26th Sep, 2013 –
Not too many years ago, one of the major concerns of the Arab Gulf nations was that Iran and America would sign some kind of strategic agreement over their heads which would not take account of Arab interests, and which could allow Iran to dominate the Middle East region and consolidate its military and perhaps nuclear power.
Nowadays, many Arab Governments would probably welcome such an Iran-US deal – but a lot has changed in the meantime.
To begin with we have a new and very different Iranian President who appears to have a mandate to reach such a deal with the US. As President Rohani travels to New York for the UN General Assembly he has taken pains to signal to the American media that he wants to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue and that he has the authority to do so.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the Supreme Leader reigned in the former president’s powers was that President Ahmedinejad had a tendency to say whatever came into his head and wasn’t known for his common sense. Perhaps Khamenei was thinking: ‘Give Ahmedinejad authority over the nuclear file at breakfast time, and there could be world war three by dinner!’
During Khatami’s presidency when he tried to reach out to the West, we were always very conscious of the power struggle and difference of ideology between the Presidency , the Supreme Leader and other Iranian centres of power. With President Rohani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has taken pains to stress that Rohani has his support and the full mandate to address the nuclear issue – something which has surprised everyone (perhaps Rohani most of all!)
Secondly, it is assumed that in order to reach an understanding with the US, Iran would need to reduce its entanglement in Syria – which President Rohani has indicated that he indeed wants to do, while also signaling his readiness to see a different leadership in Damascus.
Over the past decade, many of Iran’s most blatant interferences in the region seem to have been designed to counter fears of the US and Israeli threat: Empowering Hezbollah in Lebanon; taking measures against US allies in the Gulf; and supporting terrorist plots and assassinations around the globe. While none of us are naïve enough to believe that a US-Iran deal will halt Iranian meddling around the region, such an agreement may deter Iranian interference and put a halt to direct Iranian threats against US allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
Reaching an accord with the US and the West and the drawing-down of anti-Iran sanctions could also be compatible with Iran repairing its relations with many neighbouring states throughout the Arab and Muslim world. US and UN sanctions have been a major obstacle to trade between Iran and its neighbours and Iranian businesses will be desperate to normalize economic dealings with countries like the UAE, Bahrain and Oman.
Arab countries will always be slightly suspicious of both the US and Iranian political agendas, so it would be wrong to say that any American-Iran detent will be received with uncritical relief.
However, over the last few years this growing confrontation and the likelihood of this turning into a military struggle has greatly contributed to tensions across this region. This has been a factor in the worrying growth of Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions. So such a regional deal could make a big difference to the political climate in several countries – particularly Syria – and be a starting point for reconciliation and a calming of social tensions – undoubtedly a good thing.
For all these reasons, the new Iranian President’s first visit to the United States is an important event. We know that America won’t be cancelling its Iran sanctions overnight, and any kind of settling of the decades-long conflict between these two traditional enemies is likely to be plagued by set-backs and misunderstandings, so this process could take months and eventual failure is a possibility.
However, all of us have been impressed by the pace of initiatives and overtures by President Rohani in recent days: Letters to Obama; interviews with the US media; promises about never developing a nuclear bomb; confirmation of his mandate to reach a nuclear deal…. The list goes on.
In GCC states recent Iranian interference has been very tangible and very blunt; cyber-attacks in Saudi Arabia; sectarian incitement through Iran’s Arabic media outlets; proven Iranian involvement in a whole string of terrorist plots; political attacks against the sovereignty of Gulf states; spy networks; and many more very dangerous and unacceptable measures.
Therefore, it is in all of our interests to see a strong, moderate Iranian president reigning in the military and the hardliners and building bridges with the Arab world and the West. We all hope that he succeeds and that once again Iran can become a great nation; not through trying to attack and humiliate its neighbours; but through solidarity, consensus and strong ties with the rest of the Muslim world.
Iran historically has always been at its best as the exporter of enlightened culture – poetry, sciences and philosophy; not the bullying pariah as it has been caricatured in recent years. If this be the case, then let’s all hope to see a return to Persia’s former greatness.