Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

The Arab exit

By Salama A Salama

No one had anticipated that the US would invite Iran to hold direct talks over the situation in Iraq. Nor had anyone expected that such an invitation would originate with the Shia political power that controls the coalition led by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the majority party in the elected Iraqi parliament.

The invitation surprised everybody, particularly since it came at a time when the Iranian nuclear file is being referred to the Security Council and harbingers of a military confrontation with Iran appear daily.

America insists discussions will be confined to Iraq and not include Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Simultaneously, President Bush has revived the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, within a national security strategy that identifies an Iranian nuclear capacity as one of the greatest threats to US security.

It is clear that regional balances of power are beginning to be redrawn. One sign is the deterioration of the situation in Iraq which, as Iyad Alawi, the former prime minister put it, is on the brink of civil war. Another is the emergence of Iran as a key player in Iraq. President Bush and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, have accused Iran of smuggling bombs, mines and military experts into Iraq, and of encouraging bombings and suicide operations.

The obstacles in the way of forming a national unity government, which Washington insists is the only way to avoid civil war, serve only to underline Iranian influence since Tehran alone is capable of deciding Shia competition for the post of prime minister.

The rise of Hamas in the Palestinian equation, and the assistance Iran provides to Hizbullah in Lebanon and its backing of Syria, also lend urgency to the demands of Washington's neo-cons, all supporters of Israel, to contain Iranian influence in the most sensitive areas of the Middle East.

At this critical juncture, with the situation in Iraq deteriorating, the tensions following the Israeli attack on the Jericho prison growing and the situation in Lebanon fluctuating between hot and cold, it seems as if Arab states have turned their backs, settling on inaction as they wait to see what the Americans will do, perhaps in the weak hope that some kind of consensus will emerge during the upcoming Arab summit in Khartoum.

Have Arab states completely renounced any role in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and, I might add, Darfur?

If Washington can see no solution to the Iraqi crisis other than acknowledge the Iranian role why do Arab states not cooperate with Iran in pursuit of a solution that serves Arab interests?

Washington, never one to spurn pragmatism, appears convinced that the complexities of the Iraqi situation must be revisited through Iran. Its approach to Tehran may well be one of stick and carrot, but surely that is better than the stick without the carrot it adopts towards the Arabs. Arabs have been dismissed empty-handed from the Iraqi arena while America acknowledges Iranian influence.

Arab failure to adopt an effective policy vis-à-vis Iraq is largely a result of Egypt's failure to engage positively with the Iranian regime and coordinate positions over shared problems that impact on Arab and Egyptian interests, including Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and even Israel's regional monopoly of nuclear weapons. Egypt, biased towards the American position, has maintained an icy relationship with Iran for more than a quarter of a century now, an inexplicable stance towards a regional Islamic state that is one of the fundamental components of the Middle Eastern equation.

Despite Tehran's attempts to normalise relations with Egypt, Egypt has preferred, for reasons that elude me, to direct its normalisation efforts towards Israel. It deals with Iran as America did, as part of an axis of evil. Yet it is clear Egypt has reaped nothing from this barren policy. On the contrary, it has compromised its interests in Iraq, and is now compromising them in the Gulf.

If US-Iranian talks on Iraq prove to be even a limited success, then the Arabs will remain shut out of Iraq for a long time to come and the balance of power in the region will never return to what it once was.

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