Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 January 2008
Issue No. 880
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mustafa El-Feki

Courting Tehran

Mutual interests, not historic rivalries, are what should guide the unfolding of Arab relations with Iran, writes Mustafa El-Feki*

Speaking at the opening of the cultural session of Al-Jasra Club in Doha, I said that Arab-Iranian relations should be considered an asset, not a liability. This was in 1989, just after the eight-year Iraq-Iran war ended. I wasn't saying that because the Islamic revolution of Iran was utterly blameless, for I know that Iran has political goals, strategic schemes, and expansionist ambitions. Iran wants to have an effective role in West Asia and across the Arab and Islamic worlds. When addressing the future of Arab-Iranian relations, we must not moralise, nor should we stray far into historical considerations, such as Persian-Ottoman rivalries. Cultural sentiments and religious affiliations are not the only determinants of the future. So forget for now about conventional Arab-Persian rivalries. Let's see what mutual interests can do.

We have to take a deep and long look at the balance of strategic power in the Gulf. Iran, let's admit, aspires to be the main player in its immediate vicinity, if not across West Asia. We have to take account of the brilliant successes of Iranian diplomacy over the past few years. And we must not forget the way the US is approaching every single power in this region. All of the above will determine the future course of Arab- Iranian relations. Now let me go over the facts in more detail.

First, we have been keeping track of a shift that occurred of late in the heated debate between Washington and Tehran. Since the US intelligence issued a report discounting Iran's quest for nuclear arms, the US administration has found itself in a fix. The report has had an immediate impact on world public opinion, dampening enthusiasm for any action against Iran. Allow me to reiterate here what I said repeatedly in the past; namely, that relations between Tehran and Washington are not necessarily adversarial in the long run. These relations, at least in my opinion, are heading towards détente. A recent statement by the US secretary of state supports this assertion. Condoleezza Rice said that the US has no "permanent" enemies. She expressed willingness to meet her Iranian counterpart at a suitable time and venue -- whenever the Iranians are ready.

Second, those who follow closely West Asia and the Middle East are aware that Iran achieved great strategic advantages in the past few years, many of which thanks to the United States. With Saddam and the Taliban out of the way, Iran is becoming the main spokesman in the current dialogue with the West concerning the future of the Middle East. Iran has a finger in every pie in the region -- Lebanon, Syria and Palestine included.

Third, the role of a regional policeman, once played by the deposed shah, is about to fall into the hands of the mullahs. We all know that there are many cards in Iranian hands that the US would do anything to have. Iran can be instrumental in extinguishing the inferno in Iraq. Tehran can help the US find a face-saving exit from there, in return for a favour or two. Iran would want some leeway for its military and economic ambitions, and a bigger share of the regional cake. The Iranian nuclear crisis is not going to stand in the way of agreement between Washington and Tehran on such matters. Iran may agree to have uranium enriched outside its borders, perhaps in Russia. But it will ask for something in return.

Fourth, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently attended the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, where he received a warm welcome and was even invited by Saudi King Abdallah to perform hajj. This is a clear indication that relations between Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and Iran are on the mend. Add to this the fact that the Iranian president voiced willingness to visit Egypt to discuss restoration of diplomatic ties, and also the fact that Egypt's assistant foreign minister just came back from Tehran, and you'll see that Arab-Iranian rapprochement is a definite possibility. I have called for improved ties with Tehran for years. That's not to say that Iran doesn't have its own regional and Islamic agenda -- indeed it may have an international agenda that one can only guess at.

Fifth, Iran has grown out of its revolutionary phase and settled into a pragmatic state of mind. Iran is adept at political manoeuvres and is not averse to adjusting its position. Suffice it to say that it has the best family planning programme in the Islamic world. Its film industry is the second best in Asia, second to India. Iranian women are making steady gains in public life. And minorities are doing reasonably well.

Sixth, we must keep in mind that Rafsanjani remains an influential figure in the country. His role in formulating Iran's political and economic decisions is undeniable, as his frequent criticism of President Ahmadinejad may suggest. I had the privilege of meeting former Iranian president Mohamed Khatami and was delighted to listen to his moderate and level-headed opinions. I am sure that many in Iran share his views. Rafsanjani, together with a large group of Iranian leaders, call for reconciliation and better relations with the United States. When Khatami visited the US, his well-reasoned remarks were greeted with respect.

Seventh, the Iranians are not naïve; nor are we. There is a history of friction between the Arabs and Persians. The Iranians hate it when we refer to the Arab Gulf and we don't want them to keep calling it the Persian Gulf. Still, we know how to get along, even when not seeing eye to eye on everything. We appreciate the principled stand Iran takes on the Palestinian problem, although we often question Iran's actions in Lebanon and Palestine, including its ties with Hamas.

Eighth, the escalation between Tehran and Washington over the nuclear issue is not irreversible. I believe that the Iranians are willing to call it a day in exchange for certain regional gains. The current domestic situation in Iran is fraught with rivalries and political one-upmanship, so the Iranian government may not want to keep up the confrontation with the US for long.

Ninth, Iran's position on Israel is governed by concern over the Zionist threat. But Iran is not as dogmatic as some may have us believe. Its Jewish community is known to be treated fairly by the government. It was Israel's fear of Iran's influence that triggered the current crisis. Iran is not going to obstruct a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East if the Arabs and the Palestinians go for it.

Tenth, the US would want to use Iran to confront anti-Western Islamic groups. The Iranian regime is not friendly with Al-Qaeda and had no part in any of its crimes committed across the world. Therefore, Iran has credibility in the West and can do much to defuse international tensions.

In conclusion, the future of rapprochement in Arab- Iranian ties seems promising for the moment. The Arab League has been active in improving ties between Arab countries and neighbouring states. And a major symposium on future Arab-Iranian relations, to be soon organised in Kuwait by the "Interim Arab Parliament", is likely to stress historic bonds, religious affinity, and common interests.

* The writer is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the People's Assembly.

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