December 20, 2010

A view from the Gulf

At the Arabs’ Table: A View from the Gulf

(A variation of this has been published in JTA and The Jerusalem Post.)

There is a conversation going on among Arab policymakers, and it’s neither all about Israel nor just Iran’s nuclear program. 
This Arab conversation is diverse and complex, counter-intuitive, on their turf, but always a two-way dialogue. One doorway into this conversation was this month's Manama Dialogue, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and hosted warmly by the Kingdom of Bahrain. A Jewish organization with background in the Gulf and ties to the leadership in Jerusalem and Washington can contribute to this dialogue as well as draw from it.
Manama attracts key ministers from the Gulf, as well as Europe, Asia, and North America – all with a strategic interest in addressing regional security here. The unofficial nature of IISS uniquely allows for equal participation and interaction by government and military officials, policy experts, and non-governmental delegates. Where else would the Iranian Foreign Minister sit at the same table and listen to remarks by the U.S. Secretary of State.
At Friday’s opening dinner, the atmospherics were palpable. Since the center VIP table was positioned perpendicular to the dais, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was able to avoid looking at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while during and after her speech. Quite the cool customer, he sat through her remarks and the question-and-answer without ever turning his head or displaying any expression. Most important, though, is that he did sit in that ballroom, barely 50 feet from the lectern, and four seats down from the Secretary during dinner. And he had his aides taking strenuous notes.

The Secretary did address the full range of U.S. policy concerns in the Middle East, including Israel and the peace process, but it’s the nuclear file that was the hook for her Manama speech.
The other nuclear shoe dropped on Sunday morning, with news that Iran has its own uranium source, sufficient to produce “yellow cake”, the key ingredient of the nuclear fuel cycle. Taken together, both events approximate Tehran’s “good cop, bad cop” dynamic leading into the new negotiations in Geneva.
It doesn’t take Wikileaks to see that Iran is perceived here with suspicion and derision. While Secretary Clinton specifically addressed “the Iranian delegation”, and repeatedly tried greet Mottaki face-to-face, Jordan’s King Abdullah avoided all contact with – or reference to – the Iranian delegates. Outside of the sensationalist details from leaked U.S. cables, Arab leaders resent what they call
Iran’s intervention in Lebanon and Iraq, almost on a par with the fears of Iran’s nuclear program.
Equally clear, the Geneva talks are not the only venue for resolving the nuclear issue or other challenges posed by Iran’s geopolitical agenda. Iran has many tactics and strategies, and it chooses when and how to announce “concessions” or claim success. The struggle between Iran and its neighbors plays out in Lebanon and Gaza, Iraq, and even in the internal politics of Bahrain and other Gulf states, and at a succession of visits and conferences.
King Abdullah, whose country has open borders with Israel, reaffirmed his support for the Arab Peace Initiative, which promises pan-Arab relations with Israel once all issues are resolved as opposed to the Israeli and U.S. approach of incremental steps toward normalization. But the Jordanian monarch told his fellow Arabs that they must do more to show Israelis what that peace would look like.
If not for this week’s Geneva talks, the nuclear issue would probably have been relegated to the same status as Iraq and Yemen. Iraq remains an unsettled battleground of religions, clans, and outside interests. As a failing state fertile for Al-Qaeda and other dangerous exports, Yemen is a cause of immediate concern for the whole Gulf.
Lebanon is a further concern, and the off-the-record conversations – with generals and ministers taking seats around the table with everyone else – show the issues are at once raw and impactful. Every serious challenge in the region is complex, but King Abdullah stressed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs no more new ideas, just political will and commitment from all sides.
The Iranians definitely drew some rhetorical fire, but they also live in the neighborhood, and the opportunity to connect with some of them was definitely illuminating, not only on the nuclear issue. Their positions are nuanced as a rule, and press conferences or Security Council debates barely hit the surface. They repeatedly argued that the United States and its allies in the region are in no position to lecture Iran about respecting international law, given that Coalition forces invaded Iraq without clear Security Council authorization. Privately, some Iranians express their satisfaction with an American empire that is over-extended and compromised as a result – i.e., ‘Thank you, America, for invading Iraq.’
The show has now moved to Abu Dhabi, where the Gulf heads of state are gathered for the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council. I happened to pass through Abu Dhabi on my way home, and a local newspaper carried an Associated Press report of the international campaign to extinguish the Mount Carmel forest fires in “Israel” – not so remarkable here, where pragmatism and conversation often trump ideology. If Iran’s foreign minister can sit in on Hillary Clinton’s speech, we can afford to be in the same room and maybe hold the door open.
p.s. Mottaki was on official business in Senegal last week when Iranian President Ahmadinejad fired him, reflecting the shifting tides in Tehran more than second-guessing Mottaki's passive outreach to the United States.

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