In one Middle Eastern country, the practice of any religion other than Islam is banned, women are not allowed to drive, the screening of films is forbidden, there are no elections and last year 87 people were publicly beheaded.
In the other, religious minorities have seats reserved in parliament, and churches, synagogues and Zoroastrian temples to pray in, there are three female vice-presidents in the government, the country’s film directors have a worldwide reputation and one of its films won an Oscar in 2012, parliamentary and presidential elections take place, and the state does not behead people.
Yet the former country is a close ally of the West while in the past the latter has been labelled part of the “axis of evil” by the US.
The two countries are Saudi Arabia and Iran. And while the comparison above may seem somewhat trite and shallow, skipping over far more than it reveals, it is nonetheless a timely reminder of the way in which values can be subordinated to interests in the world of international relations.
Of course, the values v interests dilemma in determining foreign policy is hardly unique to the Middle East. But in light of the security threat posed by radical Sunni Islamic groups and the prospect of a post-nuclear rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, it is worth asking whether the West’s interests may be better served by moving towards a closer engagement with Iran and adopting a more nuanced approach to our relations with the Arab states.
Some of the Gulf states’ security relationships with Britain date back more than a century and Washington and Riyadh have had diplomatic relations since 1933.
The US has been the Gulf Arab states’ security guarantor for decades, in return gaining base facilities and a lucrative market for military sales. Between October 2010 and October last year, for example, the US inked arms deals worth $90 billion with Saudi Arabia. President Francois Hollande of France recently signed a $9bn deal with Qatar to provide it with fighter aircraft.
Such defence relationships are strategically and economically important to the West.
But the Arab and Gulf states in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, since the 1979 revolution in Iran, have viewed Tehran as their principal security threat. Any shift away from a Western strategy of containment of Iran therefore would be seen as coming at the expense of Sunni Arab interests.
The tendency to see every security issue through the Iranian and/or sectarian prism has led Saudi Arabia to a chaotic and sometimes contradictory approach to regional foreign policy. Official and unofficial financial and logistical support, for instance, has been provided to armed opposition groups in Syria with little regard for their ideological outlook or antecedents. This has made an already complex situation more dangerous.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has joined the US-led coalition that is bombing Islamic State targets in Syria.
It supports Sunni opposition groups trying to topple the minority Alawite-controlled regime in Damascus, while sending troops to Bahrain to help the minority Sunni monarchy suppress the majority Shia population’s calls for political and social reform.
Contradictory decisions of this sort are the product of Saudi Arabia’s sclerotic political system, which centralises decision-making at the expense of nuanced and robust policy debate. The intense lobbying by the Saudi government for a seat on the Security Council last year, only for Riyadh to refuse to accept the seat after it won the vote because it sees the UN as “ineffective”, is another example.
But the Saudis’ view that regional security is a zero-sum competition with Iran ignores the two most significant limitations on Iran’s freedom of action. In an overwhelmingly Sunni region, Iran is Shia; and in an overwhelmingly Arab region, it is Persian.
In the immediate aftermath of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini publicly staked a claim for the leadership of the Muslim ummah, or community of believers. His belief that Iran could legitimately lead the Islamic world never came to pass, as efforts to spread the revolution through Shi’ites in Gulf Arab states withered in the face of the demographic and cultural realities in their home countries.
It was only in Lebanon that Iran found fertile ground to spread its religious message, and more recently in Iraq.
Iran’s relations with Syria were cultivated over a long time, based on pragmatic strategic considerations rather than ideological affinity. For all the talk of a Shia crescent emerging in the Middle East, the reality is that Iran’s ethnic and religious status as an outsider has meant that it exerts influence in the Arab world largely through proxies rather than directly. While this is an effective strategy, it limits the influence.
The West shares few, if any, cultural, societal or ideological values with our allies or our putative enemies in the region. Secular liberalism, a spirit of academic and social inquiry and a free and open press have not found fertile ground in the Middle East and there is little indication that they will in the foreseeable future.
There is a complete absence of meaningful political reform in the hereditary monarchies or in Iran’s theocratic system. Whereas foreign policy architects in the past have often sought to promote liberal values while accepting that our allies in the Middle East seek to suppress them, perhaps it’s time we looked instead at crafting a security policy that focuses on the biggest threats and places a greater emphasis on shared values.
