Iran’s critical role in shaping the security agenda of the Middle East is indisputable. No matter what we discuss – the Syrian settlement, state-building in Iraq, civil war in Yemen or political dynamics in Lebanon –, Iran remains the big elephant in the room. Its impact on the region is profound, multifaceted and controversial. The predominant view in the West in general and in France in particular is that Iran is more part of the problem than it is part of the solution. Of course, Iran’s friends and partners, including Russia, argue the opposite. All these disagreements notwithstanding, the broad international consensus is that it is impossible to kick Iran out of the Middle Eastern map, and that some modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic is indispensable.
Four years ago, a protracted and very difficult multilateral negotiating process resulted in the signing of a nuclear agreement with Tehran. Many countries hoped that the success of the JCPOA would mark a turning point in Iran’s relations with the outside world, including with its neighbors in the Middle East. Optimists believed that the JCPOA was just the first step leading towards the integration of Iran as a legitimate and responsible player into the regional security system. It was also supposed to open the country to international trade, investments, and cultural and humanitarian contacts.
Unfortunately, these hopes never materialized. In fact, the very opposite happened. First, while the Iranians did strictly respect their obligations set by the JCPOA, they did nothing to soften their regional policies. Instead, they invested more energy and more money to support their proxies in Syria and elsewhere. Second, the Trump Administration emphatically rejected the Iranian policies of its predecessors and replaced the latter’s rapprochement approach with increased military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Islamic Republic. The White House walked out of the JCPOA, introduced new and tough sanctions against Tehran, and started energetically building a broad anti-Iran coalition in the region.
As might be expected, this dramatic change in US policy is profoundly impacting the balance of political powers within Iran – reformers and pragmatics are losing more and more ground to conservatives and ideologists. The overall stability in the region is eroding; mutual suspicion, as well as inflammatory and belligerent rhetoric, are growing. The prospect of a large war between Iran and some of the US allies in the Middle East – or even of a direct clash between the US and Iran – has become more plausible than it ever has been before in the 21st century.