The Middle East. Map: iStock
The Middle East. Map: Asia Times files / iStock

Iran’s relations with Arab countries have long been subject to change, tension, crisis, even war. Prior to the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s relations with the Arab countries, especially its neighbors, Iraq in particular, were based on threat indicators. Iran was in the US-led Western-style camp and was part of the Western alliance system against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, while Iraq was in the East Camp led by the Soviets.

Iran was at that time at the center of a regional mission that was counterbalanced by the expansion of the Soviet Union’s influence to the south, in contrast to Iraq. For this reason, there was a very serious regional rivalry between Tehran and Baghdad, sometimes tense, and even border clashes. This equation continued until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

With the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the geopolitics of the region changed, fundamentally in the view of Western strategists. But the tension in Iran’s relations with Arab countries did not end. The nature of the competition changed, and more Arab countries were drawn into Iran’s ranks. The eight-year Iraqi-imposed war on Iran and the Arab League’s quest for the removal of Saddam Hussein were the starkest signs of this competition.

The end of the Iran-Iraq War as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War also failed to change the equation in Iran’s relations with Arab countries. Since then, because of the lack of a balance of nationalist power in the Arab world, the rivalry between Iran and Arab countries shifted from competition based on membership in world power camps to competing for regional and religious affairs.

Iran continued to expand its spiritual influence in the region with the strategy of fighting Zionism, and powerful Arab states such as Saudi Arabia used all their efforts to fight Iran’s influence to maintain their own regional status. The occupation of Iraq by the United States in 2003 not only did not end this situation but allowed Iran, on the one hand, to bring the element of geographical integration with the Eastern Mediterranean to the historical Palestinian borders, and on the other hand, it led Iran’s main challenger Saudi Arabia to establish regional and trans-regional unions to counter the expansion of Iranian influence.

The main question is whether this situation is sustainable. The answer is no. The next and more important question is, what is the right solution? The following points attempt to answer this key question.

  • The number of member states of the Arab League is 22, with a population of more than 240 million. The geography of the Arab world extends from Southwest Asia to North Africa. About half of the Arab countries are in Asia and the other half on the African continent. But about 70% of the total Arab population live in African countries.
  • The united Arab world is not politically whole and the diversity of regimes and political tendencies, as well as their international relations, is apparent.
  • The Arab World Comprehensive Syllabus has a very limited function under the name of the Arab League, and despite its long history (more than half a century), it has suffered from lack of cohesion and alliance. The unity among the Arab countries, except on the Palestinian issue, has not been sustained in any regional or global affairs.
  • About 90% of the wealth of Arab countries has been accumulated by 10% of the Arab population, and many Arab countries are suffering from chronic poverty.
  • Before the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 and before the Arab Spring wave, since 2010, four Arab countries have had a high political weight, ranked respectively Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The occupation of Iraq and the Arab Spring weakened the Arab world, and Egypt, Iraq and Syria respectively, lost regional influence, and Saudi Arabia alone was not hit by the crisis.
  • Development in the Arab world divided the regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • Iran expanded its regional influence as a result of a power vacuum following the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. On the one hand, there was a significant presence in Syria and aroused Israeli sensitivity, and on the other hand, in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, in the traditional Saudi realm, through the spiritual support of the Houthis, showed that Riyadh’s security was vulnerable. As a result, two regional powers, Israel and Saudi Arabia, turned to a relatively fragile united alliance to counter regional influence in Iran.

Solutions for reducing regional tensions

On three levels, Iran can organize its relations with the Arab world on the basis of détente.

First level: The division of circles and domains of influence in the Middle East among the great powers is inevitable. Iran and Saudi Arabia, as the two great regional powers, must reach agreement on this division. This is especially important for Iran. Otherwise, the combined power of Saudi Arabia and Israel in the region, considering the global stature of these two powers, will make it difficult and costly to continue the current regional rivalry with Iran. Iran should avoid allowing Saudi Arabia to fall into the lap of Israel and the combination of their power.

Second level: Extending Iran’s public diplomacy by reducing travel regulations for Arab citizens in the form of tourism is vital. This would have positive results for Iraqi nationals despite the psychological roots of the war with Iran. Tehran’s current statistics indicate that it has become the medical-treatment center of choice for Iraqi citizens. The spread of Arab nationals to Iran and the creation of religious and religious blending, as well as the observation of Iran’s progress, on the one hand would disrupt Iran’s prowess in the region, and on the other hand, prevent moderate Arab regimes from joining Iran’s regional rivals. The potential economic benefits of expanding travel by Arab citizens to Iran are very numerous.

Third level: Iran’s relations with the formal institutions of the Arab world, especially the Arab League, should be expanded.

Sajad Abedi is a resident fellow at a national defense and security think-tank in Iran and a postdoctoral student at the University of Tehran. He is also an advisory board member of the Cyber Security Research Center at Islamic Azad University.

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