Iran is accused of conducting an aggressive foreign policy and being the biggest, and sometimes even the only, force destabilizing the Middle East. Iranian diplomacy, however, is trying to shape a completely different image of their country. One of its initiatives to serve this purpose is a project called Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE), which aims to establish a collective security dialogue in the West Asia sub-region. The feasibility of this plan is, however, deeply questionable.
JCPOA and the consequences of US withdrawal from the agreement
Already in 2016, Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, claimed that Iran wanted to build a regional security system and maintain good relations with all countries in the region. In 2017, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he also suggested that Iran could even work with Saudi Arabia to solve regional problems. At that time, Zarif was shining among the world’s elite. In essence, it was after the agreement on the Iranian nuclear deal i.e. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed, and before Donald Trump’s sanctions policy against Iran was reinstated.
The Republicans have always been critical of the JCPOA – and Donald Trump was no exception here. Since he took office as US President, the atmosphere around Iran has started changing. The last of the tensions between the US and Iran lessening had been terminated when the US withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and reinstated sanctions on Iran in November 2018. An escalation of tensions involved several severe crises throughout 2019. Iran was accused of the attacks on several tankers in the Gulf of Oman in May and June. It went as so far as war nearby being at hand on 20 June when Trump approved the bombing of Iran in response to Iran’s shooting down of a US drone. Nevertheless, the attack on Iran was canceled in the last minute.
In July, the United Kingdom and Iran seized each other’s tankers. International intervention in the Strait of Hormuz that was announced at that time, involving the introduction of military tanker convoys, did not take place because it turned out to be simply unrealistic. In the end, the United Kingdom released an Iranian tanker, and, in response, Iran did the same with the British one. However, an even more severe crisis soon followed, when in September, drone attacks struck two oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia, causing a dramatic (although short-lived) decline in oil production. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed the attack, but Saudi Arabia and the USA accused Iran of being responsible for it.
Through its actions, Iran has tried to show that any military action against it will meet with an adequate response – which was, in a way, a successful attempt. Consequently, Trump continued its economic ‘maximum pressure’ policy, accompanied by political sanctions involving the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council (IRGC) as a terrorist organization or attempts to isolate the country at the international level. Iran was unable to respond to economic sanctions and considered them to be a symptom of some kind of war. In return, it has recognized the entire US Army as a terrorist organization. However ridiculous it may sound; it was a logical step from Iran’s perspective.
Failed attempts to start new negotiations
US policy towards Iran has, however, encountered many restrictions. The sanctions proved to be effective in economic terms but hope that they would lead to a revolution in Iran proved to be vain. Protests were taking place, but they were not large enough to pose a threat to the Iranian political system. For this reason, Trump started offering an olive branch towards Tehran, suggesting that both countries could make a new deal. In September, he also unceremoniously dismissed the biggest supporter of a military solution in relations with Iran, former National Security Adviser John Bolton. A breakthrough was almost there at the end of September, during the UN summit, when Iranian President Hasan Rouhani met French President Emanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Macron also tried to get Rouhani and Trump to meet, or at least to talk on the phone. The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also attempted to act as an intermediary. It has also been reported that Iran was ready to renegotiate the JCPOA and introduce new control measures to its nuclear program. However, the meeting did not take place because the Iranians did not trust Trump and demanded that sanctions be lifted before the meeting and their concessions, which Trump did not agree to. Consequently, another confrontation between the US and Iran happened in December in Iraq, and the prospect of any talks was lost.
The problem with the renegotiation of the JCPOA is yet not how far Iran can go in controlling its nuclear program. There was no evidence that Iran violated the provisions of the agreement between its conclusion and termination by the US. However, the aim was to force Iran to give up its ballistic missile program and its providing of military support to its allies in the region. Concerning the former, Iran claims to have the right under international law to develop its missile capability as a form of self-defense. Moreover, from Tehran’s perspective, it is other countries that are pursuing an aggressive policy by destabilizing the region and militarizing it by purchasing weapons and creating bases of foreign (mainly American) forces on its territory.
