RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — A story is doing the rounds in Washington about an Arab ambassador whose view of Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran is: “We don’t mind you seeking engagement, but please, no marriage!”It’s sometimes hard to know if the Arabs or Israelis are more alarmed — or alarmist — about Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions.
A comment a few months back from an Iranian official to the effect that the small desert kingdom of Bahrain was historically a province of Iran sent fears of exportable Shia revolution into overdrive in Sunni Arab capitals. Iran apologized, but the damage was done.
After Iran’s American-aided push into Iraq through the establishment of a Shia-dominated government there, the Bahrain talk set frayed Arab nerves on edge. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, called on Arab states to “deal with the Iranian challenge.”
The mistrust has a long history. Arabs and Persians enjoy cordial enmity; the cultural rivalry between the Sunni and Shia universes dates back a mere 1.5 millennia or so, to the battle of Karbala in 680 and beyond.
But recent developments have envenomed things to the point that Arab diplomats troop daily into the State Department to warn that the U.S. quest for détente with Tehran is dangerous.
That point will be made with vigor by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he meets with President Obama Monday. After all, when Israelis and Arabs make common cause, surely the danger is real.
Obama should be skeptical, for reasons I will explain. But first those Arab fears.
The Saudis have been incensed by how U.S. policy has favored “the Persians” — as they refer to them — by removing Iran’s Sunni Taliban enemy in Afghanistan and ending Sunni dominance of Iraq. Despite U.S. prodding, the Saudis have not named an ambassador to Iraq and view the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, as an Iranian pawn. Their strategic goal remains an “Iraq that comes back to be a solid Arab country,” as one Saudi official put it to me.
They also express frustration at the U.S. failure to rein in Israel, whose wars against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in Gaza have stirred growing support for these Iran-backed movements. Anger on the Arab street is easily exploited by Iranian leaders using insurgent rhetoric.
With a significant Shia minority, Saudi Arabia — like Kuwait and Bahrain — believes Iran is inciting these communities to rebellion. It’s not uncommon to see posters of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iran-backed Hezbollah, in Shia homes. Shiites, in turn, say Iran’s rising influence is used to justify oppression.
When popular rage rises, the region’s Arab autocrats look in the mirror and see the Shah. They don’t want a rerun of Tehran 1979.
“The Arabs are very worried that, for expediency’s sake in Iraq or Afghanistan, we’ll cut some deal with Iran that will leave Tehran as the regional hegemon,” one U.S. official told me.
It’s not going to happen. Washington and Tehran are a long way from even starting bilateral talks. Differences are such that any deal would take time.
What’s really at issue here is that neither Israel nor the Arabs want a change in a status quo that locks in Israeli regional military dominance and the cozy relationships — arms deals, aid and all — that U.S. allies from the Gulf to Cairo enjoy.
American interests are, however, another story. They are not served by having no communication with Iran, the rising Mideast power; nor by the uncritical support of Israel that has allowed West Bank settlements to grow and peace to fade; nor by relationships with Arab states that comfort stasis.
The Arab arguments over Iran are weak. It is precisely U.S. non-engagement that has led to Tehran’s rising power. So it makes sense to change policy. Only within an American “grand bargain” with Iran will a solution to the nuclear issue be possible.
Given that a Mideast peace is inconceivable without Iran because of its influence over Hamas and Hezbollah, it is in the Arab interest that the United States attempt to bring Iran “inside the tent.” Outside it will make trouble.
Moreover, the Arabs themselves have engaged. The Saudis have normal if strained diplomatic relations with Iran.
So here’s what Obama should say to Netanyahu when he says Arab states have identical fears over Iran:
“We’re aware of this, Mr. Prime Minister, which is why we sent Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others to reassure Arab allies. But the U.S. interest is not served by the Mideast status quo. Our interest lies in new region-wide security arrangements that promote a two-state peace, end 30 years of non-communication with Iran, and ultimately afford Israel a brighter future. You can’t build settlements and expect Iran’s influence to diminish.”
When Netanyahu demurs, Obama should add: “And you know what the Arabs tell me in private? That Israeli use of force against Iran would be a disaster. And that it’s impossible to tell Iran it can’t have nukes when Israel has them. They say that’s a double standard. And you know what? They may have a point.”
Monday, 18 May 2009