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Iran and the Arab World.

RELATIONS BETWEEN IRAN and the Arab world constitute one of the most significant issues facing the Middle East. The Islamic seizure of power in Iran is a threatening example to established Arab regimes, whether or not the fluctuating balance of power in Tehran actively tilts at any given time towards "exporting revolution". Against its will but with zealous enthusiasm, Iran conducted an eight-year war with Iraq, echoing centuries of rivalry.

Iran's neighbors in the Gulf recognise that it is potentially the most powerful country in the region, but have little idea of how to adjust to this unwelcome reality. Iran, in turn, is paranoid about Western hostility and sees the nearby Arab governments as vehicles for the furthering of Western antagonism.

The Islamic Republic of Iran exerts extraordinary influence throughout the Middle East, either deliberately or through perception. The Iranian revolution has acted as an inspiration for Islamist movements in the Arab world, but the extent of its practical involvement is variable and hard to assess. Where, on the other hand, would President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the military-backed clique in Algeria be without the convenient demon of Iran on whom to blame their domestic problems?

Surprisingly, no-one has yet attempted a thorough overview of Iran's relationship with the Arab world. Iran and the Arab World is a collection of essays which seeks to make a start (though priced less grotesquely it might have reached a wider audience). In their introductory chapter, the editors stress that "a better comprehension of Iranian-Arab relations and any attempt to improve the two peoples' mutual respect, understanding and cooperation necessitates a deeper understanding of the forces that generate tension between them." The observation would seem commonplace, except that it has hardly been pursued.

In two contributions, Mahmoud Sariolghalam and Mohssen Massarat place Iranian-Arab antagonism in the ideological context of pan-Islamism versus pan-Arabism. As the editors observe, both these political tendencies have been more successful in eliciting emotive responses than in providing concrete solutions to political, economic and social issues. The appeal to emotion rather than practical utility simply entrenches the ideological divide.

The Arab Gulf states' suspicion about Iranian intentions is compounded by the vagaries of Tehran's foreign policy since the 1979 revolution. Bahram Baktiari traces the convoluted course of Iran's attitude towards the Gulf which, though drifting towards a moderate and pragmatic approach, still leaves the Arab states confused. Rarely adept in taking up firm positions on complex problems, they find themselves baffled about what Iran really wants.

Trying to navigate their way through Tehran's frequently contradictory postures and pronouncements is hardly helped by Iran's assumptions about the relationship between the GCC and the United States, a matter on which the Arabs themselves have yet to make up their minds clearly. Joseph Kechichian records how Iran has become obsessed by the United States (with mutually damaging consequences) which it sees conspiratorially as a hidden hand behind the GCC and Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

The gulf of incomprehension between Iran and the Arab countries is analysed with reference to Saudi Arabia (by Hooshang Amirahmadi) and Egypt (by Nader Entasser) and, almost as the exception which proves the rule, to Syria (by Shireen Hunter). Other essays examine Iran's perplexing ambiguity regarding Iraq, particularly its deliberate neutrality during the Kuwait crisis.

Iran and the World lays out the groundwork for examining Iranian-Arab relationships since the Islamic revolution. The missing element is an analysis of Iranian domestic political infighting which result in the jumbled messages sent to the Arab world. Until the Tehran regime can make up its mind and communicate what it wants and where it is going, the Arabs and the West will be unable to respond.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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