In an op-Ed in the New York Times today, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif has made a sweeping, far-reaching proposal for the establishment of a collective forum for dialogue in the Persian Gulf region. Tehran has outlined its vision on Persian Gulf security in the past also, but there is a new context today, and there are new elements in the concept outlined by Zarif.
In the past, the idea of a collective forum was Tehran’s knife aimed at the heart of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC], a US-backed body whose raison d’etre consisted in Iran’s regional isolation. Whereas, Iran today has effectively defeated the US’ containment strategy, and the GCC itself is in a state of drift, far from cohesive.
The US’ ties with the GCC states too are in disarray. In a major departure, Zarif has not demanded that the US should vacate its military presence. His proposal is actually presented as a process through which the existing parameters of the US-Iranian engagement transmutes itself into a regional partnership in the period ahead beyond a nuclear deal.
Thus, Tehran’s motivation at the present juncture needs to be understood from three angles. First and foremost, evidently, the Middle East crisis has become very acute and brooks no delay and Iran’s vital interests are affected.
Zarif proposes, in fact, that Yemen crisis could be the starting point of a regional dialogue. Two, in a broader perspective, Iran is looking beyond June 30 and is calibrating its regional role in the post-deal period that lies ahead. Arguably, he is also giving an underpinning to the implementation of the nuclear deal in a climate of growing confidence and mutual trust.
Three, most importantly, emanating from the above, Iran is keen to broad-base and sustain its 18-month long engagement with the US and put it on a long term footing with the two countries becoming stakeholders in regional and international security and stability. Simply put, it is both a major foreign-policy overture to the US on the part of Iran and a reiteration of its multi-vectored strategic calculus.
With a dramatic touch, Zarif frames the future scope for expanding the US-Iranian engagement: “Iran has been clear: The purview of our constructive engagement extends far beyond nuclear negotiations… Iranian foreign policy is holistic in nature.”
Zarif willingly anticipates that the proposed regional dialogue could well morph into “more formal and security cooperation arrangements,” hinting at Iran’s willingness to be part of such arrangements with the US.
Unsurprisingly, Zarif insists that to begin with, this cooperation “must be kept to relevant regional stakeholders” but, interestingly, he remains open at the same time to link “any regional dialogue [in the Persian Gulf] with issues that inherently go beyond the boundaries of the region.”
Israel is beyond the scope of the proposed regional platform for dialogue in the Persian Gulf between Iran and its neighbors. Nonetheless, the most interesting part of the reworked Iranian proposal, perhaps, is that although Zarif neatly sidestepped mentioning any regional state, he strongly endorsed as an overriding principle the right of all states to exist in a climate free of “concerns and anxieties” and he acknowledged Iran’s willingness to “provide the international community with assurances and mechanisms for safeguarding its legitimate interests.”
Zarif would know that such a fundamental principle cannot be cannibalized, and, therefore, he appears to imply that Iran should be willing for such a principle to be upheld right across the Middle East. It is too early to say whether this is the first hint of an Iranian willingness to accept Israel’s right to exist – something it has refused to do so far – but it well might be.
As a matter of fact, Zarif underscores vehemently that there is nothing like absolute security. To quote him, “Our rationale is that the nuclear issue has been a symptom, not a cause, of mistrust and conflict… Nothing in international politics functions in a vacuum. Security cannot be pursued at the expense of others. No nation can achieve its interests without considering the interests of others.”
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