Arab Summit, Iranian Agenda

Gloria Center- 05/04/2009

The issues that dominated the 21st Arab League summit in Doha, Qatar, this week testified to the weakness and disunity of the Arab states. Sunni Arabs are the majority population group in the Middle East. Yet the Doha agenda reflected a regional reality dominated by the interests of, and clash between, two strong but non-Arab countries – Israel and Iran.

Current Arab diplomacy is dominated first and foremost by a growing Iranian encroachment on the politics of the Arabic-speaking world, and the divided Arab response to this. This was reflected in all the major issues at and around the summit.

The central diplomatic headline at Doha was the decision by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not to attend, against a backdrop of growing Egyptian displeasure with Qatar. Egypt’s irritation derives from the increasingly pro-Iranian stance being taken by Qatar. The Gulf Emirate of Qatar offered demonstrative support to Hamas during Israel’s recent Gaza incursion. Qatar hosted an improvised summit during Operation Cast Lead, which was attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal.

Egypt regards Qatar’s stance as hypocritical and somewhat ludicrous – given the emirate’s close defense ties with the United States (the headquarters of U.S. military Central Command is located there). But Cairo is also worried. Qatar is aping the Iranian language of anti-Western defiance and “resistance” – a concept sure to have a receptive audience in the Arabic-speaking world – in an attempt to build its own regional influence.

The Palestinian cause – the great self-proclaimed moral flagship of Arab politics – is currently the subject of a hostile takeover bid by Iran and its clients. The Doha summit issued the expected ringing call on Israel to accept the Saudi initiative while there is still time. It is not entirely clear what the implied threat behind this statement actually consists of. But the truth is that as long as the Palestinian national movement remains in its current state, this demand lacks even the most elementary logic.

The Iranian-armed and sponsored Hamas enclave in Gaza has successfully suppressed its internal rivals and defended its existence against Israel. There are now in effect two Palestinian national movements. One of them is ideologically strong and hungry, favors Israel’s destruction, and is supported by Iran. The other is old and tired and lost, and is propped up by vast amounts of Western funding. The former is in the process of trying to devour the latter, and may succeed. So in partnership with whom is Israel expected to implement the Saudi initiative?

Fear of Iran is driving the Saudi attempt to woo Syria away from its alliance with Tehran. At a “mini-summit” in preparation for Doha earlier in March, Saudi King Abdullah offered Syria’s President Bashar Assad an extensive financial package in return for Damascus abandoning its ties with Iran and returning to the “Arab fold.” The Saudis also pledged to help Syria in its diplomatic efforts to re-acquire the Golan Heights from Israel.

So far, Assad has managed to resist all such temptations. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem dismissed the very possibility of such a move. The Syrian line, as expressed in an editorial in the government-owned al-Thawra newspaper earlier this week, is that the search for peace must go hand in hand with a policy of muqawama (resistance). The doctrine of “resistance,” of course, is the ideological and rhetorical glue holding together the disparate forces aligned with Iran in the region.

All the above examples might lead one to conclude that Iran is developing into a vast, looming power, about to overshadow the region. But the situation is more complicated than this. Iran’s advances are testimony not to the great strength and vitality of the Tehran regime and its governing idea, but rather to the weakness of Arab states, institutions and political cultures.

Iran’s regional strategy is itself limited by a series of contradictions. The muqawama doctrine is designed to enable Shi’ite, Persian Iran to link up with Islamist and oppositional forces across the Middle East. The Tehran regime stresses the idea of the “Islamic world” and an overriding Muslim identity. It dreams of a bloc of Muslim states led by a nuclear Iran, challenging Israel’s existence and American power.

And indeed, Iranian regional “outreach” has succeeded in building close alliances with a number of Arab states and movements. This project is impacting all aspects of regional politics. But Iran will always suffer from a “legitimacy gap” in the Arab world. It will always be perceived as a foreign, frightening power by many non-Shi’ite Arabs. In the end, the faltering Iranian economy and domestically unpopular regime are probably instruments too weak to carry the grand ambitions of Iran’s rulers.

Still, Doha signaled that for the moment the Iranian star in the region is on the rise, with the leading states of the Arab system – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – reduced to scolding and attempted bribery respectively in their efforts to limit its influence. It is perhaps the final ironic testimony to the Arabs’ weakness that the only regional state capable of mounting a real resistance to the westward march of Iranian power is the one against whom all Arab League members can still momentarily unite in displays of verbal ferocity – namely, Israel.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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