With Iran publicly meeting the country it has called “the Great Satan,” and the West aiming to win contracts for Iranian projects, today is very dissimilar to yesterday. The region, known for its never-ending wars and conflicts, is taking a new shape.
The U.S. is pursuing a new and different policy in the region. From being the one lobbying for an Iranian boycott, the U.S. is now trying to convince the world of the wisdom of the nuclear deal — both at the U.N. and ultimately in the U.S. Congress. This is politics.
These developments, however, leave the Arabs facing a new reality. Iran, a country with influence in some Arab countries, has waged proxy wars in the region. Though it struggled under the weight of sanctions, it still managed to carry out its expansionist policies and may now be poised for more of the same.
The region is at a crossroads. The question is not whether the deal will pass but rather what will result from it. Despite the feelings and desires of individual states, the deal ushers in a new political reality in the region.
Iran is an important country with an influential role and it is a mistake to look at our relationship through the prism of a Sunni-Shiite divide or even an Arab-Persian conflict. Analysts, both good and ill-intentioned, try to promote these ideas but the difference between Arab countries and Iran is a mere political dispute.
In different times and under various governments in Iran, Gulf-Iranian relations changed significantly. When hard-liners were in power — specifically the previous government headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — relations showed serious strains and divergences. Iran suffered international political isolation due to its policies which contradicted international law as well as the accepted norms of diplomatic relations.
Is Hassan Rowhani the decision-maker or does political power rest with the so-called supreme leader Ali Khamenei, thus limiting the president’s options?Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi
Once Hassan Rowhani came to power as president, he sent positive signals suggesting a different political orientation. Yet, these signals were not translated into political reality in the region. The nuclear deal is one of the Iranian president’s most important achievements but there remains an overarching and unanswered question: Is Hassan Rowhani the decision-maker or does political power rest with the so-called supreme leader Ali Khamenei, thus limiting the president’s options?
In many situations, Iran opted for what it saw as political realism whenever necessary. Ayatollah Khomeini’s description of accepting the cease-fire with Iraq as “drinking poison” eliminated the arguments made by him and his followers that a cease-fire would never happen. The facts on the ground, however, changed the realities.
Khamenei has always refused international inspections of nuclear reactors, saying that Iran was not subject to international restrictions. Now he himself has congratulated the negotiating team on the agreement and given it his support. Evidently, this is not an issue of ideology but a matter of coping with reality and interests even if it means going against all past statements as well as emotional public discourse.
Iran today has a precious opportunity to set a new policy in the region. Past experience has shown that wars and interventions only led to tragic realities producing terror and chaos in the region. This opportunity requires careful consideration and experimenting with different political possibilities and, above all, it requires courage and taking the initiative by all in the region.
If the region is able to cooperate for development and building, and use its resources for the happiness of its people, its ability to compete in the world will be much different from what it is today. It may seem that this is a modern type of pragmatic political utopianism, but these are the same incentives that made “frenemies” share a room for weeks in order to reach an agreement that was once deemed impossible.
The Gulf has a different political reality and so political work should move to a new level. With the new facts, international calculations have changed and things are not the same anymore. It would therefore be wrong to stick to the same old policies in the face of the new reality.
The Gulf states need to strengthen their political interdependence. The success of the Gulf states in Operation Decisive Storm can be a good foundation for unified political positions and homogeneous political, economic and military actions. Saudi Arabia’s recent choices, linking mutual interests with those of countries such as Russia, illustrate how interests drive politics.
The Gulf states combined have a huge potential, strong political power and a dynamic international impact. It is vital to strengthen their internal structures in order to succeed externally. The new political reality is not necessarily negative though it is different. In light of the changes, there are opportunities that necessitate new vision and quick decisions.
This article was first published in Arab News on July 22, 2015.
Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992. You can follow him on Twitter here: @mfalharthi