Tranquility Will Reign Iran-Arabs Relations

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Interview with Dr. Seyed Hossein Mousavi
President of the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies (MERC)

Dr. Seyed Hossein Mousavi analyzes Iran’s relations with Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and maintains that restitution of stability in Arab countries will change tone of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council toward Iran.

Q: How important is the recent statement issued by the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council to Iran’s relations with Arab member states? Is it a sign of changing relations? Will positions taken by countries like Kuwait, Qatar and Oman prove their turnaround in relation to Iran?

A: As you know, the recent statement of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council is product of extraordinary conditions in the Middle East, especially the situation in Bahrain. Perhaps tribal prejudices is not a good term to describe it, but despite civil development of Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and establishment of cities similar to modern electronic western cities, the spirit of tribal prejudices still reigns there. Thus, this cannot be considered a strategic statement. If the current conditions change and stability is restored in Bahrain, Oman and eastern parts of Saudi Arabia, the tone of next statements will certainly change. Based on reports, positions taken by Qatar and Oman in the same session have been different from Saudi Arabia.

Let’s look at these conditions from another angle. As the new Christian year began, the Middle East and Arab countries from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been marked with instability. Tunisia and Egypt were prominent examples where popular uprisings achieved swift victories. In Yemen and Libya, however, the political crisis is escalating. The situation in Bahrain is totally different.

I do not want to take a sectarian approach to this issue, but it is a reality that Al-Khalifa follows absolute rule pattern. Most people living on this small island, whether Shias or Sunnis had limited demands at the beginning of the unrest and they simply called for dismissal of the country’s prime minister. However, due to strong family relations, the government did not give in to people’s request. Thus, demands started to soar and extended to cover radical changes to the political structure. The government has been using brute force to put down people’s protests all along the way and finally asked on the Peninsula Shield Force to quench the uprising.

The leaders of countries similar to Bahrain, especially Saudi Arabia, believed that if the existing model of government in Bahrain were shattered, it would not remain limited to that country. In fact, Bahrain was frontline embankment of the Arabian Peninsula. The issue with Bahrain was domination of Shia population. The religious texture of the country was used as a ground to turn Bahraini people’s disputes with their government into a dispute between the government of Bahrain and its northern neighbor, Iran. If most people in Bahrain were Sunnis or if Iran was a Sunni country, the course of events would have been totally different.

As you know, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, is resisting people’s demands for change. However, he could not bank on religious differences and had to resort to other excuses to blame foreign interference for his country’s turmoil. In a public speech in February, Ali Abdullah Saleh openly announced that protests in the Arab world have been masterminded by Washington and their control room was located in Tel Aviv.

Since unrests started in Tunisia up to the moment that the deposed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, left the country, he delivered two speeches. In his second and last speech, Ben Ali said that he had heard the voice of his people’s revolution.
Mubarak’s first reaction to protests in Egypt was also to blame them on foreign elements and even certain western countries. The Libyan dictator, Kaddafi, first denied that protests were staged by his own people and blamed Al-Qaeda. The government of Bahrain, in its effort to justify the use of the iron fist policy and inviting foreign troops to kill his people, has been pointing an incriminating finger at Iran.

In short, the region is still boiling and when the situation calms down, Arab states of the Persian Gulf will have to mend fences with their big northern neighbor. I believe that some of them may even ask Iran to play a mediatory role and help them forge an agreement with the opposition.

Q: What is the main goal of Arab officials from highlighting Iran’s role in Arab countries and promoting Iranophobia?

A: If by Arabs you mean certain Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, I should remind you that every one of them has signed contracts with the United States giving Washington land or sea bases. Iran has, however, consistently taken sides with regional nations. Let’s not forget that when Kuwait was overrun by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, Iran opened its doors to Kuwaiti nation, ignored Kuwait’s support for Saddam Hossein during his imposed war against Iran, and opposed any form of invasion or occupation of countries. Therefore, some Arab leaders should be the last in the line to talk about interference of Iran in their internal affairs.

Aggrandizing Iran threat in the region has been an age-old US policy whose backgrounds cannot be discussed here. It would suffice to note that Arab countries of the Persian Gulf believe that due to Iran’s faceoff with western countries over various cases, anything which opposes their rules can be attributed to Iran in order to curry favor with western countries and stabilize their rule. This policy, however, has already backfired.

When all Arab countries of the Persian Gulf ask the United States to include them under its support umbrella, it means that Iran has evolved into a big regional power and to counteract it, they have to seek refuge with a transregional superpower like the United States. Interestingly enough, recent developments in the region are a new phenomenon, but leaders of the Persian Gulf Arab states are resorting to threadbare means such as aggrandizing Iran threat instead of trying to interact with this phenomenon. The futility of this situation will soon become evident.

