Never has our region needed cool heads as much as it does now, amid the rhetorical escalation and sabre-rattling between Iran and the US.
Iran has just used one of its regional proxies — the Houthis — to sabotage ships in the UAE’s Fujairah Port and to strike oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia.
This looks like a manifestation of the long-known fact that Iran has been and remains a clear and imminent danger to international and regional security since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
For geopolitical and geo-strategic reasons, Tehran poses a threat to neighbouring Arab countries in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, as it has shown in its policies and behaviour towards Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, the Palestinians and the Arab Gulf countries.
Iran’s territorial size, large population, geographical location along the shores of the Gulf and the sense that it has a historical mission in the region are among the factors that have combined to generate aggressive imperialist tendencies.
Its “Islamic Revolution” added zeal and fanaticism to this sense of mission which is informed by strategic outlooks that are hostile towards its neighbours and that drive an insatiable thirst to build diplomatic, political and military capacities to utilise for its expansionist aims.
This is the framework in which Iran began to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran’s nuclear programme was a means to enhance its international standing and, simultaneously, to cover up its aggressive and increasingly dangerous behaviour within the scope of its immediate regional environment.
Eventually, Tehran was able to coax international powers (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany — the P5+1) to the negotiating table in order to obtain a deal whereby it would freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
According to Tehran’s reading of this deal, it now had a free hand in this region, especially in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It used the latter and the Houthis in it as a platform for aggression — against the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as we have seen — while supporting terrorism in the rest of the region.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the US under Donald Trump has embarked on a course opposite to that laid out by the policies of the Barack Obama administration.
It withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran on 8 May 2018 and then re-imposed economic sanctions against Iran, restricted its ability to export oil and designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation.
Washington also escalated its sanctions regime against Iran by reintroducing secondary sanctions to keep other countries from engaging in transactions with Iran, leaving European countries with no alternative but to comply.
As a response to all this, Iran warned that it would partially resume its nuclear programme which, in turn, triggered another reaction from Washington which was to notch up its military presence in the region.
Trump simultaneously indicated his willingness to negotiate a new deal with Iran, an offer that Tehran rejected even as its supreme leader stated that his country did not want war.
To put the current situation in a nutshell, both sides say they don’t want war but they both continue to up the stakes politically and militarily. At the same time, Iran uses its regional proxies to generate instability and threaten other countries in the Middle East.
What we are looking at, here, is what in game theory is known as the “prisoner’s dilemma” in which the “player” has only two options, both of which are bitter and very costly.
In the current case, the Arabs cannot accept Iranian behaviour, its bid to revive the nuclear option, and its expansionist designs using proxies (the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen).
At the same time, a US-Iranian military clash is also a nightmarish option. It would precipitate a resurgence of regional instability just as the region as beginning to recover from the massive wave of turmoil that set in following the so-called Arab Spring, and moreover as Arab countries are engaged in serious reform processes that have involved taking some extremely difficult political, economic and, indeed, cultural decisions.
Foremost among these countries are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, while other countries have also begun to recover their vigour, as is the case with Iraq, especially following the failed Kurdish secession bid when the Iraqi nation state proved able to reassert itself.
As unpalatable as both these options are, the horizons for strategic thinking are still open. Strategic thinking begins by strengthening one’s sources of autonomous strength, on the one hand, and by increasing one’s ability to influence the other side — in this case Iran, which has many strategic vulnerabilities — on the other.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s recourse to the UN Security Council in the wake of the recent attack against them by the Houthis, who no one doubts are subordinate to Iran, is a crucial step for Arab and Islamic countries since it delegitimises the Iranian attempt to cast the current situation as a confrontation between it and the US. The recent attack blatantly targeted two Arab states and it could not have happened without Iranian arms and approval.
However, this politically and diplomatically important step should not be the last. Ultimately, the sources of Arab power, as shaped by the members of the Arab quartet (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt), can forge a primary deterrent against Iran and, simultaneously, send a message to the US that it should not take unilateral decisions (like the decisions it has taken with regard to the Palestinian cause and the occupied Golan Heights) that could have destabilising impacts on this region for years to come.
The message to send to Iran is to stop its aggression via proxies, stop using them to generate instability and unrest in the countries in which those proxies live, to desist entirely from the attempt to produce nuclear weapons and to return to the principles of international resolutions.
Then, it should be possible to carry out the provisions of these resolutions and devise arrangements to establish a framework of regional security.
Iran is not as immune to pressure as it pretends to be. It suffers gruelling economic straits and its regime has lost its lure. It is also a heterogenous country with numerous ethnicities, languages and religious denominations.
Nothing in the current or past Iranian experience should make it think that the world will condone its possession of a nuclear weapon or its attempts to expand its influence beyond its territorial boundaries.
For all these reasons, some coolheaded Arab heads are needed to handle the current situation with its complex weave of convergent and divergent interests.
Also, channels of communication need to be opened with the adversary, just as they are open with allies. Indeed, all lines of communication with the world should remain open so as to keep the division between right and wrong clear and prevent confusion at a time in which international media have become a player that cannot be ignored.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Cool-headedness