Outside View: U.S. Should Talk to Iran

Shireen Hunter

(courtesy of United Press International)

The recent visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Saudi Arabia can be an important step toward setting up a regional security structure in the Persian Gulf and eventually in the Middle East in general. Most Western and Arab commentators, however, interpreted this visit as a sign of Iran's desperation because of its increasing isolation, plus the reassertion of Saudi Arabia's regional role.

Clearly, the Iranian leadership is apprehensive about the enormous risks that its current standoff with the West entails for its interests, and it is concerned about a potential Sunni front, including Arab and non-Arab countries. Iran is also aware that Syria, Hamas, and perhaps even Hezbollah would forego their ties with Tehran if they were offered a good deal from the Israelis, wealthy Arabs, or the West -- not a totally unrealistic scenario. In short, Iran has realized that it cannot win the regional game at everybody else's expense.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states also feel vulnerable to the destabilizing effects of rising sectarian tensions and violence and the dangers of another war in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia's rich Eastern Province is inhabited by impoverished and disenfranchised Shias. Presently, they are not a serious security threat. But this could change if sectarian tensions worsened or if war broke out between Iran and the West. Moreover, there are considerable numbers of Shias in countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, which border on Saudi Arabia.

Further, notwithstanding Saudi abhorrence of a Shia-dominated Iraqi government, possibly with close links to Iran, the prospects of an al-Qaeda-inspired government in Iraq also cannot be all that comforting to the Saudis. After all, al-Qaeda and its operatives see the Saudi leadership as enemies of Islam and agents of the West. It should also be remembered that belonging to the same faith is no guarantee of amity among states. After all, during the last 50 years, most direct threats to Saudi leadership have come from other majority Sunni or Sunni-ruled Arab states -- Egypt and Iraq -- and not from Shia Iran.

Saudi Arabia's high gear regional diplomacy has also failed to produce results either in Lebanon or in Palestine, thus showing the limits of its power to resolve regional disputes by itself.

The Saudis cannot be sanguine about the course of a military confrontation between Iran and the West. Iran, if attacked, could not do much to harm Saudi Arabia directly. But the conflict, leading to Iran's decimation, would negatively impact Saudi interests by, among other things, reducing Saudi Arabia's value to the West, since there would be no further U.S. enemies against whom Saudi Arabia could act as a bulwark. Israel, too, would lose interest in an Israeli-Sunni alliance. Indeed, Saudi Arabia itself might loom as the next threat to be contained by the West.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the region as a whole, would gain much from cooperation in terms of diffusing the rising sectarian tensions, contributing to Iraq's stability as an independent and multi-confessional state, and helping to end the Lebanese stalemate. Most important, Saudi-Iranian cooperation could become the basis for developing a new security structure in the Persian Gulf, based on the principles of shared responsibility and the abandonment of any idea of hegemony by the two big Gulf powers.

Such a structure could also enable the West to contain Iran without recourse to drastic economic or military measures. After the 1991 Gulf War, the West's unwillingness to include Iran in any regional security system prevented any forward movement. Formulas such as mating the Gulf Cooperation Council countries with Egypt and Syria led nowhere, and a golden opportunity was lost to try forging broader regional security cooperation.

Now it would be wise for the West at least to support talks about a regional security structure, beginning with Saudi-Iranian cooperation. Clearly, such a structure must have an international, and most importantly, U.S. component. Iran seems to have come to realize this fact, as reflected in Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani's comment at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February that any regional security system would be subject to international supervision.

Ultimately, security in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf is indivisible; either every one, including Israel, will be secure, or no one will be secure, at least not for long. Iran is clearly part of this mix: its security cannot be separated from that of its neighbors, in both directions. It is time for the regional countries and the West to recognize this fact, to abandon failed, divisive, and exclusionary policies, and to work for security for all.

Shireen Hunter is a Visiting Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.