Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The 12th Al Jazeera Forum -- Session 2: Iran and the Gulf

Iran and the Gulf: Between Cooperation, Competition, and Confrontation

On April 28-29, 2018, Al Jazeera held its 12th Forum providing an opportunity for leading scholars and other experts to discuss a variety of topics affecting the Arab world.  The website for the forum, @aljazeeraform, provides additional information and links to the videos of each session.  You can follow the Twitter coverage at #AJForum.

As I noted in my first post in this series, I am working from my notes, so I apologize in advance if I incorrectly paraphrase the remarks of any speaker. I was also reliant on the quality of the translation services and their audibility. Therefore, I am happy to make any needed edits to this summary.

For summaries of the other sessions see:
Session 2: Iran and the Gulf Between Cooperation, Competition, and Confrontation.

Session focus
While Iran has surfaced as one of the main elements of the current Gulf Crisis, its relations with Arab Gulf countries were turbulent and dominated by mutual tension and suspicion rather than cooperation and common action for many decades.  Crisis in various parts of the Middle East have exposed the features of the tension, which has escalated at times to military conflict.  Due to the amount and scope of regional crises, the possibility of resolution is unforeseeable.  Troubled relations between Iran and its Arab neighbors will remain an essential factor of instability and a source of threat to the region's security, development, and prosperity.  Will it be possible for the hostile relations and power struggle to become friendly relations based on cooperation, coordination, and work toward common regional destiny? 
Background and context:

  • Trump administration policy on Iran:  here.

  • Kayhan Barzegar, Director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (CMESS) in Tehran.
  • Abdullah Basil Hussein, Deputy Director of the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Amman.
  • Abdul Karim Aslami, Yemeni parliamentarian
  • Fatima Alsmadi, Senior Researcher at Al Jazeera Center for Studies and the Head of Iranian Studies.
  • Boris Zala, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. 
Key Points:

Kayhan Barzegar:  Iran does not have a political point of view, but instead, a geopolitical point of view. Region is bringing problems to Iran, which is responding to protect its national security.  
  • Presence of US military bases in the region are perceived threatening.
  • Also feel threatened by Israel.

No debate exists inside Iran about whether it should be involved regionally.  Debate may exist over how to be involved.  

Nuclear deal created expectation that US and other parties would quit meddling in Iran.
  • Expected it to lesson Western anxiety.
  • But, it has left Western powers with desire to change the deal.
Coercive diplomacy via sanctions won't work to change Iran's role in regional issues.

When Iran is strong in the region, Saudi Arabia is weaker. When regional states are stronger in the region, Iran is weaker.  Each country needs more internal stability and power.  Then, it will contribute to regional stability.  

Abdullah Basil Hussein:  The burden of history defines the relationship between Iran and Arabs.  They view each other as competitors, not cooperators.
  • Iraqi-Iran war is an example.
  • Persian dominance of the region is another.
Moreover, they are isolated from each other.
  • Arabs know little about the intellectual culture of Iran.
Why is little cooperation possible?  When moderates arise in Iran, you see agreements.

Iraq has no unity of decision-making and has distanced itself from the Qatari crisis.

If US pulls out of nuclear deal, following options are possible:
  • War
  • Status quo
  • Regional organization of Turkey, Iran, and GCC, but Iran must abandon its revolutionary expansion and relate to other countries as a "state."

Abdul Karim Aslami:  Saudi Arabia and UAE seek hegemony in the region, especially in Yemen.  Iran's national and religious interests are manifesting in Yemen.  Yemen has no interest in the conflict, but it serves as the battleground for the conflict between larger states in the region.

Persian kings sought Yemeni help in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) until Islam rose.  

Iran sought an opportunity to enter Yemen.  It was strategic, when Arabs' response was not. 

Saudi Arabia wants Yemen to be subservient to it.  

Yemen was not included as a member in the GCC, although it later participated in some committees. 

UAE wants military ports on the coast of Yemen.  Saudi Arabia wants passage for oil exports.  

In 2004, the Yemeni government accused Iran of supporting the Houthis.  Houthis executed a coup in 2011. Iran then provided them military, financial, and media support.  Saudi Arabia invaded in 2015.

Fatima Alsmadi: The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is geopolitical, not religious.  It existed before the Iranian revolution.  It was a confrontation over oil.

The biggest problem is one of distrust.  Requires proactive diplomacy that explores and supports common interests. Any possible solution rests on finding and satisfying those interests.

If Trump "destroys" the nuclear agreement:
  • The region will experience greater insecurity.
  • Iran will take action.
    • Could resume uranium enrichment.
    • Could walk away from the agreement with the other parties (minority view).
What does Iran want from the Gulf?  It knows what it wants and doesn't want.

Does the GCC know what it wants from Iran?  No.

From the US policy perspective: Iran can be more powerful than the Arabs, but it cannot be more powerful than Israel.  

Since 2009, Iran has seen convergence between the state and the supreme revolutionary power.

Boris Zala:  Speaking from a European perspective, the region is focused on geopolitical games. 
  • How do you get the players out of this dynamic?  Out of this vicious cycle?
The region always involves the US and its threat of war.

The EU is not a military power.  It was created to overcome the geopolitical games of European states.  In the past, France and Germany were the regional super powers, with other countries hosting proxy wars.  Religious competition between Protestants and Catholics also played a role.  Competition between conservatives and progressives played a role. 

The EU is skeptical the Arab region can find a solution to ongoing tensions.
  • Would need to subjugate individual rivalries to create peaceful cooperation.
  • States typically impose that peaceful cooperation by agreement or regulation, but a functioning state does not exist in Yemen, Libya, Syria, or Iraq. 

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