Has Iran Changed? – Prince Turki Al-Faisal

Published: January 9, 2014

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Editor’s Note:

The 7th President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Hassan Rouhani took office on August 3, 2013 replacing the controversial and provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in his two four-year terms oversaw increasingly belligerent relations with the West and its neighbors. It was not certain, however, according to political and security consultant James Spencer [“New Player, Old Rules“], that the “less abrasive” Rouhani was a true break with the past. Writing in The Majalla he said:

“Three issues have bearing on whether Rouhani is a new broom, or merely (as Ahmadinejad initially styled himself) the loyal sweeper of the Rahbar, or “leader,” as the constitution calls the office occupied by Ayatollah Khamenei. The first is Rouhani’s own philosophy, the second his level of control in the complex skein of power in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the third is the ability (and willingness) of the Iranian ship of state to alter course radically in a short time.”

In short order Rouhani began to show a new face which included a charm offensive toward the West, especially the United States, at the United Nations General Assembly opening in September. In his speech in New York Rouhani said, “At this sensitive juncture in the history of global relations the age of zero sum games is over..” The diplomatic opening led to a milestone telephone conversation between Rouhani and US President Barack Obama, breaking 34 years of American-Iranian estrangement begun in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution.

For Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding King Abdullah’s congratulatory message to Rouhani after his election, breaking the current icy relationship with Iran appears more problematic. Gulf specialist Professor F. Gregory Gause addressed the question of Riyadh-Tehran relations, especially the hopes for reducing the “increasingly sectarian regional struggle for influence.” Gause writing for the Brookings Iran@Saban blog, noted the context for a thaw now was more problematic than during previous attempts:

“While Rouhani’s election is certainly cause for optimism, it is important to note that the regional geopolitical circumstances of the late 1990’s Saudi-Iranian rapprochement are substantially different from those today. Both the Saudis and the Iranians could at least agree then that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. The fall in oil prices in the late 1990’s brought the two together, with other OPEC and non-OPEC producers, to cut oil production and push prices back up. Riyadh and Tehran had plenty of disagreements, but they also had a few common interests. It is hard to see those common interests today.”

The Rouhani government negotiated an interim agreement with the P5+1 group (UN Security Council Permanent Five plus Germany) in late November addressing the Iranian nuclear program and the international sanctions regime, for at least six months, and further signaling a new approach in dealing with the West. That new approach worries some American allies in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, that a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran might be at the expense of their interests.

Last month SUSRIS talked with Prince Turki Al-Faisal in Riyadh about the challenges for US-Saudi policy relations, the civil war in Syria and Iran’s changing approach to relations with the West and its neighbors. Prince Turki, who is not currently in the Saudi government but frequently conveys the views of Riyadh officialdom, commented on the new Iranian President’s overtures. He told SUSRIS:

“We have seen a very concerted effort by Iran to come across to us on the western side of the Gulf as being willing to engage in fruitful conversations and to discuss issues of differences with us. And I described it in Bahrain as the “broad smile” that Iran is directing towards us. It is welcome.

“We have always been smiling at Iran. We’ve never has inimical intentions toward Iran. So if they can translate that smile into equally broad steps that they take to reassure us in the Gulf that they have no intent to continue interfering in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Bahrain, along the littoral coastline of the Gulf with Shia communities and so on, then that would be a welcome sign from them that they want to join the region instead of being away from it.”

Prince Turki has been in the forefront of Saudi voices critical of Iranian behavior in the region. Beyond the question of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program Riyadh has pointed to Tehran’s “meddling” in Arab affairs especially its support of the Syrian regime. In October he presented his view on Iran’s history, traditions, culture, leadership, role in Islam, and current conflicts with its neighbors in remarks to the National Iranian-American Council in Washington.

“The Iranian leadership has the opportunity to share so much of Iran’s heritage and wisdom with other Muslims. But if they wish to gain the respect of other countries, they must first show respect to the traditions, heritage, and political identity of their peers. The election of Hassan Rouhani, who does not claim Arab lineage, may be an opportunity for Iran to trim its sails and steer a new course in the turbulent waters of the Middle East; or it may not. After all, Rafsanjani and Khatemi came to office with progressive ambitions only to be stymied by Khamenei. The 2009 election upheaval was a sign that things are not as usual; nor is the tranquility of the 2013 election. Rouhani will have to deliver before others take him seriously. King Abdallah welcomed Rouhani’s election and wished him well, the King also invited the new President to perform Hajj this year, which unfortunately, he has declined to accept. Saudi Arabia favors engagement with Iran, and President Obama’s overture to Rouhani will hopefully lead to Iran’s return to the International community as a contributor to peace and stability. Rouhani’s sensible discourse is in distinct contrast to Ahmedinejad’s bluster and bombast. With the world community opening its arms to embrace Rouhani, his major obstacle lies in the forces of darkness in Qum and Tehran. He has to shed Khomeini’s interventionist legacy and, like his own discourse, adopt sensible policies.”

Meanwhile James Spencer offered a similar cautionary note about the prospects for change in the Iranian regime:

“While it is doubtless tempting for the West to regard the end of Ahmadinejad’s tenure as ushering in a reformist, and man with whom they can do business (as Reagan felt of Gorbachev), wiser heads will see Rouhani as merely a more palatable expression of the same mentality. For the Arabs, who have known Persian assertiveness and Twelver Shi’a propagation down the ages, there is little new under the sun. Let us hope that their reticence is over-cautious.”

Today we present for your consideration an op-ed from Prince Turki Al-Faisal, published this week, in which he examines the “new” face of Iran, the one with the “big smile.” He points out that Riyadh is prepared to deal with Iran whether it is in fact changing or if it is pursuing the same objectives under a different veneer. He warns the world to be similarly wary.

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Has Iran Changed?
Prince Turki Al-Faisal

As 2014 begins, there is no more important question in world diplomacy than this: Has Iran changed? Since his election in June, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled a more moderate stance in his country’s international relations. But caution is in order – now and in the years ahead. The world’s second-largest oil producer, and self-proclaimed leader of Shia Islam and anti-Western Muslim revolutionaries everywhere, remains a danger not just to Saudi Arabia but also to peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond.

Saudi Arabia has two large concerns about the Islamic Republic: its quest for nuclear weapons and its interference in its neighbors’ affairs.

Map Saudi Iran GreenFor starters, Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons pose a huge danger, and, if left unchecked, are likely to trigger a wave of proliferation across the Middle East. Faced with a nuclear-armed Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council members, for example, will be forced to weigh their options carefully – and possibly to acquire a nuclear deterrent of their own.

While all countries have the right to develop a civilian nuclear program – we Saudis have our own – Iran’s attempt to pursue nuclear weapons has brought nothing but hardship to the country. Unfortunately, the international community’s increasingly severe economic sanctions have so far failed to deter its leaders’ ambitions. If Rouhani proves unwilling or unable to engineer a change of course, what else might be done?

A unilateral military strike would carry potentially dire consequences. Alas, given US President Barack Obama’s lamentable handling of the crisis in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may conclude that he has no option but to go it alone. Indeed, Iranian hardliners may welcome an Israeli strike, and even seek to provoke it, as a means of rallying the Iranian population behind them.

There is a better way to prevent the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the region: a “WMD-free zone,” built on a system of incentives that include economic and technical support for countries that join, as well as security guarantees from the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members. The zone should also enforce economic and political sanctions on states that choose to remain outside, and – again, supported by the Security Council’s permanent members – impose military sanctions on those that try to develop WMDs.

Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would only heighten Saudi Arabia’s second major concern: the Iranian government’s policy of destabilizing its neighbors. Iran has been using such tactics since 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power and began exporting his Islamist revolution across the Muslim world. The regime has specifically targeted countries with Shia majorities, such as Iraq and Bahrain, and those with significant Shia minorities, such as Kuwait, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran also occupies three Emirati islands in the Gulf (a policy that it refuses to discuss) and has in effect launched an invasion of Syria.

The irony is that Iran is the first to assert the principle of non-intervention when it suspects other countries of meddling in its internal affairs. It should practice what it preaches. Iran has no right to meddle in other countries, least of all Arab states.

The impact of this policy has been devastating. In the aftermath of the US-led invasion, Iraq, a country of highly capable and diverse people that could one day return to its pivotal role in the Arab community, has become a playground for Iranian influence. Too many Iraqis are now completely beholden to the Islamic Republic. We know, for example, that a certain Iranian general was negotiating on behalf of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the support of Shia and Kurdish groups.

This influence bodes ill for Iraq’s future as an ethnically and religiously diverse country, and it cannot be allowed to continue. Indeed, it is one reason why Saudi Arabia maintains an equal distance from all Iraqi factions, and why we are the only country not to have sent a permanent ambassador. Yet we will work with the Iraqi people in whatever way we can to encourage the emergence of a stable, constructive, and independent member of the Arab world.

Iran’s influence in Bahrain, our closest neighbor, is similarly destructive. Hezbollah in Bahrain, created by Khomeini, has long been a source of Iranian propaganda in broadcasts beamed at the country. Indeed, Iranian officials often declare that Bahrain is a province of Iran. Saudi Arabia has supported peaceful negotiations with street protesters in Bahrain, and has provided the country with considerable economic aid to improve life there, but we will never accept an Iranian takeover.

The picture is even worse in Syria, where, from the outset of the country’s civil war, Iranian support for President Bashar al-Assad has amounted to a criminal act for which Iran’s leaders should be tried at the International Criminal Court. And Syria’s western neighbor, Lebanon, is increasingly coming under Iran’s sway, as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah there pushes the country to the brink of another civil war.

The main question now is whether Rouhani can be trusted. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah welcomed Rouhani’s election and wished him well, in the hope that this might allow him to escape the clutches of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s extremist entourage and the Revolutionary Guard.

But the forces of darkness in Iran are well entrenched. The legacy of Khomeini’s expansionist ambitions is as powerful as ever. Even if Rouhani’s intentions are genuine, his efforts, like those of two previous would-be reformers, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may be thwarted by the hardline ideology that continues to dominate in Tehran. We are prepared for either eventuality. The world should be as well.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal’s op-ed appeared January 8, 2014 at Project-Syndicate.org

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About Prince Turki Al-Faisal

People Prince Turki Al-Faisal Georgetown OfficePrince Turki is Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and is one of the founders of the King Faisal Foundation. He served as the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United States of America from September 13, 2005 until February 2, 2007. He also serves as a member of the Boards of Trustees of the International Crisis Group and the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies and is co-chair of the C100 Group, which has been affiliated with the World Economic Forum since 2003. Prince Turki was appointed an Advisor in the Royal Court in 1973. From 1977 to 2001, he served as Director General of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the Kingdom’s main foreign intelligence service. In 2002, he was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland by then Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz.

Born on February 15, 1945 in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki began his schooling at the Taif Model Elementary and Intermediate School. In 1963, he graduated from the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey and subsequently pursued undergraduate studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The King Faisal International Prizes, awarded by the King Faisal Foundation, are presented to “dedicated men and women whose contributions make a positive difference.” These annual prizes, which are awarded in five fields of endeavor – Service to Islam, Islamic Studies, Arabic Language and Literature, Science, and Medicine – have been likened, for the Arab and Islamic worlds, as similar in stature to, and nearly as coveted as, the more renowned and longer established annual Nobel Prizes. The King Faisal International Prizes, in addition to being bestowed upon Arabs and Muslims, have been granted to outstanding achievers from virtually all corners of the world.

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