[Prefatory Note: The post below is a modified text of an August 2, 2023 interview by the Iranian journalist, Javad Heiran-Nia. The text containing my responses was published in the periodical, Tahrir Bazaar [link: < https://www.tahlilbazaar.com/news/235594/Professor-Falk-China-s-influence-in-the-Persian-Gulf-has-worried>] The focus is upon the regional dialogue scheduled for September 2023 between Iran and Iraq and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formed in 1981. It is a notable recent breakthrough by way of a new series of diplomatic initiatives to replace tensions with stability in the Middle East, and in the process gaining political independence from U.S./Israel hegemony. This development also reflects the increased involvement of China in the region, most strongly evident in promoting normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and by creating the political space to give Saudi Arabia and OPEC the self-confidence needed to set oil production and pricing on the basis of national interests rather than in response to international pressures exerted by oil-importing countries.]
1. It is planned to hold a meeting this September at the initiative of the Secretary General of the United Nations with the participation of the foreign ministers of eight countries of Iran and Iraq and GCC members. The Secretary General’s initiative for regional dialogue is included in UN Security Council Resolution 598, which led to the end of the Iran-Iraq war. What is your assessment of this meeting?
It is notable that SC Res. 598 adopted in 1987 has not yet been implemented more than 35 years later. In view of the intervening conflicts, especially the Gulf War in 1991 and the US/UK in 2003 attack on Iraq, which was undertaken without UN authorization and in violation of the UN Charter this long delay is hardly surprising. Violations included recourse to international sanctions, non-defensive force, ‘shock and awe’ tactics. regime-changing intervention, prolonged occupation, denial of sovereign rights, failed state-building, it is notable that this old conflict resolution and war prevention resolution is being revived in this new serious, seemingly stability-seeking spirit. At this stage it is difficult to anticipate what will result from the September meeting because of the diverse motivations of the direct participants and attitudes of such leading influential international actors as the U.S. and China have not been disclosed. The willingness of the eight participating states to agree to hold an exploratory regional dialogue that includes Iran and Iraq is itself an encouraging development, suggesting that Israel, as well as the United States’ has less regional leverage in 2023 than previously for several interrelated reasons.
It is worthy of comment that the forthcoming regional dialogue is structured in a way that brings Iran and Iraq into conversation with Gulf countries rather than the entire Arab Middle East or the region as a whole. Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen have been excluded (along with Israel), and presumably were never invited. This diplomatic framework with its ad hoc sponsorship can also be understood as substituting the regional and sub-regional actors for the U.S. and even China as a preferred path to realizing a ‘comprehensive, just, honorable, and durable’ peace specified long ago in this Security Council initiative that was original a response to the long destructive war between Iraq and Iran. What lies behind such an extensive wording of peaceful relations in the contemporary setting has not been publicly disclosed at this point. It will become clearer in the course of the conference in September provided transcripts of the meetings are released or at least. a concluding Declaration is issued, the assembled foreign ministers meet with the media before and after the event, and most significantly agree to meet again or to keep meeting periodically.
The fact that it is a meeting of foreign ministers, and neither lower-level national representatives nor higher-level heads of state, suggests a rather strong commitment to the event by the participating governments. At the same time, there is no expectation that this single dialogue event, no matter how successful the meeting and upbeat the Declaration, will itself produce immediate or spectacular results. It is best conceived as a promising beginning of a long overdue process of reconciliation and coexistence.
Iran stands to gain most from the event, and an ensuing process, as it is definitely a step toward reintegration into the normal politics and economics of the region and away from continued isolation. Saudi Arabia may also gain increased credibility for its recent efforts to pursue a more independent regional diplomacy, which at times has departed rather pointedly from the policies preferred by the U.S. Or maybe this event is favored because it somewhat balances and offsets Riyadh’s long rumored move toward a normalization of its relations with Israel. At this point, such conjectures should not be taken too seriously. The fact that the conference is taking place at all is a hopeful breakthrough considering the conflictual atmosphere of recent decades in the Middle East, particularly in interactions with Iran. A major unknown involves the extent to which non-participating regional and extra-regional actors will exert obstruct proceedings from behind the scenes.
2. After the improvement of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, improvement in the relations between Iran and other Arab countries can be seen. To what extent can creating a mechanism for regional dialogue be successful in such an atmosphere?
