Time for new beginnings in the Middle East

By Farhang Jahanpour

Momentous changes are afoot in the Middle East. The Arab uprisings have not yet run their course, the Egyptian revolution has not yet ended, terrorist atrocities in Iraq have intensified, the carnage in Syria still continues, and there seems to be no end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Yet, in the midst of all these scenes of doom and gloom there are some positive developments that may change the face of the Middle East for many decades to come. President Obama’s opening to Iran and the election of a moderate Iranian president who wants to reciprocate the American gesture of goodwill provides a glimmer of hope that after 34 years of estrangement, the two countries may reconcile their differences and open a new chapter in their relations.

However, just the slim prospect of a US-Iranian rapprochement has created a backlash among many people who are stuck in the past and who look at any change with dread. There are many powerful voices both in the United States and Iran that are trying to prevent better relations between the two countries.

In addition to domestic opposition in Iran and the United States, many countries in the Middle East have also reacted with alarm to the possible end of a hostile Iran that they can demonize as a boogeyman. Israel and her powerful friends in the Congress and in US think tanks and the media have launched a massive campaign to prevent any possible end to hostilities. The leaders from the powerful pro-Israeli lobbies, from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, AIPAC, the Anti Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, took part in an extraordinary White House meeting on Tuesday 28 October to warn the president against rapprochement with Iran.

In a statement issued following the meeting, Conference of Presidents Chairman Robert Sugarman and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said that the “off the record meeting” dealt with “issues of the highest priority for the U.S., for our community and for America’s allies – halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program.” (1) The White House allegedly asked the Jewish leaders to press for delay in new Iran sanctions, but later reports indicated that the Jewish leaders refused to make such a commitment. (2)

While Israeli opposition to any softening of the US stance towards Iran has a long history, recently some powerful Arab countries have also joined the chorus of disapproval. America’s longtime Persian Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, has acted with uncharacteristic bluntness and has expressed her opposition to US policies towards Egypt, Syria and Israel, but particularly towards “recent U.S. overtures to Iran”.

Speaking at the National Council of US-Arab Relations, Prince Turki Al Faisal, the former head of the Saudi intelligence service and Saudi ambassador to the US and UK, openly chastised President Obama for his “open arms approach” to Iran. He complained that the US had failed to take any effective action on Syria and Palestine, had not supported Saudi’s policies in Bahrain and Egypt and, above all, was pursuing a policy of détente with Iran. (3)

The current head of Saudi intelligence and former Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Bandar Bin Sultan went further and threatened a shift in the Saudi relations with the US. A source close to Saudi authorities said: “Prince Bandar told diplomats that he plans to limit interaction with the US.” As a move that would go against US-Saudi cooperation since the Second World War, he said: “There would be no further coordination with the United States over the war in Syria, where the Saudis have armed and financed rebel groups fighting Bashar Al Assad. The kingdom has informed the US of its actions in Syria, and diplomats say it has respected US requests not to supply the groups with advanced weaponry that the West fears could fall into the hands of Al Qaida-aligned groups.” (4)

In an unprecedented move, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal cancelled the Saudi speech at the UN General Assembly, and Prince Bandar pointed out that the incident was “a message for the U.S., not the UN.” In a more stunning move, the Saudi government refused to take up the coveted seat in the UN Security Council, something that it had worked hard to achieve for over a year, apparently in protest to US policies in the Middle East. All this is a sign of the Saudis throwing a little bit of a tantrum because the United States is not precisely following the Saudi bidding on regional issues.

In addition to those official moves, the depth of Arab anger at the US has been expressed in two articles by two leading Arab scholars and commentators. In an article in the New York Times, entitled “Why Arabs Fear a U.S.-Iran Détente”, Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, warned President Obama that he should make sure that “the Arabs are part of, and don’t lose from, any future bargain with Iran.” (5)

On the same day, Professor Abdullah Al Shayji, the chairman of Political Science Department at Kuwait University, in an article in the Gulf News entitled “Gulf allies losing faith in the US” wrote: “We see a non-committal, wavering, fatigued US. A dysfunctional and stalemated Washington, which is worrying its allies…” (6) He goes on: “Adjectives describing the US policy in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf like ‘weak’, ‘wavering’, ‘dithering’, ‘naïve’ and ‘unreliable’ have become the norm.” These are strong words, coming from allegedly US friends in the Middle East.

