The sixth session of the Valdai Club’s Middle East conference, titled " Regional actors: the responsibility of the strong " was attended by Ebtesam Al Ketbi, founder and president of the Emirates Policy Center, a Nourhan El-Sheikh, member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Tehran, and Al-Sadiq Rikabi, member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee.
Discussion moderator Irina Zvyagelskaya, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, noted the trend of a waning role of global powers in the Middle East region and, consequently, the growing the responsibility of the regional players.
Ebtesam al-Ketbi outlined a range of issues and factors affecting domestic and foreign policy in the Middle East. She mentioned in particular the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the election of US President Trump, rising oil prices, the threat of terrorism and unemployment and the increase in Iran's influence in the region. Al-Ketbi said that the countries of the Middle East should strive for a balance of power and reduce the degree of conflict between them, while regional organizations must not allow the hegemony of a single power. She called on Tehran to withdraw from the foreign policy aimed at strengthening its dominant position in the Middle East and instead express readiness for dialogue and de-escalation of tension with neighboring states.
Kayhan Barzegan disagreed with al-Ketbi, noting Iran's desire to protect national interests and security, and the creation of the antiterrorist coalition with Russia and other actors in world politics. In addition, Barzegar regretted the weakening of Iraq and Syria, with which Iran has established partner relations. He also noted that an alliance with these countries would be able to resolve the problem of terrorism in the region. According to Barzegar, the key to success in the fight against terror is states’ respect for both their own national interests and those of the region. He also suggested that Donald Trump, due to his difference in views on the war against terror, could try to disrupt the partnership of Russia and Iran in the field of counter-terrorism cooperation, which would destabilize the situation in the Middle East. Barzegar noted the readiness of Iran to take part in dialogue and the need to adhere to the principles of multilateral diplomacy in the regional context.
Saudi-Iranian Detente in Sight
Saudi Arabia and Iran are exhausted and finally realize that it is inevitable to reach some kind of a compromise. The rising of Russian role in the Middle East provides a suitable environment and real opportunities for reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran. Russia is deeply interested in stability and security in the region.
Sadiq Al-Rikabi, Member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, said that it is important to not confuse the political situation in Iraq with events taking place in the region as a whole. He focused the audience on the fight against terrorism in Iraq. He noted the importance of the liberation of Mosul from ISIS forces, which members of Iraqi society took part in, without regard for ethnic and religious affiliation. Al-Rikabi condemned use of terrorist groups to achieve geopolitical goals by some countries and reiterated that Iraqi commitment to the principles of constructive foreign relations and non-interference in others' internal affairs. Finally, speaking about regional issues, the Iraqi parliamentarian expressed his belief in the need for cooperation of the international community and regional actors. Iraq aims to be a bridge between the cultures of the Middle East, and not the battleground.
Nourhan El-Sheikh, Professor of Political Science, Cairo University, spoke about the Saudi-Iranian relations. She considers direct bilateral negotiations as a necessary condition for the benefit of the entire Middle East region. Nourhan El-Sheikh expressed optimism about the prospects for improving bilateral Saudi-Iranian relations, which are the basis for Middle East stability. The presence of common goals and increasing Russian role in the region will improve the overall level of safety.
The session ended with a discussion among the audience, during which questions were asked about the role and importance of Iran in the Middle East, whether Iran and Saudi Arabia conduct the hegemonic policy, as well as their relations with third countries. Experts also recognized the problem of non-compliance to the generally accepted norms of international humanitarian law by all parties to the political process in the Middle East.