Ultranationalist mindset shapes Iran’s strategy toward Gulf states
The stark difference between Iran’s strategy in dealing with the Western world and with the Arab states is evident at times of crisis. Some may ponder why this double standard exists. What are the motives and historical roots behind it? Has Tehran had this dual policy since the revolution or was it inherited from previous regimes?
Historically, Iran has adopted an antagonistic posture toward the Arab states. Even when there have been opportunities to correct this posture and improve relations, Iran’s leaders have often preferred not to. Saudi-Iranian relations are a case in point. A glimpse at the Shah and the post-1979 Islamic revolutionary regime will help explain the nature of these relations.
In 1944, an Iranian was arrested in Saudi Arabia during his pilgrimage after he defiled the Kaaba. Pilgrims testified against him and a Saudi court sentenced him to death. The ruling was upheld, and he was executed. In response, Iran quickly severed diplomatic ties with Riyadh. The Saudi authorities protested that the judicial ruling was grounded on witness testimony, and that Iran could not interfere in its internal affairs. Three years later, the Shah restored ties with Riyadh, sending a high-level delegation and representatives of the royal court to meet with their Saudi counterparts during the pilgrimage season.
In 1968, tensions erupted once again, while British forces were preparing to withdraw from the Gulf. During this period, Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal received the ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Issa bin Salman. Iran’s ruler, the Shah, saw the move as a tacit message from Riyadh suggesting that Bahrain was asserting its position as an Arab state. Iran’s leadership saw this as unacceptable. In protest at the Bahraini leader’s meeting with the Saudi King, the Shah immediately cancelled his trip to Manama, which had been scheduled two days later.
In his book on Saudi-Iranian relations, Iranian researcher Hamid Ahmadi wrote that, when King Faisal was asked about his position on the Shah's decision to cancel his visit to Saudi Arabia, he replied that the decision was up to the Shah, suggesting that his relatively young age at the time may have resulted in him making an impulsive decision, which he may reconsider later. As King Faisal predicted, the Shah reversed his decision. A few months later, he contacted the Saudi leadership to ask if he could meet King Faisal. The Saudi king agreed, and the two leaders soon met. Although they were scheduled to hold a 40-minute meeting, it was so successful that it stretched to six hours and resulted in a promise by the Shah to visit Riyadh again shortly, which he did less than six months later.
Following the 1979 so-called “Islamic revolution” in Iran, tensions erupted between Tehran and Riyadh on two occasions.
At the height of the Iran-Iraq War in 1985, Saudi Arabia presented an initiative to cease hostilities, and to end the bloodshed between two fraternal Muslim nations. While King Fahd delegated his Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal to meet with Iranian officials in Tehran to discuss a mutual cessation of hostilities between Iran and Iraq, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini flatly rejected the initiative and insisted on war until the Iraqi regime was overthrown. Two years later, having failed to achieve this goal, Iran’s leaders reluctantly agreed to a cease-fire between the two sides, with Khomeini likening the agreement to drinking a cup of poison.
Nearly three decades after that, Iran’s antagonism toward the Arab nations again came to the fore when it signed the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with the P5+1 states (the US, Russia, China, France, the UK, and Germany). The Gulf states expressed grave reservations about empowering Iran and repeatedly warned of the deal’s repercussions for the region. These reservations and warnings were disregarded.
The Gulf states rejected and continue to reject any arrogant and destabilizing behavior in the region.
Dr. Mohammed Alsulami
Post-JCPOA, the Iranian regime grew increasingly confident in its ability to shape and control events across the region, with the Obama administration and the other P5+1 states failing to curb its missile program, military expansionism and its use of sectarian militias. This led to further tensions with the Gulf states. Tehran believed that support from the P5+1 was enough to force the Gulf states into accepting its actions, and they would have no choice but to improve their relationship with it and accept its regional aggression.
In fact, the Gulf states rejected and continue to reject any arrogant and destabilizing behavior in the region, as well as Iran’s use of its unfrozen assets and the economic revenues it received following the 2015 deal to develop and fund extremist militias, which have wreaked chaos across the region.
Less than three years after signing the deal, however, Tehran discovered that it needed the support of the Gulf states after President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal and imposed political and economic pressure on the Iranian regime. In the face of this pressure, Tehran suddenly remembered the importance of the Gulf states to attaining its objectives, realizing that any rapprochement with the US starts from these states.
The Iranian president and his foreign minister launched a diplomatic charm offensive, making flattering comments about the Arab states that they had maligned a couple of years previously in an earnest attempt to rebuild relations, calling for a new friendly era in diplomatic relations between the Gulf states and Iran. The Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, were skeptical about the sincerity of this sudden U-turn, insisting that Iran’s regime should change its behavior in the region before they would agree to dialogue or negotiations.
These are only a few instances of the deep-rooted and long-standing problem with the mindset of Iran’s leaders in their dealings with the Gulf states, and of Tehran’s disregard for the concerns of its neighboring nations. Many analysts believe that the problem stems from a demeaning view of Arabs promoted by successive Iranian leaders, which depicts them not as neighbors or equals but as inferiors.
Although times have moved on since the days of the Persian Empire, there remains, unfortunately, a strain of supremacism and contempt for Arabs that has been passed down through successive generations and exploited by authoritarian leaders. Ironically, the “Islamic Republic” treats the Western states it attacks with far greater respect than it accords to its predominantly Muslim Arab neighbors.
Although the Gulf states are advanced and have made great strides in many areas, this arrogant supremacist world view toward the Arabs has remained unchanged among Iran’s leaders, damaging the chances of regional harmony. Perpetuating this antagonistic ultranationalist mindset, which glorifies Iran’s imperial past and seeks to revive its position as a regional imperial power, is not only harmful for Iranians but for regional cooperation.
This short-sightedness amongst Iran’s leaders means that Tehran continues to make the same mistakes and fails to learn from them. It is imperative that the wiser voices of reason within the Iranian regime urge its leadership to change its course and reconsider its view of and relations with its Arab neighbors if it truly wishes to pursue harmonious and cordial relations.
If Iran fails to amend its behavior and continues to pursue its current antagonistic path, the world will continue to forge ahead, leaving Iran as an isolated, impoverished and backward failed state lost in futile daydreams for its long-gone imperial past, which would be a sad loss for Iran’s leaders and people.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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