This UN sponsored conference seems definitely to parallel recent inter-governmental diplomacy that began normalizing Iran’s relationship with the Arab World after decades of tension and hostile engagement as in the course of the Syrian War that began in 2011. The September conference can also be contextualized in relation to declining U.S. hegemonic ambitions, capabilities, and strategic priorities in the region, and a slowly shifting geographic emphasis on attaining stability. A further consideration is the interplay between Israel’s search for diplomatic normalcy with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and this Iran/Iraq/Gulf move toward normalization of relations as a foundation for achieving internal cohesion and stability.
Also relevant is the rise of other regional concerns on the part of the U.S. and others, including non-political challenges within the region encouraging replacing conflictual relations with. cooperative ones on a priority basis. Severe stresses are already being experienced throughout the Middle attributable to severe global warming, which has brought record heat impairing health and even threatening future livability within the region. Responsible statecraft of regional actors needs more than ever to focus its problem-solving capabilities on these new threats to wellbeing arising out of rising instabilities between modernizing economies and the natural habitat. In this sense, militarism and warfare become expensive distractions from too longed delayed efforts to achieve national and human security given the greatly altered ecological and political conditions in the contemporary world.
3. Following the reduction of America’s presence in the region, diplomacy in the region regarding important security issues for the countries of the region has increased. Do you evaluate this process as tactical or strategic?
It seems to me that caution is in order about present and near future regional roles of major non-Middle East actors. Not only are political differences being reexamined under present conditions, but also the prospect of achieving peaceful coexistence as between the Gulf monarchies and the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite their continued adherence to antagonistic traditions of Islamic theology and practice. Another uncertainty concerns whether recent American preoccupations elsewhere in the world, especially Ukraine and Taiwan, have given Saudi leaders the confidence needed to keep engaging with Iran and others beyond its borders giving priority to its national interests. Also relevant is whether prolonged suffering from regional hostility and an international sanctions regime has increased Iran’s interest in the potential benefits of dialogue, especially if it is allowed to be a stepping-stone toward reconciliation and relations based on common interests and mutual benefits. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have likely been negatively affected by their antagonistic involvements in the political turmoil in Yemen, which may partly underlie their joint willingness to substitute stability for conflict as the cornerstone of their future national security.
4. China’s participation in the region – although it does not have a wide military and security aspect at the moment – what effect will it have on regional trends?
The increased diplomatic activism of China contrasts with the essentially militarized diplomacy practiced previously by the United States in the region often openly in support of Saudi and Israeli goals, as in Yemen or with respect to the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. I believe China’s surprisingly skillful effort to achieve a dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran has created confusion in Washington. Should the U.S. attempt to reassert its hegemonic ambitions through coercive diplomacy or should it pursue its own version of normalizing and stability-oriented diplomacy in the region? To what extent is China motivated by its concerns relating to energy security and assurances of access to Gulf oil? And to what extent is China sending the U.S. Government a message to the effect if it intrudes on the traditional Indo-Pacific preoccupations of China, then China will reciprocate by intruding in areas where there has been a strong U.S. presence.
As I consider the Ukraine War to be partly about geopolitical alignments after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, much will depend on whether global security maintains its unipolar structure that emerged after the Soviet implosion in 1992 or reverts to some new type of bipolarity (perhaps China/Russia v. NATO/India) or transitions to forms of multipolarity that seek a greater reliance on cooperative global problem-solving for the sake of national, and even more, human security.
5. To what extent can commercial relation and economic interdependency be used for regional dialogues?
I believe that robust commercial relations under most conditions produce positive forms of economic interdependency, which in turn strengthens processes of conflict-resolving dialogue. Such a momentum also builds the political foundations for increases in trade, investment, tourism, cultural exchanges in the common interest, yielding mutual benefits. And yet such economic dimensions cannot be assumed as necessarily having these positive effects. It depends on the perceive balancing of complex interests and often contradictory perceptions, as well as the presence or absence of geopolitical pressures. It is difficult to generalize about such matter, which always depend on contextual factors, which are constantly in flux.
For reasons suggested earlier, regional and global developments currently support stabilizing diplomacy and the expansion of mutually beneficial economic relations among countries that have spent the last half century or more in unproductive, costly, dangerous conflict. The impact of such developments on relations with Israel, especially considering that the current internal ferment in that country remains a great, yet relevant, unknown. If the extremist Netanyahu government manages to hold onto power it may try to distract attention from internal confrontations by restoring national unity by recourse to actions that deliberately increase regional tensions, especially with Iran, backed by inflammatory claims that Israel’s national security is at stake. It is questionable whether this old diversionary game will work under present conditions, but moves in that direction could be dangerous nevertheless. Also, dangerous and posing regional and extra-regional challenges would be the implementation of annexationist and one-state visions on the part of the apartheid, settler colonial, Jewish exclusionary state of Israel.
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