the lion (Iran’s national symbol) is capable ofroaring back if pressed too hard. Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: NewDirections in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . He is author ofReading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurgePublishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rightsat Harvard, is now available.
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi