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Raghida Dergham

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Iran Toughening on Arab Gulf States and Softening on Nuclear Negotiations

Posted: 04/20/2012 7:25 pm

New York -- Iran's leadership has purposely coupled the features of its deal on the nuclear issue with the five permanent Security Council member-states plus Germany with a blow to the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), punishing them for their stance on the Syrian issue and toughening Iran's stance on them, as coinciding with potential concessions on the nuclear issue. Tehran realizes that it will not obtain the blessing of Western countries for the role it seeks to play at the regional level. The West might acknowledge Iran's importance in the region, and some Western countries may provide guarantees of non-interference in Iran's domestic affairs. But what Iran will not obtain is any recognition that the Islamic Republic of Iran holds an exceptional position in regional affairs.

Iran's position on the regional map is undergoing a sorting out process that will be dictated by the new regional order. The traditional balance of power has been gradually shaken over the past few decades, and it is now going through an earthquake. Iran's leadership has realized that it must position itself all over again, thus acknowledging that Iran's traditional position in the regional balance of power has been eroded. Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, the other three forces in the traditional balance of power, have also shrunken back, each for different reasons. Iraq was eliminated from the strategic balance of power through the war of 2003, which served the interests of Iran and Israel. Egypt after 2011 is going through a dangerous transitional phase that requires it to isolate itself from the regional balance of power. Turkey is reinventing itself and superficially seems to be winning, but in reality it is being weighed down and does not want to engage in rivalries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is gaining prominence at this stage as a fundamental force within the regional balance of power, because it has chosen to appear openly within such a context, and because it enjoys the weight of the five other countries of the GCC (the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain), despite traditional disagreements between these countries. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not new, and neither is the regional competition between them. What is taking place on the Syrian scene is what is new, in terms of its repercussions on the repositioning of the two countries at the regional level, as well as in terms of the nature and the identity of the new regional order. And Tehran is putting all of its capabilities to work, including softening on the nuclear issue and provoking its immediate neighbors, so as to win a round in this struggle, and so as for its ideology to remain ready to be exported.

At the Istanbul meeting last week between its representatives and those of each of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, Iran showed relative leniency in agreeing to focus on the nuclear issue. In the past, Tehran used to place the condition of obtaining guarantees in advance connected to its regional role and international standing, as well as to non-interference in its domestic affairs (i.e. not helping the opposition), before engaging in talks over its nuclear program. This time, Iran seemed as if it were seeking to save face through a formula that would allow it to relatively back down, and to emerge from the predicament it has placed itself in. The features of such a formula are well known to the parties concerned, and Tehran had agreed to them in 2009, before Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced rejecting them. If it is truthful in claiming that it will agree to the settlement at the Baghdad meeting next month with the 5+1, it would have retracted its escalation and accepted what it had not agreed to in the past -- i.e. to stop enriching uranium to a rate of 20 percent, to stop the secret work taking place in reactors hidden underground, and to export what it has enriched to a 20 percent rate abroad to be prepared and developed for medical, not military purposes before being brought back to Iran.

The main European negotiator, Lady Catherine Ashton, called the process a "confidence-building exercise aimed at facilitating a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach" -- this with the West being prepared to recognize Iran's right to nuclear energy. Such reassurance and such an approach have certainly had an impact on Tehran, leading to it retracting its decision to reject the "carrot" and not be responsive to U.S. President Barack Obama's method, based on enticement, embracement and encouragement. Yet the sanctions that have been ratified and reinforced have in turn had an effective impact on Iran's decision. The most important motive behind the Iranian leadership's leniency is the fact that Barack Obama has abandoned the policy of "containment" which he had adopted ever since he took office in the White House as a basis for dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Obama abandoned "containment" to please Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to entice him into waiting until after the U.S. elections before deciding that there is no way left but the military option in dealing with Iran's nuclear situation. Tehran has analyzed the meaning of abandoning "containment" very well and reached the conclusion that there would be no escaping military action, by the Israelis or the Americans, if it were to persevere in its nuclear programs and to be obstinate in its stance. It has thus chosen to gradually descend from the top of the arrogance scale.

