Thursday, November 27, 2014

Has Iran Changed?

RIYADH – As 2014 begins, there is no more important question in world diplomacy than this: Has Iran changed? Since his election in June, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled a more moderate stance in his country’s international relations. But caution is in order – now and in the years ahead. The world’s second-largest oil producer, and self-proclaimed leader of Shia Islam and anti-Western Muslim revolutionaries everywhere, remains a danger not just to Saudi Arabia but also to peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond.

Saudi Arabia has two large concerns about the Islamic Republic: its quest for nuclear weapons and its interference in its neighbors’ affairs.

For starters, Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons pose a huge danger, and, if left unchecked, are likely to trigger a wave of proliferation across the Middle East. Faced with a nuclear-armed Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council members, for example, will be forced to weigh their options carefully – and possibly to acquire a nuclear deterrent of their own.

While all countries have the right to develop a civilian nuclear program – we Saudis have our own – Iran’s attempt to pursue nuclear weapons has brought nothing but hardship to the country. Unfortunately, the international community’s increasingly severe economic sanctions have so far failed to deter its leaders’ ambitions. If Rouhani proves unwilling or unable to engineer a change of course, what else might be done?

A unilateral military strike would carry potentially dire consequences. Alas, given US President Barack Obama’s lamentable handling of the crisis in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may conclude that he has no option but to go it alone. Indeed, Iranian hardliners may welcome an Israeli strike, and even seek to provoke it, as a means of rallying the Iranian population behind them.

There is a better way to prevent the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the region: a “WMD-free zone,” built on a system of incentives that include economic and technical support for countries that join, as well as security guarantees from the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members. The zone should also enforce economic and political sanctions on states that choose to remain outside, and – again, supported by the Security Council’s permanent members – impose military sanctions on those that try to develop WMDs.

Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would only heighten Saudi Arabia’s second major concern: the Iranian government’s policy of destabilizing its neighbors. Iran has been using such tactics since 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power and began exporting his Islamist revolution across the Muslim world. The regime has specifically targeted countries with Shia majorities, such as Iraq and Bahrain, and those with significant Shia minorities, such as Kuwait, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran also occupies three Emirati islands in the Gulf (a policy that it refuses to discuss) and has in effect launched an invasion of Syria.

The irony is that Iran is the first to assert the principle of non-intervention when it suspects other countries of meddling in its internal affairs. It should practice what it preaches. Iran has no right to meddle in other countries, least of all Arab states.

The impact of this policy has been devastating. In the aftermath of the US-led invasion, Iraq, a country of highly capable and diverse people that could one day return to its pivotal role in the Arab community, has become a playground for Iranian influence. Too many Iraqis are now completely beholden to the Islamic Republic. We know, for example, that a certain Iranian general was negotiating on behalf of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the support of Shia and Kurdish groups.

This influence bodes ill for Iraq’s future as an ethnically and religiously diverse country, and it cannot be allowed to continue. Indeed, it is one reason why Saudi Arabia maintains an equal distance from all Iraqi factions, and why we are the only country not to have sent a permanent ambassador. Yet we will work with the Iraqi people in whatever way we can to encourage the emergence of a stable, constructive, and independent member of the Arab world.

Iran’s influence in Bahrain, our closest neighbor, is similarly destructive. Hezbollah in Bahrain, created by Khomeini, has long been a source of Iranian propaganda in broadcasts beamed at the country. Indeed, Iranian officials often declare that Bahrain is a province of Iran. Saudi Arabia has supported peaceful negotiations with street protesters in Bahrain, and has provided the country with considerable economic aid to improve life there, but we will never accept an Iranian takeover.

The picture is even worse in Syria, where, from the outset of the country’s civil war, Iranian support for President Bashar al-Assad has amounted to a criminal act for which Iran’s leaders should be tried at the International Criminal Court. And Syria’s western neighbor, Lebanon, is increasingly coming under Iran’s sway, as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah there pushes the country to the brink of another civil war.

The main question now is whether Rouhani can be trusted. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah welcomed Rouhani’s election and wished him well, in the hope that this might allow him to escape the clutches of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s extremist entourage and the Revolutionary Guard.

But the forces of darkness in Iran are well entrenched. The legacy of Khomeini’s expansionist ambitions is as powerful as ever. Even if Rouhani’s intentions are genuine, his efforts, like those of two previous would-be reformers, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may be thwarted by the hardline ideology that continues to dominate in Tehran. We are prepared for either eventuality. The world should be as well.

