The Arabs’ Iran dilemma

Arab countries should realise that a US detente with Iran will help a host of regional flashpoints.

On Syria, and other regional concerns, Arab-Iran cooperation is the best way forward (AP)

With talks on Iran’s nuclear programme resuming this week in Geneva, the world powers and Iran could be close to agreeing on an interim deal, a move widely seen as a potential breakthrough for a broader discussion of the Middle East regional security.

While there has been much focus on Israel’s opposition and its anxiety over a prospective deal with Iran, there has been little attention paid to the analysis of the implications of any compromise on the security in the Arab world, which is at the heart of this geopolitical struggle.

Since the beginning, Arab countries have been sidestepped from the talks with Iran although Iranian nuclear proliferation constitutes a threat to their security and their population. It is also a “tipping point” in the region with many Arab states likely to respond with efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities if they found themselves between two regional nuclear powers – Iran and Israel.

Arab inaction

Arabs bear special responsibility for being sidelined from the negotiations with Iran. In an interview with the pan Arab newspaper al-Hayat on December 20, 2008, Mohamed ElBaradei former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that he had warned Arab leaders of the consequences of staying away from this multilateral process. “What worries me is that there will be a solution to the Iranian problem and an essential part of (that solution) will be associated with the (Arab) national security and Iran’s role in the region.” The harsh reality is that Arabs have never been party in the more than decade-long international diplomatic effort to resolve one of their region’s key security challenges.

As conflicts continue to build up and a political transformation gets under way in the Middle East, the main challenge in the years ahead will be to establish a sustainable regional security order.

However, the Arabs’ vital interests lie in seeing their region stable with no country posing a threat to other states or to wider regional interest. Nuclear proliferation is the most serious threat to regional security and it should be a corner stone of any effective security strategy. Yet while Arab diplomacy for decades focused on the threats of Israel’s nuclear weapons to their security and efforts to create a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, they have been less vocal on Iran’s nuclear activities. Sometimes, they were even divided on whether Israel or Iran should be their enemy number one.

Iran’s Arab neighbours, though suspicious of Tehran’s nuclear programme, thought that the problem might resolve itself. And that even if Iran had obtained a nuclear weapons capability, the oil-rich countries were prepared for any contingency by buying a nuclear defence umbrella to deter Iran. Saudi Arabia, traditionally worried about Iran’s sectarian influence, remained focused on dealing with a second major problem, the rise of the Muslims Shia in the region and its effect on internal instability.

Diverging interests

The US-Iran rapprochement and the potential nuclear deal with Tehran have underlined a major difference in perceptions between Washington and its Arab allies on Iranian power and regional security. While the United States, its Western allies, and Israel, place top priority on stripping Iran of weapons of mass destruction capabilities, the Arab countries fear that a deal will allow Iran to make further strides in its endeavours at regional expansion.

Saudi Arabia and some other some Gulf countries believe that Iran is not looking for an agreement regarding its nuclear programme, but rather, a comprehensive deal with the US that would empower it to become more of a regional superpower. Given the regional sectarian divide, these countries share fears about a shift in the regional balance of power towards Iran and its allies, such as the Iraqi governmet of Nuri Al-Maliki, Lebanese movement Hezbollah, and Muslim Shia communities in the Gulf. A victory for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria will further consolidate this ad hoc regional alliance.

Iran’s grandiose agenda

One of the main concerns of the so-called Sunni Arab governments is that Iran will now adopt a broader agenda and will then be able to use Iraq as a springboard to assume hegemonic control over the Gulf region. Iran’s influence in Iraq, which has been on the rise since the ouster of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein more than 10 years ago, looms large in the political, economic, social, religious and security interactions with the current Shia-led government. Even Kurds and Muslim Sunni Arabs now turn to Iran for help to resolve disputes and for assistance in coalition-building negotiations to form governments in post-Saddam Iraq.

The goal of the Arab camp remains to weaken Iranian power, undermine its allies, and roll back its regional designs. However, Saudi-led Gulf efforts to undermine the government in Iraq and the Assad regime have been futile. The conflicts in both Iraq and Syria have made it clear to all regional actors that they don’t have much to gain from the polarisation that exacerbates instability in the region.

As conflicts continue to build up and a political transformation gets under way in the Middle East, the main challenge in the years ahead will be to establish a sustainable regional security order. The Arab world and Iran, together with Turkey, have to work closely together at this crucial juncture to contribute to the stabilisation of regional flashpoints before the sectarian polarisation becomes too dangerous for everyone.

The road to a full agreement, or a super deal, between Washington and Tehran will be long and arduous but Arabs should learn to come to grips with a US-Iran detente.

Ineffectual plans

Over the past few years we have seen several proposals to try to deal with the region’s uncertainty as Iran rose in power and reverence due to a series of geopolitical changes brought on by the US invasion of Iraq, and the new dynamics it has unleashed. Efforts to initiate a broad dialogue on balancing various security interests foundered due to competition and jealousies between regional powers.

In 2008, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa proposed a gathering of Arab states with Israel, as well as Iran and Turkey to solve the region’s problems. The following year, Iran’s current President Hassan Rouhani, who was then an adviser to spiritual leader Ali Khamenei unveiled a 10-article plan for collective security arrangement in the crisis-ridden region. In 2010, former Arab League head Amr Moussa suggested that the 22-nation bloc engage Iran in a forum for regional cooperation and conflict resolution that would also include Turkey.

Also, a broader frame for a new order in the Middle East overturning the status quo which has been in place since the end of World War I and founded on the European model has been in circulation at academic and research forums. This regional order would be based on the example of the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended European wars waged by competing dynasties in the 17th century and separated international relations from domestic politics.

Democratic reform is key

The road to a full agreement, or a super deal, between Washington and Tehran will be long and arduous but Arabs should learn to come to grips with a US-Iran detente. Frustration and feeling a sense of betrayal by the US does not help their assorted political and security woes. Some Arab countries have doubts about whether the US’ commitment to the regional partnership was genuine. Others started to re-evaluate their alliances and began to consider deepening their ties to China and Russia. An idea about Israel and Arab regional powers banding with the French against Iran’s challenges has also been floated.

All these are naive and unworthy ideas for discussion. The best way to keep Iran in check, and to address the rise of sectarianism and its threats to internal security, would be to enact the long overdue democratic reforms that are vital for stability and to reduce tensions in the region through a new effective security and cooperation framework.

Salah Nasrawi is a veteran Iraqi journalist who worked for international media, including the Associated Press and the BBC in the Middle East. He wrote for leading Arab newspapers and periodicals.  

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