Such a policy should start with the premise that the greatest threat to security in the region is the exponential growth of radical Sunni groups. The unfortunate reality is that while Iraq and Syria have provided the theatres in which these groups operate, it is the neighbouring societies from which they come and the rote-learning education systems through which they pass that gives them the ideological impetus to believe that God sanctions killing unbelievers — while denying them the analytical skills to refute such concepts.
Given the decentralised religious leadership in Sunni Islam, such groups are likely to continue to exist in the absence of reform. It is little wonder that Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Jordan have contributed the largest number of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq.
Tehran shares the West’s concerns regarding Sunni extremism. Its geographic, religious and historical realities also mean that it will remain influential in Iraq. There is already indirect co-ordination in Iraq between the US and Iranian militaries, and the extended nuclear negotiations have facilitated person-to-person contacts between US and Iranian officials to a degree unprecedented in more than three decades.
In Syria there is the rather anomalous situation where Iranian-supported groups are fighting the same Salafist groups that the US is bombing, while defending a regime that the US and Saudi Arabia are keen to remove from power.
Despite the situation in Syria, the degree to which the West and Iran share security concerns has never been more significant and the level of familiarity between individuals in government has never been greater.
In the event that a nuclear agreement is signed and sanctions against Iran begin to be lifted, there will never be a more propitious time to reconsider the security relationship with Tehran.
This is not to advocate a fundamental realignment of security arrangements. The region remains too important in terms of global energy reserves as well as trade and investment for the US to do anything other than remain the security guarantor.
However, that guarantee should not necessarily be predicated on accepting Iran as a security threat. Were it to be seen instead as a Saudi competitor, a much more substantive relationship could be established with Iran.
What form such a relationship might take is hard to say. As in all efforts to rekindle relationships after an extended estrangement, things would need to be taken slowly. Diplomatic relations could be restored, and intelligence exchanges could begin in areas of mutual interest such as radical Islamist groups.
Then, at some stage in the future, a modus vivendi could be reached whereby each side’s security interests are implicitly acknowledged.
There are, of course, significant hurdles to overcome before closer security engagement can be contemplated. Foremost is the question of Israel.
Although most Arab states do not accept the legality of the state of Israel, their attitude is generally one of studied ignorance. They do not threaten Israeli security.
Iran under the shah had good relations with Israel, but the Islamic Republic questions Israel’s legitimacy, and supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian group Hamas, both of which engage in armed conflict against Israel.
It is hard to see security co-operation occurring to any significant degree with Iran as long as these groups remain armed and on Israel’s borders, and Tehran continues to support them.
The next big question is the degree to which Iranians in general would accept closer security relations with the West. Certainly the increasingly tired chants of “Death to America” testify to the revolutionary-era view of the West, but there is an older suspicion among some Iranian nationalists about such relations.
Even before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian secular intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad had coined the term gharbzadegi (loosely translated as “Westoxification”) to describe the impact of Western social, economic and political norms on Persian culture.
The term was later co-opted by Iranian socialist intellectual Ali Shariati in a more revolutionary sense.
In an increasingly globalised world, though, it would be interesting to see how much cachet the concept of Westoxification has retained.
If the Sunni Arab world fears Iranian aggression against its sovereign territories, the US security agreements and basing arrangements should ameliorate those concerns.
If, however, the real concerns are about loss of regional influence, the US should remain aloof from the competition. We have seen this phenomenon at work in Syria, Bahrain and more recently in Yemen, where Gulf states’ use of the Iranian bogeyman as the justification for intervention has placed Washington in a difficult position with respect to the type and degree of support that it provides, and its concerns about the extent to which Riyadh has thought through the implications of its intervention.
Foreign policy ideally should be forward-looking while acknowledging the past. And if one looks forward, there is a strong argument that a closer relationship with Tehran may well deliver greater security and other benefits than if the present security architecture remains intact.
Although the security relationship with the Arab states is of long standing, that should not exempt it from re-examination. In an increasingly complex and fractured region in which radical Sunni Islamist non-state actors present the greatest security threat in the short and medium terms, the West should look at engaging more closely with other states that share this view.
There is little doubt that Tehran does, and Iran and its proxies and allies are fighting the Islamists on several fronts. Now is the time for the West to critically re-examine the Middle Eastern shibboleth that regional security is a zero-sum game, and to see if there is a way for Iran to be dealt into the game.
Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at Sydney’s Lowy Institute for International Policy and an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College.