Iran needs to be on board if Middle East is to change

Iran needs to be on board if Middle East is to change

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Firefighters disinfect a street in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo)

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is one of the biggest challenges the world has faced in decades, with some comparing its impact to that of the Second World War. As the number of confirmed cases exceeds 1.5 million and the news of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson being treated in intensive care baffles the world, this pandemic will nevertheless not be the end of globalization. It might act as a catalyst to some previous trends, such as the competition and decoupling between the US and China, but it has actually put forward the need for more transparency, global communication and collaboration between governments, not less. 

Indeed, opacity and a lack of communication have had catastrophic consequences. A quick overview of various government interactions shows that, the more data was shared, the better actions were taken against the virus. When it comes to the Middle East, most countries, especially those in the Gulf, were transparent in their measures and their reporting, while Iran took a defiant stance toward the virus, as if it was a political enemy or a conspiracy. This came at the cost of many lives and greater instability in the region.

Nevertheless, there have been some positive developments in the region, including the fact that the UAE helped Iran face the pandemic. Another positive is the Arab coalition’s unilateral cease-fire in Yemen, as well as Saudi Arabia’s allocation of $500 million to the UN humanitarian response plan for Yemen, which will help protect all Yemenis — including the Iran-backed Houthis — from COVID-19.

Unfortunately, this has not changed the Iranian government’s policies and opacity in the face of the pandemic, as its sole focus seems to be on its regional political agenda and using the pandemic to break its isolation, which translated into pushing for an easing of US sanctions with the support of the EU and asking the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan. This is unfortunate, as transparency and collaboration with the Gulf states could have helped them all act faster and save lives. In difficult times, it is well known that Saudi Arabia and the UAE propose initiatives that come without strings attached and in good faith between neighbors. In this case, with more transparency from the Iranian regime, they could have formulated a regional response and extended the same care shown for their own citizens and residents to the Iranian people.

This shows that there is an opportunity for the Iranian regime to bring about a change in regional relations. It may be wishful thinking to believe Iran will step up when one knows the agenda and history of the Tehran regime. However, it is not impossible. This crisis has proven that Arab countries do not wish ill and do not look for confrontation with Iran; quite the opposite in fact. As we all face the same invisible enemy, today is a good time for Iran to disengage from regional files that do not threaten its national security — such as Yemen and Lebanon — to focus on its own domestic development. The best way for Iran to break its isolation is by backtracking from its hegemonic agenda and nuclear program and pursuing a more transparent and good-willed foreign policy. Unfortunately, Iran seems to be stuck in a 1980s paradigm, where COVID-19 replaces Saddam Hussein. 

As lockdowns have a heavy economic cost globally, uncertainty has become a constant negative factor and the catalyst for a downturn. This translates into difficult and unanswered questions for every country: What comes after the confinement policies end if new cases keep appearing? What if it takes longer than expected? What if, after all these measures, numbers spike again in September? How do economies reopen while making sure people stay safe? It is now clear that continued lockdowns will have a catastrophic impact on countries’ economies, which will take years to rebuild. As unemployment skyrockets and businesses are shattered, this can quickly lead to social instability, if not total chaos or war. 

Therefore, the main objective of governmental action should be to deal with this uncertainty. This is by far the most dangerous virus. It was the virus of uncertainty that had people in developed countries fighting for toilet paper and rushing to stock up as if the world was ending. The world will not end; humanity will get through this. But there is an immediate need for more transparency and concerted efforts between governments and the private sector in order to deal with the potential scenario of the partial failure of containment policies and/or the appearance of a second spike of cases later this year. The world will need to reopen for business by the end of April and stay open while keeping people as safe as possible. Sweden and South Korea might serve as examples, as they went the opposite way and did not impose stringent confinement policies.

In the Middle East, the coming months will be crucial and a new page can be turned. It could be the start of the building of a new region. A regional post-pandemic Marshall Plan approach could propel the Middle East into prosperity for all. For this to succeed, Iran needs to renounce the opacity it cultivates.

Unfortunately, Iran seems to be stuck in a 1980s paradigm, where COVID-19 replaces Saddam Hussein.

Khaled Abou Zahr

The opportunity is real, as we stand between east and west, between China and the US. The region should be a land of partnerships, business opportunities, reconciliations and prosperity, not one of endless proxy wars. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shown Saudi Arabia’s resolve for defending regional interests and its ability to face major challenges without shifting from the transformation goals set for the Kingdom. This is particularly clear with the G20 preparations, as well as the focus on OPEC+ negotiations and taking timely decisions to fight COVID-19.

More broadly, Gulf countries have been very transparent and forthcoming about the coming challenges and have allocated billions of dollars in support of the private sector. This transparency, with a focused leadership, is a good and trustworthy framework for Iran to join. The ball is now in Iran’s court.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
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