Mark Collins – Iran “is now a great regional power”

It certainly is looking that way:

According to the terms of the recently signed Iranian nuclear deal [text here], more than 30 years’ worth of sanctions against Iran will be lifted by the end of this year. It is widely expected that a torrent of foreign capital will rush into Iran, and the Islamic Republic will be open for business.

The Obama administration has unwittingly given Iran its greatest strategic victory since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Iran is no longer an aspiring regional power: it is now a great regional power. But Iran’s new place in the world means that it has exchanged the despondency of isolation for the misery of power. Great powers have great problems.

The deal is bound to set in motion a whole new socio-political and cultural dynamic in Iran’s domestic and foreign affairs…

Regionally, however, Iran will be able to extend its influence beyond its present management of non-state proxies. Though Iran has very clear natural frontiers in the north and south, there are hardly any geographic, cultural, religious, or ideological barriers to its east and west. In the past this meant that Iran felt free to expand westward into Mesopotamia and the Levant, and eastward into Central Asia, Transoxiana, and northern India. This is why the Persian language and the Shiite religion are found in large minority groups in Eurasia—in Tajikistan, for example, Persian is the national language—and why those areas still look to Iran for cultural, political, and religious leadership.
Throughout history, Iran’s chief assets have been a large population, a vast trans-continental territory, fertile plains bordering Iraq (which Iran once possessed entirely) and the Caspian littoral. Latterly Iran’s population is one of the youngest and best-educated in the world. But here the advantage of geography and demographics become ambivalent.

Iranian satellites will be drawn more strongly than ever to a rich, free-market Iran that enjoys, at least in theory, business ties to Europe and North America. Weaker states could look to Iran for economic partnership and cultural protection. They could even come to depend on Tehran for defence, as is now the case for the Shiite minorities in Yemen and Lebanon. Furthermore, Iranian military leadership against radical Sunni groups will be indispensable given Iran’s strong showing against the so-called Islamic State.

But it remains to be seen what measures Iran will take to defuse its cold war with Sunni heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar; and if it did, whether such measures by Tehran would be welcome by Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha…

Relations between Canada and Iran may now have the potential to change. It seems that Obama is betting that the Iran Deal and lifting sanctions will enrich and empower factions within Iran that could be described as liberal and friendly to the West. But will events bear this out, or will Obama’s bet turn out to be hopelessly naive? In this context, the Canadian government’s vow not to lift sanctions until Iran matches words with deeds seems significantly more prudent. It is too soon to say how new political and social dynamics within Iran will play out, and Canadian diffidence may well be wiser than American optimism.

Michael Bonner is a historian of Iran and former senior policy adviser to a member of Cabinet in Ottawa. His personal website is

Reza Akhlaghi is managing editor of

Some background:

A Reason the Iranians are Serious

Persian, or, a Reason Why the Iranians Take Themselves So Seriously

Very recently:

Signs of the Euro-Iranian Times

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


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