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Can Arabs and Iran act and not just talk nice?

Apr 05,2018 - Last updated at Apr 05,2018

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s proposal for moving towards new security arrangements in the Middle East is an important gesture that should be read in two contrasting ways, for it faithfully reflects the Arab region’s double perception of Iran as a noble friend, or a deceitful menace.

There is little new in the broad principles or worthwhile goals that Zarif mentions in his effort to jump-start an Arab-Iranian process of dialogue, mutual understanding and widespread engagement.

But one new dimension of his text does deserve serious exploration: his concluding idea that one day Arabs and Iranians could sign non-aggression pacts, after taking mutual confidence-building steps in sensitive arenas, such as nuclear power and military visits, spending and exercises.

I have spent my whole life working with words in the Middle East and I know that words can matter, especially if they are a signal of intent and a first step towards action.

Zarif’s concluding words, “all the way to signing non-aggression pacts” certainly reflect the principle of finishing with statement that will keep ringing in the ears of readers for some time, because it captures the heart of the message.

Zarif’s message coincides with the celebration of the annual festival of Nowruz. This pre-Islamic celebration that marks the advent of a new year includes a traditional cleaning of one’s home, Iranians also say it is about friendship, reconciliation and lighthearted fun, leaving anger and vengefulness for another day.

We might use this guide to engage with Zarif’s thoughts and suggestions, and also to challenge him and the Arab states alike to do the same in their policies and actions, if they sincerely seek actual, not rhetorical, reconciliation and peace.

I have never met Foreign Minister Zarif, but I have encountered many senior officials like him across the Middle East during my half-century of reporting here. Several lessons I draw from such encounters seem relevant in how we should deal with his words.

We should read and ponder such a hopeful statement with care, and then delve beyond the engaging rhetoric and smooth personality, to identify if there are any genuine openings for diplomatic breakthroughs.

Zarif’s alluring vision of Arab-Iranian non-aggression pacts makes me wonder if Arab and Iranian leaders could now turn off their childish propaganda machines, sit down for a serious contest of who brews the best tea, actually talk to each other like adults, and most importantly call each other’s bluff, to find out once and for all if we are destined for perpetual warfare, or peace and mutual prosperity.

On paper, no reasonable person could object to any of Zarif’s points, focusing as they do on moving towards “stability, security, peace and development”, which he says could occur on the basis of a few consecutive steps: A propaganda truce, dialogue, confidence-building measures, exchanges of people and goods accelerating cooperation across sensitive areas that include military spending and exercises and nuclear industries.

He rejects any state’s hegemonic ambitions in the region as both unfeasible and a source of new tensions.

Many Arabs would ask him, though, what Iranian troops, funds, weapons, surrogates, technology, trainers, engineers and advisers are doing in several Arab states, including in situations of war?

Most Arab governments and many citizens do not take him seriously because they do not see his words matching his country’s actions across the Middle East. This is Zarif’s insurmountable obstacle, which he cannot overcome even with the finest vibes of a Nowruz crescent moon and its reaffirmations of peace, love, happiness and coexistence.

Yet, deeper demons haunt the Arabs, because most Arab countries — no, all Arab countries — have failed to harness their human, financial, cultural, geographical and natural resources to be able to adequately preserve their national security and well-being.

All Arab states embarrassingly depend on foreign patrons, financiers, protectors and armourers against real and imagined foreign threats, but also against the turbulent agitation of their own justifiably disgruntled citizens.

In the modern struggle for statehood and sovereignty in the Middle East, Iran has broadly out-performed most Arab states. As some Arab countries suffer internal wars and fractures, Iran, Turkey Israel, Russia and the United States hover above them, like vultures waiting to grab a piece of the imminent Arab carcass below, with Syria being today’s most distressing example.

In tandem, Iran has patiently advanced its own strategic military and political alliances within some Arab countries, steadily filling the openings created by internal Arab turmoil, dilapidated statehood, ravaged citizenship, and wars, notably in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen.

This is what all strong states routinely do, they harness their resources to preserve their strategic interests, even if others complain.

But the Arab states have been unable to do this. Driven by their many internal and regional vulnerabilities and consequent understandable fears, many Arabs point to Iran as their existential and hegemonic threat.

They simultaneously seek protection in Washington, London, France, Russia and even Tel Aviv. Iran’s protestations of innocence or legitimate self-defence seem insincere to most Arab ears, as do its arguments that it seeks only to protect itself against regular warnings, sanctions and threats of military attacks from western, Israeli and Arab governments.

Iranian officials can sing Fairouz or Umm Kalthoum love songs all night long, but most Arabs will not believe them. The existential fears of both Iranian and Arab leaders are intense and genuine. Speeches at the UN, debates on television and media commentaries only exacerbate mutual mistrust. Only drastic acts can break through the rising mutual fears and parallel hardening of positions.

Zarif’s proposal for direct dialogue leading to serious engagements and conflict-reduction measures on key issues could offer a historic opening towards that happy future he paints of a region in peace and prosperity, but only if he is serious, and seriousness here is measured by only one criterion: Pursuing policies that match the rhetoric.

Which is, of course, precisely what Iran says about the Arab countries who say they seek regional calm but spend hundreds of billions of dollars on arms and scramble amateurishly to create anti-Iran coalitions with bizarre groups of Arab, Israel and American partners that never seem to achieve their aim.

The historic nuclear agreement that Iran signed with world powers three years ago should shape our search for ideas on how to stop the escalation towards confrontation or war against Iran, especially since the election of Donald Trump.

If few Arab officials believe Zarif’s words, perhaps they would react more positively to actions that create an opening for serious diplomatic engagement. An Arab official of equal stature could respond to Zarif with words of equal magnitude, mentioning precisely and honestly the issues that concern the Arab world.

A serious mediation effort could move them both towards a credible negotiating process, initial tension-reduction steps, and ultimately long-term moves towards genuine non-aggression and a region that spends hundreds of billions of dollars on improving human well-being and protecting our fragile environment.

If Zarif wants to be taken more seriously in the Arab region, he might consider unilaterally taking one or two measures on his list of de-escalation actions.

This could entice Arab states to take notice, and perhaps to follow suit. This could happen via backdoor contacts with Arab leaders, to facilitate negotiations and their suggestions for initial confidence-building measures that would reciprocate Zarif’s list.

Strong, confident, peace-loving states do such things, without risking their national security or demeaning their dignity. In fact, the opposite happens: The world respects them for taking bold, unilateral moves towards peace and mutual security. Then, their Arab foes also might wake up and explore more serious and productive policy options beyond foreign arms and protection.

If both sides decide to grow up and act like adults, this may be an opportunity to start walking down that enticing path to a peaceful and prosperous Middle East, shaped heavily by mutually respectful Arabs and Iranians.


Rami G. Khouri is a journalism professor and public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an internationally syndicated columnist.Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri This article first appeared in The New Arab. Copyright ©2018 Rami G. Khouri —distributed by Agence Global

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