Tag Archives: Arabs

A new Middle East deal

A new Middle East deal

 The tentative agreement signed with Iran is a double-edged sword for the Arabs, with everything depending on how they choose to use it, writes Salah Nasrawi

 When US president Barack Obama telephoned king Salman of Saudi Arabia last week to break the news of the nuclear deal with Iran, the monarch responded cautiously, saying he “hopes reaching a final and binding agreement will lead to improving security and stability in the region and the world at large.”

Obama seems to have tried to assuage Saudi concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme by stressing that the framework deal would “cut off every pathway Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” and reaffirm US commitments to the security of one of its key Middle East allies.

Yet, Salman’s diplomatic remarks can hardly reflect the actual Saudi stance on the Iran deal which the kingdom and its Sunni Arab allies have never been shy about opposing even before it materialised, fearing it would fuel Iranian expansionism across the region.

Under the deal Iran made undertakings to cease all uranium enrichment, which could be spun further into weapons-grade material. Some of its facilities will either be destroyed or redesigned in order to render it incapable of producing or housing any fissile material for at least 15 years.

In exchange, the United States and European Union will terminate all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran has complied.  All UN Security Council sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme will be lifted immediately if a final deal is agreed.

Even so, the Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia seems to find it difficult to accept the challenge of the deal, though Arab scepticism and dissatisfaction have not amounted to Israel’s ferocious opposition and its threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Arabs have two types of concerns: one is that the deal may not stop Tehran from seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, thus putting them at a disadvantage. The second is Iran’s continuing rise in both military and political terms. They believe the nuclear deal will embolden Iran and eventually tilt the strategic balance in its favour in the region.

As for the proliferation issue, the agreement is considered to make Iran a nuclear threshold state. This will make Iran stronger with dramatic implications for the future of the region since Iran will become a nuclear power-in-waiting.

Allowing Iran to keep its nuclear capabilities will push key Sunni states to act to protect themselves by trying to obtain nuclear arms for themselves. Efforts to acquire similar technology by key Arab countries will open a potential atomic arms race.

The Iran deal constitutes a geostrategic nightmare for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies who believe it opens the door to the Persian and Shia nation to become a regional superpower.

Tensions with Iran over a host of regional issues are already at an all-time high. The Arab camp has raised a red flag about Iranian expansionism across the Middle East.

From Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia is fighting mounting Iranian influence and engaging in proxy wars against Iranian-backed organisations.

Efforts by Saudi Arabia to contain the regional repercussions of the deal have already begun. It is no coincidence that an Arab Sunni coalition launched a campaign of airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shia rebels in Yemen only a few days before the world powers reached the deal with Iran.

Simultaneously, Saudi-backed rebels have recently made significant gains against the regime led by president Bashar al-Assad in Syria, including by capturing the strategic city of Idleb.

One of the worst scenarios for the Saudi-led Arab camp is for Washington to build up relations with Iran far beyond the nuclear deal. A US-Iranian regional alliance would have a decisive influence in the region

Given the critical milestone the Iran deal has created and the changes in the Middle East that it is widely expected to unleash, there is surprisingly little serious debate in the Arab world about how to deal effectively with Iran’s growing prominence.

Instead of shrewd strategic choices or even sophisticated diplomacy, key Arab countries show few signs of being able to reorient their policies for this new era.

Indeed, the Iran deal provides an opportunity for the Arabs to redefine their overall regional strategy on a more realistic basis that could change their fortunes. The Arabs should use the improving environment which is expected to prevail after the signing of the final deal to address regional rivalry with Iran.

The agreement itself reflects a realpolitik approach as the best way to change the behaviour of hostile governments, not through isolation or the threat of military force but by persistent engagement. The Arabs could learn a lot from this important lesson in easing strained relations.

The Arabs need to relax tensions with Iran, which have recently reached fever pitch involving sectarian and nationalist geopolitics making an Arab-Iranian détente long overdue.

Over the last decade several proposals have been made to try to deal with the region’s uncertainties as Iran has risen in power and influence due to a series of geopolitical changes brought on by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the new regional geopolitical dynamics it has unleashed.

In 2008, Bahrain’s foreign minister sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa proposed a gathering of Arab states with Israel, as well as Iran and Turkey, to try to solve the region’s problems.

A year later, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, then an adviser to supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unveiled a 10-point plan for collective security arrangements in the crisis-ridden region.

In 2010, former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa suggested that the 22-nation bloc engage Iran in a forum for regional cooperation and conflict resolution that would also include Turkey.

All these efforts to initiate a broad dialogue on balancing various security interests foundered due to competition and jealousies between the regional powers.

The present writer has also proposed a broader framework for a new order in the Middle East overturning the status quo which has been in place since the end of World War I and founded on European decisions.

