The Israel factor
Will Israel succeed in its efforts to influence Arab-Iranian relations, asks Omayma Abdel-Latif
The main working paper at a conference held in Beirut, Lebanon, recently to debate Arab-Iranian relations consisted of a newspaper article published in the Saudi- financed newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat on 15 December. The article, entitled "An open letter to the Arab world", summed up new factors that have helped fuel the tension between the two in 2009.
"For the first time in years we find ourselves on the same front, seeking to defeat the forces of extremism and destruction in the region. We realise the extent of the threat posed by the extremist regime in Tehran, which seeks to export the ideology of extremism across the region, arms terrorist movements that seek to destabilise moderate Sunni regimes, and aims to impose its hegemony on the Middle East," the article said.
One could be forgiven for thinking that these words were those of a concerned Saudi commentator, or of the paper's pro-government editor. However, they are the words of Dany Iyalon, the deputy Israeli foreign minister, who chose Asharq Al-Awsat to call for a united front with "the Sunni regimes", as he described them, against Tehran in an attempt to incite Arab public against what he claimed were "Iran's agents" in the region and the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.
The article projected Israel as a beacon of peace and cooperation in the region. "The Israeli government has taken large steps to reach out to the Arab world, and it is committed to extending a hand to neighbouring Arab countries; governments and peoples, in order to unite together to face the key challenges of the coming years," Iyalon wrote.
Yet Iyalon's article was only the latest in a series of statements by Israeli officials, all of which have attempted to present Iran as a danger to peace in the region, and Israeli officials have been on a mission to promote Israeli-Arab realignment against Iran.
One indication of the plan of action to reach this goal was given in a speech by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert at a conference last year, in which he set the course for a process that would link normalisation with the Arab world with fighting "the Iranian threat."
"The moderate, responsible Arab states, headed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, could play an important role in this process," Olmert said. "These nations, which want to promote peace and which fully recognise the direct threat to them posed by a nuclear Iran and by foreign and domestic extremism, now have a golden opportunity to support a process of normalisation and reconciliation with Israel, which will isolate Iran and the extremists and help foil their pursuit of regional dominance."
Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, four factors have influenced Arab-Iranian relations: the relationship with the United States, Iraq, Gulf security and sectarianism.
However, last year witnessed unprecedented efforts on the part of Israel to influence Arab-Iranian relations in a way that projects Iran as the "common enemy" of both the Arabs and Israel, and many Israeli officials have based calls for a coalition against Iran on the assumption that there are common Arab and Israeli interests in doing so.
Echoing Olmert's views, Israeli academics have spoken of "a window of opportunity" that may help create new opportunities for "interaction between Israel and non-radical Arab states."
"This is first and foremost the result of the Iranian threat. Iran is not only a threat to Israel, but also to the so-called moderate Sunni and pro-Western regimes," said Israeli professor Shimon Stein at a conference in Jerusalem last June entitled "Israel and the Arab States: Parallel Interests, Relations and Strategies."
Stein's theory was that "a common threat could constitute a platform for cooperation in an effort to curb that threat".
Western politicians like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have also joined attempts to promote normalisation between Israel and the Arab world as a way of isolating Iran and facing "the common Iranian threat." Merkel has repeatedly encouraged Arab states to "take concrete steps to improve their relations with Israel as a way to contribute to solving the problem and more broadly towards addressing the Iranian threat together."
Moreover, the US has also put pressures on Arab states to be proactive in the normalisation process. Creating the perception of "a common Iranian threat," policy analysts have argued, would push the Arabs closer to Israel.
A study published last September by the Britain Israel Communication and Research Centre (BICOM) entitled "What Arab Normalisation can do for Peace" suggested that the US hoped that concern over "Iranian-led radicalism" would give Arab states an added incentive to invest in the success of the peace process.
"The primary strategic concern of many Arab states is the growing power of Iran and its nuclear programme. They privately want to see determined US action to stop Iran, as well as momentum on the Palestinian issue. Flare-ups in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are exploited by Iran and other anti-western elements in the region," the report said.
Both Israel and the US are investing in campaigns to link progress in the peace process and normalisation with Israel with isolating Iran. Israeli officials have aimed to influence Arab public opinion and convince Arab regimes that Iran is the real enemy.
They have also worked hard to reframe the debate in the Arab world on Iran by projecting it as a source of regional instability that poses a serious threat to Arab national interests and security, while at the same time diverting attention from Israeli atrocities in the occupied territories.
Some Arab media outlets have followed the Israeli lead, with one Iranian diplomat based in Beirut commenting to Al-Ahram Weekly that Iran-related news has been framed in some Arab media in a way that reflects the Israeli agenda.
"There is a clear effort to project Iran to Arab public opinion as in a permanent state of crisis, and that Iran's supposed threat to Arab interests is growing to replace that of the 'Zionist entity'," the diplomat said.
However, realities on the ground offer a more complicated reading. According to Talal Atrissi, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University and author of several books on Iranian politics and culture, while the leaders of the so-called "axis of moderates" in the region would like to limit Iran's growing influence, it would be quite another thing to achieve this in unison with Israel.
"Arab public opinion is still relevant, and while there have been efforts to demonise Iran in some Arab media, the majority of Arab people still perceive Israel to be the Arab world's number one enemy," Atrissi said.
Atrissi said that it was difficult to generalise about the complexities of the relationship between Iran and the Arab world. Iran has relatively good relations with Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, he said, and good relations with Jordan and Egypt.
"The four-hour meeting held recently between Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt clearly suggests that relations between the two countries are more complicated than superficial media coverage of rivalry between them," Atrissi said.