If the year 2017 started with relations between Iran and Arab countries in stormy mode, it ended with even darker clouds on the horizons.
The background to this deteriorating relationship is an old mutual suspicion generated in 1979 when the mullahs seized power in Tehran.
Since then the mullahs have claimed that Arab nations, regardless of their political divisions, are united in a desire to overthrow the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.
They point to the 8-year war triggered in 1980 by the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with the stated aim of regime change in Tehran. The fact that with the exception of Syria under Hafez al-Assad, all Arab governments and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) sided with Iraq, is often cited as “proof” of Arab hostility towards the new Iranian regime.
For their part, Arab states claim that deteriorating relations was caused by the Khomeinist regime’s behavior especially its publicly stated determination to “export” its ideology to all Muslims countries. As early as 1979, the new rulers of Tehran set up a special bureau in the Foreign Ministry “export revolution”, an aim stated in the Islamic Republic’s Constitution. They also created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with the mission to crush the opponents of the regime at home and spread the Khomeinist ideology abroad, especially in the Middle East.
Since 1980, the Islamic Republic has severed diplomatic ties with eight Arab states at different times and for different reasons. It has also been found guilty of promoting terrorist attacks in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. It has created militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen with the aim of using them as states within the state devoted to furthering Tehran’s objectives.
Tehran has also tried to exploit division which has always been a feature of inter-Arab relations.
Oman and Qatar have been targeted for “Finlandization”, meaning the rejection of policies that might incur displeasure in Tehran. Kuwait has been wooed in the same direction with the claim that Iraq still harbors irredentist ambitions against it which only Iran is able to counter.
Where those options are not available, Tehran has chosen other methods.
In Iraq it has created paramilitary groups and poured vast sums buying loyalty from some Shi’ite political groups. In Syria, Iran had invested blood and treasure in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power and is now demanding that he legalize the Iranian-backed militias, including Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries, for permanent presence there. In Yemen, without Tehran’s backing, the Houthi faction might not have been able to maintain its hold on Sana’a and chunks of the coast on the Red Sea. In Lebanon, Tehran’s control exercised through “Hezbollah” and elements within other sects appears solid for the time being.
Over the years both sides (Iran and Arabs) have provided enough evidence to bestow some credibility on their respective claims. The end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and Khomeini’s death the following year helped reduce tension with Arabs.
Nevertheless, it soon became clear that there could be no lasting improvement in relations between the Islamic Republic in Tehran and the Arab nations. The reason is that the Khomeinist regime regards itself as the sole legitimate Islamic government in the world and is thus fundamentally different from all states in its region. In such a situation, either Iran must make the rest of the Middle East like itself or should itself become like the rest of the Middle East.
Every region in the world consists of states that regardless of variations in ideology, history and structure, together form a coherent patchwork. The presence of a state that upsets that coherence is an inevitable source of tension and instability.
For example, you cannot have a state in the middle of Europe that rejects the legitimacy of all its neighbors and tries to overthrow their governments through propaganda, violence and even terrorism.
A state that doesn’t fit into its regional patchwork is a kind of black sheep, often regarded as both a curiosity and a threat.
A recent example is that of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic. It didn’t fit the emerging patchwork in the Balkans, forcing the European powers, backed by the United States, to adopt a policy of regime change towards it. Other earlier examples closer to our region were the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein and the Taliban government in Afghanistan led by Mullah Muhammad Omar.
To be sure, war isn’t the only means of dealing with the ill-omened black sheep.
Regimes that do not fit could be overthrown with military coups as was the case in Chile under Salvatore Allende.
Another method is change within the black sheep regime with one faction in the ruling elite getting rid of the troublesome elements and bringing the black sheep back in the flock. One example was Sudan which jettisoned the radical faction led by Hassan al-Turabi and adopted a profile acceptable to its region and the larger international atmosphere.
A mixture of tough economic and diplomatic sanctions combined with measures known as proximity pressure could also do the trick as recently seen in Zimbabwe.
Yet another method provides a mixture of “popular uprising” and economic and diplomatic bribery to entice the black sheep to change as happened in Myanmar.
Thus, without regime change in Iran, or regime change in all other Middle Eastern countries, from Turkey to Morocco and passing by Israel and Egypt, in favor of Iran, chances of genuine friendly relations between the Islamic Republic and its near and far neighbors appear slim.
However, the only alternative to genuine friendship isn’t conflict or war.
One option is to give the Khomeinist regime a taste of its own medicine. This could be done by enabling the regime’s most violent opponents while fomenting instability across the country. It seems that the Trump administration in Washington is actively studying that option among several others.
Another option is for the region could decide to “wait-out” the Khomeinist regime until it implodes under its inner contradictions, something that happened to the Soviet Union.
Some analysts like the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lamont, an active lobbyist for Tehran, believe that the ”waiting-out” approach could be combined with measures to draw the Khomeinist regime into international economic and trade networks.
A related view, espoused by some analysts in Washington, is to forge links with the Iranian military which, like their counterparts everywhere, would like access to the latest weaponry and may be prepared to jettison ideology in exchange for inclusion in the international system.
Tehran has enjoyed two big advantages.
The first is that Arabs have not managed to work out a common strategy towards it, each trying to open a separate account with the Islamic Republic.
The second advantage is that Tehran has successfully “managed” both the European Union and, until the end of the Obama presidency, even the United States. Obama truly went out of his way to help strengthen the Khomeinist regime.
As for the European Union, it seems that its foreign policy spokesperson Federica Mogherini spends more time promoting Iran’s interests than looking after the interests of the union. Last month, during a visit to Myanmar, the Italian politician spent more time talking about the nuclear deal with Iran than seeking solace for the Rohingya Muslims.
Currently, Tehran’s chances of scoring further points against its neighbors appear slim. And, yet, it is unlikely that the mullahs will abandon their ambitions anytime soon.
Lacking a coherent strategy, chances of the Arabs curbing Iran’s aggressive drive is equally slim.
Neither side is in a position to seek a change in the status quo through heightened conflict, perhaps even including military action, or to start working for a new modus vivendi based on compromises through political and diplomatic channels. In other words, it is a stalemate, at least for the immediate future.