by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
In his speech before the United Nations General Assembly last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani unveiled a new initiative for Persian Gulf peace and stability called the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE). Set against a backdrop of rising regional tensions, particularly in the wake of the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil installations—which have been attributed to Iran by several countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—Rouhani’s peace initiative has gained traction in the international community, despite U.S. and Saudi misgivings.
Centered on the idea of peaceful cooperation among the eight littoral Gulf states—Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—the initiative carries the potential to break significant ice between Iran and its Arab rivals in the region. Several foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, have expressed interest in Rouhani’s peace initiative, with Lavrov stating that he finds it in sync, and parallel with, Russia’s recent idea for collective security in the Persian Gulf.
Rouhani left it to his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to elaborate on the details of the HOPE initiative. Zarif, who has been conferring with diplomats from Gulf states such as Qatar and Kuwait, and was given an opportunity to present a detailed outline of the initiative at the UN Security Council on September 27. According to Zarif, “Dialogue, Confidence-building, Freedom of navigation, Energy security, Non-aggression, and Non-intervention” form HOPE’s key components. This runs contrary to the logic of intensifying U.S. military presence in the region. Emphasizing security self-reliance instead of foreign dependence, HOPE rests on the premise that foreign (military) presence in the region is a security minus and brings only insecurity.
Of course, this is a tough sell to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states that are heavily dependent on U.S. and other Western powers for underwriting their security and are also wary of Iran’s regional power, which shows no sign of diminishing despite the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.However, here appears to be a greater willingness on the part of some GCC states to explore this new venue for cooperation and peaceful coexistence offered by Iran’s president, who has rejected the notion of dialogue with the Trump administration as long as “illegal” U.S. sanctions remain in place.
According to a Tehran political scientist who has spoken with the author on the condition of anonymity, “GCC states led by Saudi Arabia no longer harbor the false hope that the Islamic Republic would be overthrown as a result of Washington’s pressure. Iran has withstood the pressure and has applied maximum counter-pressure tactics with a great deal of success. As a result, Iran today is more respected in the region and its Arab neighbors are coming to terms with Tehran slowly but surely.”
Such hopeful expectations depend, first and foremost, on the future of Iran-Saudi diplomacy, which in turn rests to a large extent on the fate of the on-going Yemen war, notwithstanding the growing power of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels reflected in their cross-border drone/missile counter-attacks. Riyadh has now moved in the direction of a “partial cease-fire” in Yemen, which—if sustained and expanded—can definitely bode well for the improvement of Tehran-Riyadh relations.
There is room for Saudi-Iranian relations to improve even if the Saudis decide that their regional prestige dictates a military retaliation against Iran, which they maintain was responsible for the September 14 attacks—a charge vehemently denied by Rouhani. Concerning those attacks, a UN investigative team is probing the matter and its findings will be crucial in shaping the nature of proximate interactions between the Gulf’s two power houses. In the meantime, the in an interview with a U.S. television network, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has emphasized diplomatic solutions with Iran, and the Iranian media has reported that the Saudis have used a Gulf intermediary to send messages to Iran. There are emerging reports that the Iraqi government is preparing to act as mediator between Tehran and Riyadh.
The future of Iran-Saudi ties also rests to some extent in U.S. hands, a fact that weighs heavy in the region’s security calculus. Washington is presently mobilizing its power to crush Iran’s economy, in light of the administration’s imposition of new sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank that are bound to further erode Iran’s ability to import food and medicine. The Trump administration is adamant on punishing Iran for resisting its will, and this has seemingly turned into a litmus test for U.S. power in the present global context. Increasingly, despite having certain shared interests with respect to issues like containing the Islamic State (IS), drug trafficking, and stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. and Iran are threading the path of a zero-sum competition. Multiple diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions between the two countries, such as French President Macron’s initiative, have gone nowhere. A big question is, can the HOPE initiative help deescalate tensions and perhaps even contribute to an improvement in U.S.-Iran relations?
One possible answer to this may rest on Iran’s willingness to shrink back from the insistence that pan-Gulf security cooperation should come as an alternative to bilateral security arrangements between the U.S. and the various GCC states. It is the prerogative of those states to set their own security policies and a genuine Iranian offer of regional cooperation should respect the sovereign rights of its neighbors. Otherwise it will be interpreted as another sign of Iranian meddling, particularly since Iran itself is moving in the direction of increased cooperation with Russia and China in maritime security, including a planned joint naval exercise. From Iran’s perspective, this is conceived as a counter-weight to U.S. plans for a multi-national naval mission to escort tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The principle of “non-interference” ought to extend to respect for the sovereign right of Gulf states to devise their own national security.
Therefore, the principal Iranian objective at this moment ought to be incremental confidence-building, dialogue, and low-security cooperation, as a prelude for more ambitious long-term cooperation. Only when the eight littoral states reach the point of high confidence in each other’s intentions—which may take a while, realistically speaking—will it be possible to imagine a genuine system of collective security, instead of the present pattern of competitive security systems and bifurcations. Inevitably, this path, involving a globalized oil hub, requires sustained dialogue with other, extra-regional, stakeholders as well and, in a word, should not be limited to the littoral states, who constitute the fulcrum of any new security architecture in the hitherto volatile region. Even a U.S.-Iran dialogue on regional security and other related matters is necessary and reminiscent of past U.S.-Iran dialogues on Iraq and/or Afghanistan.
A U.S. exit from the region, as imagined in Rouhani’s UN speech, is bound to remain a distant dream so long as Tehran and Washington are at loggerheads over regional issues. The common threat of terrorism is highly important and both sides can capitalize on the recent experience of conducting parallel operations against IS inside Iraq, which reached its crescendo in the liberation of Mosul. Amid some alarming signs of a second IS comeback, it is all the more important to prioritize counter-terrorism—a message implicit in Rouhani’s UN speech, when he reminded the audience Iran’s critical contribution to fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The real nature of the U.S.-Iran relationship is a non-zero-sum game of simultaneous competition and potential cooperation, presently buried under a one-dimensional confrontational policy wrapped in incendiary rhetoric, in light of Donald Trump’s UN speech accusing Iranian leaders of “blood lust.” Thus, an important prerequisite for even a minor breakthrough in the current U.S.-Iran stalemate is a moratorium in mutual demonization, followed by a genuine pursuit of diplomatic venues in which to tackle their outstanding differences. A whole generation of Iranians is presently suffering as a result of oppressive U.S. policies, and we are given hope for the sake of hopeless ones.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, including After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Books, 1995) and most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018). He is the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.