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Iran dispute solutions have not proved durable

By R.K. Ramazani
Note: This article was originally published by Daily Progress

Iran’s release of 15 British sailors and marines on April 4 is welcome news.

It has for the moment ended propaganda warfare and potential threats of confrontation and armed conflict in the oil-rich strategic waters of the Persian Gulf.

Yet there is no reason to conclude that future disputes over the waters of the Persian Gulf will be prevented, or that they won’t spin out of control and lead to unwanted wars.

Nor is there any reason to believe that future settlements will be any more durable than the ones that took place over the centuries.

As a matter of fact, momentous economic and strategic changes, especially over the past few decades, indicate that future disputes will be much more difficult to settle and the danger of confrontation and war might increase.

To understand why, it is essential to examine the historical context of Persian Gulf disputes. They have always been tackled by means of bilateral agreements between the parties such as the one between Britain and Iran at the moment. But they have always broken down, and have never resulted in durable solutions.

Let us now take a bird’s-eye view of the historical context of Persian Gulf disputes.

The Ottoman and Persian empires battled each other for two centuries and made several bilateral boundary settlements on land and sea after each war beginning in 1639.

None of the bilateral agreements between the two sides ever put an end to the disputes. Nor did the British interventions beginning in 1842 provide viable solutions.

There is no reason to believe it will be any different in the future.

As heirs to the Persian and Ottoman empires, the modern-day nations of Iran and Iraq also settled boundary disputes by concluding bilateral agreements as early as 1937.

The most contentious issue for generations was and could still be the boundary line in the Shatt al-Arab. The 1937 treaty provided that the frontier in the river should run along the thalweg - that is, the median line of the main channel - although it actually favored Iraq, which continued to claim that the entire frontier river formed an integral part of Iraqi sovereign territory.

Decades later, in 1975, the Algiers Agreement between the shah of Iran and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein established the thalweg equally to the benefit of both sides. But after invading Iran in 1980, Saddam Hussein scrapped the agreement.

As the legatee of Britain, the United States has in recent decades played the role of the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region. As such, American support of Saddam Hussein’s war of aggression against Iran in 1980-1988 did little to provide a basis for a collective security system in the Persian Gulf.

The 1989 U.N. resolution called on the secretary-general to consult Gulf powers to that end. But the United States failed to support that call.

Nor did the United States create any durable new system for security in the Persian Gulf region at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Instead, it supported the Gulf Arab states against Iran.

The Bush administration has equally failed to realize the need for a new security system in the Persian Gulf region. It has occupied Iraq for four years, it has tried to line up Sunni Arab states against Shia Iran, and it has been flexing its military muscle in the Persian Gulf waters recently in support of the British dispute with Iran.

Neither past bilateral agreements nor American unilateral policies today can possibly guarantee future security in the Persian Gulf. Instead, what is needed urgently is a comprehensive collective security system.

In creating such a system, however, it is essential to realize that the problems of the Persian Gulf are intertwined with the major conflicts of the broader Middle East and beyond. Here are the most salient reasons:
  • The Palestinian-Israeli conflict affects all Mideast issues with its volatility.
  • The American occupation of Iraq has caused an unprecedented degree of instability and insecurity in the wider Middle East.
  • America’s exclusion of Iran from Gulf security ar-rangements, such as the one established by Washington at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, achieves nothing except to unite the Iranian people behind the regime and embolden Iran to challenge the presence of British and American forces in and around the Gulf.
  • The growing global demand for Persian Gulf gas and oil resources is bound to widen competition between the West and China.
  • And, above all, the threat of nuclear proliferation and the potential access of extremist groups in the Middle East to nuclear technology and weapons are bound to spill over into the Persian Gulf region.
As long as Britain and the United States continue to serve their self-interests in disregard of the vital interests of Persian Gulf states, the prospects for a viable security system in the Persian Gulf seem moot.

As long as Britain and America approach Gulf disputes by such means as playing regional powers against each other, by bullying tactics, by calls for regime change and by the threats of military strikes against Iran, there is little hope that Per-sian Gulf conflicts will ever be prevented in the future or that durable solutions can be found for the present ones, including the British-Iranian dispute today. As a result, the secure export of Gulf oil supplies to world markets will be threatened and the price of oil will soar beyond the capacity of the world economy to tolerate.

The real question, therefore, is whether Britain and the United States will be able to shake off their addiction to using force and embrace a comprehensive collective security system that would include the Persian Gulf states and major outside powers with high stakes in the region, including Britain and the United States, under the auspices of the United Nations.

Short of that, Iran, as the major Persian Gulf state, will continue to resist British and American pressures. Its resistance to foreign bullying and pressures is rooted in a millennial and proud sense of glory and power in ancient times, in a deep-rooted sense of national identity and in a resentment of discrimination against the Shia, who are, today and in history, a minority in the larger Muslim world, by the Sunni majority.

Iran aspires to equitable treatment and respect in the international community. And it has long favored the creation of a viable Persian Gulf collective security system.

Can Britain and the United States understand this fundamental truth and have the political will and prudence to engage Iran in a comprehensive collective security system for stability, security and prosperity in the Persian Gulf?

About the author: R.K. Ramazani has published extensively on the Persian Gulf region and has on ocassion advised the U.S. government and the U.N. secretariat-general. He wishes to acknowledge the help of W. Scott Harrop on the draft of this essay.


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