Atlantic Council | : The roots of the current crisis in the Persian Gulf go back more than three decades to a devastating war between Iran and Iraq. So does a potential face-saving way to begin to de-escalate that crisis.
On September 22, 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran, hoping for a swift victory over a country still in the throes of revolution and isolated internationally because it was holding fifty-two Americans hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran.
Saddam Hussein planned on a quick victory and, indeed, his well-equipped army swiftly took the Iranian port of Khorramshahr. However, that was the only Iranian city the Iraqis ever captured and the Iranians liberated it in 1982. Unfortunately, then Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini refused to accept a cease-fire. The war continued for another ruinous six years, killing or wounding one million people, hardening enmity between Iran and the Arab monarchies that bankrolled Saddam and pulling the United States into a thankless role as the policeman of the Persian Gulf.
The war finally ended when Iran and Iraq accepted a United Nations-brokered cease-fire. UN Security Council resolution 598 included a paragraph that has never been implemented but could be used as a basis for de-escalation now. Paragraph eight “Further requests the Secretary-General to examine in consultation with Iran and Iraq and with other States of the region, measures to enhance the security and stability of the region.”
It’s time to invoke this paragraph to engage in new talks about peace.
The crescendo of alleged Iranian attacks against tankers and Saudi oil infrastructure—following the Trump administration’s decision to try to impose a total embargo on the export of Iranian oil—lend urgency to a diplomatic solution. With the world’s leaders gathering this week in New York at the annual summit of the UN General Assembly, what better time or place to invoke the UN’s fundamental mission?
It is clear after this summer’s attacks that the Trump administration cannot fully protect its Arab allies and that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates must reach understandings with their difficult neighbor that defuse the causes for conflict.
The first priority is a cease-fire in Yemen, where Houthi rebels aided by Iran have withstood four years of bombing by the Saudi-led coalition. The UAE is wisely retreating from this atrocity, which has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis and created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster in what was already one of its poorest countries. The reckless decision by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to begin bombing Yemen in 2015 has been a disaster for the Yemeni people but a gift that keeps on giving to the Islamic Republic, which has added the Houthis to its stable of regional allies. Any agreement that stops Iranian-supplied Houthi drones and rockets from hitting Saudi territory would ease Saudi fears and contribute to a reduction of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. Reports that the Houthis are willing to accept a cease-fire are encouraging.
Beyond Yemen, however, the countries of the region need to talk about other mutual grievances and concerns.
The Saudis and other Arab leaders legitimately accuse Iran of interfering in their domestic affairs. Iran has replicated its success in midwifing Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s to create mini-Hezbollahs in other countries including Iraq, profiting from the US toppling of Saddam in 2003 and exploiting Arab Shia grievances against Sunni rulers. However, the Iranians allege that the Saudis and Emiratis have also funded anti-Iran militants among Iran’s Sunni ethnic minorities such as the Kurds and the Baluch, as well as ethnic Arabs in Iran’s southwest. This author has called before for a non-subversion pact for the Persian Gulf as a way to deal with regional issues not covered by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Such a pact could be a focus for discussion at the UN.
These kinds of talks do not appeal to the current US president, who prefers to negotiate bilaterally. However, the Iranians have made it abundantly clear that they will not agree to a meeting between Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani until or unless the United States eases the sanctions it re-imposed—and has expanded—since the US withdrew unilaterally from the JCPOA in 2018. The sort of photo ops Trump has choreographed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have no appeal for Rouhani or his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, with whom Trump sought unsuccessfully to meet both in the Oval Office and in France. Indeed, the successor to Khomeini, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has expressly forbidden high-level meetings unless the United States lifts sanctions.
When the United States decided to opt for “maximum pressure” on Iran instead of remaining within the JCPOA, Trump supporters confidently predicted that Iran would do as Ayatollah Khomeini did in 1988 and “drink the poison” of capitulation. But Iran now is not the Iran of the late 1980s. The country is richer, less dependent on oil exports and less isolated diplomatically, while the United States has managed to alienate even its most reliable democratic partners in Europe and Asia through a series of unilateral actions and demands.
Despite sanctions, Iran has developed weapons sophisticated enough to bring down a US drone and evade multibillion-dollar Saudi defenses purchased from the United States. The United States, meanwhile, is war-weary after 18 years of confronting mostly Sunni Muslim terrorism in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, which has been criticized for the war in Yemen and its brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, says it wants to concentrate on development to satisfy restive youth and adjust to a world in which fossil fuels play a diminishing role. It should agree to talk to Iran as it did under its previous kings.
At the UN this week, both Trump and Rouhani will deliver speeches that touch on the rising tensions in the Persian Gulf. Rouhani is reportedly going to table a regional peace plan that may refer back to Resolution 598. While his likely calls for a United States withdrawal are a non-starter—and there is an element of brazenness whenever an arsonist portrays itself as a firefighter—no stability can come to the Middle East without buy-in from all key countries. United States efforts to build another “anti-Iran” coalition will fail as they have in the past. Trump and Rouhani should concentrate on possible resolutions to conflict instead of repeating tired clichés that demonize each other and fuel calls for war.
Barbara Slavin is director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.