Will America’s Arab Allies Strike Their Own Deal with Iran?

On Sunday, the Speaker of the Iranian majlis (parliament), Ali Larijani, met for two hours with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.  Ostensibly, Larijani was in Egypt to attend a meeting of the Parliamentary Union of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes Turkey, Kuwait, Niger, Azerbaijan, and Uganda in addition to Egypt and Iran.  Larijani publicly described his meeting with Mubarak as “very good and constructive,” and official Egyptian and Iranian media reported that the two men discussed bilateral relations and regional issues of mutual concern.   After meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, Larijani declared Iran’s support for Palestinian unity and, following a meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, noted that “relations between the two countries could be a great help for creation of peace and security in the region.”

Larijani’s meeting with Mubarak was unusual; among other reasons, Larijani is not a head of state or government.  More broadly, Larijani’s high-level reception was striking because Egypt and the Islamic Republic have yet to restore diplomatic ties since Cairo cut them off in 1980 and Egyptian-Iranian relations were recently strained by the 2008-09 conflict in Gaza.   The potential significance of Larijani’s visit was highlighted today when Mubarak — who, at this point in his career, travels abroad infrequently — set out on a previously unannounced tour of several Gulf Arab states.  An unnamed Egyptian official told the Associated Press that the Iranian had presented a “new proposal” to improve relations with Arab states and that Mubarak was traveling to discuss it with his Gulf Arab allies.

Larijani’s discussions in Cairo and Mubarak’s swing through the Gulf need to be understood through at least two analytic “prisms”: the first is the increasingly polarized strategic environment in the Middle East, and the second is growing concern among America’s traditional Arab allies about the ability of the Obama Administration to “deliver” in dealing with key regional challenges.  Broadly speaking, the Middle East today is deeply divided between two camps — a reality that some commentators, borrowing a phrase from the late Malcolm Kerr, describe as a new regional “Cold War.”

On one side of this divide are those states willing to work in various forms of strategic partnership with the United States, with an implied acceptance of American hegemony over the region.  This camp includes Israel, those Arab states that have made peace with Israel (Egypt and Jordan), and other so-called moderate Arab states (e.g., Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council).

On the other side of this divide are those Middle Eastern states and non-state actors that are unwilling to legitimize American (and, some in this camp would say, Israeli) hegemony over the region.  The Islamic Republic of Iran has emerged in recent years as the de facto leader of this camp, which also includes Syria and prominent non-state actors such as HAMAS and Hizballah.  Notwithstanding its close security ties to the United States, Qatar has also aligned itself with the “resistance” camp on some issues in recent years.  And, notwithstanding Turkey’s longstanding membership in NATO and ongoing European “vocation,” the rise of the Justice Development Party and declining military involvement in Turkish politics have prompted an intensification of Ankara’s diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, in ways that give additional strategic options to various actors in the “resistance” camp.

While the “pro-American” camp retains considerable resources and influence, the “resistance” camp has made impressive strategic gains since the turn of the millennium — in no small part, because of the George W. Bush Administration’s strategically counterproductive approach to the region.  Against this backdrop, the “pro-American” camp clearly hoped that President Obama would re-legitimate America’s leadership role in the Middle East and deal effectively with the region’s most pressing strategic challenges — with the Palestinian issue and Iran at the top of that list.  But, as we have met with senior diplomats and officials from the “pro-American” camp in recent weeks, we have been struck by the accelerating pace at which our interlocutors’ concern about the direction of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policies is mounting.  They are becoming increasingly dubious that President Obama will “deliver” in the Middle East — on Palestine, on Iran, in Afghanistan, and on other important regional issues.

It is in this context that Larijani’s visit to Cairo and Mubarak’s subsequent departure for the Gulf take on special significance.  As the Islamic Republic prepares for an intensification in its longstanding “Cold War” struggle with the United States and Israel — and a corresponding rise in the risks of eventual military attacks against Iranian interests — Tehran has a clear interest in trying to bolster regional “solidarity” with America’s traditional Arab allies.  But America’s traditional Arab allies, such as Egypt, have an even more compelling interest in improving relations with Tehran, to reduce the odds of U.S. (or Israeli) military confrontation with Iran, minimize perceived Iranian threats to their interests, and mitigate the domestic and regional backlash that would ensue if these states were somehow implicated in a U.S. and/or Israeli military campaign against the Islamic Republic.

We noted an important manifestation of this dynamic when Saudi King Abdallah traveled to Damascus in October to mend fences with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and acknowledge Syrian and Iranian prerogatives in forming Lebanon’s new “unity” government, in which Hizballah and its allies retained prominent roles.  (We saw another high-profile acknowledgement of those prerogatives this weekend when Saad al-Hariri, Lebanon’s newly-installed Prime Minister and son of the late Rafiq al-Hariri, visited President Assad in Damascus.  Today — as Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Beirut to congratulate the Lebanese on their new unity government — the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Hariri would visit Tehran “soon.”)  Now, it is Egypt that seems, in more subtle fashion, to be exploring the possibilities for rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.

President Obama’s embrace of George W. Bush’s Iran policy is likely to do serious damage to America’s already weakened position in the Middle East.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 21 December 2009 under a Creative Commons license.

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