Washington, DC – As negotiations restarted in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program last week, a panel of former officials from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran and the U.S. convened at the 2013 NIAC Leadership Conference in Washington to examine the geopolitical implications.
Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud joined the panel in what he said was his first address to an Iranian-American audience, giving attendees a rare direct insight into Saudi Arabia’s decision-making. The former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and Director General of the country’s foreign intelligence service conveyed his admiration for Iran’s culture and history but expressed a skeptical view of ongoing nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic. Prince Turki argued that Iran has been competing provocatively with Saudi Arabia for leadership in the Islamic world since 1979 to attempt to create “an Iranian empire like no one had ever seen.”
Yossi Alpher, former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, echoed this point. The problems with Iran, he said, would not end with a nuclear deal because Iran has “hegemonic designs on the region.” Alpher and Turki pointed to Hezbollah’s violent campaigns in Syria and Lebanon as evidence of Iran’s continuing bid for regional hegemony.
Shireen Hunter, professor at Georgetown University and former Iranian diplomat under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, strongly objected to the notion of an Iranian quest for hegemony. She cautioned that identifying the Islamic Republic’s ambitions through a failed strategy espoused during its revolutionary period presented a misleading picture of Iran’s current outlook. “A bunch of barefoot Shiites in south Lebanon or a couple in Yemen are not what hegemonies are made of,” she said, arguing that even Hezbollah lacks the economic or military clout to achieve such an end.
The real dynamic, Hunter said, is that the post-Cold War “bogeyman vacuum” created by the collapse of the Soviet Union has invited a larger narrative to make Iran out as the new “bogeyman.” She argued that other countries in the Middle East have reaped the benefits of Iran’s poor relations with the United States since the Islamic revolution. “When [Iran’s] role comes into play, [their] roles will diminish,” she said, due to Iran’s wealth of natural resources, geostrategic importance due to its location between the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, and its influence over the Strait of Hormuz. Accordingly, said Hunter, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s are reluctant to see Iran’s isolation end.
Turki stated, however, that Saudi Arabia welcomes diplomacy with Iran, despite its skepticism. He said that the real concern was that the current talks are limited to the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5+1). He said that the negotiating parties should be expanded to a “P5+2” that includes the Gulf Cooperation Council. But in lieu of such a development, Turki said that Saudi Arabia prefers an alternative solution to the nuclear standoff in the form of a UN Security Council resolution requiring the Middle East to be a “zone free of weapons of mass destruction.” Such a resolution would be supported by security guarantees for signatories and enforced through “military sanctions” imposed by the Security Council. He demurred as to whether the Saudi position remains that Iran cannot have a civilian nuclear enrichment program—which Iran views as its right as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Alpher was asked whether Israel could support a proposal to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, given that Israel is the only state in the region with a nuclear arsenal. Alpher said the proposal was “intriguing” but could only be considered by Israel once “peace is established in the region.”
Dr. Aaron David Miller, an American analyst and negotiator who has advised six U.S. secretaries of state, warned that the panelists were getting ahead of themselves. He urged that “expectations be kept at a reasonable place” regarding any potential Iranian nuclear deal. With regard to the concerns of Saudi Arabia and Israel, he specified that the United States cannot leave an “an angry, aggrieved, uncertain, and risk-inclined Prime Minister of Israel” at the end of a nuclear deal with Iran and that the U.S. “has Saudi and Israeli equities in mind” during the nuclear negotiations. The results of nuclear negotiations, Miller said, would not likely provide “transformational” changes to U.S.-Iran relations or to the region because of the absence of “transformative leaders.”
“Until you have the right kind of leaders—on our side as well, with our risk-averse President—the best you’re going to be able to be able to do on are transactional arrangements,” said Miller. “Forget the transformations—you want transformations, you’ll get nothing.”
Prince Turki expressed concern that due to Obama’s “recent actions, or lack of, on Syria, that Mr. Netanyahu may well decide to take things into his own hands and launch a preemptive strike against Iran.” Alpher assured him that Israel has “checks and balances” that would prevent Netanyahu from singularly ordering a military strike, and that “if something is agreed to in Geneva […] I dare say, Netanyahu will have no choice but to acquiesce.”
Photos: Sima Jafari