The Middle East destabilization – mutual accusations
Allegations that Iran’s actions destabilize the Middle East are based on its support for Yemen’s Houthis, Iraqi Hashd a-Shaabi forces, the Bashar al-Assad regime, Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. From the perspectives of the USA, Saudi Arabia, or Israel, in effect Iran is supporting terrorism. However, the outlook depends on interests, and the recognition that Iran bears sole or even major responsibility for, for example, the war in Yemen, is objectively an extremely controversial thesis. In turn, Iran’s support for Assad’s regime or Iraqi Hashd a-Shaabi may be mostly linked to the fight against Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, though this is contended by Iran’s geopolitical rivals. In the case of Iraq, Hashd a-Shaabi is part of the country’s armed forces, and Iranian support technically took place with the consent of the Iraqi authorities. There are several proxy wars in the Middle East, and Iran takes part in some of them. However, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, or Israel not only participate in them, but also openly conduct military operations outside their country. Some arguments suggest that there would also seem to be an objective contradiction between considering it legitimate to support jihadist groups (fighting against, in any case, the government of Bashar al-Assad) and treating the support of Yemen’s Houthi as equal to support for terrorism, based on the legitimacy of the Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which is disputed by other entities.
Not everyone in the region perceives Iran as a destabilizing force, and the country, despite the efforts of the USA, is not internationally isolated. Attesting to this is Zarif’s intense diplomatic activity and the list of delegations at the Tehran Dialogue Forum in January, where Hormuz Peace Endeavor was promoted. At a minimum, Iran maintains diplomatic relations with Oman, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, as well as Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, and, of course, Russia. The list is longer, although understandably, different countries have different motivations for keeping their relations with Iran. Some states are simply afraid that they could become its targets in case of open conflict and therefore prefer to protect themselves. This applies even to one of the pillars of the anti-Iranian bloc in the region – the United Arab Emirates, which in the second half of 2019 began to de-escalate its tensions with Iran and withdraw from the war in Yemen. The reason for this was the three concerns that the UAE had. First of all, Yemen’s Houthi directly signaled that the skyscrapers in UAE could be destroyed by rocket fire. The effectiveness of the attack on Saudi oil processing facilities was a warning light for Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Secondly, the UAE would have lost a lot on the blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, and they preferred not to count on an unrealistic promise of convoys. Thirdly, economic ties between Dubai and Iran are intense despite sanctions and the Iranian-Emirati proxy confrontation in Yemen. In 2019, trade exchange between Dubai and Iran was estimated at 10-15 billion USD, and the value of Iranian investments in Dubai amounted to about 300 billion USD.
The assassination of Suleimani – reactions in the region
A lack of Iran’s isolation can also be seen in the world’s reaction to the killing of General Qassem Suleimani. The narrative seemed to be unambiguous in the West. Nevertheless, Tehran received condolences not only from countries and organizations unequivocally associated with the anti-American camp such as Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas (in this case, it reflects the strengthening of Iran’s influence also outside the Shiite world), but also from countries and entities considered to be allies of the US and which are hosting American troops, such as Oman or the authorities of Iraqi Kurdistan, and of course Iraq itself. The killing of Suleimani was condemned by Russia and China, as well as by Azerbaijan, Lebanon, and Pakistan, among others. A whole series of condolences came from Afghanistan, where US troops have been present for 18 years, including from President Ashraf Ghani and his main competitor Abdullah Abdullah. Furthermore, Hamid Karzai, the country’s first president, brought to power by the US after overthrowing the Taliban, also participated in the Tehran Dialogue Forum, where he even accused Americans of destabilization and praised Iran’s decisive (at least in his view) role in the Afghan peace process.
In the Middle East, only three countries unequivocally supported the killing of Suleimani: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and of course, Israel. What certainly was most painful for Trump was the reaction of Turkey (NATO member) and Qatar – home to the largest American base in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his condolences to Hassan Rouhani. Erdogan’s Turkey is far from joining any action against Iran. On the contrary, Ankara is not trying to hide that it wants to strengthen military cooperation with Tehran against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Iraq and Kurdish YPG troops in Northern and Eastern Syria. It is also known that General Suleimani had close relations with the head of the Turkish intelligence Hakan Fidan. Moreover, prior to the conclusion of the JCPOA, Erdogan and several ministers of the then Turkish government allegedly had been involved in secret gold trading with Iran, circumventing international sanctions.
Qatar found itself in an awkward situation after Suleimani was killed, as it was from its territory that the drone that was behind the attack took off. That is why Qatar has not only expressed its phone condolences or simply condemned this attack. The following day, the head of Qatar diplomacy Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani flew to Tehran, and a considerable representation from the Qatar MFA participated in the Tehran Dialogue Forum, which began three days after Suleimani’s assassination. A few days later, the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani flew to Tehran himself.
