The Arabs risk being left behind as Washington gears up for negotiations with Iran, writes Salah Hemeid
Debating chilly Arab-Iranian relations and ways of improving them in a conference here last week, Egyptian and Arab experts agreed that Iran is increasingly poking its nose in Arabs affairs but disagreed on whether Arabs should sit with the Persian nation and talk about resolving their simmering conflict. The conference organised by the Cairo-based International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies (ICFS) was designed to probe ways of facing up to Iran's regional ambitions which are increasingly becoming the central rift in the Middle East, pitting Sunni Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia against the overwhelmingly Shia Persian nation.
Key Egyptian speakers expressed concern about a widely expected American-Iranian dialogue that President Barack Obama has promised during his election campaign. Head of the centre and one of Egypt's most renowned strategy experts, retired General Ahmed Fakhr warned against Iranian regional goals which he said pose a serious threat to Egypt's national security and its regional interests. Professor of political science and head of the ruling National Democratic Party's Media Committee Alieddin Hilal accused Iran of attempts "to shift the region's balance of power in its favour and trying to accumulate cards to be used in its dialogue with the United States."
In recent months Egypt has repeatedly accused Iran of hegemony but last month Egyptian- Iranian relations have taken a downturn after the disclosure that security forces uncovered plans of sabotage by the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizbullah party in Egypt and attempts to spread the Islamic Shia creed in the mostly Sunni Muslim nation. The charges have further increased tension between Cairo and Tehran as President Hosni Mubarak stepped in vowing that Egypt will not tolerate outside tampering in its internal affairs. Though he did not mention Iran by name, his comments were the strongest words of warning by Egypt to the group's backers in Iran.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have watched with concern as Iran has deepened its regional influence through its support for Hizbullah and its development of nuclear technology, though Iran says it is not aiming to produce atomic weapons, as the US and its Western allies charge. The two Arab Sunni nations and mainly Shia Iran are seen as top rivals for influence in the Middle East, standing on opposite sides of political divides in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
But reports that the Obama administration might be preparing to engage Iran have stirred deep concern in major Arab capitals. Engagement with Iran has been one of Obama's top foreign policy initiatives, and senior US officials have been meeting daily to discuss how to move forward. Washington has sent Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Dennis Ross, a veteran US diplomat and Middle East expert who is overseeing a review of Iran policy, to the region this week to try to alleviate Arab concerns and shore up support from the mostly Sunni states for the US efforts to persuade Iran to back off from its controversial nuclear programme.
US officials are reportedly still developing their own offer, but reports in the Israeli and Arab press have suggested that the Obama administration might be contemplating a package deal to offer to Iran that could include negotiations with Iran on all key regional issues, such as Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf's security. Experts, including those who participated in last week's conference, touted the idea of wrestling with all the issues at once as a "grand bargain" approach and warned that it might come at the Arabs' expense.
This could-be approach worries the Arab states, particularly the small Arab Gulf states who think that a potential US deal with Iran over its nuclear programme might compromise Arab interests. In exchange for Iran's relinquishing its nuclear plans, which remains a possibility giving Iran's previous suspension of its nuclear programme and its cooperation on Iraq and Afghanistan, the thinking among some Arab circles holds that Iran will be allowed to dominate the Gulf region. This approach, if it materialises, will be an ominous development for the Gulf Arab region with its own Shia population, as in the case of Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They might see their hold on power contested by their own citizens. Last month Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr told a congregation at a Friday prayer that the Shia minority might call for a secession of the oil-rich eastern province if the Sunni majority continues to discriminate against and persecute them.
One more possibility in Obama's approach in engaging Iran is said to include the deadlocked Middle East peace process with Israel, or what is becoming billed as Iran-defanged- for-Palestine-decolonised -- the Iran- Palestine equation. Egypt and other moderate Arab nations, who have been championing peacemaking with Israel according to the Arab peace initiative will have a lot to worry about if Washington takes such an approach. While they believe that Iran will not trade off its nuclear ambitions in exchange for more duplicitous Israeli manoeuvrings, they rightly believe that the Iranian bomb-for-Palestinian peace bargain will undermine moderate Arab governments' effectiveness and credibility.
Also, it is not clear if the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will endorse such a strategy. Hoping to thwart Iran's regional influence, Israel might be willing to make some peace overtures to Arabs instead. On Sunday Haaretz reported that Netanyahu is interested in withdrawing from the northern part of the Lebanese village Ghajar, located on the Lebanon-Israeli border. The announcement of the withdrawal, which is expected to be made ahead of Netanyahu's scheduled visit to Washington later this month and ahead of next month's Lebanese elections could bolster moderate parties in the Lebanese election next month against Hizbullah's candidates.
Although the Americans do not seem to be racing to the peace table with Iran, the move has spurred debates in the Arab world about the best way to contain Iran. During last week's ICFS discussions some even suggested a regional security system, or an organisation that would include Iran and Arab countries to tackle all disputed issues. They argued that the strategic Gulf region lacks an efficient security system and underlined that under current regional conditions, the region requires a comprehensive security plan more than ever.
The idea for a security organisation would be a great foreign policy challenge but many assume a dialogue could be a good start. "Even if Iran has an agenda and is trying to impose its hegemony on the region, the two parties should sit together and engage in a political dialogue on the basis of mutual respect," said Mustafa El-Feki, head of Egypt's parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee.
Yet others fear that engaging Iran will drive a wedge between Arabs and weaken their hands. "Before we talk to Iran, we Arabs should talk to each other to reach a unified position," said Makram Mohamed Ahmed, a leading Egyptian columnist and head of the Press Syndicate.