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The Challenge with Iran Looms

by | published September 21st, 2012

My meetings and media interviews continue here in London. But this morning I want to fill you in on one of the more interesting briefings I have ever held.

Last night, Marina and I had the distinct pleasure of dining with Khaled Duwaisan, Kuwait’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the longest-serving foreign emissary in London.

His Excellency is a very gracious man, well respected by his peers and, after more than two decades in London, certainly somebody who has seen much come and go in his time.

Our discussions centered on the situation presented by Iran in the Persian Gulf and the current crisis there.

Also attending the dinner and long discussion were the ambassadors from every other Gulf Coordination Council nation in the region and the legal representative of the Iranians (who currently have no official diplomatic connection with the United Kingdom).

Now, as with such sessions, all of the conversations were held under Chatham House rules. That means, while general themes can be discussed, all participants agree not to connect named people with specific positions in commenting on the meeting afterwards.

This was one of the more memorable sessions I have ever had.

It was striking how articulately and passionately the delegates addressed the subject. The overwhelming response to my comments could be summarized in two ways: the rejection of a nuclear-armed Iran and a strong opinion that the region must settle its affairs on its own.

The first conclusion is certainly shared by the West, but the second may well be difficult to achieve in practice. The prospect of Iran with nuclear capability is hardly a matter Washington, or London, or Brussels will allow the region to decide on its own.

The gathering certainly understood that. These are, after all, seasoned diplomats well-schooled in the protocols and realities of international politics. But they are also experienced in the affairs of a region with the longest and most intricate negotiating traditions on the face of the earth.

They also have a perspective honed from several thousand years of history, tradition, and conflict. There was present a quality I rarely experience in my international meetings — patience.

However, one other matter quickly surfaced that was unanimously viewed as a major element in the ongoing conflict. The assembled representatives spoke about it candidly and directly.

The “Arab Spring” is viewed very differently within the region than it is in most Western capitals. While the expressions of frustration and hope issuing from the streets in places like Cairo, Damascus, Tunis, and Tripoli are well-recognized and considered a watershed in the current regional climate, they are also ushering in something viewed with great concern.

Returning to the forefront of concern is the split between the two great traditions of Islam.

Most of the Moslem world is Sunni. Iranians (and southern Iraqis) are overwhelmingly Shiite. Therein lies the single biggest worry pervading last evening’s conversations.

Now the entire Arab world unifies when the issue pits Moslems against non-Moslems, especially when it comes to respecting their deeply held religious beliefs. The ongoing demonstrations and worse against portrayals of their Prophet are indications enough.

But inside the world that is the Persian Gulf (or the Arabian Gulf as some participants last evening would prefer to call it) the separation of the two camps is clear and long a cause of dispute and conflict.

Iran, by its neighbors’ standards, is regarded as a large problem. Tehran exports both terrorism (Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, now part of the Lebanese government itself, is the clearest example of this) and a messianic view of religion. Both create problems for its neighbors, but the religious basis of the threat is most endemic to the region’s overall security.

The ambassadors couched some of their comments in the carefully crafted language of their profession. But on two matters they were direct.

  • First, they commented several times on what they regarded as an American double standard. They rejected the idea of a nuclear Iran. But they also found Washington’s silence on Israeli nuclear capability disingenuous. Either nuclear weapons are prevented in the region as a whole, or some new version of mutually assured destruction (MAD) ensues. Saudi Arabia could develop its own deterrent in short order and a dangerous race would be on in earnest.
  • Second, it may take much longer and be frustrating to Western interests, but the only solution that will stick is one that comes from the region itself. Few around the table last evening, however, thought Washington trusted them enough to pull that off. It was also agreed that Tehran, for that matter, does not seek to be an equal in the region but the dominant power.

When it came time for me to make some concluding remarks, I told a story that happened decades ago. During an assignment in my counter intelligence days, we found ourselves in a situation that required we pit villages in a remote area against each other. The divide and control approach is still one of the primary weapons in many parts of the world (including the Persian Gulf).

One day, the elders from four of the villages came to me and simply said they refused to play the game any longer. For several days, I had to consider what to do next. Finally, I called them together and simply asked, “What do you need?”

One elder smiled and said, “That is the first time any American has ever asked that. Usually you just tell us what you intend to do for us.”

I suggested last evening this may be the most appropriate approach for the U.S. in the Gulf this time around. We have tried politics, and we have tried the Marines. Maybe we should simply let them decide what they need from us.

The ambassadors nodded in approval. But even then, everybody understood Washington could never allow the Iranian nuclear ambitions to play themselves out on their own.

We still have a way to go.

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