The Role of Iran in the Middle East Crisis: the Factor of Sanctions Relief on the Nuclear Programme (2015-2017)
Abstract.The article analyzes the main factors influencing the formation of Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East in the context of solving the problem of settlement of the Iran’s nuclear program and application of the sanctions regime. A special attention is given to consideration of the challenges to Iran’s security and regional stability after the sanctions regime lifting and settlement of the Syrian conflict. The main components of the foreign policy strategy and national priorities of the IRI with regard to the Middle East region as well as to the countries-allies are considered. It is methodologically reasonable to consider these issues on the basis of the defensive realism position, which allows the author to explore the features of Iran’s foreign policy. The author used scientific analytic methods (logical, contrastive-comparative, inductive-deductive, etc). A system approach made it possible to give an integral analysis of the multi-level system of Iran's involvement in international relations in the Middle East. It is emphasized that after the talks on the Iran nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, and the conclusion of the JCPOA (2015) Iran hasn’t changed its regional strategy. The author concludes that despite the short-term effects that have taken place in the regional dimension after the conclusion of the JCPOA, this agreement is still not a decisive factor determining the direction of regional changes. In the long term the situation in the Middle East and the role of Iran in it will be determined by internal conditions and regional trends, as well as the factor of international involvement in regional processes.
Keywords: security, strategy, sanctions, JCPOA, Syrian crises, Middle East, foreign policy, Iran, regional threats, international relations
Article was received:28-03-2018
Apart from the formal negotiations, which have led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, judgments about the achievements of that outcome can be considered at various levels of the domestic and international levels. The study of the analyzes and perceptions of European and American researchers about the implications of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the foreign policy of Iran in the Middle East is an example of the emergence of new trends “turning Iran from a nuclear issue to a regional issue” or “contributing of the Plan to regional changes and events”. [1, c. 16]
The Middle East crisis and sanctions relief
From its very beginning in 2013 the government of Hassan Rouhani (the eleventh government of Iran) became very involved in foreign policy issues. The first and the most important issue, that the new government had to face was quite a long-lasting process. The policy of Hassan Rouhani on the nuclear issue of Iran was an attempt to withdraw Iran’s dossier from the Security Council along with the completion of nuclear technology in the country. [2, c. 2]
Hassan Rouhani has stated "that the only way for Iran, its enemies and the Western countries could be dialogue and negotiation. He has also mentioned that the purpose of the government must ultimately be the elimination of the sanctions, because it is not for the benefit of our nation. It is a negotiating tactic in which meeting and in what form the issue of lifting sanctions can be raised. For this we have change our words and intonation." [3, c. 2]
Mohammad Javad Zarif, current Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran have said" there must be un understanding that foreign policy is a positive game and a win-win game. The people of Iran will not give away their rights and no state can take away the rights of the people, but we want to show the world that there is no threat from Iran. We generally do not know recognize the nuclear weapons as a mean of the security of the country. On the contrary, we consider their existence as a threat. Nuclear weapons do not have a place in Iran’s Defense Doctrine and it is a threat, rather than an opportunity". 
Foreign policy of Iran after the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
While for some researchers the nuclear deal was supposed to improve relations of Iran with other countries and regional actors, other experts and analysts believe that implementation has not changed any foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And even though the tone of Iranian foreign policy has changed after the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the more time passes, the more it becomes similar to the one before the actual deal. 
In this regard, the report of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published in June 2016 called “Iran’s foreign policy” studies the possible changes in a course after the conclusion of the Plan. Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs Kenneth Katzman states that for Hassan Rouhani the JCPOA is “a beginning for creating an atmosphere of friendship and co-operation with various countries”, while for the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and key hardline institutions, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), appear to have blocked any compromises. [6, c. 22] The report emphasizes that there is no sign of a change in Iran's foreign policy. It also mentions support of Iran for Bashar al-Assad, continuation of testing ballistic missiles, the purchase of new military systems from Russia, the transformation of Iran into a challenging regional actor, efforts to achieve modern missile technologies and its delivery to its regional allies, more active missions of the Navy of Islamic Republic of Iran Army and provocative actions in the Persian Gulf region. According to this center, Iran can use its funds to hire Shiite fighters in Muslim countries for the war in Syria and support of Bashar al-Assad, as well as bigger support of more opposition groups in Bahrain; Iran can also become the energy and trade zone of the region, which undermines the U.S. abilities to exert an economic pressure on Iran if it does not comply with the above-mentioned Plan. [7, c. 7]
Regional implications of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the foreign policy of Iran
There are two different perspectives of the regional implications the of JCPOA on the foreign policy of Iran. The first one considers it as an opportunity for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the region, and evaluates it positive and constructive. The second one, on the opposite represents the outcome as unconstructive and challenging.
Regional opportunities of the JCPOA for Iran
Those analyst, who consider that the JCPOA had a lot of possible affects for Iran, use the following information: before the implementation of the Plan, Iran was under heavy pressure and sanctions, his bargaining and diplomatic power in the world arena were reduced, foreign relations with some of the countries were limited. After the implementation of the above-mentioned Plan, the status, regional and world role of Iran has increased, as well as the diplomatic. Lifting sanctions has led Iran to become a regional actor and this has resulted in a lot of consequences in the region, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine; the nuclear deal shifted the focus on political and geopolitical changes in the region of West Asia and Middle East. The JCPOA gave a possibility of ending the blockade of Iran, which will lead to economic strengthening and the improvement of its political and military situation in the region. 
