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Birds of Different Feathers | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Crisis? What crisis? This was how President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed his critics’ concern that he was leading Iran into uncharted waters earlier this year. With the United Nations’ Security Council now scheduled to debate a new resolution concerning Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, the word crisis is back on many lips in Tehran.

Unlike the previous resolution that Tehran ignored, the new draft is presented under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that opens the way for any member state to take military action to implement it.

It is quite possible that Russia or China, or both, will try to water down the text by including a paragraph demanding that any military action be made subject to a second and specific resolution. But even if that were to happen, President Ahmadinejad would have little to cheer about. The fact that the Security Council raises the possibility of military action against a member state of the UN is a rare, grim and serious affair. Even if the sanctions imposed prove to be minimal and largely symbolic, they would still oblige all of Iran’s neighbours to enforce them, thus helping isolate the Islamic Republic and undermine confidence in its future.

Even if there is no resolution, the perception that the Islamic Republic is a loose cannon and, as such, a threat to regional stability, cannot be easily dismissed. There is little doubt that quite a few of Iran’s neighbours, notably Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan, regard the Islamic Republic and its messianic ideology as a threat to their security. And that, by all measures, is a serious challenge for policymakers in Tehran.

The new radical leadership under Ahmadinejad, however, has so far offered nothing but slogans and diplomatic gesticulations in response to the looming crisis.

Desperately looking for a regional policy, the new leadership elite has just revived an old idea first launched during the Shah’s reign in 1975. This is the idea of a regional defence pact, known as 6 plus 2, bringing together Iran, Iraq and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The idea took shape shortly after Iran and Iraq ended their border disputes thanks to the Algiers Accord signed in March 1975. Prior to that Iran has deployed all its might to prevent Iraq from developing ties with the region’s Arab states.

Iraq had repaid the compliment by spending vast sums of cash and political energy to drive a wedge between Iran and its other Arab neighbours.

After the Algiers Accord, the idea of a regional security pact emerged as a key topic in conversations between Tehran and Baghdad. It featured high in talks between Iranian Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda and the Iraqi leadership during the latter’s official visit to Baghdad. Later, the idea was at the centre of talks between the Shah and Saddam Hussein, then Iraq’s Vice president, during the latter’s visit to Tehran. Once the two had agreed on a joint strategy they started consulting the future members of the GCC.

By that time, however, the future members of the GCC had come to see the proposed alliance as an Irano-Iraqi attempt to impose a condominium on the region. And that was precisely the last thing they wanted Most had recently won their independence from Britain and did not wish to fall under new masters.

Nevertheless, all the eight states decided to go through the motions, and started by organising a conference of foreign ministers as a prelude to a regional summit. The ministerial conference was hosted by Oman, which alone among the future GCC members had some sympathy for the idea, largely thanks to its special relationship with Iran. (Iran had helped Oman defeat a Communist insurgency in Dhofar.)

But even before the ministers reached Muscat, first the Iranians and then the Iraqis started to have cold feet about the idea. They realised that a collective security pact would impose limitations on their own national strategies, especially in relation to their respective “superpower” allies the United States and the USSR.

The final session of the conference in Muscat went well into the night as each participant threw his monkey wrench in the joint. The proceeding was further prolonged by Iran’s insistence that Arabic and Persian be used as the languages of the conferences rather than English which most participants understood.

Eventually, it was Iran’s Foreign Minister Abbas Ali Khalatbari who suggested that the conference end with an anodyne communiqué that committed the participants to nothing. There was a sigh of relief all round as each delegation could return home with the fig-leaf needed to cover the failure but without having made any concessions.

On the ‘plane back home from Muscat the Iranian journalists who had accompanied the foreign minister had a chance to grill him about the bizarre exercise.

None of the traditional causes of conflict, such as dynastic ambitions, irredentism, territorial claims, rivalry over markets and natural resources, and a quest for lebensraum, divided the states concerned. So, why did the conference failed, a reporter asked the minister.

“Because of birds of different feather cannot fly together,” Khalatbari responded with a chuckle.

This was no frivolous answer as Khalatbari was the most serious of diplomats. His analysis was simple: the traditional causes of conflict that had caused hundreds of conflicts and wars among nations since the Treaty of Westphalia were no longer relevant, because in almost all cases they could be resolved through diplomacy. The principal, almost sole cause, of major conflict and war in the modern world was ideology, Khalatbari insisted. Nations with sharply different visions of themselves and the world could not become allies within the same region. The best they could do was to live as good neighbours. The USSR could not become an ally of West Germany or France. But it could live with them in the context of peaceful coexistence. Beyond that, history worked through the so-called “ ink-spot” effect. This meant that the best in any nation’s system would, overtime, spread to neighbouring countries making them more like one another.

Khalatbari did not live to see his “ink-spot” theory realised in the heart of Europe when, after decades of absorbing Western influence, the Communism collapsed from Berlin to Moscow.

Today the idea of a regional security pact is even less likely to fly if only because the ideological differences between Iran, Iraq and the six GCC states are sharper than ever. Why? It is enough to listen to President Ahmadinejad to realise that the current Iranian leadership’s vision is not, cannot be, shared by other states of the region.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is equally clear that the way other states of the region; including new Iraq, live is a permanent ideological threat to the Islamic Republic if only because it offers an alternative vision of Muslim societies.

No, the Islamic Republic cannot succeed where the Shah’s regime failed, in creating a regional security system. The best it can do is to tone down its propaganda, moderate its revolutionary ambitions, and work for regional peaceful coexistence until the “ ink-spot” effect does its work.