On 19 September 2021, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) hosted Banafsheh Keynoush for a lecture titled “Iran’s Interregional Dynamics: A Piecemeal Influence.” Keynoush is a scholar of international affairs. She is the editor of Iran’s Interregional Dynamics in the Near East (2021), and the author of Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes? (2016). The lecture was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.
Keynoush began by providing a brief overview of Iran’s relations with its neighbours, including the GCC states, the Levant, and Turkey. She argued that “Iran’s influence in the region is a piecemeal, and like any level of influence, it has successes and setbacks.” According to Keynoush, counties in the region, primarily GCC states, that rely on the United States or each other for security have a limited ability to improve relations with Iran and are wary of allowing Iran to gain influence in their countries. Turkey, on the other hand, engages with Iran as long as it serves its own interests. Iran has had more opportunities and influence in the Levant and conflict-prone countries such as Syria and Iraq. Keynoush added that “even the policies pursued by Iran in those countries have been risky and costly, not only for Iran but also for its neighbouring countries.”
On Iran-GCC relations, Keynoush stated that “among the GCC countries, the UAE, Oman, and Qatar, are able to have a relatively independent path in their foreign policy towards Iran, and do not harbour any sectarian concerns with Iran. She noted however that, “this is not to say they are unaware of some of the sectarian challenges in the region or in bilateral relations with Iran.” Iran’s relations with these three countries are defined by a security parameter in which their primary concerns are interregional dynamics among the six GCC countries and with the United States. Within this security parameter, Iran is a tertiary factor because these countries have their own security concerns that necessitate broadening their partnerships, and their economic interests lie elsewhere.
In the case of Qatar, for example, even during the blockade, when popular perception suggested that Iran-Qatari relations would improve economically, this was not the case, and it was only for a short time. “In order to overcome the blockade, Qatar’s need for diversification meant that it had to focus on local production and seek stronger economic partners other than Iran such as China, Japan, and Turkey.” Oman has a long history of cooperation with India, the GCC countries, and the West. Looking at Iran’s relations with Oman, Keynoush argued that while Oman is interested in Iran’s energy potential, those interests have not fully materialized in terms of building steady energy partnership between the two countries. Although the UAE values Iran’s investments, and the country’s re-export capacity is important to Iran, this consideration, while significant for economic cooperation between the two, does not determine UAE’s security concerns in relation to Iran.
Commenting on Iran’s relations with the other three GCC states, Keynoush remarked that there are sufficient security tensions between Bahrain and Iran to prevent them from developing a strong relationship. Kuwait, according to Keynoush, has economic interests within its 2035 vision that involve building a stable region and working with both Iran and Iraq. However, “Kuwait has no immediate economic or security interests that are tied with Iran, so it is more concerned with strengthening its own domestic security, particularly among its Shia community, which it tries to accommodate within mainstream Kuwaiti politics in order to keep Iran at bay.” In the case of Saudi Arabia, regional tensions have prevented it from building a balanced relationship with Iran. As a result, any regional effort to build multilateral ties between Iran and its Arab neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, has so far failed.
Keynoush then discussed Iran’s relations with Turkey, claiming that Ankara has a compartmentalized policy toward Iran. Therefore, “rather than making Iran a problem for itself, Turkey engages with the country at the level determined by itself and not Iran.” She claimed that the two have failed to form a strategic partnership, despite their awareness that they have to accommodate each other to some extent. For Israel, however, direct confrontations with Iran are costly despite taking measures to contain it. Iran’s influence as well in Jordan and Palestine is not as significant due to the securitized politics in those countries.
According to Keynoush, in Iraq and Syria, “Iran engages in paradiplomacy and it uses its allies and gives them a seat in diplomacy, by enabling them to negotiate with the central government, as in the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq.” She further noted that paradiplomacy has its limits because it confuses Iran’s relationship with the central governments. While Beirut, Baghdad, and even Damascus recognize the need to engage with Iran, they also try to be selective in how much they allow Iran to engage with them.
Lastly, on recent developments in the region with a new government in Iran led by President Ebrahim Raisi, Keynoush remarked that Iran’s neighbours are unsure what steps the country will take and how it will react to the nuclear deal’s inconclusiveness. This suggests that the region will not open up to Iran in a way that will lead to stable strategic relationships in the near future. “Moving forward the engagement with Iran will remain piecemeal, and it remains to be seen whether Raisi’s government will be able to transform this piecemeal policy into a broader policy of engagement.” Iran is also increasingly looking inward rather than outward, according to Keynoush, indicating that it wants to “untie its economy from the fate of the nuclear deal.”
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