First of all, and to me it is only a minor issue, to refer to the Persian Gulf as “the Arabian Gulf” is silly because it does not change anything. If Gamal Abdel Naser or Saddam Hussein began to coin that term in order to score political points against the former Shah of Iran, one does not expect a university professor to repeat that inaccurate term. The Persian Gulf has been universally known from the time of the Greeks to the present time, including in all historical Arab sources, as the Persian Gulf.

Even Gamal Abdel Naser in his popular refrain about the Arab world referred to the area that according to him stretched from “the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf” (min Bahr al-Atlasi ila Khalij al-Farsi). So trying to change the historical name of a waterway is at best childish and at worst a sign of insecurity and chauvinism, and of trying to divert attention from one’s own shortcomings.

If the Yemenis called the Gulf of Oman the Gulf of Yemen, or the Iranians called the Arabian Sea the Iranian Sea, or the Pakistanis called the Indian Ocean the Pakistani Ocean, it would not change anything, but would be simply a sign of political immaturity. The Persian Gulf littoral states have many other much more important issues to deal with than trying to change the historical and universally recognized name of a waterway.

Secondly, during the 37-year reign of the Shah, whom Mr. Shayji characterizes as “the policeman of the Gulf”, and Mr. Bishara refers to Israel and Iran as “regional cops”, the relations between Iran and the Persian Gulf states were the best they had ever been. With the exception of radical, pro-Soviet regimes at that time, such as those of Mu’ammar Qadhafi, Hafiz Al-Asad, and Gamal Abdel-Naser, the Shah had no problem with conservative Persian Gulf littoral states or with Arab monarchies as a whole.

Throughout that period, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were close and cordial, as evidenced by their cooperation during the 1973 oil price rise.

In fact, once President Anwar Sadat changed his radical policies, he and the Shah became best of friends and he received the Shah’s largesse and then Sadat handsomely repaid him by giving him refuge during the last few months of his life. Even in the case of Saddam Hussein who had expelled tens of thousands of Iraqis of Iranian origin from Iraq and had laid claim to the entire Shatt al-Arab/Arvand Rud, the Shah signed the Algiers Accord with him and subsequently the relations between the two became quite normal.

In fact, Iraq’s support for various radical movements in the Persian Gulf from 1972 to 78 led Saudi Arabia and Iran to cooperate in supporting the growth and stability of the UAE and other Persian Gulf littoral states. The Shah and the Saudis helped in the fighting against the Dhofar rebellion in Oman between 1962 and 1976. Therefore, it is not accurate to look back at the Shah’s time as an example of the United States and the Shah ganging up against Arab countries, and the United States using Iran as “the policeman of the Gulf”.

Many Arabs clearly feel angry and nervous about the developments in the region during the past few decades, but their blame is misplaced. If they really review the policies that they have followed since the Islamic revolution they will see that they were responsible for many of the problems that they blame Iran for. Clearly, Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary message was not welcome to many Gulf monarchies, but relations with Iran could have been handled better if they had adopted different policies. Syria, a leading Arab country, established close relations with Iran, and relations between Iran and a number of Persian Gulf countries, including Oman and Qatar, remained friendly. The GCC was first formed after the Iranian revolution as a deliberate step to counterbalance Iran’s power.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, resulting in a war that lasted for eight years, killed and wounded close to a million Iranians and cost hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage, practically all Persian Gulf littoral states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE, provided him with billions of dollars of assistance, with bases, with military support, and they even sold oil on his behalf. So, they were directly involved in his atrocities against Iran.

A short time after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein repaid them by invading Kuwait, all Persian Gulf states provided bases, free oil, financial assistance and other forms of help to the Western coalition forces in the operation codenamed Desert Storm to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Indeed, the Persian Gulf Arab states bore almost the entire cost of the war. After the war, the United Stats calculated the cost of the war to have been $61.1 billion, most of which was paid by the Persian Gulf states. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states paid $52 billion, while Germany and Japan paid another $16 billion. (7)

In the meantime, Iraq was devastated and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed. The Arab states supported the anti-Saddam sanctions, which again killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. When in 2003, US and British forces attacked Iraq again they counted on total support from Iraq’s Arab neighbors. Once Saddam Hussein was toppled and hanged and elections were held, naturally the Shi’is who constitute the majority of the population in Iraq formed the government. That was the event that produced the ire of the Persian Gulf states.

The so-called loss of Iraq from Iraqi Sunnis to the Iraqi Shi’is has been the real reason for the mayhem in Iraq and now in Syria. In order to compensate for the loss of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other regional Arab states decided to destabilize Syria and topple the nominally Alawite, but in reality secular Ba’athist regime of President Bashar Asad.

According to John Hannah, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, a former senior Saudi official told him that from the outset of the upheaval in Syria, the Saudi King Abdullah believed that regime change would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests: “The king knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.” (8)

The origin of the campaign to weaken Syria goes further back to Israel’s failure to destroy Hezbollah in 2006 war. US officials speculated about what could be done to block the vital corridor between Iran and Hezbollah, and it was in fact Prince Bandar who surprised them by saying that the solution was to make use of Islamic militants. (9) The rest is history as they say.

For the past two and half years, a campaign that was started by militant Sunnis in Syria and openly supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, calls for the establishment of the Emirate of Sham and Iraq, in other words a great militant Sunni caliphate in Syria and Iraq linking them to the Persian Gulf Sunni states.

The fact that this terrible, terrorist campaign has destroyed another leading Arab country and one of the oldest countries in the world, with over 110,000 killed and millions displaced, does not seem to bother them. Instead, they blame Iran for meddling in the affairs of Syria.

This pattern has been repeated in other countries. Sadly, the 370 million Arabs in 22 countries that Mr. Bishara refers to have been undermining each other more than any other country has done. One day, they support Western campaigns against Sudan leading to its partition. Another day, they provide weapons and funds to remove Qadhafi from power and have him killed. Now, having failed to dislodge the Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad they are angry because their campaign to get the United States involved in an attack on Syria has failed.

For many years, Saudi Arabia supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, giving them asylum when the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser turned against them, but when President Morsi was elected in a rare democratic election in an Arab country, they cheered the military coup against the democratically elected government, and they have poured billions of dollars into the coffers of the military junta.

At the moment, they are opposing a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, but they do not offer an alternative. Do they wish to see the continued state of chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East or, even worse, another American invasion of a Muslim, Middle Eastern country with catastrophic consequences for everyone, including themselves?

Instead of looking for real or imaginary enemies outside, maybe with the new awakening of Arab masses, Arab regimes must change course and look for new alternatives. The main problem in most Arab countries is the lack of democracy and representative government. It is sad that in the entire Middle East the only countries that have a semblance of democracy with meaningful elections that are able to change the governments are Turkey, Iran and Israel.

Many Persian Gulf states are afraid of the Arab uprisings and are calling for stability, but what they mean by stability is to maintain the monarchical and despotic order that has been in place in most of the Arab states for many decades. Unfortunately for them, history does not stand still and the only way to remain immune from being swept away by the flood of change is to move forward with it. Arab masses are rising up and there is no way that money or suppression can buy their loyalty for long.

The only solution that will bring peace, stability and prosperity to the Arabs and to the entire Middle East is to push for reform at home and a regional security arrangement that will bring peace not only to the Arab states, but will also include Turkey, Iran and Israel.

After decades of hostility towards Israel and Iran and indirectly towards Turkey, they should look for new arrangements that will include all Middle Eastern countries in some form of a regional alliance. The so-called Gulf Cooperation Council excludes the two main Persian Gulf states, namely Iran and Iraq. As a first step, they should enlarge it to include all the Persian Gulf states, thus locking themselves into a regional security pact.

Whether the Arabs like it or not, Iran has existed in the Middle East for thousands of years and it is not going anywhere. Iran’s population is twice as large as that of the entire GCC countries combined, especially as a large part of the populations in those states consists of guest workers that lack citizenship and most basic rights.

A regional security pact can remove the anxiety of the smaller Persian Gulf states that they will be at the mercy of the bigger and more powerful neighbors. After enlarging the GCC, they must set up regional arrangements that will also include Turkey, Egypt and Syria. It is only with such a powerful regional grouping that Middle Eastern states will be able to stand on their own feet and remove the need for the presence of foreign forces in the region.

The next major act of reconciliation must be between Iranians and Arabs, or what Mr. Bishara calls the Sunni-Shiite divide. The Sunnis and Shi’is have lived in peace and harmony for centuries and there is no reason for them to continue religious hostilities that belong to the Middle Ages. Most of the Sunni-Shiite killing that is taking place now is political and can be stopped any time the countries that are funding and inciting them, stop doing so. The Iranians and the Arabs and later on the Turks have been the three main players in the Middle East for the past four thousand years.

After the Islamic conquests, Iran played a leading role in the spread of Islam to Central Asia, the Indian Sub-Continent and even to the Far East, and Iranian jurists, scholars, poets and artists made a unique contribution to the Islamic civilization. No less a figure than the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1400), the founder of the discipline of anthropology, wrote: “It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars … in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs… thus the founders of [Arabic] grammar were Sibwaih and after him al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent… They invented rules of grammar… Great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, ‘if learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persian would attain it’… The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them… as was the case with all crafts.” (10)

All this should not be interpreted as a form of Iranian chauvinism and xenophobia. On the contrary, it is a reminder of the fact that the Iranians, the Arabs and the Turks have collaborated throughout centuries to create one of the greatest human civilizations, which is sadly in decline at the present time.

That civilization will not be revived by hostility and exclusion, let alone by acts of terrorism, but by a genuine unity based on humility, democracy, human rights and keeping abreast of all the scientific, technological, artistic, and humanitarian concepts of the present age, while maintaining friendly and constructive relations with all other countries and civilizations.

Although any discussion of Israel in the Middle East produces gasps of horror, the fact is that Israel has also existed in the region for nearly seventy years, and as several Arab-Israeli wars have proven she is not going anywhere either. Instead of repeating old and mainly meaningless slogans, the time has come for Arabs and Iranians to recognize Israel, as well as forcing her to recognize the rights of the Palestinians.

This means the Israelis must be persuaded to accept the Arab League plan to recognize Israel within the 1973 borders, and to establish a Palestinian state on the occupied territories. The only way that Israel’s long-term presence and security in the Middle East can be safeguarded is through a genuine peace with her neighbors.

Military strength cannot be an end in itself but a means towards an end, which should be the acceptance of Israel by her neighbors as a Middle Eastern state, in return for the renunciation of force and expansionism by Israel. Iran that implicitly agreed with this plan when it was endorsed by the Islamic Conference Organization should openly declare that she would recognize Israel within those borders.

President Rouhani has already broken many taboos. His next important task is to recognize Israel and to push for the implementation of the Arab League peace plan. Such a policy would achieve universal support and would put an end to the senseless and dangerous Iranian-Israeli confrontation.

After many centuries of dispersion and persecution, mainly in the West, culminating in the terrible events of the Holocaust, the Jews have returned badly wounded to their original home in the Middle East. They should regard themselves not as conquerors or as a superior race, ignoring the rights of the Palestinians who have lived in the same area for thousand of years, but as a Middle Eastern people who wish to live in peace and dignity with their Middle Eastern neighbors.

In return, the Muslims should also welcome them as their own long-lost cousins who are taking refuge in the region as they have done so many times in the past. Peaceful cooperation between the Israelis and other countries in the Middle East would bring lasting peace and security to the Jews and would help create a more multi-cultural, vibrant, progressive and developed Middle East.

Instead of constantly looking backwards, the Arabs, the Turks, the Iranians and the Israelis must look forward and must realize that collaboration between them will lead to a much happier and more prosperous future than continuous enmity and hostility.

Therefore, rather than reacting with horror and disapproval to President Obama’s initiative, he should be encouraged to continue what he has set out to do, namely to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, bring Iran in from the cold and establish a peaceful and prosperous Middle East and North Africa. That will be the start of new beginnings in the Middle East.


1. See “Foxman slams Kerry remarks as White House courts Jewish leaders on Iran, Haaretz, 30.10.13.

2. See Laura Rozen, “White House meets Jewish leaders to press for delay in new Iran sanctions” Al-Monitor. 29.10.2013.

3. See Prince Turki Al Faisal speaks at Arab-US Policymakers Conference

4. See “Saudi Arabia warns of shift away from U.S. over Syria, Iran”, Reuters, 22 October 2013,

5. New York Times, October 27, 2013.

6. Gulf News, October 27, 2013

7. See “How much did the Gulf War cost the US?”

8. See Alastair Crook, Syria and Iran: The great game”, The Guardian, 4 November 2011,

9. Ibid

10. Quoted in Frye, R. N., Golden Age of Persia (London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1977, p. 91)

Farhang Jahanpour, a TFF Associate and Fellow of The Royal Asiatic Society, is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Isfahan and a former Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University. He is a tutor in the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.

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