Iran: Trouble Within, but Ties with Neighbors Never Better

Although Iran is facing political turmoil inside the country, its relationship with Persian Gulf and Middle Eastern countries has never been better since clerics ended 2,500 years of monarchy in 1979.

Whereas once countries in the region were fearful that Tehran might want to dominate the region and help topple Sunni-majority kingdoms and undemocratic rulers in the Middle East, nowadays Iranian leaders are much in demand – and in sight – in regional meetings, conferences and bilateral trips.

“The presence of Iran is itself significant. At the beginning, it was a taboo to talk about Iran. We could not invite them. We could only meet them on the periphery of meetings in Europe or somewhere. That is not the case anymore,” says Abdel Reza Assiri, a Kuwaiti political scientist.

There are various reasons for this transformation.

First, Iran itself has made an effort to appear less threatening and friendlier towards countries of the region, even with those it still has political and territorial differences.

Appearing before the annual conference of the Center for Strategic Studies in the United Arab Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi, earlier this month, the Iranian vice president had a somewhat surprising and blunt message.

“The biggest threat to the region today is (religious) fundamentalism and extremism,” Mohammed Ali Abtahi, whose country once prided in “exporting” its Islamic Revolution, said.

“Iran believes and prides itself in having good relations with the countries of our region. We have security when the region is secure and it has security when we are secure,” he added.

Abtahi says Iran also wants the dispute with the UAE over the ownership of three islands in the Persian Gulf to be resolved amicably, and refused to fan the flame when questioned about the dispute by the audience.

Aside from the UAE, Iran also has territorial disputes over some unpopulated islands claimed by Kuwait. Kuwait, with help from Saudi Arabia, recently started digging for natural gas in the disputed zone, raising public condemnation from Iranian officials.

Another country Iran is trying to mend with is Egypt. After the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Iran named a street in the capital, Tehran, after the assassin, Khaled al-Islambouli.

It was only last week, after 23 years, that Iranian authorities agreed to succumb to Egyptian pressure to change the name of that street as a precondition for re-establishing diplomatic ties. Relations are expected to be restored within months.

Some Middle East officials believe the key to containing Iran is simple.

“I believe Iran is looking for engagement with other countries and other people and engaging them, I think, is the only way to reach a modus vivendi that will be beneficial to them and to us,” Prince Turki al-Faisal Bin Abdel Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to London and former intelligence minister told IPS.

He said adhering to that philosophy has paid off for his country, seeing dramatic improvement in the relations with Iran.

Iran is believed to have forwarded some information to Saudi officials about the identity of some of the al-Qaeda members who fled Afghanistan to Iran after November 2001. Many of those members hold Saudi nationality.

One unresolved area of dispute, however, is whether Iran played any role in the Khobar Tower bombings in the Saudi capital, Riyadh in 1996, in which many U.S. servicemen and women lost their lives.

US law enforcement officials, including the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have publicly accused Iran of involvement, but Saudi officials have remained tight-lipped about the issue.

One country with which Iran still has a love-and-hate relationship is Iraq. The former regime of Saddam Hussein imposed an eight-year war on the two countries, and about a million people from the two countries died in the conflict.

Iran, while publicly opposing Iraq’s occupation, claims it has not tried to foment trouble in the neighboring country. But it also complains that its “goodwill gesture” has remained unrewarded by Washington.

“The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been much worse, if it were not for our cooperation. In return, the United States has rewarded us by including us in the ‘axis of evil’ countries,” Abtahi sarcastically told the Abu Dhabi conference.

Iran’s gestures have been reciprocated, by and large, by Arab countries.

Aside from Saudi Arabia, the UAE has improved its relations with Iran. At the Abu Dhabi conference, Abtahi was warmly received and his speech garnered repeat head nods from the Emirates’ defense minister and host of the meetings, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Some observers argue that if the government of President Mohammad Khatami, considered moderate within the internal political spectrum, is reaching out to the outside world, it is in part because of domestic considerations.

“You have to consider that the majority of the Iranians are young people who yearn for outside contact, to break out of their shell, so to speak. If Khatami can show that he is trying to make steps in that direction, it is both good policy and good politics,” said one Iranian observer who asked that his name not be mentioned.

Read more by Peyman Pejman