Iran turns the charm on its neighbors

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

By all indications, this week's 28th summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Doha, Qatar, is more than business as usual. Rather, with the GCC's unprecedented initiative of inviting Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is both revered and feared in the Arab world, this is a watershed development in the volatile, oil-rich region that can have real and tangible benefits, particularly on the economic and security fronts.
The summit will reportedly cover a host of regional and extra- regional issues, ranging from regional cooperation, the currency policy of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Palestine, the results of last week's Annapolis summit, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia and Iran's nuclear crisis.

Increasingly, in light of Iran's defiance of the United Nations Security Council's demand to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and the prospects of tougher UN sanctions against Iran, the GCC states are wary of the negative implications of the nuclear crisis for a region that has been much traumatized by cycles of wars and conflict over the past 30 years.

The UN Security Council is considering imposing a third round of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and may reach an agreement within weeks. This follows a closed-door meeting on Saturday. These talks in New York came a day after Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, met Saeed Jalili, Iran's nuclear negotiator. Solana described the meeting in London as "a disaster".

The US, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany agreed in September to delay sanctions against Iran until the end of November, pending reports on an investigation by the UN nuclear watchdog and an EU mediation effort. They had decided that if the reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Solana did not show "a positive outcome", they would agree on more sanctions against Iran and put it to a vote in the Security Council.

By engaging Iran and welcoming Ahmadinejad, the GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - UAE) led by Saudi Arabia, which recently offered to set up a regional facility for producing nuclear fuel for Iran, are hoping to play an effective, moderating influence on Tehran, which has been rattling them with what the GCC media routinely refer to as "extreme statements by Iran".

But, Ahmadinejad, who last week told a visiting foreign dignitary that "through love and kindness the regional problems can disappear", is now about to resurrect the "charm offensive" that one of his predecessors, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, tried with the GCC states a decade and a half ago. [1]

Iran's new charm offensive is packed with substantially more weight, however, as Iran is broadly viewed in the region as a clear winner of the Iraq war, "controlling the main centers of power within the Iraqi state", according to a Saudi commentary, not to mention the influence it wields in Lebanon and, potentially, among Shi'ite minorities in eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the GCC region.

From Iran's vantage point, Ahmadinejad's participation at the GCC summit is a welcome development that can, at a minimum, guarantee Iran's observer status, which was initially, albeit fleetingly, bestowed on Iran after the 1991 Kuwait crisis.

More than a symbolic presence, Iran seeks a meaningful role in the GCC's architecture of regional security, by championing the idea of collective security [2], following the principle of regional self-sufficiency, that is, the notion that the regional states should shoulder their own security responsibility instead of "farming out" to external powers such as the US, viewed by Iran as a source of instability.

Hence, a number of Iranian legislators, such as Rashid Jalali Jaafari, have called on Ahmadinejad to prioritize the withdrawal of "foreign forces from the region" at the GCC summit. Another Majlis (Parliament) deputy, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, has urged the president to draw "the red line" on the contested issue of Iran's possession of three islets, Abu Musa, Little Tunb and Big Tunb, and to "defend Iran's territorial rights from the position of power".

On the eve of the GCC summit, however, the UAE, which claims sovereignty over these islands, has once again resurrected its complaints against Iran's "illegal" control and it remains to be seen if the GCC summit will undermine itself by allowing this divisive issue to mar its olive branch toward Iran, or, prudently, relegate it to the background for once, instead of inserting it in its final communique as in previous years.

"If all the GCC states take a position on the three islands, then there is no reason for Iran's president to participate at this summit," Falahatpisheh has warned, with an eye to pressure the GCC summit organizers to avoid what is clearly a minefield of an issue that has the potential to further alienate Iran and the GCC states precisely at a time when both sides need to build confidence.

Focusing on common interests and concerns makes more sense and the GCC states, which took part at the Annapolis Middle East peace summit, are somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for any genuine breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli stalemate. Even though they regard the US summit as a "positive development", they are nonetheless afraid that Iran's prediction of the summit's failure will sooner or later prove correct and, in turn, erode the legitimacy of their concert with the US at a "sham summit".

By ingratiating themselves further with Iran, the GCC states simultaneously send a strong signal to the US and Israel that the hidden agenda at Annapolis - forming an anti-Iran alliance - will not be on their agenda.

What is more, the GCC summit will likely adopt a new initiative with respect to OPEC's dollar policy, in light of the growing pressure on the GCC states to dump their peg to the tumbling US dollar. Instead they might "switch to a managed float or peg to a basket, including the euro, sterling and yen", to paraphrase the chairman of the Arab Monetary Fund, Jassem al-Manni. Iran, having already taken concrete steps in this direction, is likely to endorse this proposal and the summit's communique is expected to endorse it.

On the nuclear front, Iran's ability to secure the GCC's support for its nuclear program is key and that means a greater assurance than hitherto seen on Iran's part regarding the entirely peaceful nature of its program. The GCC states have pre-committed themselves to abide by the will of the United Nations and, in case the UN adopts a third round of sanctions, the GCC outlet for Iran will likely dry up. This is one reason why US officials have been touring the region seeking to secure the GCC states' compliance over multilateral sanctions on Iran.

In turn, this raises the issue of Iran's "carrot and stick" policy toward the GCC, which, we may recall, was somewhat successful during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in gradually reducing some GCC states, ie Qatar, Oman and the UAE, to "effective neutrality". The question is: Will these GCC states, faced with a much invigorated and more powerful Iran, dare to cooperate with the economic warfare on Iran that is the sanctions regime?

Iran is still optimistic that the UN will end its "illegal" actions against Iran, given a recent letter to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon by Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and with the right amount of summit "give and take" may manage a GCC statement of support that would be useful for Iran's UN diplomacy.

To achieve this, Iran may need to show greater flexibility on the issue of the three islands, that is, a quid pro quo. After all, so far, despite the lingering disputes, there has been no problem with offshore exploitation around those islets and beyond and both sides can capitalize on the goodwill generated at the GCC summit to work out a quiet diplomacy, instead of resorting to the usual statements of previous years.

Ultimately, the GCC must consider the issue of Iran's, as well as Iraq's, inclusion, recalling the statement of an Omani leader: "The GCC saw no obstacle in the way of a GCC session being held including Iran and Iraq, after the main differences between them are resolved." That was in 1989 and, indeed, much has changed, and, also, much has remained the same. For example, the distrust of Iranian power and intentions by the conservative sheikhdoms, which are now threading the pragmatic realist course of engaging the "regional superpower" - Iran.

But, as an Iranian parliamentarian has aptly pointed out, the GCC states have plenty of territorial and other tensions among themselves, and the GCC's viability as a forum for dialogue and "crisis-prevention" is precisely what makes imperative the need to resurrect the above-cited Omani wisdom.


1. See Chapter Three of the author's book on Iran's foreign policy, New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview, 1995), titled "The Making of A New Persian Gulf Policy". 2. See Iran unveils a Persian Gulf security plan Asia Times Online, April 14, 2007.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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