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The Role of Iranian Moderates in the Crisis with the Gulf

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The verbal war between the GCC countries and Iran escalated recently, with the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group in response to speeches by its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah challenging Saudi Arabia, accusing it of terrorism, and vowing to confront it in Yemen where Riyadh's national security is directly affected. This happened in parallel with elections in Iran, which ended up trimming the wings of the hardliners with a significant victory for moderates and reformists. These results have important implications that must be analyzed in order to forecast events in the proxy battlefields from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Lebanon. Signs of anxiety over these elections were clear in Hezbollah's escalation in a way that overtook Iranian attitudes, especially those coming from the moderate camp. So which discourse and which strategy should the GCC nations adopt in this critical phase of the relations with Iran and its allies, including Hezbollah but also states like Russia and the United States? Should Moscow and Washington play any role to help bring de-escalation between the Gulf and Iran, stop the bleeding in war zones, and prevent a new arena for attrition from being launched in Lebanon?
Nasrallah's speech this week brought justifications for the Gulf decisions, including the Saudi decision to suspend a grant to the Lebanese army and the designation of Hezbollah as a terror group. However, suspending the Saudi grant to the Lebanese army is not the right decision, no matter what the motive is. It is unwise to take revenge against Lebanon, its army, and its popular base loyal to Saudi Arabia and Lebanon's Arab identity to teach Hezbollah a lesson. In the end, this policy of cutting one's nose to spite one's face benefits Hezbollah and Iran, and weakens their opponents, not to mention harms Lebanon's fragile stability.
Nasrallah thankfully reassured the Lebanese people that the decision to take to the streets is in his hands, and not in the hands of a bunch of youths who can threaten stability. He was clear and firm in his television appearance. This followed riots by his supporters under the pretext of protesting against a television show that had mocked the Hezbollah chief.
However, Nasrallah implicated Lebanon in the war in Yemen in the same speech, claiming Lebanon's national interests requires not remaining silent about what is happening in the south Arabian nation.
Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of committing daily massacres in Yemen. He said: "The world is silent, but we cannot remain silent about these crimes. Those who want to remain silent are free, but we will not be silent about what is happening in Yemen and we will continue." He added: "There is no interest for any country to give Saudi Arabia blessing to wage war against another country. When the Arab world remains silent about Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, this gives it legitimacy to attack another country."
In truth, these remarks are a public admission that Hezbollah is fighting in Yemen as the Arab coalition has accused it of doing, and that it is a partner on the ground of the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, just like it is a partner of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, which has killed around half a million Syrians and displaced millions of others.
The most serious point in the speech was that Nasrallah decided to implicate Lebanon in the war in Yemen, when he spoke about the "national interest" in not remaining silent and taking part in the war. Since he decided to summon the whole of Saudi Arabia to a personal duel with him, he said: "The greatest thing I have done in my life is giving a speech on the second day of the Saudi war on Yemen" in which he threatened Saudi Arabia. Thus, what the Hezbollah chief did was to declare the continuation of his war on the Arab coalition in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia. This position is one of the most important reasons behind the Gulf response against Hezbollah. Most likely, the Gulf nations will not reverse their travel bans against Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia will not reverse its decision to suspend the $4 billion grant to the Lebanese army, which both cost Lebanon dearly.
But did Nasrallah escalate on Yemen at Iran's request or was it an independent decision? The escalation is not just verbal, as Nasrallah told us, but it is a military one. The escalation and implicating Lebanon in this manner undoes the reassurances Nasrallah made at the start of his speech.
The Russian and American leadership must realize how serious this is, and move immediately with Tehran to prevent Lebanon from getting involved in Yemen through Hezbollah. This is where American-Russian diplomacy could intervene to help mend Saudi-Iranian relations. Lebanon, more than any time before in the past, is the necessary first stop. It is very crucial to uphold its neutrality and impose the election of a president there. Hezbollah must not be allowed to continue taking the country hostage amid the presidential vacuum, and drag Lebanon into others' wars.
