Since the 1979 revolution Iran has tried its best to maintain a sense of normality. But it is a classic example of a country that has not come to terms with itself, and that poses a challenge for the Gulf countries in trying to decipher how to deal with its northern neighbour.
For instance, while the Iranian government is all too happy to refer to the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s historic apology in 2000 for the CIA’s role in removing the Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953, the latter is not honoured and is in fact ignored by the Islamic regime.
For us in the Gulf it is crucial that the transition occurring in Iran today, from a single clerical managed dictatorship to possibly a multi-clerical managed semi-democracy, happens in a peaceful manner. None of us knows the extent of the Iranian nuclear development programme, a threat that outweighs any other to the Gulf states in economic, environmental and security terms.
Iran is not a small state with inhabitants who can be easily managed by controlling the media and enforcing clerical rule. The problem was that the ruling clerics felt so at ease with themselves within their own borders that they started meddling in the affairs of Arab states by financing non-state movements in the Arab world while ignoring the powderkeg within their own country – disenfranchised youth.
The truth is that citizens of the Arab Gulf states – like their fellow Iranians, whether they support Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mir Hossein Mousavi, or neither of them – don’t understand why the Islamic Republic is involving itself with Arab issues. They see Iran financing Hamas and Hizbollah while their own people are left in poverty.
Iran may be excused for worrying about Iraq and Afghanistan, since they are bordering states, but it remains a mystery why Tehran meddles in the affairs of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen – and even Morocco, which severed relations with Iran this spring. It would do better to look after “legacy issues” within its own borders, such as the neglected Baluchi, Kurdish and Arab minorities.
The Gulf states – in keeping with their recent splits on various issues, including the common currency and relations with Iraq – already have different positions with regard to the post-election turmoil in Iran. People’s opinions are split, with some citizens envying the relatively free campaigning and criticism that was to a large extent tolerated in the Iranian election campaign, while others are horrified by the street violence used against the protesters.
But each Gulf state has a special relationship with Iran. The Sultan of Oman’s scheduled three-day “historic visit” to Tehran today may or may not go ahead because of the security situation. Nevertheless, last year Oman signed a $7 billion contract to develop the Iranian Kish gas field, a deal that may increase in value to $12 billion.
During the first Ahmedinejad administration Bahrain was repeatedly referred to as a province of Iran, and the continuous allegations irked the Bahraini government so much that this year it suspended negotiations with Iran on a natural gas import deal.
Saudi Arabia’s disagreements with Mr Ahmadinejad’s administration are on multiple levels; in January Prince Turki al Faisal, a former director of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to both the UK and the US, referred to Iran as one of his country’s “most ardent foes”.
In Kuwait, meanwhile, the interior minister, Sheikh Jaber Khaled al Sabah, accused Iran last September of “harbouring and bankrolling” terror groups including al Qa’eda, a charge that Iran vehemently denied.
The UAE for its part has the strongest commercial ties with Iran, with mutual trade in excess of $14 billion annually, making the UAE Iran’s largest trading partner.
And finally to Qatar, which has the closest relations with Mr Ahmadinejad, having repeatedly invited him to the Doha Arab and Gulf summits that it has hosted over the past few years – much to the chagrin of some other GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia, whose monarch refrained from attending a recent summit to which Mr Ahmedinejad was invited.
With the exception of Qatar, which has invested so heavily in a personal relationship with Mr Ahmadinejad, I believe that in their hearts no GCC state would have been unduly sorry to see him depart no matter what their official positions were. Similarly, many Iranians would have felt glad to see the end of an administration that has presided over record unemployment and inflation, and one that has witnessed the nadir of relations with much of the developed world.
Today the GCC is looking at an Iranian government that has lost a great deal of credibility, both locally and internationally, and the Gulf states must now figure out how to deal jointly with a country that has yet to figure out how to deal with itself.
This article was first published in The National on Sunday, June 28th 2009