Ever since the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power, Iran has been trying to position itself as champion of Muslim causes and the defender of the region's interests.
Arab nations need a common strategy to resist Iran's ambitions
Ever since the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power, Iran has been trying to position itself as champion of Muslim causes and the defender of the region's interests against "imperialist" conspiracies. Its populist rhetoric has exploited every Arab and Muslim cause in constant attempts to win the support of disgruntled Arabs and Muslims. Iran's actions, however, have belied its words. Its policies have shown that it is behaving like a regional bully seeking to subjugate its Arab neighbours.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the Iranian handling of its dispute with the United Arab Emirates over the three islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb, which it first occupied in 1971. The UAE has been more than forthcoming in attempting to resolve the conflict through peaceful means. It has offered direct negotiations as well as arbitration at the International Court of Justice. But Iran's reaction has been condescending at best. Not only is it refusing to heed UAE demands for negotiations, it is also taking unilateral action to change facts on the ground.
Iran is obviously not concerned with the implications of its policies on its relations with the Arabs. The whole Arab world supports the UAE's right to its occupied islands. The Gulf Cooperation Council has repeatedly endorsed the UAE demand for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. So have the Arab League and the Arab Parliamentary Union. Yet Iran proceeds with provocative policies that can only increase regional tension.
Iran knows that such tension would not have direct consequences on its relations with the Emirates and other Arab countries. This could explain its complete disregard for the UAE's rights. But this Iranian attitude is also a cause for alarm across the Arab world, because it is reflective of arrogant policies that do not value the long-term stability of the region or the need for forging ties based on mutual respect and cooperation with the Arabs.
What Iran seems to be missing is that the conflict over the islands has been contained simply because the Emirates has made that its policy. The UAE has ensured that relations with Iran develop independently from the dispute over the islands. It has spared no efforts to build sustainable structures for cooperation in the economic and political fields. Also, until recently, the UAE made comparatively little effort to raise Arab awareness of the Iranian occupation of part of its territory. Indeed, there are probably few Arabs outside the UAE who are even aware that the country that claims it wants to "burn" Israel for occupying Muslim lands is itself an occupier of Arab territories.
What is striking in the latest Iranian decisions to violate the 1971 agreement with the UAE over the status of the occupied islands is its timing. Iran is in the middle of a dangerous crisis with the world. Logic suggests it should try to win the support of its neighbours as its relations with the rest of the world worsen. On the contrary, however, Iran continues to send alarming signals that justify fears over its plans for the region.
The only explanation for Iran's behaviour is that it really believes that Arabs do not matter or are incapable of forging any effective response to its aggression. Sadly, Iran is right. For decades, the Islamic Republic has been pursuing policies detrimental to Arab interests. Hiding behind false slogans that manipulate Arab public sentiments against Israel and America, it violated the sovereignty of Lebanon and penetrated deep into Iraq. In both countries, it fuelled sectarian policies and undermined security by deepening social divisions.
It is extremely telling that the leader of the Lebanese majority forces, Saad Hariri, rushed to condemn Iran's latest provocation in the occupied UAE islands and demand a collective Arab stand against it. For more than any other Arab country, Lebanon has felt the pain of Iranian hegemonic policies that enabled Hizbollah to become an Iranian satellite state within the Lebanese state. Hariri was right in urging a coordinated Arab stand to stem the dangerous growth of Iranian influence in Arab countries. Iran would not have been able to threaten Arab interests and stability had it not been for the failure of Arabs to articulate a common policy towards it. Most Arabs have buried their heads in the sand as Iran expanded into their territories, relying on rhetoric that fuelled populist sentiments as well as funds that bought loyalties.
There is no reason to hope that Iran will give up its ambitions to dominate the region. Everything Iran has done in the last decades shows that it views the Arabs as subordinates who should rotate in its sphere of influence. But Arabs can, and must, deal with the Iranian threat in a more effective way. No one expects the Arabs to boycott Iran because of its continued meddling in their affairs. But the minimum that their interests require is a common strategy to face Iranian threats. The Islamic republic has violated Arab sovereignty because no one has been there to stop it, especially after the destruction of Iraq as a deterrent power. A unified Arab stand would force Iran to at least consider the consequences of its actions. Too much to ask? Unfortunately, yes.
Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs