A Return to Pragmatism

The presidency of Mohammed Khatami has brought a fresh wind to tense relations between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the Arab world. Bahman Nirumand describes the stations of this foreign policy shift and explains why the founding of an Islamic state in Iran led to its long political isolation by the Arab states.

photo: AP
Iranian president Chatami in front of an image of revolutionary leader Chomeini

​​There is a long history of religious, cultural and political difference between Iranians and Arabs. Until the Revolution of 1979, however, the Iranian leadership always took pains to maintain good relations with the Arab states. The first wife of the Crown Prince and later Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlawi, was the daughter of the Egyptian king Faruq.

Relations with the Egyptian government under Anwar al-Sadat were especially good. In the two decades before the Revolution, Iran, supported by the US, took on the role of a major power and "policeman" in the Gulf region.

Ironically enough, the seizure of power by the Islamists changed all that. The Islamic Republic saw itself as the protector of Palestine and the declared enemy of the USA and Israel, and this hostility applied to all the Arab states in the region which it regarded as US satellites or which had friendly relations with Israel. Above all, this meant Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

A chill in Arab-Iranian relations

The Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel and the Egyptian government's willingness to harbor the exiled Shah prompted revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini to break off diplomatic relations with Cairo's leadership in 1980.

In turn, the Arab states began to fear that the foundation of an Islamic state could inspire imitators in their own countries. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait accused Iran of encouraging and supporting radical Islamic and terrorist groups in the region. Neighboring Iraq even declared war on Iran, a war that was to last for eight years, with most of the Arab states supporting Saddam Hussein.

Not until the election of President Khatami brought a shift in Iranian foreign policy did both sides begin to take a more moderate tone. Iran increasingly opened up to the outside world, showed a stronger commitment to the "Organization of the Islamic Conference" (OIC) and the "Organization of the Block-Free States", and stepped up cooperation with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Focus on the Persian Gulf States

Developments in recent years have made it increasingly clear that Iranian foreign policy prioritizes states in the Gulf region. Iran condemned terrorism, at least officially, and was even willing to extradite members of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda from the Gulf region to their native countries.

Recently, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi surprised attendees at the Conference of the Center for Strategic Issues in Abu-Dhabi by saying: "Religious fundamentalism and extremism are the greatest threats for the region today. We have security when the region is secure; in turn, the region is secure when we have security."

Teheran is also taking a more conciliatory line on Israel. For decades the Islamic Republic had characterized every concession to Israel as a "betrayal", but several months ago President Khatami announced that his country would accept the decision of the Palestinian people.

A positive response from the Arab World

The Arab states are eager to accommodate this new position, regarding it as the basis for a common policy of peace in the Middle East with the additional goal of declaring the entire region a nuclear-free zone. Another factor encouraging Arab leaders to work more closely with Iran is the new US policy of unilaterally pushing democratization in the region's states.

The only important point of contention between Iran and the Gulf states is the territorial dispute with the United Arab Emirates over the three islands of Abu Mussa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb in the Persian Gulf. Government representatives from both states have already announced their willingness to settle the dispute peacefully in the near future.

Finally, Iran and Egypt are about to resume diplomatic relations. In recent years, the two countries have shown increased cooperation on economic and cultural issues, resulting in a number of joint projects both in Iran and Egypt. After a meeting between Khatami and Mubarak at the UN Technology Conference in Geneva last December, diplomatic efforts to normalize relations between the two states have been stepped up.

In a symbolic act, the Teheran Council even decided to rename a street Intifada Street, despite massive protests by Islamist zealots. The street had been named after Khaled Islambouli, the murderer of Anwar al-Sadat. In response, Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher declared that the Camp David Accord had effectively ceased to exist – "nothing but a piece of the past." According to him, the interests of Iran and Egypt were now preeminent.

A change of course in Iran-Iraq relations

Iran's relations with neighboring Iraq have changed profoundly since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Even though the country is presently occupied by US and allied troops, Teheran sees good chances for cooperation with Baghdad. The Iraqi Shiites, who make up the majority of the population and are likely to continue playing a formative role in the country's politics, are partly under the sway of Iran.

For years Iran has also enjoyed good relations with Iraq's Kurds. In recent months a number of talks have been held between Teheran and Baghdad, leading to concrete agreements such as the construction of a joint oil pipeline. Iran has provided 300 million dollars for Iraq's reconstruction.

Trade between the two countries has also been on the rise since the war. In the first four months after the war, Iran's exports to Iraq totaled 400 million dollars. Moreover, the leadership in Teheran has expressed its willingness to organize the pilgrimage of more than a million believers to the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbela.

Bahman Nirumand, © 2004

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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