Iran must prove it is serious before Gulf talks can begin
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani last week urged the Gulf states to hold talks with Iran. The senior Qatari official expressed hope that this dialogue would take place, adding in an interview with Bloomberg TV: “We still believe this should happen.”
On Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to the Qatari official’s proposal, saying: “Iran welcomes my brother (Al-Thani’s) call for inclusive dialogue in our region. As we have consistently emphasized, the solution to our challenges lies in collaboration to jointly form a ‘strong region.’”
Speaking about the same issue on Friday, Zarif told the Iranian state Mehr News Agency: “Our hands have always been extended to the Gulf states.” He added provocatively: “The region now is ours, and its security is in favor of all of us.”
In the same interview, Zarif even claimed that Iran’s regime had presented its own proposal prior to those of other regional states, saying: “Before all these proposals, we have introduced a proposal. The president of the republic last year proposed a ‘Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE).’” He added: “Our readiness for negotiations, therefore, is nothing new. And as I mentioned in my response to the Qatari foreign minister, this issue is a declaration of Iran’s long-term policy.”
Zarif also said, gloatingly, that it should be made clear to some Arabian Gulf states that they have wasted four years because of former US President Donald Trump. He recalled that, when the late emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah floated a proposal for negotiations between the Gulf states and Iran, which was accepted by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Gulf states allegedly responded by saying: “We should be patient as Trump has just taken over the US administration.” Zarif said: “These countries have wasted four years… Trump has gone, and we and they are the ones who remain.”
It should be noted here that none of the Gulf states officially responded to the remarks by Zarif. However, given the timing of his statements, two key questions arise: Is Iran serious about interacting, on a strategic rather than a tactical basis, with any genuine proposal to de-escalate the current regional situation? And can Iran reverse its current behavior in the region?
From the onset of the revolutionary regime, it has used brutal military force, as seen in the eight-year Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988). Iran emerged from this war devastated economically, politically and militarily, and in need of time to recoup its strength and overcome the crises it was going through. Hence, the regime opted for a soft approach, using diplomacy and cultural outreach, as well as emphasizing civilizational commonalities during the second term of late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1993-1997) and particularly during the tenure of Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005).
This ostensibly peaceful period witnessed one of the most dangerous phases of the Iranian regime’s penetration into the Arab world. Iran took advantage of this period of systematic openness in the region to embed its cells and entrench its presence. It was able to conceal its hostile agenda through promoting civilizational dialogue and staging exhibitions in several Arab and Gulf capitals.
During this phase, Iran also focused on establishing so-called cultural centers in Arab states and launching its operations through them. These centers were directly linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the office of the Supreme Leader. One would have expected them to have been linked to the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or even to Iran’s diplomatic consulates, but they were all bypassed, indicating Iran’s nefarious objectives behind establishing them.
All parties are fed up with Tehran’s PR campaigns, soft power rhetoric, empty diplomacy, and promises.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
These centers intensified the regime’s activities regionally and globally, providing handy diplomatic cover for its recruitment, propaganda and indoctrination. This phase also saw Iran cooperating with the US and some Western countries in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Mohammed Ali Abtahi, Iran’s vice president under Khatami, said clearly: “If it weren’t for Iran, Kabul and Baghdad wouldn’t have been toppled.”
Later in this phase, the Arab street, longing for triumphs, cheered Hezbollah’s so-called victory in the 2006 Lebanese War, which exhausted and destroyed the country. However, Iran, cheered on by some Arabs before its regional role was exposed with the onset of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, made no real gains through the Lebanese War.
As a result, following the phase of political upheaval in the Arab region, Iran left its soft power approach and returned to its original hard power approach. This involved proxy wars, a dependence on armed Shiite militias in the Arab region, sectarian rhetoric, and playing the Shiite victimhood card. The Iranian regime also activated some of its long-dormant sleeper cells and launched major intelligence activities in the region, especially in the Arabian Gulf.
The past few years have witnessed the dismantling of several Iranian espionage cells in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Yemen, not to mention Iranian support for the Houthi movement in Yemen through the supply of weapons, money and fighters. Also during this phase, Iran intensified its activities in Bahrain and Kuwait.
Despite Iran’s interference, the Gulf states have not adopted a comprehensive negative outlook toward Tehran. This is because they want to establish positive fraternal relations between the two banks of the Arabian Gulf and to ensure peaceful coexistence between Iran and themselves.
While the Arab region’s countries, particularly the Gulf states, do not oppose dialogue with Iran, there is, sadly, distrust between Iran and most of the Gulf states. To build confidence and reach a phase of serious dialogue — rather than a dialogue for its own sake — the Iranian side must take steps on the ground to prove its seriousness with regard to resolving the crises in its geographic neighborhood. Naturally, the Gulf states are cautious, with the phrase “once bitten, twice shy” quite apt for describing their cautiousness at this time.
All parties are fed up with Tehran’s PR campaigns, soft power rhetoric, empty diplomacy, and promises. Instead, neighboring countries want Iran to undertake genuine steps to prove its sincerity in seeking to become a normal state that wants to improve its relations with the region and the world, and in being prepared to abandon its expansionist projects, which have provoked regional sectarian conflicts and terrorism.
Ayatollah Khomeini considered Saudi Arabia to be Iran’s No. 1 enemy, saying: “Even if we abandon Al-Quds, settle differences with the US and reach reconciliation with Saddam Hussein, we will never do this with Saudi Arabia.” Has Iran really abandoned this position? Will Iran dissolve all its militias across the region, from Lebanon in the north to Yemen in the south? Will it pledge not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries? Will it stop its sectarian mobilization campaigns? What will it do about the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad? The answer to these questions will indicate Tehran’s seriousness in reaching a settlement with the Arabian Gulf states.
The benefits of reaching an understanding between the Gulf states and Iran are so many that they require a separate article to be detailed.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami