The Islamic Republic has hitherto placed its strategic focus on securing its western and southern flanks, but with that largely having been achieved to the maximum extent that is realistically possible under the present geopolitical circumstances, it’s time for Iran to redirect its attention to the northern and eastern directions in order to maximize its Eurasian role in the complementary “Multipolar CENTO” and “Golden Circle” clubs of Great Powers.
Syria: Total Victory Vs. “Compromised” Settlement
The military phase of the War on Syria is quickly winding down and transitioning to its next political stage, but far from being the absolute victory that this campaign is popularly presented as in the Alternative Media Community, there are still several unresolved issues that will likely require all sides to “compromise” on in the coming future. The Syrian Arab Republic was saved from a Libyan-like collapse and its minorities escaped the imminent genocidal fate that would have been in store for them had the terrorists won, and while these are remarkable achievements in and of themselves, they don’t represent a total victory because the political fate of President Assad is still unresolved and the US-backed Syrian Kurds presently occupy the most energy- and agriculturally-rich one-third of the country. Not only that, but the “armed opposition” is in control of Idlib, the southern border near the occupied Golan Heights, and a few other areas of the country as per the “de-escalation zone” (DEZ) agreements reached at Astana, showing that the state still hasn’t fully reestablished its control over the entirety of the country.
It’s the sincere desire of Damascus to see the Syrian President continue serving out the remainder of his term with the same powers as endowed to him by the 2012 Constitution and to liberate the remaining parts of the country still beyond the capital’s administrative-political reach, though the constitutional reform process mandated by UNSC Res. 2254 and Russia’s regional “balancing” act are shaping the strategic environment in such a way that it appears inevitable that the government will be compelled to “compromise” on these issues in one way or another. Iran, however, shares its Syrian ally’s view that a total victory is possible with time and should continue to be pursued, thereby drawing attention to a major difference of long-term vision between Tehran and Moscow. In addition, Russia’s large-scale military withdrawal from Syria and the agreement reached between Presidents Putin and Trump in Vietnam late November are putting pressure on Iran and its Hezbollah partners to downscale their forces as well now that Moscow “officially” declared that terrorism has been eliminated in Syria.
A Russian Rivalry?
Complicating Russian-Iranian relations even further despite the reassuring statements that each of them makes about the other and their shared partnership in public is the fact that Moscow’s “balancing” strategy has seen it openly embrace Tehran’s hated rivals in Saudi Arabia. In Russia’s defense, it’s doing so in order to stabilize the regional situation and pioneer multipolar inroads in the Wahhabi Kingdom alongside China, though one of the manifestations of this policy is that Moscow has become more vocal in its support for the ousted Yemeni President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. On top of that, Russia enjoys excellent relations with Israel as well, and doesn’t condemn Tel Aviv whenever it bombs the Syrian Arab Army and its allied forces (some of which are alleged to be Hezbollah and at times even the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). As the final point of strategic divergence between Russia and Iran in the Mideast, it’s well known that Moscow is cultivating very close relations with both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, though just like its relationship with the Saudis, it’s doing so in order to challenge the US’ previously dominant position with these actors.
Strengthening Strategic Depth
The present trajectory of Mideast geopolitics and the increasing post-Daesh differences between Russia and Iran in the region suggest that the two Great Powers actually have less in common with one another than observers might have assumed at first glance, though this by no means indicates that they’re doomed to clash with one another like some people have been speculating. Iran still has considerable strategic depth in the Mideast through its partnership with Hezbollah and attendant influence in Lebanon, the wartime alliances that it forged with Damascus and Baghdad, the political support that it extends to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, its new relationship with Qatar, and the normative leadership that it exerts in the global Muslim community (“Ummah”) and especially among Shiites living in the Sunni-majority Gulf Monarchies. These are impressive strategic credentials in their own right and ensure that it will be difficult for the US and its allies to “contain” Iran even if some of Washington’s goals in this regard appear to overlap with Moscow’s. That said, the case can be made that Iran has reached the zenith of its regional power and should now focus on defending its recent gains instead of overextending itself in pursuit of more.
