Editor’s Note: Read a response to this essay by the Israeli lawmaker Yair Lapid.
Iranians live in a troubled and unstable region. We cannot change geography, but our neighborhood was not always so stormy. Without delving too far back into history—although as an ancient peoples our memories are measured in millennia, not decades or even centuries—it’s safe to say that our region began to experience insecurity and instability when foreign, indeed completely alien powers, arrived and began interfering. The discovery of oil, a drug the West soon became addicted to, only strengthened colonial power projection into our region, and subsequently Cold War rivalry—both major factors in the U.S. and U.K. decision to overthrow the legitimate and democratic government of Iran in 1953—provided the fodder for further meddling by foreign powers and superpowers.
Today, what that meddling has wrought is a fractured Middle East. Steadfast allies of the West, rather than considering the plight or aspirations of their own peoples, spend their wealth arming themselves, sending to the West the riches their natural resources provide. They spend billions more of that wealth spreading Wahabbism—a medieval ideology of hate and exclusion—from the Far East to the Americas. They support organized non-state actors who wreak havoc through terror and civil wars. In the case of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE went as far as officially recognizing the Taliban as the government—becoming two of only three countries in the world that did so. The U.S., meanwhile, turned a blind eye to the ideology and funding that led to the creation of al-Qaeda—and its more recent offshoots of ISIS, Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish-al-Islam, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and the list goes on—and to the worst terror attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. The U.S. military presence in the region now aims to counter not just threats to America’s own interests, but also supposed threats to the very same allies that have supported the kind of terror now being visited on the cities of Europe and the United States.
These allies of the West—throughout their brief history as nations hostile to my country—pounced on Iran in the aftermath of our Islamic Revolution, which freed us from a dictatorship not unlike theirs and allowed us to set our own course in history, independent and peaceful but allied to neither East nor West. While we voluntarily set aside a domineering role in the region, they funded, armed, and supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. His eight-year war against us resulted in nothing but death and destruction, including the first battlefield use of chemical weapons since World War I—by Saddam against our soldiers, as well as against civilians—which was met with deafening silence by the international community.
We Iranians, punished for having the gall to declare ourselves free of domestic tyranny and foreign dominance, were denied even the most basic defensive weapons, even while missiles rained down on our cities to the cheers of our Arab neighbors. One of those neighbors, Kuwait, a major funder of Iraq’s war on us and the facilitator of its oil sales, shortly afterward became the victim of Saddam’s ambitions itself. Yet in the interest of regional peace and stability, we chose to support Kuwait’s sovereignty in the face of Iraqi invasion, despite Saddam’s offer to share the spoils with us; he even sent his fighter jets to Iran, ostensibly for safe-keeping, but really in an attempt to lure us to his side. Our leadership firmly rejected this offer despite the hostility, both overt and covert, some Persian Gulf states had shown us since the revolution. We preferred for our Persian Gulf neighbors to remain stable, functioning, independent countries, rather than enjoying the certain but brief satisfaction of seeing them receive their just deserts.
Today, some of those states—especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and, as a result of their expensive lobbying campaigns, the U.S.—claim Iran is interfering in Arab affairs and spreading insecurity throughout the region. Ironically, though, it is they who have waged war on their fellow Arab nation of Yemen, invaded Bahrain, embargoed their kin in Qatar, funded and armed terror groups in the war in Syria, and supported a military coup against an elected government in Egypt, all the while denying the most basic freedoms to their own restless populations. Iran, meanwhile, being stronger and older as an independent state than any of its neighbors, has not attacked another country in nearly three centuries. Iran doesn’t and won’t interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors.
Still, Arab affairs are Iran’s business. And we are not shy in admitting that non-Arab affairs are their business. How can they not be? We share borders, waters, and resources; we fly through each other’s airspace. We can’t not be interested in how our neighbors affect the part of the globe where we make our homes.
Our interest in our region’s affairs, though, is not malevolent. On the contrary, it is in the interest of stability. We do not desire the downfall of any regimes in the countries that surround us. Our desire—in principle and practice—is that all the nations of the region enjoy security, peace, and stability. Unfortunately, this is not the desire of some of some of our neighbors, whose untried leaders cherish the delusion of regime change in Iran, and support terrorist groups that seek to overthrow our government or create fear for the sake of wounding the nation. Our neighbors do this even while saying that Iran’s influence is spreading—especially since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement of 2015.
Iran’s influence, though, has spread not at the purposeful expense of others, but as a result of their and their Western allies’ actions, mistakes, and wrong choices. After the downfall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it was inevitable that Iran, which had housed those countries’ refugees and provided asylum to their political figures, would have greater “influence” with the friends who took over than would those who supported and financed the atrocities of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein against their own people. It was not Iran that prevented a churlish Saudi Arabia from opening an embassy in Baghdad for a decade after the fall of Saddam, nor was it Iran that insisted on war with Yemen or an embargo of Qatar.
Qatar, a country that we differ with on a number of serious issues, is a neighbor we do not want to see unstable. Nor do we want to see its independence questioned while it suffers under the thumb of its bigger Saudi brother. Since we could not allow its besiegement and suffocation, we have provided it with much-needed ports and an air corridor. We similarly showed immediate support for the democratically elected government of Turkey, which also differs from us on some issues, when it suffered a coup attempt. We brought our influence to bear in Lebanon, a troubled land where a unity government was formed after two years of objections by Saudi Arabia, which seemingly preferred the instability of infighting and sectarian divisions in the Levant to a functioning, successful state.
In Syria, we came to assist the people when, in the guise of mass protest following the Arab Spring, terrorist groups—including some aligned to al-Qaeda and Daesh—took up arms to seize power and establish a monstrous terrorist state characterized by mass and bloody beheadings. Some of the terror groups have at some point been directly or indirectly funded and armed by some of our neighbors, and in some cases by the United States itself. The millions of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes are not fleeing a man, a sect, or a government; they are fleeing war and terror. But no country has done more than Iran in the fight against Daesh and in preventing the formation of an anti-Islamic caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad.
Iran prioritized getting an agreement to solve the unnecessary nuclear crisis, precisely in order to prevent further instability in the region by eliminating one serious point of contention with Western powers. This, we hoped—and one would expect—would also benefit all our neighbors. Still, we did not neglect the other crises affecting the region, and on numerous occasions we offered plans, cease-fires, and negotiations to bring about an end to armed conflict. Almost all our offers fell on deaf ears—American and Arab alike. But just as we cannot and do not want to exclude major countries like Saudi Arabia from the regional stability equation, neither can we be excluded, for the instability of one nation affects the stability of all.
After the resolution of the nuclear crisis, our neighbors could have moved to increase trade and investment with us. They could have accepted our long-standing offer—repeated several times before and after the nuclear deal—to discuss a regional security arrangement. But they did the opposite: They doubled down on their hostility toward Iran and Iranians, and have done everything they can—from lobbying campaigns, to extreme flattery of the U.S. president, to refusing to even engage with us—to perpetuate the fallacy that Iran is the root of all problems in the region and must be confronted (or to use the popular Washington term, be “pushed back” against), before it destabilizes the entire world.
It is in this atmosphere—and mindful of our 20th-century experience with a neighbor that waged an eight-year war against our people while virtually the entire world took the side of the aggressor—that we endeavor to have a working defensive capability. It is because of the hostility shown to us since the Islamic Revolution, from within our own region and from the West, and because of the West’s refusal to sell us any defensive weaponry that might deter a future Saddam, that we have developed an indigenous capability. It includes missiles, which require testing to ensure that they perform as designed, and which are now accurate to within seven meters. (This kind of accuracy, incidentally, would be entirely unnecessary for a nuclear payload, which can miss an intended target by tens or even a hundred kilometers and still rain death and destruction on a wide area. But accuracy is absolutely crucial in striking military targets or specific terrorist camps while avoiding civilian or non-combatant deaths.) We purposefully excluded our defensive military capability from negotiations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally known, precisely because Iran will never abrogate its right to defend its citizens or delegate that right to an outside party. It is not intended as leverage or a bargaining chip in future negotiations. No party or country need fear our missiles, or indeed any Iranian military capability, unless it intends to attack our territory or foment trouble through terrorist attacks on our soil.
Saudi Arabia spends over $63 billion on defense annually, ranking 4th in the world behind only the U.S., China, and Russia. The UAE, a country with less than 1.5 million citizens, ranks 14th, with over $22 billion in annual defense spending. Iran doesn’t even make the list of the top 20 spenders: Its $12 billion puts it in 33rd place. It is hardly ramping up to be the new hegemonic bully in the neighborhood. Our goal is not to have the biggest or best-equipped military, or to possess trillions of dollars worth of weapons, but to have the minimum materiel required to deter and to counter threats and armed attack. Our biggest asset for stability, security, and independence is our people, who—unlike the citizens of some U.S. allies in the region—choose their government every four years.
We patrol the waters of the Persian Gulf—so named by Westerners centuries ago given that its longest shore by far is Iran’s—because Iran’s right to defend its territory from sea attack or subterfuge cannot be questioned. (Presumably, likewise, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy have not stopped patrolling the Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards.) If there are accusations warranted about “provocative behavior” in the Persian Gulf, Iran is surely the party to make them. U.S. warships and aircraft carriers the size of cities routinely bear down on Iranian naval vessels in waters that are only 10 kilometers wide in some parts. No one should expect us to ever forfeit our rights in this important waterway, which is central to our economic and national-security interests.
The Iran-phobia perpetuated by some of our neighbors—which in the age of rule by political neophytes has become a kind of hysteria—is now influencing the outlook of the U.S. This is true of the nuclear agreement and is evident more generally in the kind of open hostility toward Iran President Trump expressed in his 2017 UN speech. But the evidence for “bad behavior” by Iran is nonexistent. Iranian “aggression” is a myth, easily perpetuated by those willing to spend their dollars on American military equipment and public-relations firms, and by those promising to protect American interests rather than those of their own people. In the end, they serve neither.
The successful implementation of the nuclear deal—by Iran, at least—is proof of Iran’s good will and peaceful intentions. If we had hegemonic ambitions, an agreement would never have been reached. The JCPOA can in fact be a model for the diplomatic resolution of crises, and for peaceful outcomes in regional disputes. Rather than look at its shortcomings—for in any deal or bargain, there are shortcomings from the perspective of either side—it would behoove other countries beyond to look at its benefits. For there are also benefits for all sides, including for our immediate neighbors.
New leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, exhibiting the impetuosity of inexperience—as well as the hubris bred through a supremely sheltered and privileged upbringing—have embraced an aggressive regional stance. Fearing shame or failure, they may find it difficult to back down. But insisting on the wrong course won’t make it right. Vietnam should have taught that to America, and Afghanistan to the former Soviet Union. Our regional trouble should be teaching that to our neighbors. The right approach is not difficult to uncover—it just requires open eyes, an open mind, respect for the opinions and positions of others, and a willingness to engage and search for a mutually acceptable solution to any problem. We Iranians pledged to do that with six countries when we restarted negotiations on the nuclear issue in 2013. Even if one or more of the parties abrogates the deal without reason, or refuses to fully implement its side, the approach itself was the right one. Any failure, in the end, will not come from an inherent defect of the agreement, but from a lack of good faith that will only globally discredit the defectors.
But in thinking about how to move past regional stalemates—especially with regard to the spread of terror—it might be useful for our neighbors and their Western backers to take another, more careful look at past Iranian initiatives. Iran proposed a “Dialogue Among Civilizations” in 1998, well before 9/11 and before any notion of a “clash of civilizations” took hold among the general public. In 2013, President Hassan Rouhani proposed a “World Against Violence and Extremism” (WAVE), before Daesh became a household name. Both initiatives accurately diagnosed the enabling social, cultural, and global conditions that have encouraged the formation and spread of extremist violence—conditions that are too often forgotten in otherwise laudatory pledges to eradicate the scourge.
While clearly such forces as Daesh and its offshoots need to be defeated and their false promises exposed, a meaningful restoration of peace and stability to the Persian Gulf region hinges on the promotion of mutual understanding and regional security cooperation, which some of our neighbors have so far rejected. But there’s no reason we can’t cooperate. The ancient Persian game of chess requires either a winner, a stalemate, or surrender by one opponent in the face of defeat. It is a magnificent game, but it is just a game. In the real world, other outcomes are possible—there can be a “win-win” solution that doesn’t result in defeat for any side. To achieve this outcome, we should be erecting a working regional mechanism rather than laying more bricks in the wall of division. We can start with a regional dialogue forum, something Iran has always been—publicly and privately—in favor of.
Such a forum should naturally be based on respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of all states; the inviolability of international boundaries; non-interference in others’ internal affairs; the peaceful settlement of disputes; the impermissibility of threats or use of force; and the promotion of peace, stability, progress, and prosperity in the region. A forum based on these principles could eventually develop more formal nonaggression and security cooperation arrangements between all the parties, ensuring that the Persian Gulf does not remain a synonym for implacable troubles.
Iran will in the meantime continue on its own path of dialogue, mutual respect, and understanding. In that vein, in early October I held successful top-level meetings in Qatar and Oman, followed by a summit with Turkey in Tehran, addressing issues of paramount importance to the peace and stability of our neighborhood. It should be everyone’s fervent hope that we can have similar interactions with our other neighbors.
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