US President Donald Trump’s policies towards the Middle East have worked to deepen longstanding divisions in this region over how to handle Iran, which the Trump administration and some countries in this region regard as a central source of tension in the Middle East.
One can discern two rival approaches to how to manage relationships with Iran. The first is confrontational and subscribes to the Trump administration’s method of containing Iran by means of sanctions and mobilising countries in the region to isolate Tehran politically and economically.
While quite a few Arab countries support this approach, the steps that Washington has taken to carry it out have intensified controversy in the Arab region over regional outlooks and priorities.
In particular, many hold that in prioritising Iran as the Arab region’s number one enemy, this approach minimises the significance of Israel as a national security threat to many Arab states. It is still widely believed that Israel is the foremost enemy against which the Arabs need to unite.
The second approach promotes dialogue with Iran. Generally advocated by European states and to some extent Russia and China, it holds that dialogue and building trust are the best means of creating areas of mutual understanding.
As this deepens, Iran and other parties will become willing to make reciprocal concessions and reach a consensus that will lay the foundations for regional peace and stability.
The pro-dialogue approach also has its supporters in the region. After all, Iran is not an enemy, in the strict sense, to all Arab countries.
Even the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members categorise Iran in different ways depending on their historical experience and their outlooks on their national interests.
While Bahrain ranks Iran as its primary security threat, Saudi Arabia sees it as the main threat to its regional influence and internal security and Qatar sees it as a secondary threat.
Oman, on the other hand, regards Iran as a “friend” and “partner” in the region, an outlook that has been reflected in Muscat’s stances on the EU-led negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme and the role it played as a communications channel between Tehran and the P5+1 during Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s last months in office. Kuwait and the UAE stand somewhere in the middle on Iran. They see it as a troublemaker but one that can be dealt with.
Regardless of such differences in outlooks, Iran and the six GCC members share a number of strategic interests. Foremost among them is the need to preserve the safety of the maritime routes through the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab Al-Mandeb in view of their vital importance to the flow of Gulf oil to international markets.
Also, the Iranian market and Iranian investments are important, to varying degrees, to the economies of GCC countries, especially Bahrain and the UAE.
The confrontationist approach has been manifested in Washington’s unilateral withdrawal, in May 2018, from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was signed between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015.
It was also expressed in the drive to forge an “Arab NATO”, the primary aim of which is to build a military bloc against Iran and the proponents of which lobbied to secure international support for it during the Warsaw Conference in February 2019.
A more recent step was Washington’s decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation.
As for the pro-dialogue camp, they have declared their opposition to the abovementioned actions and made it clear that they would not join the “Arab NATO”.
However, they have yet to produce strong diplomatic initiatives to launch a regional dialogue with Iran. If they are to do so, they will need to devise concrete proposals that seek, primarily, to tangibly alter Iranian policies in the region.
They must also be guided by the logic that the dialogue must be kept focused on specifics, as the Europeans succeeded in doing, when they set into motion a dialogue with Iran in the framework of the P5+1.
That dialogue remained focused on Tehran’s nuclear programme and, after more than 10 years, it culminated in the JCPOA in July 2015.
It is important to bear in mind an important point. The history of conflict settlement in many parts of the world has shown that the confrontational/containment approach and the dialogue approach can complement each other.
For example, the former can be used to pressure the adversary into engaging in and remaining committed to dialogue.
However, such a mutually complementary relationship seems out of reach at present in view of the tensions engendered by the conflict between these two approaches as informed by divergent interests among the regional and international powers that make up the power equations in the region.
Ultimately, if this conflict over how to handle Iran continues, it could have unintended repercussions that are detrimental to regional security.
*The writer is head of security and military unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Coercion or dialogue?