In a significant New York Times op-ed on April 20, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a pitch for regional dialogue between Iran and its neighbors. He argued that “there are multiple arenas where the interests of Iran and other major stakeholders intersect…the establishment of a collective forum for dialogue…is long overdue.” I have written elsewhere that there is an array of shared interests among the main regional powers, particularly in a stable, cooperative, and prosperous region. Other regions, including in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, have overcome decades of bitter conflict and division to construct regional orders that build on common interests, provide mechanisms for resolving disputes, and invest in collective prosperity. But getting to such a framework will require major changes in attitude and policy, not least by Iran itself.
Zarif correctly proposes that
regional dialogue should be based on generally recognized principles and shared objectives, notably respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states; inviolability of international boundaries; noninterference in internal affairs; peaceful settlement of disputes; impermissibility of threat or use of force; and promotion of peace, stability, progress and prosperity in the region.
Yet Iran is violating most of these principles in a large number of Arab countries. It arms and finances Hezbollah in Lebanon, arms and finances militias in Iraq, has sent its own military commanders and proxy militias to aid Assad in the barbaric opposite of “peaceful settlement of disputes” with his own population, and has sent money and arms to the Houthi militia in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and other groups elsewhere.
This is not to say that Arab states have not interfered in the affairs of other Arab countries, but two things bear saying. First, as far as I know, no Arab countries are currently violating Iran’s sovereignty or interfering in its internal affairs. Second, Arab actions even in the Arab world have been largely reactive and at a lower level. The Gulf states originally stood by Assad, but were pushed to act after his regime, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, turned its full military might against its own population. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia acted only after the Iranian-backed Houthi movement had overrun the Yemeni capital and was moving to occupy the second capital, Aden. And no Arab state has anything like the full standing proxy army of Hezbollah, which not only violates Lebanese sovereignty but violates Syrian sovereignty as well. In a stable regional order, all states would cease their interference.
Iran and the Arab countries have had difficult relations in the past. Before the Islamic Revolution, the Shah’s imperial posturing threatened Arab neighbors. And the Islamic revolutionaries came to power with a missionary promise to foment Islamic revolution and regime change in many Arab countries, including those of the Gulf. The Arab states have threatened Iran bitterly as well. It was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that invaded Iran in 1980. That invasion gained wide Arab (as well as American) backing. It traumatized a whole generation of Iranians and left hundreds of thousands of Iranian dead and wounded, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and wounded. Like in all conflicts, some measure of truth telling is necessary as a precursor to reconciliation. And in that process, each side needs to recognize the other’s experience.
Unfortunately Zarif does not even mention the Arab world. He speaks of Iran, the Persian Gulf, and the “Wider Persian Gulf Region.” Beyond the dispute over the labeling of the Gulf (with most Arabs calling it the Arabian Gulf), Zarif’s description is as absurd as calling the United States part of the “Wider Mexican Gulf Region” or India and Pakistan part of the “Wider Arabian Sea Region.” Whether it’s called the Persian Gulf or not, Iran can claim no special privileges beyond what is accorded other littoral states in international law and by mutual agreement. And the region he refers to, which includes Yemen in the southeast all the way to Syria and Lebanon in the northwest, is not part of a “Wider Persian Gulf Region.” These countries have their own national and regional identities, and are part of the Arab world from the days of the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule during the First World War, through the years of Arab nationalism and attempts at Arab unity, to periods of division and dispute.
Regardless of whether Iran is willing to acknowledge the political identity of its neighbors, the principle of noninterference should still hold. And while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif were negotiating for the past two years with the P5+1 in Switzerland, Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani was leading Shi‘i militias in Iraq, Syria, and further afield and boasting of Iran’s control of at least four Arab capitals.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. As far as outsiders can surmise, Rouhani and Zarif are not in control of Iran’s Arab policy. If Zarif’s statement is compared with Iranian actions, then Iran is violating virtually each one of his proposed principles. If his statement expresses how he would like to see Iran’s policies toward the region, if and when he and Rouhani can wrest control back from the Revolutionary Guards—or convince Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of the need to do so—then there might be something to hope for in the future.
Nevertheless, the goal of aiming for regional dialogue is an important one. Iran, the Arab states, and Turkey should not be settling their disputes on various battlefields, but should work toward agreeing on and respecting principles of noninterference, building on common interests in stability and economic development, and finding mechanisms to resolve disputes when they arise.
But Zarif should be aware that any regional agreement will require fundamental policy shifts from Iran. It would mean giving up Hezbollah as an independent proxy army in Lebanon and channeling any military aid through the Lebanese government. It would mean pulling Iranian and proxy militias out of Syria and recognizing that Assad has to go as part of any “peaceful settlement of disputes” in Syria. In short, it would mean a fundamental reversal of decades of Iranian policy. Can Rouhani or Zarif deliver such a change? If so, they will find that the Arab states are eager to engage with such an Iran; if not, it is hard to see on what basis a regional dialogue could be launched.