Arab-Iranian dialogue makes strides in Doha
Doha this week hosted three days of informal Arab-Iranian dialogue. The conference, held largely behind closed doors, acquired a special significance as it came shortly after new developments indicated that we may be on the cusp of a new beginning.
Iranian participants included former officials and high-level representatives from universities and semiofficial institutions. They offered varied perspectives on Tehran’s regional policy. Most expressed a fresh desire for engagement, reconciliation and cooperation. For the first time, they accepted the idea of having talks with the GCC on Iran’s nuclear program. On some regional issues, they offered flexibility, which was even more evident during talks on the sidelines of the main event. Some of the others appeared to dwell on the past and did not offer new ideas.
Relations with Iran have been difficult for most of the time since the revolution in 1979, when it declared its goal of exporting that revolution. Since then, Tehran has managed to export a version of its model to parts of the region, but with disastrous results for both Iran and its neighbors. Militarizing Iran’s economy and its external entanglements have impoverished its people and reduced a once-thriving country to the verge of collapse. The countries where Iran has been involved, such as Syria and Yemen, have fared even worse.
The Arab League Summit, held in Jeddah on May 18, took the initiative toward regional de-escalation. For that purpose, it revisited its positions on Iran, attempting to defuse some of the regional crises where Tehran has been involved, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, encouraging dialogue and reconciliation. Inviting Bashar Assad, a close Tehran ally, was part of that effort. Saudi Arabia chaired the summit and will lead the Arab League until the next summit is convened in 2024, which will give it a chance to shape the implementation of the decisions made in Jeddah.
In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed, with China’s help, to resume diplomatic relations after seven years of rupture. This diplomatic breakthrough sent shockwaves through the region and paved the way toward the reconciliatory positions adopted at the Arab League Summit. Going beyond the mere resumption of diplomatic relations, the two countries stressed in a joint statement issued in Beijing their commitment to the “sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs,” referencing two important principles underpinning the conflict with Iran. The fact that Iran agreed to make this commitment was another breakthrough.
On both shores of the Gulf, there is great yearning to go back in history to when the region lived in relative peace, security and stability. Over the centuries, the same tribes and families lived on both banks of the Gulf and enjoyed rich cultural and thriving economic ties.
However, things have gotten complicated over the past four decades. There are significant disagreements between the two sides. At the same time, they share the same space and have equally significant shared economic and strategic interests, making it imperative to deal with those disagreements. On those issues where concurrence is elusive, there should be a clear way to manage them politically and peacefully, according to international standards and norms for relations between states.
The Arab summit stressed that Arab regional security is indivisible. Gulf security is an integral and important part of Arab security, and the security of Arab states is equally important to the Gulf. Iran is uncomfortable with this fact. It does not understand why GCC states are concerned about Iran’s domination of Arab states such as Syria, Lebanon or Yemen. It also does not see the need to refrain from forming, funding or arming militias in Arab countries, even when they use force to seize power and engage in serious human rights violations.
There is also a serious disagreement between Iran and its Gulf neighbors over international security cooperation. GCC states are active members of important security partnerships, including the Combined Maritime Forces, which coordinates the work of 38 countries to combat illicit activities by nonstate actors, such as piracy and smuggling.
On both shores of the Gulf, there is great yearning to go back in history to when the region lived in relative peace, security and stability.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Conversely, Iran is strenuously opposed to any foreign security presence, employing populist discourses about ending colonialism and foreign domination.
The stage must be prepared well for the success of substantive talks on the issues of pressing concern, by agreeing on the rules governing relations between the states of the region and confidence-building measures, with a view to maintaining de-escalation. Those issues can be discussed along five interconnected tracks.
The political and diplomatic track covers discussing regional issues, such as Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, to encourage political solutions according to UN resolutions, without the use of force or threats to achieve political goals. It also covers nuclear, missile and drone proliferation, especially to nonstate actors.
The security track covers terrorism, sectarian militias and other armed groups operating outside the law.
The economic track explores trade and investment opportunities, including in renewables.
The sustainability track explores possible cooperation in efforts to reverse climate change and rehabilitate the Gulf marine environment.
Finally, reviving the historically rich Arab-Iranian cultural exchanges could be discussed in the cultural track.
To ensure the success of this engagement, discussions should include both official and nongovernmental channels, including business groups, universities and research centers.
The great strides achieved by GCC countries over past decades in terms of the economy, social development, education, culture and the arts can be made more robust, comprehensive and sustainable once Iran and its neighbors are able to restore the requisite confidence and spirit of collaboration and integration. Iran could then attain the same benefits of integration that the GCC states have already gained.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views.