7th APRIL 2015 - Vol.XXXVIII No.018

Can Iran-Gulf ties ever be restored?

Bahrain's Foreign Minister last week urged Iran's newly-elected president to seek the withdrawal of Tehran-backed Hizbollah fighters from Syria as a gesture to try to ease the civil war there.

The appeal by Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, during meetings between the European Union and Gulf Arab foreign ministers, showed the widening shadow of Syria's 27-month conflict that has spilled across borders, involving Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey in varying degrees.

Bahrain and other Arab states have been highly critical of the intervention by Lebanon-based Hizbollah on behalf of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad, who is Iran's main regional ally. Bahrain has outlawed contact with Hizbollah, which it claims aids fellow Shi'ite groups in an Arab Spring-inspired uprising in Bahrain.

Those of you who have studied international affairs will be aware of the words of the 19th century British prime minister, Viscount Palmerstone; "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies."

Indisputably, Bahrain's most dangerous enemy over the past few years has been Iran. Iran's leadership has called repeatedly for the annexation of Bahrain and the downfall of its leadership. Iran's Republican Guard and Hizbollah have been involved in a whole string of terrorist bomb plots in the kingdom, in addition to training Bahraini militants and using its media outlets to subvert national security.

Iran has behaved similarly towards other Gulf states; with incidents of terrorism, assassination attempts, spying networks, cyber-attacks and other hostile activities.

So is Iran necessarily the perpetual enemy of the Gulf states and the Arab world?

Not necessarily. For the last eight years Iran has had an extremist president who believes in spreading the Islamic Revolution and sought to justify Iran's bloody involvement in Syria. Now Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is out of power and discredited, even among Iranian hardliners.

President-elect Hassan Rowhani won far more votes than all the other five conservative presidential candidates put together on an election platform of improving Iran's relations with its neighbours and disentangling itself from involvement in foreign activities, while concentrating on improving Iran's dire domestic situation.

This is very good news for all of us - but should we be willing to forget all of Iran's recent hostile actions?

Firstly, Iran's hostile foreign policy of recent years clearly wasn't supported by most Iranians - the vast majority of whom have voted against such an approach.

Secondly, from a practical perspective, it is unwise for Bahrain to remain at odds with a close neighbour several hundred times larger than ourselves.

When Rowhani calls for mending relations with Arab Muslim neighbours in the Gulf, we should respond positively. However, for Arabian Gulf neighbours to take action to mend relations, several things will have to happen:

Iran will have to stop funding mass murder of Muslims in Syria. Iran's interests are not served in supporting a criminal regime, which will soon be defeated and toppled. If Iran wants to be liked and respected, it must stand with the majority of the Arab world, not against it.

Iran must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all Gulf and Arab states. We should never again hear leading figures claiming that such-and-such a country is really a province of Iran.

We should not hear Iranian media channels inciting violence and instability in neighbouring states, and Iran should not use clandestine groups or proxy militias in Lebanon, Iraq or Bahrain to stir up civil conflict. Iran should also diplomatically resolve the issue of the three Emirati islands.

Iran must realise that possession of a nuclear weapon is a terrible threat to regional security. Some Iranians have sought to justify such a weapon as a threat to Israel - but use of such a destructive weapon would almost certainly kill far more Palestinians and Muslims than Israelis, and any retaliation would destroy Iran and engulf Iran's neighbours. Iran must prove beyond possible doubt that a military nuclear capacity is not its intention by full co-operation with international nuclear bodies.

Following Rowhani's election win, Gulf states have welcomed his achievement and Bahrain's Foreign Minister has called for a "new chapter" in relations with Iran. Shaikh Khalid has also prominently called for Iran to withdraw Hizbollah from Syria as a means of calming down the conflict. Let's hope that Iran is listening.

However, such a new chapter can only come if Rowhani's words are converted into action. We know he won't have a free hand on foreign policy issues. But Iran's supreme leader should realise that the Iranian people have spoken in favour of Muslim unity and an end to Iran's regional aggression.

By making an enemy of Muslim neighbours, Iran has become weak, isolated and distrusted. We hope Iran's wise and moderate new president is able to realise his vision of an Iran, which can stand shoulder to shoulder with its Arab neighbours and disentangle itself from its distasteful involvement in the Syrian conflict. In this we wish Mr Rowhani every success. Citizens for Bahrain

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