Tehran Dialogue Forum – diplomatic success without concrete action
The Tehran Dialogue Forum conference was a large-scale event, although it was practically nonexistent in the Western media. This was due to Iran’s policy itself, whose regulations make it impossible for foreign media to send a correspondent to such an event in an instant. Therefore, if Iran wants to improve its image in the world through such events, it has to be more consistent in its PR policy and liberalize visa regulations for journalists. The conference was attended by a considerable number of local journalists, as well as representatives of all diplomatic missions present in Iran. The event was also attended by Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, China’s Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraq, former President of Afghanistan, as well as large representations from Pakistan, Qatar, and Kuwait. However, there was no diplomatic representation from Syria and no representatives of Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthi, Islamic Jihad, and other non-state allies of Tehran. In turn, Russia was represented only by a young expert in one of the local think tanks. Almost half of the guests, on the other hand, were Western European experts, some of whom were journalists, but were unable to perform their role due to Iranian restrictions.
The conference, therefore, was not a PR success, for which Iran itself is responsible. For this reason, this event did not contribute to the media promotion of Hormuz Peace Endeavor. It was, nevertheless, a de facto diplomatic success of Iran, and Minister Zarif in particular. This success was not so much in gaining regional support for Hormuz Peace Endeavor, but rather in demonstrating that Iran is far from being isolated. Concerning the initiative itself, the debate remained highly vague and theoretical and did not bring any tangible results.
Hormuz Peace Endeavor – collective security and cooperation
The idea of the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, which, not unintentionally, has the acronym HOPE, was presented by President Hassan Rouhani to the UN General Assembly in September. Its aim is the creation of a collective security system in the West Asia region. It concerns, therefore, a broader region than just the Middle East, stretching from Pakistan to Turkey. It asserts rhetoric that security ought to be guaranteed by respecting principles such as non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, respect for territorial integrity, and respect for borders. Above all, however, it would be based on mutual trust rather than armaments and the presence of foreign military bases. This is the essence of the whole idea and, at the same time, its biggest problem.
At the conference in Tehran, Zarif sharply criticized the notion of “buying security”, consisting of the dependence of countries in the region on foreign (mainly American) military aid, namely the sale of weapons and the presence of military bases. In Iran’s view, this kind of “buying” not only does not provide security but also makes people dependent on a “protector” who is continuously intensifying the threat in order for the “protected” to need help. According to Iran, the US military presence in the region has not led to the elimination of any problems but has only worsened them. It is therefore intended to serve as proof that the countries of the area must break with the philosophy of “buying security”.
The participants of the conference generally hinted signs of agreeing with Iran’s idea, but discussions on details were avoided. What was criticized by name was only Israel and the USA and the international military presence in Iraq (because the Iraqis themselves criticize it). However, the question of the presence of American military bases in any other country was not raised, and yet almost all the countries in the region that participated in this conference have them. Even the criticism of the countries of the region that were absent – primarily Iran’s main rival, Saudi Arabia – was moderate. Iran stresses that the project is open to all, and it is willing to discuss it with Saudi Arabia. During the debate at the Tehran Forum, it was also argued that abandoning the ‘buying security’ system in favor of the proposed ‘collective security’ concept requires mutual trust, which is not abundant in the region.
The foundations of HOPE may somewhat resemble the Westphalian order introduced after the Thirty Years’ War in 17th century Europe. It is attractive for many Middle Eastern regimes not to interfere with each other in their internal affairs, and thus to allow other states to suppress any opposition movements ruthlessly – noting that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are accused of such interference in the region. It should be recalled that in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring affected almost all countries of the region. Individual actors, however, generally applied double standards when they were “supporting democracy” in the case of their opponents, and “legal authorities” in the case of themselves or their supporters. After all, nobody in the region gained anything, and almost everyone lost. Is it enough for regional regimes to conclude that it is time to change policies and get along?
The political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Abbas Araghchi went even further and compared HOPE to European integration or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), adding that the countries of the region can benefit from cooperation on such levels as nuclear energy. Given that the Iranian nuclear program is a bone of contention, this was a relatively symptomatic statement.
Author: Witold Repetowicz