Last week, as nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1 dominated international headlines, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif published a very important and substantive Op Ed, “Our Neighbors Are Our Priority,” in Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat. The most fundamental message of Zarif’s Op Ed—that Tehran wants positive-sum, mutually beneficial relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors—is, strictly speaking, not a new theme in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy:
–For example, when Zarif’s immediate predecessor, Ali Akbar Salehi—who was born and grew up in Iraq, speaks fluent Arabic, and lived for two years in Saudi Arabia as deputy secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)—became foreign minister, he said that Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey were his top priority.
–Well before that, during Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, Rafsanjani made détente with Gulf Arab monarchies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) a foreign policy priority.
But, while continuing in the line, Zarif’s Op Ed is remarkable for the richly substantive agenda it lays out for building closer strategic ties between the Islamic Republic and its GCC neighbors.
–Citing UN Security Council Resolution 598 (which ended the Iran-Iraq War) and its exhortation that the UN Secretary-General “examine, in consultation with Iran and Iraq and with other States of the region, measures to enhance the security and stability of the region,” Zarif calls for the creation of a regional security framework among the “eight littoral states” of the Persian Gulf (Iran, Iraq, and the six GCC states).
–While noting that cooperation among these eight states should not be “at the expense of any other party,” Zarif points out an important distinction between those outside powers “who are dependent on us as major suppliers of their energy requirements,” for whom the Persian Gulf “constitutes a major element in their economic and industrial wellbeing,” and “those who do not depend on our energy resources,” for whom “our region is merely an important theater for extending their control in the international political arena and in international economic competition.”
—Zarif further underscores “that the paramount interest of such outside players may not always be stability, but in fact may depend on what can justify their presence. The presence of foreign forces has historically resulted in domestic instability within the countries hosting them and exacerbated the existing tensions between these countries and other regional states.”
Beyond these and other important substantive points, the publication of Zarif’s Op Ed in a high-profile, Saudi-owned regional newspaper is unprecedented.
To read Zarif’s Op Ed in its entirety, see here. We append substantial excerpts from it below.
“Our Neighbors Are Our Priority”
Mohammad Javad Zarif
In the past few weeks, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 have endeavored to make use of the unique window of opportunity provided by the Iranian presidential election this past summer to resolve the nuclear issue, which has unnecessarily cast a shadow of insecurity and crisis over the region. While most in the international community welcomed this positive development, some of our friends in our immediate neighborhood have expressed concerns that this opening may be pursued at their expense.
Regrettably, a zero-sum mentality has been prevalent both in our region and around the world, and some may have even grown accustomed to taking advantage of hostility to Iran to pursue their interests. Still, I wish to reiterate that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not have any such illusions. We recognize that we cannot promote our interests at the expense of others. This is particularly the case in relation to counterparts so close to us that their security and stability are intertwined with ours.
Thus, notwithstanding the focus on our interactions with the West, the reality is that our primary foreign policy priority is our region.
Few things are constant in international politics, but geography is among them. A country cannot change its neighbors. In our interconnected world, the fate of one nation is tied to the destinies of its neighbors. The body of water that separates us from our southern neighbors is not just a waterway—it is our shared lifeline. All of us depend on it, not just for survival, but to thrive. With our fates so closely tied together, the belief that one’s interests can be pursued without consideration of the interests of others is delusional.
As the turmoil in our region evidences, no country is an island. Prosperity cannot be pursued at the expense of others’ poverty, and security cannot be achieved at the expense of the security of others. We will either win together or lose together. We are capable of working together, trusting one another, combining our potential, and building a more secure and prosperous region.
Sadly, the model for security and stability that has to date been imposed on our region has been one based on competition, rivalry and the formation of competing blocs. The only outcome has been the fostering of fresh imbalances and the emergence of unrealized or unstated ambitions that have repeatedly menaced the region over the past three decades…
To reverse the vicious cycle of suspicion and mistrust and move forward—to build confidence, and join forces in striving to build a better, more secure and more prosperous future for our children—it is imperative that we keep three points in mind.
First, it is crucial that we build an inclusive framework for confidence and cooperation in this strategic region. Any exclusion will be the seed of future mistrust, tension and crisis. The core of any wider regional arrangement should be limited to the eight littoral states. Inclusion of other states will bring with it other complex issues, overshadowing the immediate problems of this region and further complicating the complex nature of security, as well as cooperation among us.
Naturally, there are legitimate concerns about potential imbalances and asymmetries that might arise within a new system. Concerns about the domination or imposition of the views of any single country or group of countries must be taken into account and addressed. To build an inclusive system based on mutual respect and the principle of non-interference, we should envisage arrangements within the framework of the United Nations. The necessary institutional framework has already been provided in Security Council Resolution 598, which ended the disastrous war imposed by Saddam Hussein on Iran, Iraq and the entire region.
Second, we need to be clear that while our cooperation is not at the expense of any other party, and will in fact promote greater security for all, we are very much cognizant of the variety of interests involved in our region. The waterway that divides us is vital for the world, but the source of its importance is not identical for all actors. For us littoral states, it is our lifeline. For those who are dependent on us as major suppliers of their energy requirements, it constitutes a major element in their economic and industrial wellbeing. In contrast, for those who do not depend on our energy resources, our region is merely an important theater for extending their control in the international political arena and in international economic competition. Hence, we must bear in mind that there is a qualitative difference between the interests of the various players involved, and act accordingly.
Third, the international element of the instability in our region stems from the divergence of the nature of the interests of various outside powers and their competition. Their injection of extraneous issues only complicates an already complex security situation further. We must not forget that the paramount interest of such outside players may not always be stability, but in fact may depend on what can justify their presence. The presence of foreign forces has historically resulted in domestic instability within the countries hosting them and exacerbated the existing tensions between these countries and other regional states.
I am convinced that there is a genuine will to discuss these common challenges. The challenges and opportunities that we face are enormous. They range from environmental degradation to sectarian tension, from extremism and terrorism to arms control and disarmament, and from tourism and economic and cultural cooperation to confidence-building and security-enhancing measures. We must aim to initiate dialogue that results in practical and gradually expanding steps.
Iran, content with its size, geography, and human and natural resources, and enjoying common bonds of religion, history and culture with its neighbors, has not attacked anyone in nearly three centuries. We extend our hand in friendship and Islamic solidarity to our neighbors, assuring them that they can count on us as a reliable partner.
In our recent presidential election, which was a proud manifestation of the ability of an Islamic model of democracy to bring about change through the ballot box, my government received a strong popular mandate to engage in constructive interaction with the world, and particularly with our neighbors. We are dedicated to making use of this mandate to instigate change for the better, but we cannot do it alone. Now, more than ever, is the time to join hands to work towards securing a better fate for all of us; a destiny based on the noble principles of mutual respect and non-interference. We are taking the first steps towards this objective. We hope you will join us in this difficult, but rewarding, path.