Iran’s is telling the Arabs that Trump is a paper tiger. The ordinary Arab believes President Trump will perform a miracle and end Iran’s threats to their countries. And, in-between, Rouhani tells Arab leaders that “All existing differences can be resolved through dialogue among the regional countries”. This is precisely the moment that illusions should be refuted. Neither Trump alone can end Iran’s threats, nor Rouhani means what he says.
The US cannot provide sufficient forward military presence to fight expeditionary wars after long years of cutting its military budget. Furthermore, Gulf security cannot be a hostage of abrupt political changes in Washington. If the region should learn anything from the Obama years, it is to never put all eggs on a single basket.
Arabs have been allies of the US for decades, yet, President Obama recklessly dismissed their warnings of the persisting deterioration in regional security until the Middle East crises grew out of proportions to ultimately threaten the whole world. The former President placed all his bets on Iran’s table assuring all around him that he can turn Iran around. The Iranians made his strategy a global joke. Instead of turning around, they turned that strategy into fuel to rush ahead on their very previous course miles more.
And Arabs told George Bush not to invade Iraq. He dismissed their repeated explanations and sent troop to take that country anyway. The Iranians used this very step to fuel their effort to take over all of Iraq.
What if we have, after Trump, another Obama, as full of himself and as unable to see realities except from the key-hole of his own ego? And what if we have another Bush as unable to see realities except from the key hole of his ideologues?
On the other shore of the Gulf, the Iranian leaders believe that for everything there is a season. Now, as Trump is starting to squeeze them, it is time to dust off the peace mask stored in the basement somewhere in Tehran. They put on dresses made of sheep skin, carry their dry olive branches, and take off to their neighbors’ capitals. They risk nothing. First, this will not require them to take any practical step on the ground or any real concessions. Words are free. Second, if their neighbors believe their words and are impressed by their mask and olive branch, they will start years-long talks, all the while telling the world that they are working on peace with the Arabs when Trump, the outsider, wants all to fight each other. And third, merely making some empty gestures, not accompanied by any deeds, may split Tehran’s neighbors and weaken their resolve. It is the same old win-win game.
Rouhani’s visit to some GCC members is simply meaningless if it is not based on deeds rather than words. Until Iran starts undoing the damage it caused to the Middle East security, all verbal promises should be dismissed. At least, the Iranians should make a practical gesture in Iraq or Syria or Yemen before any one should take Rouhani’s words seriously.
The bottom line remains, however, unchanged. Seasons come and go, and, in all times, Iran keeps its image of itself as a regional super-power harbored in the minds of its leaders. The Trump administration is certainly taking some encouraging steps to confront Iran’s arrogance. And Rouhani certainly says now the right words about regional peace. But ultimately, and in all seasons, the ball remains squarely in the Arab playground. It is them that should devise their regional security defenses based on institutional, diversified and permeant structure, similar, say, to NATO.
It is abundantly clear that the existing regional security arrangements move from a crisis to another, thanks primarily to Presidents Bush and Obama’s underestimation of the delicate mosaic of factors underlying regional security. President Bush’s concept was to stabilize the region through forcing on it a set of US-made democratic rules even by tanks. President Obama’s concept was to reduce the role of US military and rely more on a plan of regional re-engineering. These concepts are seriously flawed theoretically. Moreover, their implementation is extremely risky, particularly if the surgery is performed by blind surgeons. The two enterprises led to what we see now in that troubled region.
Nation building, democratization through upheaval, wars, regime change, using political Islam, colored revolutions and the rest of the now-ill-reputed arsenal, have proven to be catastrophic pipedreams. The separation of the methods and the objectives happen only in our minds. In reality, they form one whole that moves together-that is with all its interconnected components, including objectives and methods simultaneously, at all moments.
To bring the region to stability, Arabs should provide the world community with a clear plan of what should be done to get back relative stability and improve it at the same time. Should we go back to the old mantra of regional balance? Should there be a regional-global security pact, including Iran? What are the terms of such a pact if ever thought of? How would the region and the global community make Tehran realize that enough is enough?
All things considered, what we see now is a product of a shift in the regional balance of power. This shift took place due to multiple reasons: The Iran nuclear deal, Tehran successful effort to build a relatively powerful military force, Iran’s success in mixing traditional power-projection and proxies-wars, the invasion of Iraq, resistance to reform in the Arab World and a host of other factors.
But ultimately, what we see now is a very tense and ever fluctuating balance of power. As including Iran in a fair security arrangement will be second to impossible, so long as the state of mind in Tehran remains unchanged, a model for the Middle East security structure should, therefore, aim at restoring a retaliatory capacity that prevent the Iranians from testing the current unstable balance of power. This model must be based on a multi-national security arrangement in a form of agreement institutionalizing the responsibilities of all signatories.
The Istanbul protocol, signed between the Arab countries and NATO, should be revived and the dust which gathered over it should be brushed off. A regional rapid-deployment force should be formed. The nature of the threat to Arab security has grown very complex. Iran is trying to use Shia minorities in many Arab countries to instigate troubles within their countries. It is not only conventional wars that constitute the main body of threats facing the Arabs today, it is a variety of threats from multiple sources, some within, and some without. Therefore, mechanisms of response should be as diversified.
It is through this model of regional security pact that the balance of power in the Middle East could be kept within safe limits for movement. Time for the Arabs to come together and devise their perspective of regional security structure. This will represent an important contribution to the ongoing debate in global capitals on how to stabilize the Middle East after the sins of the last 16 years.