Obama’s recent overtures towards Iran are not being received well by everybody. An Israeli lawmaker likened Obama’s actions to those of Neville Chamberlain, who appeased German Nazis during World War II. Saudi Arabian leaders are also not enthusiastic about the thawing relations between the two countries.
The president’s desire for diplomacy does not deserve to be met with accusations of appeasement. Obama is a diplomat, and a good one at that. Obama understands that respect and diplomacy are winning strategies and do not equate to weakness.
The pushback and resentment over the thawing of relations shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. Saudi Arabia and Israel have very real geopolitical and economic reasons to keep Iran isolated and inferior.
Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, is a majority Sunni country that is concerned with the balance between Sunni and Shiite states in the Arab world. A more empowered Iran means a greater Shiite influence projected in the region.
Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia have had a unique history of ups and downs. Even before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Saudis were uncomfortable with the Iranian shah's attempts to bolster the country's military. Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia view Iran as an economic nemesis as well. They’re in competition with one another. Thawed relations could result in increased oil production by Iran, which means other Gulf countries would take a hit in profits.
Saudi Arabia’s oil exports recently reached an all-time high, skyrocketing to over 10 million barrels per day. This means Saudi Arabia’s oil production is at its highest rate since the Iranian Revolution. An increasingly powerful Iran would almost certainly take a bite out of Saudi Arabia's ability to sell its massive oil reserves in the global market.
Israel, meanwhile, may fear that a stronger Iran would result in a dampening of Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States, or would lessen the urgency for the United States’ undivided and unquestioned support.
A recent poll conducted in Israel shows that 84% of the 500 Israelis surveyed do not believe that diplomacy with Iran will work. The same poll found that 66% supported a solo attack on Iran by the Israel military. However the poll did find that a majority of Israelis still find it imperative that any military decision should first receive the green light from America.
Israel views Iran as the indirect cause of violence on its soil, as Tehran channels funding to Hezbollah and other groups that use violence to challenge what they view to be an unjust occupation of Palestinian territory. Iran, meanwhile, views Israel as an aggressor nation towards the Palestinian people. Iran has been open about its disapproval of Israel’s sustained encroachment on the Palestinians' land and rights.
In recent news, Iranian officials said they suspect “hostile nations” to be behind a planned sabotage attempt at one of Iran’s nuclear sites. Although Iran’s nuclear power chief did not explicitly blame Israel, the incident happened at the thick of heightened tensions between Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf neighbors over the recent signals of U.S. diplomacy with Iran.
Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also suggested that if Iranians were free they would wear jeans and listen to Western music. Young Iranians took to social media sites to mock his comments. They did this by posting pictures of themselves casually wearing jeans and listening to music. One Facebook post that’s gained a lot of attention claims, “He thinks he saw our bomb but he hasn’t seen our jeans.”
For Iran, respect remains a precondition for diplomacy. Making comments about Iranians lacking Western values is insulting, and progress cannot happen when the parties involved fundamentally lack respect for one another.
The U.S. must remain steady in its engagement with Iran. There is a dire need for transparency and accountability in the region. If direct talks continue, as I hope they do, so will the slew of attacks and games. The United Nations or another third-party arbiter needs to monitor progress and ensure that each nation is making an earnest effort to resolve the impasse.
It’s time for direct talks with Iran, leaving all predispositions at the door.