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