In the Arabic-language book “The Dog of Esfahan: the Repressed Self in the Dialectic of Struggle between the Arabs and Iran” (2009), it is argued that this regional order would be based on the European model.

Starting with the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the wars waged by competing European dynasties in the 17th century and through the 1975 Helsinki Accords which eased tensions between the east and west, Europe has provided a historic example of nations solving their conflicts despite decades of war.

Even Asian nations which have fought bloody wars with their neighbours and suffered from prolonged conflicts have been able to overcome their historic animosities and join cooperation forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in order to promote regional peace and stability.

Now there is an opportunity that the nuclear deal with Iran will help create a momentum for such regional arrangements in the Middle East, binding Iran and its Arab neighbours in efforts to deal with specific issues such as maintaining existing relations and promoting cooperation in conflict-resolution and the peaceful settlement of regional disputes.

Obama has invited the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries to a summit in Camp David later this spring in order to discuss security cooperation following the signing of the deal.

The accord with Iran and Obama’s push to open up trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba will likely serve as an example of how countries must be open to negotiations with their enemies.

In fact, this perception of engagement, which is now being called the “Obama Doctrine,” is already embedded in Obama’s outreach to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, encouraging them to take the Iran deal as a regional fact.

“The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries,” he told the New York Times in an interview on 5 April.

 This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on April 9, 2015

A new Arab disorder

A new Arab disorder
The 2014 marked a farewell to a turbulent decade, but it could be replaced by a more chaotic one, writes Salah Nasrawi

They weren’t exactly foreseen by Nostradamus, but one can see clearly how the dramatic events unfolded in the Middle East in 2014 depict the apocalyptic prophecies of the reputed 16th century French seer.
Across the Arab world, countries, some of them as old as the world’s ancient civilizations, are unraveling and the whole region seems to be heading toward a massive geopolitical shift in its landscape that would have far reaching consequences on the international order.
A century after a series of treaties between the European colonial powers and the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France to carve up the region after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, the Middle East is facing Balkanization.
Today, as our writers are trying to explain in their articles and reports for this special end of the year issue, it seems even difficult to imagine the magnitude of the changes that would take place in the foreseen future.
The rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, its seizure of vast swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq, and its proclamation of the Islamic Caliphate has been a turning point. The group abolished the borders drawn with the creation of the two modern states and raised their black banners over areas expanding from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean.
The damage to the national fabrics and the country’s unity caused by IS’s advances and the sectarian civil war it unleashed is immeasurable. It has deepened the confessional divide beyond repair and created ethno-sectarian enclaves that saw the seeds for geographical and political disintegration of the two countries.
The war front to the IS goes beyond the captured territories of Syria and Iraq. While civil wars raged in Libya and Yemen, several Arab countries remained wracked by sectarian divisions and political uncertainty.
In Libya, the popular uprising against the regime of Col. Muammar Gadhafi has evolved into a war that could tear the country to pieces. While a civil war is raging in many parts of the country, some parts in eastern Libya have declared autonomy. Tribes in southern Libya with Tuareg or Sahara identities are looking for closer bonds with neighboring countries.
Following the overthrow of its longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen has entered a turbulent era with tribal, sectarian and provincial communities are fighting over sharing power and wealth. A federal system proposed by a UN-led national dialogue is in tatters with southern Yemen now pressing for breaking away from the north.
Lebanon which is suffering the repercussions of the war in Syria is threatened with a sectarian flare-up.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries do not look to be immune from the ripple effects of the Middle East Balkanization. With sectarian strives escalate around them, governments and large segments of the population fear that they might be next to hit by the turmoil.
All in all, the Middle East seems to be heading toward a tectonic shift which could redefine its political landscape and its century old national borders. Changes may take time but if this momentum continues there will be no Middle East which we have known so far in few years.
In many ways, the new political map and the new regional order will be a major regression and an invitation to transform the admittedly imperfect order to a jungle in which ethno and sectarian based new countries would be pitted against each other.
Western analysts and pundits tend to blame the Arab Spring to remove dictators for the turbulence. They claim that movements for regime changes, political mobility and social disturbances have kindled the long dormant identity conflicts.
Yet the conflagration set by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 is largely responsible for today’s Middle East troubles. The American adventure in Iraq, its ten years of occupation, dismantling Iraq’s state and society, its abysmal failure of rebuilding it and now its reoccupation by its military “experts”, all of this stand behind the disaster.
If the Middle East is to be remapped, it will be a direct result of Washington’s blueprint for imperial meddling in the region. Iraq’s invasion was not only a godsend for the terrorists who have torn down the borders and established a phony Islamic caliphate, but also the catalyst for polarization which split the region on sectarian lines and now triggering its redrawing in blood and tears.

This article appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly on Dec, 25, 2014