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The Manama Dialogue and Iran’s Pivotal Regional Role

 

But for Iran, the 6th Manama Dialogue would have failed to achieve its very objective, namely serving as a forum for debating regional security.  Held in Bahrain from 11 to 13 December, the occasion attracted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki following a two-year absence from the annual event.

Senior Iranian officials shunned the 2007 and 2008 versions of Manama Dialogue due to differences between the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS).  (IISS organizes the Manama Dialogue while IPIS serves as the research arm of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.  The dispute between the two organizations was focused on anti-Israel stands taken by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.)

The IISS and the host country, Bahrain, clearly recognized that the summit could not deliver on its theme, namely regional security, without an authoritative Iranian presence.  Not surprisingly, Mr. Mottaki was granted the honor being the lead speaker in the first plenary session, which focused on regional security cooperation.

With regard to Iran’s nuclear program, the “hottest” topic at the summit, the Iranian minister presented some thought-provoking arguments.  He contended that his country was not seeking possession of nuclear weapons — in part, because such a capability could guarantee neither security nor military success.  Iranian officials frequently refer to the experiences of the IDF in Gaza, the Russian military in Chechnya, and the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan to underscore the broader point that Mottaki was making.  (And, in fact, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a regular speaker at the Manama Dialogue, could not attend this year’s event due to the Obama Administration’s expanded military buildup in Afghanistan.  Mr. Gates visited American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq during the time of Manama Dialogue.  Instead, CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus served as the ranking American military official at the event.)

At the same time, the Iranian delegation to the 6th Manama Dialogue stressed the imperative to create a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East.  In this regard, Iranian officials questioned the true intentions of Western powers for singling out Iran over its nuclear program while others enjoy unrestricted access to nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction.

As expected, Yemen emerged as another leading topic during the conference, amidst charges of Iran supporting Shia rebels fighting government troops.  In the recent past, the conflict in northern Yemen has assumed a regional dimension, with reports of rebels infiltrating into southern Saudi border areas.  In reality, some interpret Yemen troubles as evidence of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, reflecting their broader regional rivalry.

Speaking to members of the Iranian delegation at the Manama Dialogue, I learned that some in Tehran attribute Yemen’s problems to the lack of governmental attention to development.  To be sure, the 2009 Human Development Report issued by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranks Yemen number 140 amongst 182 countries reviewed for its human development index (HDI).  Among other indicia of inadequate attention to development, the incidence of adult illiteracy in Yemen was estimated at 41 per cent for the period 1999-2007.

Moreover, the Iranians argued that Yemen’s problems are not confined to Shia areas in the north, as the country faces a secessionist movement in the south as well as nationwide activities by al-Qaeda.  A number of participants in the summit challenged Saudi Arabia to present evidence of infiltration.  One Western diplomat told this writer that his country’s embassy in Sanaa could not confirm rebel infiltrations into Saudi Arabia.  He went on to suggest that al-Qaeda, not Shia rebels, poses the greater security threat to Saudi Arabia.

At any rate, Saudi Arabia all but shunned the 6th Manama Dialogue, to show its displeasure over Mr. Mottaki’s attendance.  Bahraini officials linked the absence of Saudi officials to the return of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz to the Kingdom following more than a year of medical treatment abroad.  However, this made little sense, as Saudi Arabia could have at least sent its envoy to Bahrain to attend the debates.  At the same time, the United Arab Emirates, another archrival to Iran, opted for a low profile presence at the summit.  Indeed, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan failed to show up for a scheduled presentation at the third plenary session dealing with nuclear power, energy, and security.

Undoubtedly, the Manama Dialogue confirmed that Iran cannot be excluded from debates dealing with security in the Middle East.


Dr. Jasim Husain Ali is a Member of Parliament, as well as a prominent economist and columnist, in Bahrain.  He may be contacted at <jasim.husain@gmail.com>.  This article was first published by The Race for Iran on 16 December 2009 under a Creative Commons license.




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