For their part, Saudi Arabia and the GCC nations must decide whether they want to be drawn into verbal provocation with their eyes wide shut or whether they want to adopt a comprehensive strategy including towards Iran with open minds. The traditional notion many in the Gulf is that "they are all the same" in reference to the ruling elites in Tehran, be they moderates or hardliners, and that the goal of the Islamic State there remains the export of the Islamic Revolution to the Arab countries and the implementation of regional domination. But even if this is true, this notion requires reconsideration in light of the facts on the ground in Iran, including the results of the elections that could be a window to a different kind of thinking in the Gulf capitals.
The victory of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani in parliament dealt a heavy blow to the hardliners and the Revolutionary Guards. The victory of the moderates and reformists in the Assembly of Experts, whose members will elect the next supreme leader, has important implications. The majority of Iranians voted for moderates represented by Rouhani, former President Mohammad Khatami and head of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani.
People close to Rouhani stressed repeatedly that he and his supporters have different programs from those of the hardliners, especially in terms of meddling in Arab nations and proxy wars with Saudi Arabia. According to informed sources, Rouhani told a European official during his recent visit that stability in Saudi Arabia is important for Iran and that Saudi destabilization at the hands of groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda is a threat to Tehran.
During the seminar in the framework of the "Valdai" forum in Moscow, Iranian professor Mohammed Marandi, despite inciting against Saudi Arabia and using a provocative language towards Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, and Saudi policies in Yemen, insisted that instability was undesirable in Saudi Arabia.
These positions, even if Riyadh questions them, are well worth building on them as part of a purposeful strategy. Riyadh can decide that verbal escalation is best ignored, and that the best tactic is to work seriously towards securing an Iranian pledge not to tamper with Saudi stability. This can be achieved either through direct channels with the moderates after the elections, or through Russian-American channels. Indeed, Russia is eager to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Secondly, the setback suffered by the hardliners could be a gateway to a different political discourse in the Gulf countries, by giving moderates a chance. This does not prevent insisting on key positions, but it is worthwhile to capitalize on the results of the elections as part of well thought out strategies.
Some say the American wager on empowering moderates in Iran as a result of the nuclear deal and the lifting of the sanctions has succeeded, and that American-Russian partnership in this regard has managed to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions and remove the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, both key demands for Israel. The two partners in Syria and Iran have pursued an approach of containment by engagement with Tehran, and partnership instead of confrontation in Syria. Both powers are saying there is no need to worry about having a long-term strategic relationship with Iran, citing the growth of the moderate camp in Iran at the expense of the hardliners. Both powers want the Gulf countries to pursue similar relations based on political realism instead of panic, polarization, and attrition.
Some these days speak about major new strategies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Lebanon. They say Moscow's strategic relationship is not confined to Iran and Shiites, but is in the process of expanding into Sunni Arabs through Egypt and Algeria, while insisting on victory against terror in Syria and on safeguarding strategic interests there including oil and gas.
Regarding Yemen, high-level Gulf sources confirmed that Russia has extended intelligence aid to the Arab alliance in addition to silent consent. Other non-Gulf sources say Russia and the US want to provide a way for a dignified exit strategy that would preserve Saudi national interests in Yemen.
In Iraq, there is talk about US and Russian plans to appease Sunnis there, to be able to defeat ISIS in return for guarantees their rights would be safeguarded in Iraq.
In Libya, Russia is ready to turn the page that had unleashed its nationalist tendencies, when it felt NATO had betrayed it through a Security Council resolution. Information indicates Moscow is not opposed to an American-European intervention there to prevent ISIS or al-Qaeda from taking over.
On Syria, sources close to the thinking in Tehran say Iran does not want to partition the country, as this would weaken its influence there after so much "investment" in Syria. The sources also say that Tehran, ultimately, and under the moderates' rule, will not cling to Bashar al-Assad though it will not rush to declare this yet.
The talk about partitioning and federalism in Syria is dictated by what is happening on the ground. The talk about federalism comes perhaps in the sense of federalism in Russia and the US, and not in the sense of separate states.
As for Lebanon, it is growing more fragile as major powers ignore it, leaving it prey to their acrobatics. It is time for the major powers to take Lebanon's brittleness seriously and to neutralize Lebanon and prevent its detonation through real measures, beginning by reining in those who are implicating it in the Yemeni war and instead turn it into a testing ground for Saudi-Iranian confidence building measures in the new Iranian era.
Translated by Karim Traboulsi

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