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif regional tour to Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria following the signing of an agreement had a goal of strengthening trade and political cooperation with Arab neighbors. Iran has been assuring the Arab countries of the region that the nuclear deal would make the situation in the Middle East more stable. 
The implementation of the Joint Action Plan has led to the promotion of Iran's strategic position in the region, which has increased the strategic importance of Iran to regional allies like Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah. These allies interpret the resolution of the strategic problem between Iran and the great powers as a sign of Iran's authority, role, and power of bargaining on regional issues, including the Syrian crisis. [10, c. 3]
Strengthening the global Non-proliferation regime in the Middle East will prevent regional powers from moving toward having nuclear weapons and creating a nuclear weapons rivalry in the Middle East. In other words, Iran's nuclear deal reduces tensions in the region. 
Iran's geopolitical importance has increased in the West, so that the implementation of the JCPOA have created a ground for the regional stabilization and will prevent the growth of extremism, terrorism and solve regional crises. Europe is confronted with numerous security challenges, including the ISIL (ISIS, Islamic State) wave of attacks and the flood of migrants from the Middle East. The European Union integration is in danger, which is shown by the British withdrawal from the EU Iran could be an opportunity for Europe. Iran may be considered as an opportunity for the Europe. 
Regional threats after the implementation of the JCPOA
Analyst, who have come to the conclusion that, despite the fact that Iran's nuclear threat has been removed from Iran's foreign policy, regional and international news headlines show the fear of hegemonic ambitions of Iran, and America's betrayal of Arab countries. Some experts believe that despite the short-term effects that have taken place in the regional dimension after the conclusion of the JCPOA, this agreement is not a decisive factor in shaping regional changes. This group of analysts even emphasizes that the outcome could have negative consequences for the Middle East internal situation and to some extent increase regional conflicts and tensions.
Matthew Levitt, member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stated that after the lifting sanctions Iran has cut back its financial support for Hezbollah. 
After the implementation of the JCPOA, Iran’s military intervention in Syria have changed the regional balance to Bashar al-Assad. Increasing of the role and place of Iran in Syria during the period after the Plan, military presence in Syria and the Russian air strike against the enemies of al-Assad in September 2015 have happened in the same time. The close cooperation between Iran and Russia and successes in their operations have stabilized Iran's position and the axis Tehran – Moscow, but also has intensified regional tensions.Iran has succeeded in struggling for the regional balance after the JCPOA. Iran's oil production and exports will increase by about 3.6 million barrels per day in 2017. The World Bank has estimated that lifting sanctions will bring Iran's GDP to about 5.1 percent in 2016 and 2017 and 5.5 percent in 2017 and 2018. This will help to change the regional balance in its own favor. Cancellation of sanctions opened strategic cooperation between Iran and Russia. The withdrawal of Iran from the international diplomatic isolation, establishment of strategic relations with Russia, purchase of advanced military weapons, including the S 300 system, and the modernization of the Iranian military shows the regional status of Iran. Visit of Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia in Iran in November 2015 represented an interest in enhancing military cooperation. Buying the Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircrafts, the T-90 battle tanks and close ties between the two countries in Syria should also gain attention. 
Visit of Xi Jinping, the President of China as the first high-rank official who came to the country after the signing of the JCPOA, have opened a new chapter in mutual relations, especially in the field of the cooperation in the Silk Road project and economic promotion. The nuclear deal has strengthened Iran's economic and military relations with some countries, including China, India and Pakistan, which is not in the interest of the West. For China and Russia the nuclear deal increases multilateralism in regional issues, prevent western influence and strengthen stability. 
Iraq and Syria face insecurity and terrorist acts that cannot be recovered soon; Egypt is a subject of unbalanced domestic and economic problems; Jordan faces a series of Syrian refugees and Islamic extremist groups from Syria; Saudi Arabia (comparing to Iran) is more dependent on the sale of oil, with economic difficulties due to the fall in oil prices, which has led to a rise in Iran's position in the Middle East. Arab countries are worried about Iran's growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen (increased regional influence of Iran) and Iran's missile investments. Iran’s presence in Syria and support for Bashar al-Assad and support of this country by the Shiite Islamist revolutionary groups in Yemen and Bahrain is not in favor of the Arab countries. From the beginning of the talks between Iran and the group 5+1, Saudi Arabia and have used their efforts to prevent the talks, which in the end has provided the ground for closer ties between the two countries. Threats of Iran against the Arab Gulf neighbors in the period after the conclusion of the JCPOA, including Iran's attempt to radicalize the Shia population under the rule of the Bahraini Sunni government, has increased. Some Iranian military officials claim that Bahrain is one of the provinces in Iran. Iran supports the Houthis who have abolished the Saudi-backed government, the rebels receive military, financial and educational assistance from Iran. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of violating UN resolution 2216 and supporting Houthi attacks in southern Yemen. It means that now the main concern is not the nuclear program of Iran, which was removed, but the Iran's regional hegemony. 
Research on the existing regional situation suggests that the United States is attempting to make changes in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Middle East. Given the different perspectives on regional implications for Iran's foreign policy, there are wide and varied impacts. On one hand, these effects became the reason why that Iran is trying to exploit opportunities and capabilities. On the other, in the context of the JCPOA there is no sign for Iran to change its regional strategy. Therefore, in the short and mid-term there will be no change in the regional policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, the JCPOA is only the nuclear deal that does not cover other issues in the security or political spheres between Iran and the West. However, since a comprehensive examination of the JCPOA requires a lot of time, and it is not easy to understand all of its dimensions, the long-term regional effects of the outcome will be affected by the internal conditions, regional trends and international conditions.
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