Relations between countries are far more complex than many commentators and analysts believe. They are not prisoners of power relations, as important as this factor is. Nor are they ruled by ideologies, even though ideology is a likely influence. Neither can the international order be said to control everything.
In reality, relations between countries are influenced by all of these factors, to which another important element must be added: time. Time is not neutral; it necessitates change, and in our part of the world time has been moving very quickly these past few years.
This is evident in Arab relations with Iran. While these factors affect other relationships as well, they take on a special significance in the case of Iran, due to Tehran’s shift from imperial capital to the seat of the Supreme Guide of a revolution whose dream tried to stretch to all corners of the Islamic world. When that dream struck ground, it hit very rough terrain. The Iraq–Iran War in the 1980s exacted a bitter toll. Indeed, a heavy price was paid everywhere Iran tried to set foot.
Iran’s foray into the realm of nuclear power and weaponry brought it into a direct clash with the international community. In turn, that clash wreaked enormous economic and moral havoc on Iran, the intensity of which could never have been alleviated at the regional level by the era of revolutions in numerous Arab countries, as much as Tehran tried to claim credit for them.
It is against this backdrop that we can understand Saudi Arabia’s invitation to the Iranian foreign minister to hold a dialogue on regional issues. Given the curious nature of the Iranian system, governed as it is by a political order that is at once both radical and highly conservative, we must acknowledge that Iran has in principle agreed to abandon its quest for nuclear arms. Whether or not they have in reality given up on this longstanding ambition to become the second nuclear power in the Middle East, it is clear the election of President Rouhani has given legs to a more practical and pragmatic outlook in Tehran. After all, the powers that be in the Iranian capital have had to deal not only with the West, but also with economic relations with Turkey, and political relations with China, India, Russia and more. In other words, the Islamic Republic’s vision has been tempered by a practical—or, at least, by an apparently practical—set of policies that could be a means to gain time to resolve current difficulties. They could even be a means to generate a domestic consensus on a new conception of Iran’s role, status and influence abroad.
Thus the Saudi invitation has introduced a new form of engagement, which allows us to gauge Iran’s intentions. At the same time, it allows all parties to explore solutions to issues of mutual concern.
Syria is the central issue in that relationship because, due to both geographical and historical factors, it has become closely intertwined with the fates of Iraq, Lebanon and parts of Jordan and Palestine. Iran is involved in all of these issues diplomatically, politically, ideologically and militarily. The result is a lit fuse that is on the verge of causing a great explosion, blasting sects and states into tiny fragments. Maybe this is exactly what Tehran wants.
Iraq, which was once the counterweight to Iran in the balance of power in that area, is now fractured into regions and groups, most of which are keen to remain in Iran’s good graces. At one point, it looked like this was the fate that Iran envisioned for Syria as well. In Lebanon, which succumbed to this condition a long time ago, Iran won via Hezbollah, a Shi’a organisation with boundless loyalty to Iran.
Syria now is in complete tatters. Although President Bashar Al-Assad has made marked progress, winning battles is not the same is winning the war. For all practical purposes, Syria has been trampled to pieces beneath his feet and the Ba’athist leadership offers nothing to piece it back together again.
Lakhdar Brahimi’s resignation as the UN’s Syria envoy is a palpable sign of how grim the situation is. Not only do diplomatic efforts appear to hold little prospect of success, the agreement regarding Syria’s chemical weapons has also reached a dead end now that Bashar has started to use them again. In the meantime war continues to rage, not just between government and opposition but also between various parts of the opposition. This situation is exacting an enormous toll, in the form of tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, unimaginable destruction and millions of displaced. In the desolate land left once the war has ended there will be ghosts and genies that do not know how to return to their bottles.
The dialogue with Iran might just be a chance to develop a regional settlement regarding how to handle this situation.