Arab-Iran Relations: discourses of conflict and cooperation

This Arab-Iran Relations Conference Briefing Paper is a follow up to an LSE conference held jointly by the Middle East Centre and the Department of International Relations with generous funding from the Dinam charity.  The conference entitled ‘Arab-Iranian Relations: discourses of conflict and cooperation’ was held on 7 September 2011.  The conference focused on four themes:

 

  1. Developments inIranand the Arab world since 2003
  2. The role of media and conflict in Arab-Iranian relations
  3. Discourses of ethnicity, religion and nation
  4. National Security, Regional Stability: Prospects for Arab-Iranian Conflict and Cooperation-Keynote speaker Professor Gary Sick

Relations between Iran and its Arab neighbours have been marked by a complex ebb and flow of tensions, suspicions and alliances. Now, in the midst of the Arab uprisings, these relations have been thrown into greater flux as opportunity for change is mixed with uncertainty. There are concerns as to whether these reconfigurations make conflict betweenIranand one or more of the Arab states more or less likely. Consideration of what approaches can be developed to foster cooperation in the midst of such uncertainty is crucial.

Although the attention of the international community is often fixed on the Iranian nuclear file, the aim of the conference and this subsequent report is to look beyond this single issue to avoid using it as the single lens with which to view the potential conflict.  Using the discussions that came out of the conference as a basis, this report evaluates in broad terms the narratives and mechanisms of conflict and cooperation that are currently emerging in theMiddle East.

The report’s recommendations include the following:

  • Turkey, with its new assertiveness and foreign policy approach, should be explored as a potential regional mediator.  But being a non-Arab state could undermine such a role if Ankara begins to be viewed as rival to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and should not be seen as a ‘cure-all’. The aim should be to build consensual multilateral relations in the Middle East, not a reliance on one or two major powers.
  • The international community should move beyond sanctions as a default mechanism to address Iran’s nuclear file.  Ineffective sanctions have simply ‘frozen’ the conflict and let the issue stagnate.  Middle Eastern states should play a more public role in the discussions concerning Iran’s nuclear programme.
  • The states in the region need to move beyond sectarianism or claims to universalist leadership.  Such claims create rivalry and raise the likelihood of conflict and weak nation states.
  • Objective and independent media should be promoted. Steps should be taken to address the issue of the jamming of satellite signals.
  • There should be an increased focus on establishing an inclusive culture and civil society that enables societies to manage difference and promote equality before the state. This would help to reduce the risk of social tensions and give minorities a stronger stake in the nation state. Giving all interest groups within a state a voice and a platform enables groups to mobilise through democratic mechanisms within the domestic context. This reduces the need for transnational alliances or supranational ideologies for empowerment or resistance.
  • The idea of acceptance, beyond simple tolerance, should be supported by, and reflected in, the media, national public dialogue and perhaps most crucially in the education system.
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