Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Arab Summit and the Challenge Facing Iran

The Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is a guest at the Arab Summit which began this morning in Riyadh. This year’s Arab summit has raised cautious hopes across the region that it might offer some promising possibilities for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Saudi King Abdullah, who as a crown prince in the Beirut Summit in 2002 had presented what is now called the Arab Peace Initiative, is enthusiastically chairing the Riyadh Summit. The Initiative calls for the recognition of Israel and a comprehensive peace agreement in the region if Israel withdrew from the lands occupied since the 1967 War. The Initiative could become a serious platform around which the Arab-Israeli conflict could finally be resolved. Is Iran ready to back the Initiative?

The timing could not be worst for Iran. The Islamic Republic is locked in a dangerous standoff with the West over its nuclear program. Its standing within the Muslim world and the larger Third World is in rapid decline. The latest unanimous vote against the Islamic Republic at the UN Security Council was an indicative of Iran’s isolation even among the fellow Third World countries and the Arab states (Qatar, Indonesia and South Africa all voted against the Islamic Republic). To normalize its relationship with the West and indeed with the rest of the world, the Islamic Republic needs to be seen as a moderating force in the region, acting on national and regional interests, and not solely on ideology.

And here lies the danger. The Islamic Republic can not back the Arab Peace Initiative and not be seen as backing off its doctrine of a Middle East with Palestine but without Israel. President Ahmadinejad has made a career of predicting Israel’s imminent demise. Indeed we witnessed a dress rehearsal of how awkward the topic could get for the Iranian leaders just earlier this month. On 3 March, Ahmadinejad had a meeting with King Abdullah in Riyadh and the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported that in the meeting Ahmadinejad voiced support for the Arab Peace Initiative. Ahmadinejad’s office later denied any discussions on the topic during the meeting with the King.

On one hand, feeling increasingly isolated, the Iranian government does not want to be seen as actively opposing an eventual peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs. On the other hand, the leadership can not afford not to. They fear loosing the support of the public, to whom they have promised the imminent demise of the State of Israel.

The Arab summit and the push to make the Arab Peace Initiative the centerpiece of the Middle East peace plan could not have come at a more inopportune time for the Islamic Republic.

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