x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Iran ignores soft diplomacy options to its own detriment

The UAE's stance on the disputed islands mirrors the US' stance on Iran's suspected nuclear programme. Yet the two are linked. If Iran were less provocative on the former, its neighbours might trust it more on the latter.

The political dictum, attributed to Henry Kissinger - that there could be no war in the Middle East without Egypt, but no peace without Syria - has shaped the political tilt of the United States for more than a generation. A similar dictum, for an expanded and interconnected region, would have to include Iran. Whether the issue is Afghanistan or Pakistan in the east, or Iraq, Syria or Lebanon, there can be no sustainable peace in the region without Iran.

Iran is a behemoth: more populous than any of its neighbours except Pakistan, and every Arab country except Egypt, it exerts control over a vast swathe of territory, including one side of the most strategic waterway in the world, the Strait of Hormuz.

And yet Iran does not act like a regional power, often creating unnecessary provocations. At the start of the year, Iran's leaders threatened to close the Strait, prompting the United States, Britain and France to send six warships through the waterway in a show of strength.

The same applies to the three islands near the Strait, which Iran occupied just before the unification of the UAE in 1971. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week made a provocative visit to one of the islands, Abu Musa, prompting the UAE to declare that its assertion of sovereignty would be diplomatic rather than military.

The UAE's policy of "long patience" regarding the islands mirrors, in practice, the current stance of the United States on Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme. If Iran were less provocative, its neighbours might trust it more.

Given its history, geography and population, Iran considers itself a regional power. As such, the country's leaders object to the status quo of today's Middle East, which is still run largely on dynamics fuelled by the United States. And while that is predictable for a country of Iran's stature, the way its leaders have acted towards its neighbours and the superpower has often been unnecessarily confrontational and unproductive.

The Ayatollahs that run Iran are patient - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has lasted in power through four American presidents - but their final policy aims are often inscrutable. Iran has legitimate rights to civilian nuclear power and to its security - the country fears the United States or Israel will attack. At the same time, its pursuit of nuclear power appears to have segued into a perceived right, at least, to build a nuclear bomb.

The nuclear issue has been moulded into one of national pride. But the international community cannot accept Tehran's apparent desire to create a weapon - while it denies that it wants one.

This craving for hard power comes from the perception of a genuine threat and an attempt to punch above its weight in a complex region. Doubtless, Iran hopes that if it acquired a nuclear weapon, it would be treated with more respect. But there are other countries in this equation besides the United States, and the Iranians would do well to focus more diplomacy on them.

If Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon - or even merely the capability to do so - it is highly probable that some of its near neighbours would also seek one, deeming it unacceptable for Israel and Iran to possess such weapons, but not an Arab state.

Yet such an outcome is not inevitable. Iran's neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, Egypt and Turkey, are looking for signs that Iran can be a responsible regional power.

As has arguably occurred with China, a peaceful rise could benefit the region. If these countries feel that Iran is fomenting instability in the region and taking a belligerent stance, they will fear much more of the same if Iran were to develop a nuclear bomb. If Iran were to make overtures towards its neighbours, it would ease some of those worries and perhaps placate the undecided.

The political lesson that appears to have escaped Iran's leaders is that political legitimacy can be derived as much from soft policy as hard power. Iran could take a constructive, dialogue-led stance towards its neighbours, particularly the Gulf states and Iraq, without relinquishing its desire to see a less pro-American Middle East.

Iran's nuclear ambitions are not going away. With a nuclear-armed Pakistan on its borders, a belligerent Israel and American bases surrounding it, Iran is always going to feel insecure. An attack by Israel or America may set back a nuclear programme but would leave ambitions intact, even reinforced.

But Iran also has other neighbours with whom it must cooperate. A desire to play a serious role in the region does not mean dominating its smaller neighbours. Indeed, both sides could gain in influence through cooperation.

If Iran spent more time building political bridges across the Strait, it might find it never had to threaten to close it.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai