It’s time for Iran to be­come a con­struc­tive part­ner in the Middle East

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Im­ple­men­ta­tion Day has rightly been hailed as a land­mark event that her­alds the re­turn of Iran into the fold of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. Com­ing at the end of months of tense diplo­matic ac­tiv­ity be­tween Tehran and the EU3+3, it is an­other piece of ev­i­dence that shows that Iran is able to en­gage in con­struc­tive en­gage­ment with out­side pow­ers. At the same time, there re­mains wide­spread scep­ti­cism in the re­gion about how Iran will come to be­have once eco­nomic sanc­tions are re­moved, and events such as the launch of bal­lis­tic mis­siles late last year do not help to in­still con­fi­dence among neigh­bours that Iran is a coun­try that can be trusted. It is up to Iran to now prove them wrong.

The op­po­si­tion to the nu­clear deal that was con­cluded on July 14 last year al­ready demon­strated that in many quar­ters, there were se­ri­ous reser­va­tions about Iran’s good faith and ul­te­rior mo­tives: Would it live by the terms of the agree­ment? And would it lead to Iran adopt­ing a dif­fer­ent stance to­wards the con­flicts rag­ing in the Middle East?

The fact that Iran man­aged to come to an agree­ment not just with the United States, but also with Rus­sia, the EU and China showed that it is able to build con­fi­dence with a di­verse ar­ray of play­ers. It also gave Tehran a lot of pre­cious in­ter­na­tional cur­rency - in the shape of in­ter­na­tional le­git­i­macy - which it can spend to con­sol­i­date its po­si­tion in the re­gion.

How­ever, in the months fol­low­ing the July agree­ment, in­stead of seek­ing to be­come an hon­est bro­ker in the var­i­ous con­flicts in the Middle East – in par­tic­u­lar in Syria – Tehran gave in to old re­flexes by send­ing ground forces into Syria, by prop­ping up Hezbol­lah in Le­banon, and pos­si­bly by sup­port­ing the Houthi rebels in Ye­men. Un­der­stand­ably, th­ese ac­tions only con­firmed the worst fears among Arab na­tions that Iran would use its new­found lev­er­age to spread its in­flu­ence around the re­gion through med­dling in for­eign con­flicts. What’s worse, Is­rael is con­cerned that Iran may use the Golan Heights for pur­poses of provo­ca­tion.

While it is un­der­stand­able and le­git­i­mate that Iran would seek to ce­ment its role in the re­gion, it is hard to ex­plain why it would do so in old-fash­ioned ways, rather than to seek to be­come the re­gion’s diplo­matic power bro­ker. At the end of the day, the more Iran is per­ceived as a re­li­able part­ner by the world’s great pow­ers in the West and the East, the more likely it is that coun­tries such as Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey will need to change their ways in­stead of giv­ing them ex­cuses to fan the flames against Iran, and try­ing to push it back into a cor­ner. What is more, a more re­li­able govern­ment in Tehran will also help to re­as­sure Western gov­ern­ments and in­vestors that Iran is a coun­try that ‘one can do busi­ness with.’ Fi­nally, the fact that Iran is not sus­pected to be in­volved in sup­port­ing or fi­nanc­ing net­works that com­mit ter­ror­ist acts in coun­tries out­side the Middle East would re­lieve Western coun­tries from some moral dilem­mas that they face when in­ter­act­ing with some Gulf coun­tries.

Of course, cer­tain con­ser­va­tive forces in­side the coun­try, in par­tic­u­lar those as­so­ci­ated with the Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard (IRGC), may have lit­tle in­ter­est in see­ing Iran be­come a force for good in the re­gion, and think they have a big­ger in­ter­est in Iran be­ing a spoiler abroad and main­tain­ing a closed econ­omy at home. In the long run, how­ever, such ap­proaches are nei­ther sus­tain­able nor nec­es­sary. Not sus­tain­able, be­cause the open­ing up of Iran to the world will put more pres­sure on the lead­er­ship to start re­form­ing and to give its young and ed­u­cated pop­u­la­tion more op­por­tu­ni­ties - and this is some­thing where Euro­pean coun­tries can pro­vide sup­port. Not nec­es­sary, be­cause sev­eral fac­tors give Iran enough lev­er­age to se­cure its po­si­tion in the re­gion and be­yond: as sup­plier of oil and gas to Europe, China among oth­ers; as a key el­e­ment in China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ strat­egy; and as an in­dis­pens­able se­cu­rity part­ner in the re­gion.

Game chang­ers, such as the nu­clear agree­ment con­cluded last July, only come once in a gen­er­a­tion. Iran can sim­ply not af­ford to squan­der this unique op­por­tu­nity to re­store its place among the power­bro­kers of the greater Middle East, and to be­come a re­spon­si­ble mem­ber of the world com­mu­nity. Hence, now is the time for Iran to defini­tively change its ways, and to show the way in be­ing part of the so­lu­tion to the re­gion’s ills, rather than its per­pet­u­a­tor.

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