In May 1990, I was one of the journalists who covered the Arab Summit conference in Baghdad. I remember what then-President Saddam Hussein said during that summit, holding his pen between his fingers as if lecturing the attending leaders and chiefs of states. He spoke about changes in the region and what he called “the void that we must fill.” I don’t think anyone understood what he meant, especially because it had only been two years since Iraq barely came out of its war with Iran.
That war had started in 1980 because of Saddam’s misjudgment that the fall of the Shah regime left a power vacuum, so he jumped at the chance to attack his neighbor, making both countries pay dearly. Then, 10 years later, here was Saddam believing that the Soviets’ withdrawal from areas under their control with the end of WWII means that the United States would not care for what happens, especially between friendly countries. And so, two months after his speech about the “void,” Iraqi tanks crossed the border into Kuwait and overtook the capital city.
Void, or the illusion thereof, is a driver for regimes like Iran’s to expand their control. In yesterday’s article, I explained how certain realities emerged from developments and ushered in a new historical era. The previous regional structure was the fruit of several factors: the post-WWII agreements that defined borders, the division of the world into two poles during the Cold War, and Washington’s prioritization of oil as one of its higher national interests that it must defend with military force, which gave the Gulf region seven decades of protection.
However, all these factors have expired today. The United States is currently the biggest oil producer in the world. The strategy guaranteeing the flow of oil is no longer important to Washington; instead, what matters now is the face-off with China in the Middle East, its number one source of energy. As such, America will stay in the region as part of the balance game, but probably with less commitments.
Iran, like all the countries in the region, is observing developments and making decisions accordingly. This explains Tehran’s unprecedented audacity to expand its military operations abroad. Ten years ago, Iran was content with running the southern suburb of Beirut. Today, its influence covers Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Sanaa in Yemen.
Iranians have done nothing for their country apart from improving its maritime and ballistic military capabilities. They do not calculate their possible losses in terms of industrial or economic assets in any potential war in the future, because Iran’s losses will be limited compared to its rivals.
This article is not related to the Baghdad, Vienna, or other negotiations currently underway, and I hope it is understood as only a personal opinion. It rather discusses Iran’s medium- and long-term relations with its neighbors, including Gulf states. I believe that even if the new endeavors succeed, and even if Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states establish diplomatic relations with Iran and snapshots of handshaking and exchanged smiles fill the front pages, the Iranian danger will remain as long as its motives and mechanisms remain.
It is unlikely that the Vienna negotiations will manage to mend this anomaly, because Western negotiators tend to have different priorities. Still, the potential Vienna agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear weapon project can be counted as a gain for us in the Gulf, first because it gives us more time, and second because it may lead in the future to a comprehensive peaceful solution with Iran.
Current developments have obsoleted the concepts of previous policies built on the balances of the Cold War and the centrality of oil in the US defense policy.
Today, it is imperative to reconsider the concept of deterrence and the regional and national defense policies in place, given the geopolitical and technical developments. Weaving the diplomatic project with alliances and developing defensive powers will make Iran realize there is no vacuum. I understand the viewpoint that rejects the idea of balance and deterrence because they will only burden our economies and increase tensions and wars in the future. But is there an alternative? We cannot rely on good faith with Iran. Achieving a balance will be a driver that pushes Tehran to agree to a regional peace project whereby each state respects the borders and sovereignty of its neighbors and sets rules to prevent armed aggression.
A relevant discussion: Iran on the inside.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.