Iran’s project for hegemony is an increasingly complicated regional dilemma. The nation continues to try to expand its footprint in the Middle East. Its leaders remain undeterred, despite pressure from other countries. This impasse threatens the security and stability of the region, particularly in the Gulf. The past four decades have taught us that if we do not break this pattern, Iran will continue to be a threat not just to its neighbours, but to the world as a whole.
All political, social and economic trends indicate an increasingly uncertain future if the international community fails to make Iran behave like a normal state. Fuelling this worrying reality are a number of complex internal dynamics and political aspirations within Tehran.
The Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) was recent history’s most significant effort to deal with the challenge posed by the country. It sought specifically to tame the nation’s nuclear ambitions. It did not, however, have anything to say about the other nefarious regional activities that the regime sponsors. Subsequently, former US president Donald Trump broke western orthodoxy with his “maximum pressure” campaign. This achieved some results, but ultimately still failed to get Tehran back to the negotiating table.
The JCPOA’s failure might have been down to its inability to understand how Iran sees itself and the world around it, in terms of regime doctrine and interpretations of its own post-colonial history. It was also overly optimistic about Tehran’s desire to co-operate in finding constructive regional solutions. The maximum pressure campaign also failed at getting clerical leadership to drop a number of contentious policies. In addition, regional approaches to solve the Iranian impasse have not taken into account its duplicity, nor have they grasped the nature of the relations between the government and the deep-state establishment. This has made for a hollow set of proposed solutions, based solely on attempts to pacify the regime.
There is no doubt that Gulf countries are the worst affected by the ongoing stalemate. GCC nations are Iran’s closest neighbours, a country that considers the Middle East fair game in its expansionist projects, and the Gulf region as a tool to pressure the international community, especially in Washington. Our part of the world has for some time watched on with concern as other nations attempt to resolve the issue. Some worry that the errors of the Iran Nuclear Deal might be repeated, a moment in history that can only be described as one in which the GCC was marginalised. This is why Gulf countries are calling for a seat at the table in any future negotiations with Tehran. Iran’s ongoing refusal to countenance GCC participation shows its longstanding desire to drown out the group’s voice.
Some Arab countries are concerned that Washington’s seeming abandonment of Iranian issues could reduce dialogue into mere bilateral discussions between the regime and a number of regional countries, or at best local negotiations without international supervision. This would not produce effective outcomes. History shows us that Iran likes such conditions because it always has the upper hand in any purely regional or bilateral talks, not to mention the likelihood of it reneging on its commitments in the absence of binding guarantees.
The international community and GCC countries need an innovative response before we reach the point of no return. If it is still impossible to reach a comprehensive resolution, the door could open for individual regional negotiations on key issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its expansionist agenda. A local initiative of this kind should be overseen by world powers including the US, the UN Security Council and other actors, to ensure that their outcomes are implemented and that they are codified in UN resolutions. They could include the use of flexible legal instruments such as snapback sanctions if Tehran reneges on its promises. For this to happen, the GCC must have a central role, as it alone is most affected by Iran’s most dangerous malign activities, including its missile program and its expansionist agenda.
The realities on the ground indicate that all stakeholders are willing to join negotiations. This means little if the same mistakes are repeated. Iran’s political system must not be simplified as it was before, in a manner that did not take into account the nature of the regime’s decision making, and the intersection between economic and political factors in the country’s policies. The method must go beyond the narrow understanding of the nation’s deep state, and instead stress the importance of improving dealings with the various influential centers of power in Tehran.
This would move beyond the inefficacy of previous years, to serious resolutions fit for the future. Combined, collaborative efforts from the GCC – with whom Iran wishes to enter into dialogue on controversial regional issues – and the international community would not allow Iran to use a dialogue to simply stall progress. Instead, it will devise a legally binding negotiation process within a specific timeframe. This could then be set in stone through UN Security Council resolutions.
Inaction will bring us to a point of no return. A strategic perspective is needed to solve this problem and the Iranian regime needs to be dealt with carefully and realistically. The GCC needs strong will and co-ordination with global partners. Welcoming Iran back into the fold will benefit the world, the region, as well as the isolated and struggling nation itself.
Dr Ebtesam Al Ketbi is the President of the Emirates Policy Center