Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani listens to a question during a press conference in Tehran on June 17, 2013. Image Credit: AFP

In the Middle East, hope and expectation are often wildly different concepts. The election of reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s seventh president is a case in point. It is perfectly understandable for Arabs and Iranians to hope that his inauguration, which took place last Sunday, will herald an improvement in relations that have been historically strained, much to the detriment of both peoples.

However, those expecting such an outcome are likely to be sorely disappointed, for they are overlooking the elephant in the room: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority, who ultimately calls the shots regarding foreign policy. The new president has been quite open about this, saying: “Decisions on major foreign policy issues constitutionally require the support of the Supreme Leader.”

As such, even though Rouhani may have a different image and style than his hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the substance of Arab-Iranian relations will likely remain unchanged, whether the new president likes it or not. Saudi newspaper Al Yaum referred to this power structure in its editorial headline: ‘Iran after the elections... Like Iran ahead of the elections’.

Rouhani’s inauguration was attended by heads of state, ministers, parliament speakers and ambassadors from 12 of the Arab League’s 22 members (Sudan’s president was absent because Saudi Arabia denied him the use of its airspace). This was followed by bilateral meetings in Tehran with representatives from Algeria, Comoros, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

Congratulatory messages have poured in from leaders across the Arab world, even those with whom Tehran does not particularly get on. Their expressions of hope for improved and expanded relations have been reciprocated by Rouhani. However, these pleasantries are diplomatic protocol, and are much easier said than implemented, assuming that they are sincere to begin with.

People forget that, like Rouhani, Ahmadinejad also pledged to improve ties with his Arab neighbours, and look how that turned out. Rouhani has a much tougher job in this regard, because the region is now much more volatile, and Arab-Iranian relations more strained, than when his predecessor took office eight years ago.

Judging by the new president’s statements so far, there will be no discernible change in Iran’s stance on core regional issues, the causes it espouses, and the alliances it maintains. That is not controversial to Arabs where its opposition to Israel is concerned, with Rouhani saying his country “will continue to support the Palestinian cause wholeheartedly”, and describing the occupation as “a wound on the body of the Islamic world”.

Sources of conflict

However, Tehran’s political, military and financial support for the Syrian regime and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, and the active involvement of Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters against Syrian rebels, are deeply unpopular throughout the Arab world. Rouhani has pledged to maintain such “unwavering support”, which “no force in the world can shake”.

He also displays the same hypocrisy on the issue as Ahmadinejad. Rouhani says he rejects foreign intervention in Syria, despite Tehran’s own involvement; he expresses opposition to the civil war, and says “we should not let the bloodshed and brutality persist”, while pledging to “stand by” the biggest party to atrocities; and he calls for “a peaceful solution to the crisis”, while saying the regime in Damascus will emerge “victorious”.

This puts Iran at loggerheads with majority Arab sentiment. It also makes it near impossible for him to fulfil his desire, expressed by his campaign’s deputy manager, to improve relations with his neighbours in the Gulf — a region which “enjoys a special geostrategic and strategic position in Rouhani’s government” — and in particular to mend ties with Saudi Arabia, which is the new president’s “top priority”.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has been very vocal in its support for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Riyadh and Doha, in particular, have been supplying military and financial aid to the opposition, though nowhere near the scale at which Tehran supports Al Assad. Saudi Arabia “cannot be silent” about Iranian intervention, said Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal, who has called for a UN resolution to ban arms flows to the Syrian regime.

However, there are other major issues dividing Tehran from its Gulf neighbours. Iran has, and will maintain, close ties with the government in Baghdad, which is seen by the GCC as a puppet of Tehran, an oppressor of Iraq’s Sunnis, and a key extension of Shiite power in the region.

This is part of the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of sectarianism in the Middle East, a narrow, self-defeating and self-fulfilling prism through which governments and communities stubbornly insist on viewing their supposed rivals.

Rouhani has indicated that his country will continue to sympathise with the opposition in Bahrain, where a popular revolution was crushed in 2011 by GCC forces amid persistent, but unsubstantiated accusations of direct Iranian meddling. “The aspirations of Bahraini people to seek their legitimate rights, like in any other country, should not be compromised,” said Rouhani.

There is also an ongoing territorial dispute between Iran and the UAE, backed by the GCC, over three islands that have been under Tehran’s control since 1971. Successive Iranian governments have rejected the UAE’s call for international arbitration. While Rouhani has so far not addressed the issue, it is highly unlikely that his stance will be any different.

Positive developments

There are, however, some potentially positive signs. In discussing relations with Tehran’s Gulf neighbours, Rouhani told the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al Awsat that his government would not intervene “in any other countries’ internal affairs”.

This is an important statement, given the long-running, reciprocal claims of meddling between Iran on the one hand, and GCC members and other Arab states on the other. Rouhani added that he would not allow foreign interference in his country.

The problem, however, is that both sides have long denied these claims, but continue to make them — such is the level of mutual distrust. Furthermore, where Syria is concerned, for example, Rouhani’s pledge rings hollow.

Another potentially positive development is Rouhani’s statement this week that he is “seriously determined” to resolve a dispute with the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme, and is ready to enter “serious and substantive” negotiations on the issue.

The Gulf states have long shared concerns that the nuclear programme, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes only, might conceal intentions to produce atomic weapons. However, past positive declarations have come to nothing, so history may repeat itself, even with the best of intentions.

Relations between regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been strained. Rouhani and King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz have described each other’s countries as “brothers”, and the Saudi king has welcomed the Iranian president’s expressed desire for “mutual respect and mutually beneficial arrangements and cooperation”.

However, realpolitik and regional dynamics may trump positive statements and goodwill, as they have before. Unfortunately, the sibling rivalry, and the wider family feud, look set to continue, at least for the time-being.


Sharif Al Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs.