When former Iranian Parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nori said few weeks ago that Bahrain was Iran’s 14th province, he caused a firestorm of angry protests from almost all of the Arab leaders particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Nateq Nouri, who is also Inspector General in the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, justified his words in context of blaming the former Shah regime for squandering Iranian rights to Bahrain by agreeing to let Britain grant its former protectorate full independence. Nouri’s remarks came while Bahrain is witnessing angry protests from its Shia citizens over the issue of naturalization of Sunni Arabs which the Shia oppose. Bahraini Shia citizens see the naturalization issue as government plot to change the demographic of the country in favor of Sunnis.
The Iranian Mullah was not speaking out of vacuum however. Iranians are very proud nation that was much bigger in its ancient past than the current borders. Iranians take pride in their ancient history and civilization and feel they ought to be respected as a regional powerhouse. One would think that the Islamic leadership of Iran would not have nationalistic claims against a fellow Muslim nation, which is contrary to Islamic teachings of emphasizing the religious bond over nationalistic one. But on the contrary, the mullah rulers of Iran come across as more nationalistic, as in this case, than the former Shah of Iran.
Along those lines, the Iranian nuclear program, for example, is therefore viewed in Iran as a national symbol and an achievement of the nation. The west attempts to curtail Iranian nuclear program are viewed as an insult to the Iranians and part of a larger western conspiracy to undermine the proud Iranian nation. This collective feeling of pride and Iranian nationalism provides a comfortable cushion for the Iranian regime to fall back on when threatened.
For example, the UAE holds that Iran occupies its three strategic Islands of Abu Musa and the two Tunbs while the Islamic republic of Iran fiercely defends its possession of these Islands as part of Iranian territory. Iran also makes a point in emphasizing the “Persian” in the Persian Gulf in order to counter the Arabs who also share that gulf but call it instead the Arabian Gulf. For Iranians, this is not simply a semantic game but rather serious nationalistic issue.
Iran-Arab relations took a downturn when President Barak Obama took office signaling to Iranians and Arabs, depending on their “unclenching of their fists” that the old U.S. militarist approach to international relations particularly on the issue of Iranian nuclear program will no longer be a U.S. policy.
With this realization, Arab governments particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, alarmed by the new U.S. approach, opted to raise their rhetoric against Iran utilizing the pretext of the 14th province comments as part of an orchestrated upmanship against Iran.
The new U.S. administration international policy is moving toward what Suzanne Nossel, the former Deputy U.S. Ambassador to U.N. for Management, termed in her 2004 essay in Foreign Affairs, as Smart Power” which is an integrated approach to foreign policy that combines both Soft and Hard power utilizing all aspects of U.S. influence of culture, trade, sports, diplomacy as well as military if needed. Smart Power was also mentioned by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her confirmation hearings as the new U.S. international approach in order to reshape the U.S. image and foreign policy .The U.S. needs to deal with the Iranian nuclear program in a manner different from the Bush administration which studiously ignored it while using threatening rhetoric against it. Obama’s administration needs Iran cooperation on Iraq and Afghanistan two areas of U.S. foreign policy that are key for the administration to show progress and success in order to re-orient the U.S. foreign policy toward more progressive and liberal Internationalist posture that is key to restore America’s image and prestige among nations.
This new approach worries the Arab states, particularly the small Arab Gulf states who think that a potential U.S. deal with Iran over its nuclear program might come at their expense. In exchange of Iran’s relinquishing its nuclear ambitions, which remains a possibility giving Iran’s previous suspension of its nuclear program in 2003 and 2004, and its cooperation on Iraq and Afghanistan, the thinking in the Arab World holds, that Iran will be allowed to dominate the Gulf region .This thinking if materialized will be an ominous development for the Gulf Arab region that with its own restive Shia citizens as in the case of Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia might see their hold on power contested by their own citizens.
Moreover, Gulf Arab countries might see more confidence in Iran’s behavior to interfere in their internal affairs especially after the elimination of Iraq, ironically with their help, as an Arab power imbued with chauvinistic Arab nationalism that stood against equally chauvinistic Iranian nationalism. Facing their new reality, Arab States led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt are scrambling to form a response to Iran’s emerging regional power, but giving the new U.S. policy and in absence of a collective Arab strategy and a vision for the future, that takes into account economic development and democratic change, Arab leaders might find it very hard to contain Iran’s increasing influence.
* Written for AlArabiya.net. Ali Younes is a Washington based writer and a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org