Read more from "2013: Reversing Gears" here, or on Kindle and iBooks.

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    1. CommentedHanna Lassowsky

      Congratulations for His Royal Highness for such clear article and also for his thoughtful interview with Charlie Rose.
      A fiend of mine is an Iranian refugee and she worries that American and other Western politicians are misreading signs and putting too much faith in the new Iranian leadership. I wouldn't be feeling comfortable to comment on this topic, but the latest events in Crimea suddenly gave the new perspective to the issue. As you probably know, Vladimir Putin called Hassan Rouhani in the middle of so-called referendum in Crimea, before the Russian Duma ruled to include this part of Ukraine into the Russian Federation. It looked like Russia and Iran agreed on something very important before Putin made his move.
      Putin's former adviser Andrei Illarionov mentioned in one of his posts that Putin and his strategists are favoring "a window of opportunity" concept, and they believe that today's situation in world's politics may allow Russian expansion. Now we are seeing that this expansion is taking place in full force, and its look like the US and the Great Britain have no or minimal intentions to keep their 1994 promises and to guarantee Ukraine's sovereignty and integrity. It is obvious, that Russia is blackmailing the EU, especially Germany with natural gas and oil supply. Historically Russian oil and gas industry benefited from sanctions against Iran. However Russia is supporting Iran in it's involvement in Syria and in Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This helps Putin to maintain a strong grip on the situation and pose as "the peacekeeper" of the Middle East. Whenever Putin needs to put pressure on the West he unleashes his Iranian bulldog, that could bite (like in case with Syria and Hezbollah) or play nice promising to give up nuclear ambitions. I am suspicious that so called "positive" changes in Iranian policy were triggered not only by sanctions or liberalization process, but 1) by frustration over Russian "supervision", or 2) by Russian directives to lure the US and the EU into the diplomatic game, so they could keep their distance while Mr.Putin restores the Soviet Union. The latter fits perfectly into the "window of opportunity" strategy.
      Another argument could be driven from discourse analysis. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis Putin's rhetoric was based on anything but truth. Every concept, every historical connotation, every news report had only one purpose - to create fictional, yet fully functional "virtual reality". It was almost educational to see "free flight" of the Russian ambassador to the UN, who paid no attention to arguments of reason, but repeated mantras of Putin's propaganda.
      The exact same tactic was used by the former Iranian president when he visited the UN. Its hard to say, who learned from whom: Iranians from Russians or Russians from Iranians, but important thing is that both systems are operating on the same type of communication - non-communication model of the public discourse. And if we know for sure that Putin is lying why we should believe his allies?
      Why theatrical promises should keep the international community from ending the humanitarian crisis in Syria? From supporting Ukraine's integrity? And why these games should "open the window of opportunity" to ethnic cleansing and "eliminating" of Crimean Tatars from their native land?

    2. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

      Warmest regards to you, Prince Turki,

      It certainly seems a more moderate Iran under the direction of President Hassan Rouhani.

      If we assume Rouhani's words are true, the Iranian government is on course toward better international relations and a 'dialing-back' of their nuclear weapons program.

      I respectfully submit that if Rouhani is sincere in his efforts to lower tensions, that how his words are received in foreign capitals and how nation-states henceforth act towards Iran, will determine how much success we will witness on these matters.

      The opposite is likely also true; If Rouhani is not sincere, how foreign capitals react will matter little -- making us witnesses to a fanciful diplomatic game where Iranian programs will continue, except the language has suddenly turned diplomatic.

      As much as many around the world would like to believe otherwise, Iran has indicated that it wants a better path forward and is looking for partners.

      Not only has Iran changed -- but President Rouhani has changed the entire game.

      For in effect, he is saying to the world; "Care to dance?" after decades of Iran refusing to attend or even acknowledge the existence of the ballroom.

      Shall we?

      As always, very best regards,
      John Brian Shannon

    3. Commentedhari naidu

      Like Ehud Barak (Israel) you seem also to be living inside your own myopic intelligence world, as far as Iran is concerned today.

      Today, in Geneva, P5+1 finally agreed on terms and conditions on Iran nuclear program under NPT safeguards.
      Of course, for Bibi (Israel) and you that's a catastrophic decision by members of the UNSC + Germany. You'd rather bomb Teheran and end the Mullah's regime...But it seems wiser global counsel has finally prevailed to bring Iran out of its self-isolation....