Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony has come to represent an increasingly complicated and intractable dilemma for the Middle East. Iran has neither succeeded in its aims, nor abandoned this destructive strategy; for four decades it has threatened the security and stability of the region, and the Gulf in particular, creating an impasse that now extends beyond the Middle East to affect global interests.
Major political, economic and social trends in Iran indicate that more severe consequences will follow if the international community does not find a way to solve this problem and bring Iran back into its orbit. This perspective is based on the growing aspirations of political forces inside Iran that are set to add new levels of complexity to the situation. The coming few years will be crucial; if the international community does not succeed in resolving the dilemma, the Iranian crisis will become ever more bleak.
Ineffectual half-measures neglect strategic determinants
Several attempts have been made to solve the impasse, from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in which world powers acquiesced to separate the nuclear issue from that of Iran’s regional interference – to the “maximum pressure” campaign implemented by the Trump administration to tame the Iranian regime. However, all these efforts have failed to tame or rehabilitate the Iranian regime. What is worse, Tehran has exploited the West’s focus on its nuclear program to extend its regional influence and develop its missile program. Although the “maximum pressure” campaign has achieved some positive results, it has failed to subdue Tehran and bring it back to the negotiating table.
The failure of the nuclear deal reflects its neglect of the strategic determinants that govern Iran’s perception of itself and the world around it, as a country with imperialistic and doctrinal motivations. It was also overoptimistic in its estimation of Tehran’s desire to reach cooperative regional solutions. Meanwhile, by reducing Iran’s policy motivations to simple economics, the “maximum pressure” campaign employed by the Trump administration for the past three years also failed to accomplish its key aims. The Iranian regime has not been moved from its position on a range of contentious issues – despite the economic pressures the country has suffered.
Regional approaches to solve the Iranian impasse have also not taken into account the duplicity of the ruling regime in Tehran, nor the nature of relations between the government and the deep state, rendering them hollow and superficial.
Gulf states’ concerns regarding potential solutions
There is no doubt that, outside Iran, the Arab Gulf countries suffer most from the ongoing stalemate. Iran’s closest neighbors are seen as theaters for its expansionist projects where it can create leverage with which to pressure the international community – and especially Washington. Hence Arab Gulf states watch the attempts to settle the Iranian issue with great concern. They fear that they may be doomed to repeat the experience of the nuclear deal, as international parties continue to ignore their interests whilst – in effect – permitting Tehran to marginalize them.
The concerns among the Arab Gulf countries are evident in their calls for representation in negotiations with Iran, whilst Iran’s refusal to countenance GCC participation in any talks with the international community shows an ongoing desire by Tehran to marginalize them.
The Arabs also fear that Washington’s abandonment of dialogue in favor of outsourcing solutions to regional partners, may undermine essential engagement with Iran by restricting any cooperation to bilateral bases, or – at best – purely regional negotiations without international supervision or auspices.
This necessarily means that these pursuits will not lead to the desired outcomes. Historical experience also shows that Iran is happy to support this approach, given its upper hand in any purely regional or bilateral talks, not to mention its tendency to ignore its commitments made as a result of such negotiations, which lack any binding international oversight.
A regional–international solution
With these concerns in mind, the international community and the GCC countries must devise innovative initiatives to resolve the impasse before it reaches the point of no return. If it is still impossible to reach a comprehensive resolution of all outstanding issues – in light of the lack of mutual trust between Tehran and Washington; Tehran’s categorical rejection of regional discussions; and Iran’s refusal to involve the Arab countries in any negotiations with the international community – these same attitudes may open the door instead to regional negotiations on matters that concern the international community and the Arab region alike; namely Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional expansionist agenda. This initiative, however, should take into consideration the strategic determinants that have prevented stakeholders from reaching a practical resolution of the issue thus far.
Such a regional initiative should enable major world powers and bodies – including the United States, the UN Security Council, and others – to oversee negotiations. Their involvement could ensure the implementation of outcomes and encourage adherence to the resulting agreements by adopting supportive UN resolutions that include the use of flexible legal instruments similar to “snapback sanctions” (the conflict resolution mechanism within the nuclear deal) to address areas of weakness in any regional initiative sought by Tehran.
If the international community is sincere about overcoming all the obstacles preventing the resolution of this issue, it must concede a pivotal role to the GCC countries, as those most affected by Iran’s missile program and expansionist agenda. The international community should support the launch of a regional dialogue on outstanding issues that is convened under the umbrella of the United Nations and benefits from strong international oversight and support.
The realities on the ground indicate that all stakeholders are willing to join negotiations, regardless of their sponsors; therefore they should avoid the strategic mistakes of the past that have prevented effective solutions to the impasse. They should avoid overly simplistic interpretations of Iran’s political system, its decision-making process with regard to issues of sovereignty, and the overlap between political and economic decision-making in Iran. This approach should go beyond the narrow, ideological view of the deep state, and improve links with centers of power that have genuine leverage regarding controversial issues.
An awareness of strategic determinants and the nature of the state system in Iran should be sufficient to move beyond half measures and sterile solutions to forge a genuine resolution. The combined efforts of the GCC – with which Iran wishes to enter into dialogue only on controversial regional issues – and the international community will be enough to prevent Iran from participating in dialogue only to buy time, and create an opportunity for a legally binding negotiation process between the two sides within a specific timeframe. This process should ensure the implementation of outcomes through resolutions and mechanisms adopted by the UN Security Council.
The outcome: Steps towards a normal state
Without resolving the impasse with Iran, the coming years are likely to see more costly instability and violence as consequence of the Islamic Republic’s expansionist projects. Moreover, failing to capitalize on the favorable opportunities on offer to resolve the impasse could push the crisis past the point of no return. It is therefore urgent that those most affected by this crisis – the Arab Gulf states – help to devise a solution to the stalemate.
To this end, a strategic perspective is required; the Iranian regime must be engaged with great care, finesse and realism. GCC decision-makers must be strong-willed and should coordinate efforts with global partners. The ultimate outcome of these efforts should come in the form of an agreement that represents a step toward Iran becoming a normal member of the international community once more; this represents the best scenario for the Gulf region, the international community and Iran itself.
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi, President of Emirates Policy Center.
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