Tehran has also looked at the situation in Syria and decided that it would not be in a state of denial, as Damascus is, on the issue of the progression of change within Syria and at the regional level. It has taken a look around itself and concluded that this was no time for arrogance -- at least for now -- when it came to the major powers, members of the Security Council. Indeed, the interplay between the nuclear program and the Syrian issue in the mind of the Iranian leadership is one that reflects on Iran's situation at the regional and international levels. This is why Tehran has deemed that United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan holding talks with it concerning the Syrian issue represents an opportunity for the Iranian leadership that must not be missed -- especially on the eve of the meeting on the nuclear issue with the 5+1 in Istanbul, when Annan visited Tehran asking for its help in Syria. But Tehran has sought to send a message to its neighbors in the Gulf, coinciding with the tone of leniency and concessions, in anticipation for any interpretations of such a tone being evidence for structural weakness within the Islamic Republic of Iran and its leadership. It also sought to reposition itself strategically in a better and broader way, so that it may threaten the supply of oil and obstruct maritime trade, in case military developments take place, or the stifling siege, isolation and economic embargo on Iran continues.

Thus, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad headed to the island of Abu Musa, a part of the territory of the United Arab Emirates that Iran occupied in 1971, along with the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb, under the Shah. The countries of the GCC considered the first visit by an Iranian President in twenty years a flagrant act of provocation and a blatant breach of UAE sovereignty, and thus denounced and condemned it, criticizing the timing and the reasons. Both -- the timing and the reasons -- are connected to the decline of Iran's regional influence and its being forced to back down on its arrogance in the nuclear issue. Furthermore, Tehran has sought to discipline and to frighten the GCC countries from the repercussions of their stances on Syria -- in particular the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is leading the campaign of change and which qualifies as an effective Arab force within the regional balance of power.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been able to curtail the terrorism of al Qaeda on its own soil. It has also been able to ward off the danger coming to it from Yemen. Now the KSA considers Syria to have become the most vital part of attempts to thwart Iran's hegemony on the region and the keystone of plans to end Iran's monopoly on some Arab countries. The Saudi leadership is determined not to back down in what it considers to be the process of marginalizing extremists. And the countries of the GCC seem to agree over the principle of doing away with ideologies and exportable revolutions. They unanimously agree over making use of the means at their disposal to influence change in the Arab region. Yet they are pursued by a reputation of unfulfilled promises, and they must realize this.

Indeed, the new roles being played by the GCC as an effective bloc within the regional balance of power require reconsidering the traditions, practices and methods of dealing with the remaining Arab countries -- not just with Iran or Western countries. If constructiveness and moderation represent the cornerstone of this new direction, its inauguration should start within the home soil of the Gulf, in reform that would go beyond skyscrapers and advanced infrastructure. This phase requires reshaping relations anew, especially as the Arab countries with traditional position in the balance of power are going through difficulties. Egypt, for example, will need the GCC countries because it is threatened with bankruptcy, and being overwhelmed by the hijacking of the country on the part of Islamists and religious-political ideology. Waiting for collapse is no policy. It is imperative to have a roadmap and an intellectual and practical overhaul that would help avoid collapse.

Iraq, being another example, has dropped out of its former standing as a major force in the regional balance of power, and is now sometimes considered to be affiliated to Iran. This will not last. And for it not to last, it is imperative for investments from the Gulf to be made in Iraq, not in funds but rather in deeds. Here too it is imperative to closely examine the various scenarios, stretching from the shrinking of Iran's influence in Iraq to such influence being multiplied if Tehran were to lose its influence in Syria with the fall of the regime there. As for Yemen, the backyard of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, it is a country threatened with total failure and it requires to be saved, if not out of love for Yemen, then at least in order to make sure it does not turn into a center for exporting extremism, misery and instability.

Finally, the balance of power is no longer only contingent on the decision-makers and their strategy-drafting tables. There is clearly a new faceless player, one whose presence remains hidden, whose mood is extremely changing, and who is still in the process of searching for an identity. 

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