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A BLOC TO STABILISE MIDDLE EAST
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
February 14, 2007

A few weeks ago when British Prime Minister Tony Blair evoked the idea of a bloc of moderate Arab states to help stabilise the Middle East, most pundits dismissed it as a pie in the sky.

How could Arabs, notorious for internecine feuds, develop a common strategy, the pundits wondered.

Nevertheless, it looks as if such a bloc is taking shape with Saudi Arabia in the lead. The latest sign came last week when the rival Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah reached an accord to share power and stop their burgeoning civil war. Brokered by Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, the accord was signed in Makkah, in view of the Ka'aba, thus enjoying special solemnity.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and President of the Palestinian National Authority, and Khalid Al Mesha'al, Hamas's "Supreme Guide", vowed to implement the accord in full. With the prospect of Palestinian harmony, the revival of the peace process now looks possible for the first time in six years.

As yet, the new bloc of moderate Arab states does not have any official name or structure. Some refer to it as the 6+2 group, because it is made up of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Jordan and Egypt.

As always in the case of alliances, this new bloc has come into being in response to a clear and present danger.

The perceived threat comes from Iran, which, suffering from political schizophrenia, cannot decide whether it is a nation-state or a revolutionary cause.

The biggest loser from the Makkah accord is the regime in Tehran that had invested in Hamas and its sister organisation Islamic Jihad, in the hope of overthrowing Abbas and extinguishing hopes of talks with Israel.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had designated the Palestinian territories as part of Iran's glacis in an eventual war with Israel and the United States. With the Makkah accord, Tehran loses that part of its imaginary glacis.

From 2004, with the United Sates apparently bogged down in Iraq, the "revolutionary cause" advocates in Tehran moved onto the offensive.

They argued that the US would run away, first from Iraq and then from the whole region, burying dreams of a Pax Americana. Then, Tehran would impose a regional Pax Khomeinista as a first step towards claiming the leadership of Islam.

Tehran's first move was to turn Syria into a client state, before triggering last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah. The perception that Israel was humiliated, enhanced the Islamic Republic's prestige as a power capable of, one day, wiping "the Zionist enemy" off the map.

Then, Tehran overplayed its hand by ordering Hezbollah to try to seize power in Beirut. The spectre of a "Shiite Crescent", first evoked by Jordan's King Abdullah II and dismissed by many as hyperbole, suddenly appeared real. After some initial hesitation, the 6+2 group decided to draw a line in the sand, as far as Lebanon was concerned: Tehran would not be allowed to seize power in Beirut.

The 6+2's determination made it possible for the broader international community to also rally behind the government of Prime Minister Faoud Siniora. By the end of January it had become clear that Tehran's bid in Beirut, although causing damage to Lebanon, had no chance of sweeping Hezbollah into power.

Tehran's second mistake was to play a game of smoke-and-mirrors over its alleged nuclear ambitions. The leaders of the 6+2 bloc believe that the Islamic Republic has not told only the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth on this issue.

Suspicions about the Tehran's agenda rose further when Khomeinist emissaries appeared in Arab capitals to demand the use of oil as a political weapon in case the US took military action against Iran. This showed that the Khomeinist leadership was prepared to risk war in defence of a nuclear programme that it claimed is entirely peaceful.

The 6+2 bloc's response came in the form of a supposedly technical statement by Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al Nuaimi who reiterated the kingdom's 34-year-old policy of never playing politics with oil. This meant that if Iran provoked a war it would find itself as alone as Saddam Hussain was in 2003.

Tehran's third mistake was to renew contacts with dissident Arab Shiite groups in the Gulf. Tehran had stopped supporting such groups in 1993.

Tehran's fourth mistake was to set up a network of direct influence in Iraq. To do so, Tehran bypassed its traditional Shiite allies, including Abdul Aziz Al Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), relying instead on clients such as Moqtada Al Sadr and his Mehdi Army.

In response to the Khomeinist take-over bid, Hakim, and the Da'awah Party of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, had to tone down their Shiitism and emphasise their Arabness.

That offered the 6+2 new opportunities to develop a positive policy on Iraq. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq report, issued last December, created a moment of confusion with its recommendation that the US ignore the 6+2 and, instead, seek a deal with Iran and Syria. President George W. Bush, however, rejected the advice and decided to involve its 6+2 allies in plans to de-stabilise Iraq.

Plans are under way for the next initiative of the 6+2 bloc that will concern Iraq. Contact has already been established with key Sunni and Shiite leaders in Iraq, and a national reconciliation conference, to be held in Makkah, could be organised within months.

The expected improvement of the security situation in Baghdad under the new "surge" plan, led by General David Petraeus, could help the process.

The 6+2 is emerging as a real force. It has much scope for expansion by including other moderate Arab states. Iraq, too, will join, adding its considerable weight to what is an Arab initiative to prevent the imposition of Pax Khomeinista on the region.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are also undeclared allies of the 6+2 as is Turkey, a full-member of Nato. (The 6+2 states have negotiated a special relationship with Nato). Iran, however, has no allies outside Syria and no prospect of attracting any.

The 6+2 message is clear, even if the Americans run away, once the Bush presidency ends, they are not prepared to submit to a Pax Khomeinista dictated by Tehran.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist based in Europe.

 

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