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.