Geopolitics in the Middle East

End the Arab-Iranian tug-of-war

You can’t change regional geography, notes the political analyst Khaled Hroub. Iran and the Arabs will always be neighbours, but we can change and re-shape history and politics. The common interest must therefore lie in ending the period of conflict and moving towards co-operation and regional security

This article discusses four scenarios, which are not mutually exclusive, with regard to the relationship between the Arab world and Iran:

      escalation of the current confrontations and conflicts to the level of wars that are regional, extensive and destructive;

      continuation of the current confrontations and conflicts, which means ongoing mutual attrition and depletion of resources;

      progressive cooling of relations and reciprocal containment;

      resolution of the conflicts and a move towards comprehensive collective security within a regional framework.

For the foreseeable future, the first two possibilities look the most likely, although this does not necessarily rule out all prospect of the other two options. The likelihood of any of these four outcomes depends on the desire and capacity of the various political sides for a pragmatic solution, over the temptations of ideology and expansionism. They also depend on the emergence of a new rhetoric and a way of doing things in regional politics based on bargaining and betting on a future co-operation, predicated upon everyone making concessions for the benefit of the region.

The Arab world is witnessing collapse and increasing disintegration, with a number of its leading countries in the eye of the ongoing regional storm. Iran is involved in one way or another, at least since the US-led war on Iraq in 2003 and in what followed – in terms of the terrible wars which have laid waste to so much, be they in Syria, Iraq or Yemen. Through all these years, Iran has played and continues to play different roles in the crises and wars in Arab lands, and it is Arab countries and societies which have been paying the price and bearing the losses.

Infographic: Saudi Arabian vs. Iranian competing influence in the Middle East (source: Deutsche Welle)
Transforming enmity into co-operation: "the European Union offers us an enticing model worthy of deep consideration. The Arab states and Iran can take one of two paths: they can keep going towards mutual destruction or embark upon co-operation," writes Hroub

Amid the crises, alliances, proxy wars, obscure happenings, the shift in the balance of powers, including the withdrawal of international powers, the future of the Middle East and the wider region is opening up various possibilities. In the main, the prospect is for further deterioration, especially in light of fragmentation in the Arab world and the absence of firm, unifying positions, even within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The latter is the only regional Arab organisation that has maintained a reasonable degree of cohesion and internal solidarity.

Geography is the people’s fate

Our basic contention is that it’s not possible to change regional geography. Iranian-Arab co-existence is inevitable and eternal, but we can change the history and the politics. Indeed, it’s in the Arab and the Iranian interest to end the conflict and to move towards co-operation and regional security. Maintaining the conflict situation only means further wastage of resources and further destruction.

When approaching the choices before us, it is important, on the Arab side, that we try to understand Iran and what it wants, as well as what the Gulf States want. In the first place, Iran has a multitude of political and ideological identities; it is not a single monolithic bloc. The first is the religious identity of the state, driven by the Shia imperative, controlled by the Revolutionary Guards and characterised by a sweeping desire for expansion and influence. It is this identity which antagonises the Arabs and other regional neighbours, of course, just as it provokes a religiously Salafist response, something that is bound to reinforce sectarian divisions.

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