7
Apr

seminar 4

On Friday 4 April, the IE School of International Relations in cooperation with the LSE enterprise and Citpax,  hosted  Dr. Fawaz Gerges , Professor of International Relations at the Middle East  Centre of the London School of Economics and Dr. Peter Jones, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. In this very interesting seminar both academics addressed the complicated issue of Iran’s relations with Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

According to the Dr. Gerges, in order to understand these complex relationships, one has to acknowledge the deep rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region. This rivalry is considered to be “the Cold War in the Middle East” and has been ongoing for decades. The sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites is central but it is not the only cause of the rift between the two countries. According to Dr. Gerges the geostrategic struggle between the two nations is even more important. This would explain Iran’s current role in the Syrian conflict. In order to consolidate and deepen its influence in the region, Iran has made a critical commitment to prop up the Assad regime in Syria at any cost. They have been sending weapons and combatants from Hezbollah in order to uphold the regime. It is in large part because of the Hezbollah forces fighting on his side that Assad is still in power almost three years into the conflict. This investment in Syria comes at great cost for Iran but for them the cost is offset by the benefits of influence in Syria and the direct access it gives the country to Israel.

One of the clear costs of Hezbollah’s role in Syria is reflected in its diminished influence in Lebanon. Until now Hezbollah represented a movement that was even more important and influential than the formal state in Lebanon. Their role propping up a dictatorship that is killing civilians has greatly undermined Hezbollah’s legitimacy (and hence Iran’s standing) in Lebanon. The sectarian fault line between Sunnis and Shiites that we see in Syria is spreading to Lebanon and to Iraq and could polarize the entire region. Saudi Arabia is adding fuel to the sectarian divide.

Finally, according to Dr. Gerges, Iran also plays an instrumental role in Iraq today and assists the government in battling Sunni minorities and in controlling the Shiite majority. Iran funnels its weapons and assistance to Syria through Iraq. It could not do so without the approval of the Iraqi government.

To Dr. Gerges, Iran’s strategy is one of defensive realism. It does not want to invade or attack its neighbors but it does wish to consolidate its influence. Dr. Peter Jones in his comments agreed with almost all of Dr. Gerges’ remarks but did disagree in one thing. According to him, Iran does not have a clear strategy. It has a defensive set of activities. It is only reacting to events, such as the Arab Spring, as they unfold, always two steps behind.

The audience had many questions for both speakers, but perhaps the most heartfelt one came from one of the IE students who asked: what about the humanitarian catastrophe that is currently occurring in Syria? What can we do to stop it? Both speakers were very pessimistic about the prospects of the Syrian conflict ending any time soon. For Dr. Peter Jones, the only glimmer of hope came from the possibility of a nuclear agreement between the US and Iran. Only then would Iran lose interest in having access to Israel and hence might no longer prop up Assad. But the possibility is quite low indeed.

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