Arabs won’t stop Iran

The moderate Arab bloc – now you see it, now you don’t

By Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz, April 28, 2010

The military exercises Iran held this week in the Persian Gulf were not exercises; they were part of a passive deployment. Thus, the Revolutionary Guards’ navy – a separate and much more sophisticated naval force than that of the Iranian army – dropped naval mines, practiced blowing up ships, photographed underwater targets and carried out exercises in electronic warfare and the operation of Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles.

The interesting thing in the exercise was the presence of a high-level military delegation from Qatar. It was headed by Admiral Abed al-Rahim al-Janahi, who said his country wants to benefit from the Iranian experience, and that he was planning joint exercises for the two armies.

Qatar also has close commercial ties with Iran, and its foreign policy is not in keeping with the American desire that sanctions be imposed on Iran. Voices opposing such sanctions have also been raised in Saudi Arabia. Turki al-Faisal, who heads the King Faisal Institute of Global Strategic Studies, said in an interview to the al-Arabiya network that “the ties between the Gulf states and Iran are historic ties that are built on interests, blood relationships and proximity” and that despite the Iranian threat to neighboring countries, this could not be compared with the Israeli threat. Al-Faisal fully supported the proposal of the Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, to set up a “dialogue team” with Iran and said that time should not be wasted and the public should be prepared for such a dialogue.

Though Al-Faisal holds no government post, his words are considered to hold a great deal of weight. As the former head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, as a former ambassador in London and Washington, and particularly because of his family standing – he is the brother of the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, and the cousin of King Abdullah – Turki al-Faisal reflects the position of the ruling family with regard to Iran.  

A wake-up call

The United States must review is diplomatic outlook in view of these remarks; of the presence of a Qatari military delegation at the Iranian exercise; of the independent foreign policy of the Oman Sultanate, which has normal relations with Tehran; of the thousands of Iranian companies that fill the office buildings in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and whose trade with Iran amounts to some $12 billion. American policy relies on the assumption that the “moderate” bloc of Arab states, especially the Gulf states, are likely to curb the influence of Iran in the region, to isolate the countries that support it, like Syria or Sudan, and to create a military deterrent in time of need against its military and nuclear prowess. This concept underlies the American working hypothesis that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could turn the “moderate” Arab countries into a wall against Iran.

But the strategic map is far more complicated. Saudi Arabia, for example, has a relationship vis-a-vis Iran of “conflict management.” Both countries are deeply involved in the politics of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Each knows the weak points and the strengths of the other. Saudi Arabia decided to renew relations with Syria to erode the monopoly Iran had there, and it is taking steps to renew relations between Syria and Egypt. Saudi Arabia was also involved in setting up the government in Lebanon and – under its influence – new ties were created between Saad Hariri, the prime minister, and Syria’s Bashar Assad. Thus, Assad increased his influence in Lebanon and now “owes” King Abdullah a favor, no less than to Iran.

In Iraq, Saudi Arabia is implementing a cold shoulder policy. It has not opened an embassy there and is strengthening the Sunni and Kurdish elements, as well as the bloc of the winner in the elections, Ayad Allawi, through massive injections of cash. The Saudi assumption is that Iraq is anyway under the influence of Iran, and this influence will merely grow when the American forces leave the country. Therefore, it is trying to locate the levers of influence that will make it difficult for Iran to conduct Iraqi affairs if it does not cooperate with Riyadh. There is a long way to go between conducting a policy with a rival like Iran and serving as a military barrier – or even imposing sanctions.

The “moderate bloc,” perceived as a group of Arab states that act in coordination and agreement with American policy, also suffers from internal dissension. If Qatar and Saudi Arabia do not see eye to eye over American policies on Iran, Egypt is in no hurry to adopt the idea of a dialogue with Iran or Syria, which is supported by Saudi Arabia. From its point of view, Riaydh has broken the agreement between them on appeasement with Syria, it assisted Syria in Lebanon and in return did not succeed in bringing about peace between Fatah and Hamas, for which Egypt had worked so hard for three years. Egypt acceded to the American request to name a new ambassador to Baghdad; Saudi Arabia turned the Americans down.

Saudi Arabia is not the regional “pope” – it cannot dictate policy and demand obedience even from the Gulf states.

Iran, however, is conducting a sophisticated policy that may actually succeed in enlisting Arab states on its side. When it stresses the centrality of the Palestinian problem and opposes American hegemony in the region, it is closer to the positions of the Arab states and the Sunni Islamic states. In fact, there is no “Shi’ite” element in Iranian foreign policy. When Arab analysts and leaders speak about the Iranian threat, they note that “Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine were stolen by Iran from the Arabs,” and they do not speak about the nuclear threat. The “moderate bloc” is therefore likely to turn out to be yet another slogan that was invented in the corridors of the White House. It will not necessarily yield much practical benefit vis-a-vis Iran.

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