The United States and some of its European allies, notably Britain and France, are piling the pressure on Iran, claiming that its behaviour ‘constitutes a grave and urgent threat to peace,’ as the Elysee Palace in Paris put it in a communique last week. The charge is that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.
Sanctions are being stiffened, trade crippled, financial ties severed, isolation enforced: indeed, a range of punitive measures are being put in place which are just short of all-out war against Tehran.
But the latest report on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency contains no hard evidence that Iran has decided to manufacture atomic weapons. It contains suppositions and speculations that Iran is concealing part of its nuclear activities, but few new facts. Even if Iran were to acquire a nuclear capability, most experts agree it could only be for defensive purposes.
Nevertheless, the US and Israel have chosen to portray the Islamic Republic as a deadly threat to the world. Iran, in response, has thrown the accusation back at them. Washington sees Iran as a challenge to US control of Middle East oil, while Tel Aviv sees Iran as a threat to Israel’s military supremacy and to its nuclear weapons monopoly. In blatant violation of the UN Charter, Israel repeatedly threatens to strike Iran and destroy its nuclear facilities, while doing its utmost to incite — or indeed blackmail — the United States into doing the job for it.
Following the US lead, the British government has this week rashly ordered UK banks and financial institutions to cut all ties with Iran. They have been ordered ‘to cease business relationships and transactions with all Iranian banks, including the Central Bank of Iran.’ In response, the Iranian Majlis has called for the expulsion of the British ambassador, while British trade with Iran has slumped by nearly 50 per cent this past year. France is also calling for a halt of all purchases of Iranian oil and a freeze of the assets of Iran’s Central Bank.
The Arabs are being urged to join in this hostile campaign against the Islamic Republic, largely stirred up by Israel and the US But is making an enemy of Iran in the Arabs’ interest?
Saudi Arabia and Iran are often considered to be rivals for regional influence. This, however, is a relatively new development. In the past, when the Shah ruled Iran, the two countries were partners, working jointly to ensure the security and stability of the Gulf region. More recently, under the Iranian presidencies of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Riyadh and Tehran were on reasonably good terms. It was only with the advent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 that relations have soured.
I would argue that Riyadh and Tehran should be partners, not rivals. Good relations between them are essential to protect the region from the many dangers threatening it and from the intrigues and ambitions of external powers. The US-Iranian quarrel has nothing to do with the Arabs. They should resist being dragged into it.
Iran well remembers America’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mossadiq in 1953, as well as its support for Saddam Hussain in his eight-year war of aggression against Iran, 1980-1988. The US Navy shot down an Iranian civil airliner in the final stages of that war. For its part, the US has not forgotten the holding hostage of its Tehran embassy staff in 1979, and the attack on a US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 by Iran-backed guerrillas.
It would be wise for the Arab states to look to their own interests in this matter, rather than follow the bellicose lead of the western powers and Israel. The Arabs must surely be aware that a military clash between Iran and the US or Israel could be disastrous for the Arab Gulf region. Sensitive installations such as oil terminals and desalination plants could come under fire. The achievements of recent decades could be wiped out.
Looked at positively, Iran and the Gulf States — notably Dubai — have been natural trading partners for many years. The Arab and Iranian shores of the Gulf are linked by a great many financial, commercial and family ties. Iran and Oman have long been strategic partners in ensuring the security of the Straits of Hormuz, a vital choke point for much of the world’s oil trade. Rather than allowing the enemies of the Arabs to exploit tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, bridges should be built across the sectarian divide.
It is worth remembering that Iran has no history of aggression. It has never attacked another country in modern times. The international commission headed by Sharif Bassiouni, which investigated the quelling of the protests in Bahrain, failed to discover any Iranian role in the unrest. No evidence has been found of an Iranian hand in the Zaidi revivalist movement led by the Al Houthi family in North Yemen. The Shiites in Bahrain and the Houthis in Yemen deny any link with Iran and proclaim their loyalty to their own states.
Saudi-Iranian relations have been severely strained by the American claim to have uncovered an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. But few experts believe the American accusation. No convincing evidence in its support has yet been produced. The plot reeks of a ‘sting’ operation by America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), or of a ‘false flag’ operation by a third party, designed to set Riyadh against Tehran.
Rather than demonising Iran and severing links with it, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners would be well advised to draw Iran into the security architecture of the region. Iran and its Gulf neighbours share a common interest in the security of the region and a common responsibility for ensuring it.
Rather than being unduly influenced by anti-Iranian propaganda, the Arabs should take note of the sensible views expressed in a joint communique on November 24 by the Brics — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. These five powerful countries ‘stressed the necessity to build a system of relations in the Gulf region that would guarantee equal and reliable security for all States.’ They ‘emphasised that imposing additional and unilateral sanctions on Iran is counterproductive and would only exacerbate the situation.’ They advocated ‘settling the situation concerning Iran’s nuclear programme only through political and diplomatic means and establishing dialogue between all the parties concerned.’
A Saudi-Iranian strategic dialogue is an urgent necessity to dispel mutual fears and misunderstandings and to agree on common security policies. This would be the best way to protect the Gulf region from what could, at any moment, escalate into a catastrophic clash of arms.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.