The situation regarding Iran doesn’t look good. Friends and colleagues in the Gulf tell me they are personally concerned and that local governments have displayed a certain ‘edginess’ over recent events, including talks over what Iran’s nuclear programme is really all about, and US threats of imposing tough sanctions on Tehran. Israel is voicing its concerns about Iran’s nuclear ‘threat’ ever more aggressively and, when Tel Aviv speaks, Washington listens, as we all know. Frankly, I’m a little nervous myself and, if you aren’t, then perhaps you haven’t been listening.
Speaking in Qatar, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed Iran was on its way to becoming a military dictatorship. The power of the country’s Revolutionary Guard, she claims, threatens the political fabric of the country and its ruling regime and, she went on to warn, the Gulf region has good reason to fear the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.
Clinton said America was seeking UN sanctions “that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is, in effect, supplanting the government of Iran.”
Now, there is no love lost between Mrs Clinton and Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, but the good Secretary of State sounded almost sympathetic towards the PM and his government in the face of the internal threat. “I think the civilian leadership is either preoccupied with its internal domestic political situation or ceding ground to the Revolutionary Guard and that’s a deeply concerning development,” she noted.
Some experts say Mrs Clinton could be on the right track and the US Secretary of State was keen to press her case at length and in detail to those who remained unsure, during her February visit to the region. Talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah stretched over four hours with the Iran issue topping the agenda.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, struck a blow for diplomacy when, during a meeting in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki, he called for continued diplomatic efforts to settle any disputes that might lead to a crisis. Davutoglu said that Turkey was “not a mediator but a major player in constant consultations aimed at restoring peace and calm in the region.” Mottaki responded by noting that while Iran was intent on following the natural course of its nuclear programme, it remained willing to listen to new proposals. Just not those, we must imagine, delivered from the West.
So where do we go from here?
It is time that an end was brought to the bluster and swagger displayed by the main protagonists in this unseemly duel. The threats, counter threats, warnings, sabre rattling and brinkmanship must be brought to a close before real harm is done.
In the first instance, it is to his neighbours in the Gulf region that Mr Ahmadinejad should be addressing himself. Failure to appraise them honestly and fully of his nuclear aims and achievements is to leave a vacuum that others will be only too willing to fill with warnings, suggestions and generous offers.
Although Iran is not part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, there is surely a role here for the GCC to play. Iran enjoys fairly cordial relations with Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. If they believe Mr Ahmadinejad is behaving unreasonably and – given their geographical proximity to the Islamic Republic – putting them and their economies under threat, they should be speaking directly to Tehran.
If, on the other hand, they believe the West is acting in a heavy-handed fashion, they should be voicing this opinion in arenas where they will be carefully listened to. Either way, silence helps no one. Iran is a powerful nation but we should never be frightened to speak honestly to a friend.
While the rest of the world is wondering and worrying what happens next in the Islamic Republic as the US and Israel step up the rhetoric and the threats, the GCC states are in a unique position to make a difference to what could well prove to be the history of the region. It is an opportunity they should not ignore.