Seyed Hossein Mousavian. (Princeton University)
DUBAI — Iran’s foreign policy may have taken a turn for the pragmatic, but that didn’t curb a sharp debate at the Manama Dialogue Regional Security Summit, held Dec. 6-8 in the Bahraini capital.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, called out the “failures of the GCC, US-Arab allies and the international powers” in their efforts to dominate the gulf.
Mousavian, now an associate research scholar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said there is a need to reorder the region to emphasize the principal security concerns of each state.
“The Middle East has been, and continues to be, in turmoil, with global powers competing to dominate the region, while the regional rivalries continue to reshape the geopolitical landscape,” he said. “This situation is further exacerbated by the lack of a meaningful regional cooperation system to address security issues.”
The major source of regional tension is the marred relationships between the US and Iran, he said.
“Iran has been accused of attempting to export its revolution to the region; based on this assumption to contain Iran, the US and its allies have fought wars with Iran for over three decades where the cost in blood and treasure are horrendous, with the end result placing the US and its allies in a worse-off position than when they started,” he said.
Mousavian listed these failures, including that of the US to “bring about regime change in Iran. Saudi Arabia has failed to roll back the Shia revival in the region. ...The GCC has failed to be a meaningful and inclusive regional cooperation system....
“Arab–Israeli peace remains as elusive as ever. Iran has failed to liberate Palestine. Egypt has failed to maintain democracy ... The US has failed to establish Pax Americana in the Middle East. The West has failed to protect some of its despotic allies in the region.”
Mousavian’s statements sparked an immediate reaction at the Dialogue from Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director of the Saudi Intelligence Services.
“I would add another failure to the Iranian efforts,” he said. “And that is the failure to export the revolution.”
Turki said he was glad to see spokesmen from Iran had dropped their Cold War rhetoric.
“We no longer hear about the big Satan, we don’t even hear about the little Satan,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, whether it is the American fleet, the Russian fleet, or the British fleet, or the French fleet, or the Indian fleet ... they’re going to come into the gulf for their own interest and be there. So accepting that reality and working with all of these countries to make sure that there is genuine security and safety for all of us in the gulf area is a welcome development” from Iran, he said.
Mousavian said reordering the gulf region is not possible unless the US, other world powers and the region respect Iran’s legitimate role and interest in the gulf, the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
“Among all the conflicts in the region, one pitting the United States against Iran is the most fundamental, and its resolution could unlock doors for security and stability stretching from North Africa to Central Asia,” he said. “The state of fatigue that both the US and the region feel following decades of pursuing maximalist goals is a primary reason to proceed with a new approach toward Iran.”
Iran’s goal in the nuclear negotiation is not just to ease sanctions, Mousavian said, but détente with the region and the West.
“Iran and Saudi Arabia both need to recognize their natural influence, role and interest in the region, and with it extend the level of respect each deserves,” he said.
Mousavian called on the US to support friendly Saudi-Iran relations and to help establish a regional cooperation system.
“Such paradigm change would have a positive outcome not only for Iran and the US, but for the entire region ... That’s why the nuclear deal carries with it the possibility of transforming the entire Middle East in a positive and constructive way, thanks to a GCC member, Oman, who cleverly and responsibly facilitated the recent talks between Iran and the US.”
Despite Mousavian’s calls for a US-sponsored cooperation, Turki asked Iran to prove its words.
“In the past what we saw of Iranian actions, there is an Arabic expression to describe them, which is, ‘I hear what you say, which I like, I see your actions and I don’t like them,’ ” he said. “I think going forward with whatever Mr. Mousavian has proposed in cooperation and so on, we’re still hearing words, we’d like to see those words translated into action.”
Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iran has an opportunity to reassure the gulf states about its intentions.
“The gulf’s list of grievances on Iran is long and a lot of it is justified,” he said. “A lot of people tend to dismiss the gulf concerns about Iran ... they think that gulf states see Iranian hands behind everything.”
The reality, he said, is that a year ago, Iranian cyberattacks were launched against Saudi Aramco and Ras gas in Qatar.
“Iran is engaged across the region, it is very opportunistic, in some places it is ideological while in others it is strategic, like the Houthis in Yemen,” Hokayem said. “A few years ago I doubt there was much Iranian support, but now it is undeniable and it’s there.”
Still, he said, the gulf states should recognize the benefits of a normalized Iran.
“The gulf states have the opportunity to reshape Iran’s re-entry into the global community if they position themselves as the facilitator and ... as purveyors of capital and technology and contacts, because Iran has been isolated for more than 30 years by choice.”
But the fundamental issue remains security, Hokayem said.
“Iran’s grand strategy is to regionalize gulf security, meaning to force out all external powers that provide security in the region — not only the Americans but also the French and Brits — while the gulf states have another vision, ... to internationalize that security.”
But the GCC countries have different assessments of the Iranian threat so their approach is divided, he said. “They prefer to hedge ... over taking a decisive stand.”