The US’ new National Security Strategy makes it clear that the Trump Administration blames Iran for all of the Mideast’s problems and will do everything in its power to thwart Tehran’s plans for the region, raising the distinct possibility of various Hybrid Wars being waged against its interests in the abovementioned domains that constitute its strategic depth. Coupled with the growing divergences between Russia and Iran’s regional visions, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the Islamic Republic to expand its influence beyond what it’s already attained, which in truth is already substantial and greatly overshadows that of its rivals’. The next few years will thus be marked by a struggle to secure those gains in the face of multidimensional resistance, with it being assumed that this will be met with differing degrees of success depending on the arena involved. Iran mustn’t become complacent and take its newfound influence for granted, however, but continue to protect its interests all along the western and southern flanks, though understanding that its freedom of action in doing so will be severely constrained due to the tougher regional circumstances under which it’ll be operating.
Making The Case For The Multipolar CENTO
Cold War Precedent:
Instead of concentrating solely on this defensive campaign, Iran should reconceptualize its regional role in Eurasia and come to realize that now is the perfect time for it to redirect a lot of its efforts towards the northern and eastern fronts in proactively seizing the initiative to further the cause of multipolar institutional integration, which will most effectively defend its interests because they’ll be “legitimized” through Great Power multilateralism. To explain, Iran’s geographic position endows it with the potential to connect Pakistan and Turkey through what the author previously described as the “Multipolar CENTO”, and with Tehran experiencing a renaissance of relations with both Islamabad and Ankara, the timing couldn’t be more advantageous for promoting this concept. The three Muslim Great Powers were grouped together under a NATO-like security umbrella prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and while this format never achieved much in practice, it provides the institutional precedent for renewing trilateral cooperation between these states.
The Stability Belt:
Advancing the concept of the Multipolar CENTO needs to become a priority point for Iran’s post-Daesh foreign policy. Pakistan and Turkey are both coming under tremendous American pressure nowadays because of their close working relations with China and Russia, respectively. They also share the same security challenges as Iran when it comes to the threat of US-backed Kurdish and Baloch separatism. Moreover, all three countries intend to play an important role in China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) global vision of New Silk Road connectivity. By coming together under the Multipolar CENTO (or whatever else this trilateral arrangement might be called if it enters into practice), each of them can collectively assist the other on a wide range of cooperative issues stretching from the security to economic spheres, and they’d also have the potential to improve their bargaining power vis-à-vis China when it comes to negotiating better Silk Road deals. The Multipolar CENTO would function as a transregional belt of stability stretching from the Balkans to South Asia and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, and it consequently has the chance to turn into a geopolitical powerhouse.
Pakistan and Turkey are majority-Sunni states while Iran boasts a Shiite majority, and their trilateral cooperation can symbolically dispel the weaponized sectarian narrative that’s been disseminated by the US and its Saudi allies over the years. By prioritizing their relations with one another, these countries are lessening their strategic dependences on Russia and China and therefore strengthening their own sovereignty by diversifying their partnerships. This is exceptionally relevant for Iran, which will find itself under increased pressure in the coming years as the US’ “containment” campaign is reshaped to adapt to the changed post-Daesh environment, and Tehran finds itself needing Moscow more than ever in response despite Russia’s difference of political vision over Syria (and Yemen, to a relevant extent). If Iran doesn’t streamline its trilateral relations with Pakistan and Turkey soon, then it’ll have no choice but to economically depend on Russia as America expands its Hybrid War against the Islamic Republic, which might see Moscow leveraging its expanding influence over Iran to “encourage” it into “compromising” on its Syrian policy. To avoid this scenario, Iran urgently needs the strategic outlet that only the Multipolar CENTO can provide.
The China Connection:
As was mentioned earlier, the Multipolar CENTO can also become a platform for each of the three states to boost their engagement with China, which also has a special pertinence for Iran. Pursuant to the proposal that Iran shift the proactivity of its strategic focus from the west and south to the north and east, Tehran must begin executing a Central Asian grand strategy that would facilitate the eventual creation of a transregional high-speed Silk Road railway to China. Bilateral cooperation with China and the Central Asian states might not yield as beneficial of an outcome as intended, especially if the latter have some reservations about the religious nature of Iran’s government and the proselytization potential of the Islamic Revolution, but these fears could immediately be dispelled if Iran used the Multipolar CENTO as its vehicle for regional engagement. Most of the population are ethnic Turks who also have a shared civilizational history with majority-Sunni Pakistan, and the “credibility” that these two neighboring Great Powers could extend to Iran would go a long way towards reassuring them of the country’s motives and correspondingly make it easier to implement its foreign policy there.
