Don’t exaggerate Arab fears of Obama’s outreach to Iran
As Secretary Gates and other American officials travel from Egypt to the Gulf to reassure Arab leaders about American intentions towards Iran — with considerable success, judging by the satisfied headlines this morning — it’s worth stepping back to ask why their fears are surfacing now, in such force? Partly, it is because American intentions ...
As Secretary Gates and other American officials travel from Egypt to the Gulf to reassure Arab leaders about American intentions towards Iran — with considerable success, judging by the satisfied headlines this morning — it’s worth stepping back to ask why their fears are surfacing now, in such force?
Partly, it is because American intentions are genuinely unclear. While the President seems sincerely and deeply committed to pushing forward with diplomatic engagement, mixed messages from other quarters in the administration and the American public make it difficult for everyone — not just Arab leaders — to divine where the engagement is heading.
But setting that aside for the moment, it’s also because of the intra-Arab politics of the question. It’s important to recognize that Arabs are not unified on this question. Iran is one of the hottest of political footballs in current Arab politics. There are not only sharp gaps between leaders and publics, within Arab elites, and between Arab leaders. I’ve been following the Arab public debate about Iran very closely for years now, and there has always been robust disagreement about the value of dialogue and confrontation. Those internal tensions — and the failure, rather than the success, of the "moderate" Arab governments to persuade public opinion of their anti-Iranian views — may matter as much as the actual question of Iran itself.
First off, there’s no doubt that a significant number of Arab leaders are indeed concerned about American intentions with regards to Iran. I’ve heard more than enough of this to take it seriously. It’s playing out in public as well. The opinion pages and airwaves of Saudi-owned media outlets (in particular) have been filled with anti-Iranian agitation in recent times. The Egyptian government has recently launched its most aggressive anti-Iranian campaign in years over the issue of the alleged Hezbollah plotters. A meeting of GCC officials the other day warned yet again of an American deal with Iran at their expense.
Why so intense at this particular moment? Why are certain Arab leaders escalating hostility towards Iran at just the moment when the Obama administration seems interested in reducing tensions and opening a dialogue? Partly out of real concerns about the balance of power shifting in Iran’s favor, no doubt, especially since many of them see the Iraqi government as intrinsically pro-Iranian. Partly out of fear of being displaced and abandoned by American strategists should the U.S. find a workable deal with the Iranians. Partly because of their own domestic regime insecurity, for which they find it convenient to blame Iran.
But underlying it all, perhaps something even more basic: these leaders and these regimes are creatures of habit, and they have spent the last half-decade comfortably working with the Bush administration’s (and Israel’s) conceptual framework of "moderates and radicals" and the threat of a "Shia crescent." Their foreign policy, public rhetoric, and even domestic legitimacy has increasingly been based on these simple and easily inflamed oppositions. It must certainly be disorienting for them to find the conceptual terrain shifting beneath their feet.
But shift it must. The transformation of America’s relations with Iran has been an important part of the Obama administration’s strategic approach to the region. As much as it worries the old autocrats, the idea of engagement resonates positively with much of mainstream Arab public opinion despite all the concerted efforts of the semi-official Arab media to drum up hostility towards Iran. Put bluntly, the concerns about America’s outreach to Iran are concentrated primarily in the Arab leadership and not in the Arab public. Successful American outreach to Iran would not only transform the strategic equation, it would also be a major positive for the new kind of engagement with the Muslim world which Obama has promised.
There are intriguing signs of internal disagreement among key elites over this question. Where much of the Saudi media has indeed hyped the Iranian threat, with frequent op-eds and commentaries worried about America’s outreach to Tehran, an important lead editorial today in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper by editor Ghassan Cherbel which argues powerfully that the Arabs have no interest in building a strategy around hostility towards Iran, no interest in an American war with Iran, no interest in Israeli warplanes bombarding Iran, no interest in an Iranian regime which feels threatened and surrounded… and no right to object to American efforts to engage in dialogue with Tehran. That’s interesting and suggests that even the "moderate camp" is less unified than some might believe.
Whatever the case, the Israeli notion making the rounds these days that Arab fears of Iran might be the foundation for an alignment of interest is almost certainly wrong. While some of the crustier Arab leaders might be tempted, Arab publics will want nothing to do with it. Nothing would unite Arab opinion faster than an Israeli attack on Iran. The only thing which might change that would be serious movement towards a two state solution, for which the Obama administration has powerfully and consistently called. A rapid, fair Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would transform the situation and dramatically reduce the appeal of any Iranian message of "resistance." That seems unlikely at the moment, given the platform of the Israeli government and the divided Palestinian political scene, but without it the Israeli fantasy of an alliance against Iran will remain a fantasy.
It is also worth looking back at the last several rounds of crisis in the region. In 2006, the "moderate camp" media roundly criticized Hezbollah in the early stages of the war with Israel — but Arab public opinion, including the very Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, sided overwhelmingly with Hezbollah. The "moderate camp" media roundly criticized Hamas during the 2008 Israeli war with Gaza — but Arab public opinion sided overwhelmingly with Hamas. In both cases, of course, the political warfare continues long after the military conflict ended. But it should give pause to those who see an emerging anti-Iranian axis as a viable strategic foundation for reorienting the region — even if Obama supported such a vision, which it appears that he does not.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine any kind of stable regional security architecture which doesn’t include some kind of accord between Iran and its Arab neighbors. It’s important to reassure Arab leaders that a deal with Iran won’t come at their expense, but it’s also important to emphasize the urgency and the seriousness of moving towards that transformative goal. My sense is that a lot of Arab elites, members of the public, and officials recognize this and quietly support American efforts to transform its relationship with Iran. The official Arab order may be the last to come around… but that doesn’t mean that they won’t if the Obama administration continues to push ahead.