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UAE: US-Iran Detente Viewed With Caution

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Jul 24 2008 (IPS) - The turnaround in Washington-Tehran ties is being viewed with relief on the one hand and anxiety and anger on the other by various quarters within the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc.

In a major policy shift by Washington, a senior U.S. State Department official attended the Jul. 19 Iran-EU talks in Geneva to discuss a package of incentives offered by world powers to first suspend and then permanently end Tehran’s nuclear enrichment. More importantly, Washington is considering a proposal to open a de facto embassy in Tehran, similar to the one in Cuba, and send low-level diplomats for the first time in three decades.

After U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a meeting in Abu Dhabi on Jul. 21 with ministers and officials from the GCC – comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, to ease concerns, the UAE expressed readiness to support all fforts aimed at achieving security, peace and stability in the region.

Endorsing this view, the ‘The National’ published from Abu Dhabi said ‘‘the news is not necessarily bad. One cannot miss the signs of a regional thaw, but neither should we overstate them. There has been more stability in the region than one would have expected a few years ago. Warring parties are talking to each other everywhere… This is good news: the Gulf does not want to see another war harm its citizens…economic development, nor does it want a dramatic shift in the balance of power. It is the shared responsibility of Iran and the U.S., but also of the larger world community to find a reasonable compromise.’’

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Arab News’ felt, in an editorial, that ‘‘there is no guarantee that Iran will decide between confrontation and cooperation. But, after all the threats and counter-threats, the fact that Iran and the U.S. got together for the first time represents a huge turnaround for both and provides distinct signs that a collision course is being averted’’.

‘‘What has been said and done have not been figments of the imagination. The recent Israeli military exercise; the Iranian test-firing of missiles in reply; Iran’s threat to block the Strait of Hormuz if attacked, were all real and still have the world worrying,” the Arab News editorial added.

However, academics IPS spoke with viewed the developments with caution.

‘‘Contact with Iran should be encouraged, but it is too soon to tell what the U.S. intention really is. There are still many in the White House who see this as the last chance to fix the problem before the change of administration,’’ said Christian Koch of the Gulf Research Center.

After the Geneva talks, Washington warned Iran that it has two weeks to respond seriously to the international offer to halt its sensitive nuclear work or face further ‘‘punitive measures’’.

‘‘Moreover, even if the U.S. does get seriously involved, the GCC would like to be informed. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the current EU3 dialogue format. So, contact yes, but not at the expense of GCC interests,’’ the director of international studies at the Dubai-based think-tank told IPS.

That’s precisely what worries some like Ebtisam Kitbi of the UAE University.

While the rapprochement between the United States and Iran is good for the world at large, it is certainly not good for the GCC countries, according to the assistant professor of political science, because ‘‘they will become weaker with every step of Iran’s empowerment’’.

‘‘By negotiating with Tehran, Washington is trying to sell us (GCC countries). After sidelining Iran for decades, the United States is now facilitating the return of Iran into the mainstream of regional and international politics. In fact, Iran is trying to reorient this region away from Washington, which Washington itself is facilitating,’’ Kitbi complained.

‘‘It is rewarding Iran for continued defiance and punishing the GCC countries for being good allies,” she told the IPS.

Alleging that the turnaround in the US-Iran ties is part of an uncrystallised, yet mutually-beneficial exchange, Kitbi pointed out that the United States is eyeing Iran first, for its oil resources to tame high fuel prices; second, to counter China’s growing influence in the region, especially with the Shiite state; third, achieve a face-saving exit from Iraq, where Iran is an influential player; and fourth, consolidate the political gains made in Lebanon, where Iran is a key supporter of Shiite Hizbollah.

On the other hand, Iran gains by inching closer, first, to being officially crowned as the undisputed regional superpower; second, keeping open the option of pursuing its nuclear program at a later stage; third, continuing to wield significant influence over Iraq, while spreading its Shiite ideology in a Sunni-dominated region; and finally, ensuring regime survival, the opposite of which has been Washington’s goal for nearly three decades, she added.

The third factor is particularly worrisome for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, which have large Shiite populations, which could become a source of instability in the future.

Reflecting the tension, Shiite clerics in Saudi Arabia criticised earlier this month a religious edict issued by Sunni counterparts branding the Shiite branch of having ‘‘infidel precepts’’, saying that its authors were suffering from psychological problems.

The fact that Iraq participated in the Abu Dhabi meeting with Rice could be linked to the efforts aimed at bridging the sectarian divide. Baghdad’s participation is being seen as a signal of Sunni Arab leaders’ willingness to consult Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government amid a reconciliation process that witnessed the return of six Sunni ministers to the Iraq coalition this week.

While the GCC governments have encouraged the Western powers to pursue diplomatic efforts, they have also been very open to warming up to Iran in recent years to keep war at bay not only to maintain the prevailing economic boom, but also to respect Arab public sympathy for Iran because of its stance against the United States and Israel.

‘‘The GCC countries should remember that the Dutch, Portuguese and British were in this region for about a century each. If history teaches anything, it may be that the American century is about to end too. On the other hand, Iranians and Arabs have lived together in this region for thousands of years and will continue to do so,’’ Iranian-born academic Ali Sheikholeslami told IPS.

‘‘During the Iran-Iraq war, the GCC countries spent nearly 100 billion US dollars to support Saddam Hussein. Iranians now expect the GCC countries to show goodwill to compensate for the past,’’ added the emeritus professor at Oxford University in Britain.

Kitbi of the UAE University summed up the situation thus: “On the whole, we are back at square one. We may be further from war than before, but closer to being dominated by Iran. In this tragic reality, the GCC countries suffer either way.”

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