Replacing The SCO:
By deepening its relations with the modern-day Central Asian states, the predecessors of which the ancient Persian Empires had millennia of engagement with, Iran can better its chances of one day joining the SCO, though the country’s ethno-linguistically related partners in Tajikistan have recently and somewhat surprisingly become an obstacle to this end. This unexpected development will make it more difficult for Iran to enter the SCO, notwithstanding the bloc’s existing hesitancy to expand any further after its recent incorporation of Pakistan and India. Turkey, however, is also eyeing the SCO as an alternative to the EU, though it won’t be able to maximize its prospective membership in this bloc without Iran joining the organization as well. For all intents and purposes, this means that the SCO could also be at the zenith of its growth just like Iran’s Mideast influence might be, though as with the latter, this shouldn’t be taken to imply that a decline is inevitable. Rather, what’s needed is a new strategic paradigm that serves as an asymmetrical game-changer just like the Multipolar CENTO would be, and the best possible solution is the so-called “Golden Circle”.
Organizing The Golden Circle
Some analysts have been talking about the prospects for multilateral Great Power cooperation between the Eurasian giants of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey for some time, calling this speculated format the Golden Circle because it appears to visibly ring around the supercontinental Heartland of Central Asia. While remaining a geopolitical pipedream for years, the first real step in this direction just occurred at the end of December when the parliamentary leaders of all five states plus Afghanistan met in Islamabad for a speaker’s conference on addressing peace and stability in the broader region. The very fact that this event took place proves that there is an incipient interest in expanding full-spectrum cooperation among the Golden Circle countries, and this arrangement could serve as a replacement for the SCO, especially if Iran spearheads its formalization in the future. The creation of new platforms can give rise to new institutions, which in turn can enable the building of facilitative mechanisms such as financing tools, banks, expert groups, free trade deals, and collective anti-terrorist security cooperation.
Although seemingly redundant with many of the SCO’s competencies, the Golden Circle would actually be quite different because of its inclusion of regional leaders Iran and Turkey and its exclusion of pro-American India. In addition, while the Central Asian states wouldn’t officially be a part of this organization, they could understandably have observer status prior to the de-facto margining of the SCO and the Golden Circle. The key to this happening, however, is for the Multipolar CENTO to take shape first, since SCO-member Pakistan can serve as the bridge for combining these two Great Power blocs into one. Iran’s post-Daesh foreign policy should therefore move beyond its traditional role as the Resistance vanguard in the Mideast (the Levant and the Gulf) and redirect its proactive focus to promoting Great Power institutional integration along the northern and eastern vectors (Central and South Asia), since this could make more countries stakeholders in the Islamic Republic’s stability and accordingly lessen the impact of the US’ new “containment” strategy.
The Multipolar CENTO could become the basis for uniting the Ummah because of its cross-sectarian inclusive nature and advantageous geopolitical position, with Iran occupying the central role in this construction and therefore being its most pivotal member. Through this format, Iran can lessen its growing strategic dependence on Russia and resultantly achieve a more balanced relationship with it, which could in turn maintain that Iran is able to practice an independent policy in Syria despite the differences that it has with Russia in this regard. It’s to Turkey and Pakistan’s interests to diversify their partnerships with Russia and China while expanding their own with one another, so it makes perfect sense for Iran to play the middleman role in bringing this about through the Multipolar CENTO. Furthermore, the three Muslim powerhouses could use their newfound format to improve their collective Silk Road bargaining position with China, ensuring that better “win-win” deals are clinched and using the infrastructure that’s built to deepen their real-sector economic integration with one another.
The end result of the Multipolar CENTO is the creation of a transregional stability belt that could even come to play a political role in resolving the Syrian and Afghan conflicts that abut its periphery. Not only that, but this structure could then contribute to the formation of the Golden Circle by entering into official institutional cooperation with Russia and China, possibly through some type of de-facto strategic merger with the SCO via Pakistan’s shared membership in all three organizations (the SCO, Multipolar CENTO, and the Golden Circle). None of this can happen without Iran’s leadership in first taking the steps to make the Multipolar CENTO a reality, but this long-term vision requires a reconceptualization of the country’s role in Eurasia and the redirecting of its proactive strategic focus from the west and south to the north and east. Seeing as how it’ll be more difficult than ever before to expand its influence in the former two geographic vectors, Iran should instead consider this state of affairs to be an inadvertent opportunity for diversifying into new domains and assembling a Great Power coalition in defense of the multipolar world’s collective interests.
This article was prepared for publication by the Iranian newpaper Kayhan in Farsi language. ORIENTAL REVIEW releases the English source text.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.