Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Listening to the Arabs on Iran

The nuclear deal with Iran shows that diplomacy can yield results. Now the US must use the same tools to address Arab concerns over Iran, which go beyond the nuclear issue, writes James Zogby

Al-Ahram Weekly

Arab leaders cautiously welcomed the P5+1 framework agreement with Iran. The Arab press, on the other hand, was not so circumspect, with criticisms ranging from the fanciful (“The US is ushering in a new US-Iranian order” to dominate regional affairs) to the anxious (With the end of sanctions, Iran will have greater freedom and resources at its disposal to pursue its troubling regional agenda in Iraq, in Syria, and now in Yemen).

While I have concerns with how the process evolved, I strongly support the deal and believe that it can be a very good thing, if for no other reason than the fact that it demonstrates the power and the possibilities of engagement.

Moving forward, if we play it right and if we listen carefully to what our Arab partners are saying to us, the deal can open the door to constructive discussions with allied Arab leaders that will enhance the prospects of peace and stability across the region.

In a statement my institute issued with the National Iranian American Council and J Street, we noted: “This deal may provide an important first step towards de-escalating regional tensions and pave the way for resolving the many conflicts that still persist. The lesson that we all must learn from these successful negotiations is that diplomacy works. This deal demonstrates that no disagreement should be so deeply entrenched that it cannot be resolved through the give and take of serious diplomacy.”

My concerns are not with the deal itself, but with how it was done, and the lessons I hope we will learn as we move to the next stage.

To be sure, the next few months will still involve rounds of tough private negotiations, coupled with public posturing. All this time, critics will be having a field day trying to upend the process.

We have already heard from the Israelis who, in their continuing efforts to scuttle the deal, have combined warnings of imminent Armageddon with the insistence that the final arrangement includes a number of “poison pills” — like Netanyahu’s demand that it include Iran’s recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State.”

The US Congress initially balked, threatening to be tough with the president. They then agreed to soften their stance in a compromise bill that should allow the administration sufficient leeway to avoid a congressional block.

As I noted, Arab leaders, even those who have a deep distrust of Iran’s intentions, have been tempered in their reactions to the deal. One Arab official with whom I spoke suggested that it is pointless to dwell on the past, unless it is to learn lessons from the process that will enable the US to move forward with greater trust and partnership.

US allies in the Gulf have long been concerned not only with Iran’s nuclear ambitions but also, more importantly, with the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions and its meddlesome intrusion into affairs in the Arab region. Statements from Tehran boasting that they now have seats in capitals in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa weigh heavy on the collective Arab consciousness.

Some Western commentators cavalierly dismiss this concern as nothing more than an age-old Sunni/Shia rivalry. In fact, the problem is neither “theological” nor is it age-old. It is a political struggle, pure and simple.

As Arabs see it, since 1979 Iran has operated as a revolutionary regime that has sought to export its theocratic model of governance and its ideology of resistance against the West. As such, Iran has fomented unrest — even during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia — and has sought regional hegemony through partners who would embrace its militant worldview.

In response, the Arab Gulf States joined forces in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and have made arrangements with the US to enhance their individual and collective security. At the same time, each of these states, at its own pace and in its own way, has attempted to grow its economy, address local development concerns and provide for its growing population.

 As public frustration and even anger at US policies grew — in reaction to US support for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and the devastation the US brought to Iraq — Arab leaders were forced to confront public dissatisfaction with their close ties with the US.

And so one can imagine the bind in which Arab leaders have found themselves when they see the US, after destabilising Iraq and leaving it open to Iranian influence and then abandoning Syria, now negotiating in secret with Iran over its nuclear programme.

If all that was at stake was Iran’s nuclear programme there would be far less concern than there is, given Iran’s increasing disruptive regional role.

When GCC leaders come to Washington next month, the most important task facing the administration is not to rehash or make their case for the deal. It is to rebuild trust. If the US wants to see Arab states as allies, it must treat them as such.

A good place to begin would be for the US to make clear that it understands the dangers that Iran poses in fomenting or prolonging conflict in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. A new plan of action must be laid out for Iraq that doesn’t allow for US airpower to pave the way for Iranian-backed militia to take over from the Islamic State (IS).

This will only exacerbate the deep divide and political alienation that helped spawn IS in the first place. Discussions should then move on to Syria and Yemen, to talk through the steps that need to be taken to achieve negotiated solutions in both countries.

Finally, the president will have to do better to demonstrate that he understands the relationship between the external and internal challenges facing each of the Arab Gulf countries than he did in his recent interview with the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

 In that interview, after noting that the US would work with its “Sunni allies” to help secure their defence needs, Obama went on to say, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries ... That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

Of course, these Arab states, each in differing degrees, are facing internal challenges. And again, to differing degrees they are addressing these challenges by confronting extremism and reforming their educational and religious institutions, and by working to create educational and employment opportunities for their youth.

In each of these areas, US support can be helpful and will be welcomed. But if the US were to attempt to meddle in the internal affairs of these countries, it will neither be helpful nor welcomed — not only by leaders, but by a majority of the Arab public.

With three wars being fought in their immediate vicinity, with the threat of Iran looming large, and with trust in the US at extremely low levels, the president needs to tread carefully and speak even more carefully.

As our most recent polling demonstrates, Arab attitudes toward the US remain deeply conflicted. Arabs want ties with the US, but they lack trust in America’s intentions and remain profoundly disturbed by US policies toward Israel, Iraq and Syria.

As I noted, the nuclear deal establishes that when the US, together with other powers, uses all of the political and diplomatic tools available to it, negotiations can yield results.

Moving forward, the US should demonstrate that it can use those same tools to help rein in Iran’s regional ambitions. And it should do so with Arabs as partners in this process, not as mere bystanders.

The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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