Q: How possible is chances of an Arab-Iranian confrontation in the region? Will western and Arab countries resort to this confrontation in order to turn the struggles between despotism and democracy into a struggle between Shias and Sunnis?

A: If the situation in the region and tsunami of political changes in the Persian Gulf Arab states were limited to Bahrain and parts of Saudi Arabia (eastern coasts), the Iranophobia strategy would have had more chance of success to pitch Sunnis against Shias. That is, local factors had a better chance of becoming connected to transregional factors. However, it was a piece of bad luck for Arab rulers of the Persian Gulf that the spate of change started in North Africa and rapidly spread to other regions, including the Persian Gulf. Interestingly enough, the wave of change has even engulfed Iran’s close regional ally, Syria.

Sometimes, Arab leaders of the Persian Gulf resort to satirical means of connecting their internal developments to Iran. The foreign minister of Bahrain, for example, has told BBC Arabic that the call of “God is great” chanted by people of Bahrain or certain Shia prayers proved that Iran’s hand was at work in his country!

As for western countries’ efforts to pitch Sunnis against Shias, such efforts may prove effective in short term, but western strategists are well aware that the situation cannot hold for long and the flame of sectarian strife in the region will not remain limited to Shias or Sunnis. Regional, ethnic and religious diversity in the Middle East goes far beyond Shia-Sunni relations. Western countries have not been able to totally cope with consequences of ethnic and religious disputes in Balkans which date back to the 1990s as well as Shia-Sunni strife in Iraq which started soon after the fall of Saddam in the early years of 2000s. It is difficult to believe that western planners and strategists are not aware of the consequences of religious, ethnic, and even racial skirmishes. Perhaps, they would use it as a short-term tactic in order to take the initiative and manage unpredicted political crises; however, this may prove to be a double-edged sword.

On the other hand, there is an ongoing dispute in the United States over precedence of pragmatist necessities over idealistic and moral values of the west which has been represented in the double standards applied by Washington to regional uprisings and different treatment of situations in Bahrain and Syria. The United States, on the one hand, chides Bahraini opposition for rejecting tactical concessions offered by the government while, on the other hand, criticizes the government of Bashar Al-Assad for use of brute force to suppress street protests in some Syrian cities.

Q: Given the emphasis put by the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali Akbar Salehi on the need to improve relations with our Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, and in view of the recent statement issued by the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, what policy should Iran adopt toward member states of the Council?

A: In his first press interview before he obtained the parliament’s vote of confidence, Mr. Salehi underlined the need to secure perimeter of Iran by bolstering relations with important regional states such as Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have seen many ups and downs in the past three decades, but they have constantly been influenced by independent factors. I mean, a third party or external factors have influenced those relations. As Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were scared of the victory of the Islamic Revolution and its possible spread to the entire region, they took sides with Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. In other words, Saddam Hussein used that fear as a good ground to attack Iran and to bully other regional states.

Another longstanding factor is the dispute between Arabs and Israel. Since the former Pahlavi regime was an ally of Israel, Arab countries criticized Iran as Tehran took sides with Israel in the oil embargo of 1973. Following the triumph of the Islamic Revolution and basic changes in Iran’s foreign policy, the consent of almost all Arab states to join the Middle East peace process turned into a new battleground between them and Iran and the reason for bilateral tension was quite different from 1973.

As political changes started to sweep through the region at the beginning of the new Christian year, a new internal variable was added to worsen that tension. I believe that this variable can only be limited by several other variables, which may even lead to stability in Iran’s relations with littoral states of the Persian Gulf. The first such variable will be new situation in these countries as a result of political developments in certain members of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. Desirable outcome of those developments is serious and all-out reforms in political structures of those countries in such a way that new leaders would act more independent of transregional factors when regulating their countries’ foreign relations.

The second variable will be reestablishment of cordial relations between two big regional powers, that is, Iran and Egypt and efforts aimed at creating a regional alliance on the basis of new political equations which are the result of regional revolutions. This variable will cause serious changes in Iran’s relations with regional countries at all levels.

The third variable is a logical, broad-based and just solution to Arab-Israeli crisis and final resolution of the Palestinian issue. I am optimistic about the first two variables. As for the third variable, although it seems to be distant, it also depends on the extent of the first two variables.

If these presumptions proved to be true, then Iran’s relations with the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council would be improved and stabilized. However, any degree of the realization of the aforesaid conditions will leave its positive mark on Iran’s relations with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

Source: Iranian Diplomacy
Translated By: Iran Review

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