Iran was not invited to the Middle East summit in Annapolis, but the Iranians are there nonetheless, and they will benefit whatever the outcome.
After nearly seven years of inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration has finally decided to act by convening a conference on the matter. Among the 50 countries invited, delegates from virtually every Middle Eastern nation were invited to a conference in Annapolis, Md. on Nov. 27, including a delegation from Syria. Given Iran’s absence, it is ironic that the event might not have taken place at all had it not been for Iranian challenges to American power in the Middle East.
The United States has been trying desperately to gain traction in the international community for some kind of action against Iran. Although it is not clear what an anti-Iranian action is designed to accomplish, the driving need of the Bush administration to do something to cripple the current Iranian regime is an idée fixe in the Bush foreign policy shop.
The Jerusalem Post on Nov. 26 confirmed this in its reporting on the conference: “The idea that brokering an Arab-Israeli peace would be a setback for Iran is a valid one. Iran wants to destroy Israel, so anything that safeguards Israel’s freedom and security is a defeat for Tehran.”
However, the Bush administration’s greater hope is that moving the Arab-Israeli peace process will weaken Arab support for Iran. One mantra continually repeated by Washington officials is that Iran’s Arab neighbors are “worried” by its growing strength and nuclear program. Yet Bush officials such as Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns have been massively unsuccessful in raising alarms in the Arab world about Iran. The decision to move seriously on Arab-Israeli peace as a second route toward undermining Iran may have resulted from the realization that trying to scare the Arab world with the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons has not worked.
Iran’s immediate Arab neighbors never condemn it to the same degree that Americans and Europeans do. Arab leaders have expressed mild discomfort with Iran’s nuclear program, but they never present it in terms of being directly threatened: there is either quizzical musing about where Iran might use possible weapons, or expressions about potential regional destabilization.
Arab states refrain from attacking Iran directly on any issue. When the United States tried to blame the 1996 attack on the Saudi Arabian Al-Khobar Towers on Iran, the Saudis refused to cooperate. Moreover, popular Arab sentiment seems to be directly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program. One non-scientific poll conducted by London Based Al-Qods on Jan. 26, 2006 showed that 85 percent of Arab readers supported the Iranian nuclear energy program. The same results were reported in a separate poll on Aug. 6, 2005 by the Arab television news service Al-Jazeera.
All states in the region continue to have full diplomatic relations with Iran. The principal discomfort with the Islamic Republic has been expressed by King Abdullah of Jordan, who is somewhat removed from Iran. The big exception, of course, was Saddam Hussein, who waged war on Iran.
Arab nations say the greater concern in the region is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Indeed, Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s negative pronouncements on Israeli political actions have been highly popular with the Arab public—something that has received significant notice on the part of Arab leaders. The message to the United States is that if Washington wants the Arab world to go along with sanctions on Iran, or some kind of violent action against Iran, they had better do something about the Israelis and Palestinians. Thus we see a reluctantly summoned parade of nations coming to Annapolis to demonstrate the Bush administration’s seriousness about solving the issue.
Iran might feel neglected at being left out of the party, but in reality, if everything that one could hope works out satisfactorily in Annapolis, it all would work to Iran’s advantage.
Although Iran has been painted by neoconservatives as wanting to destroy Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. Iran is opposed to the extreme repressive politics of the Israeli right-wing, but if the Palestinians were given their own state, and Israel withdrew from the West Bank, Iranian opposition to Israeli politics would end. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has privately expressed the opinion that should the Israeli-Palestinian issue be resolved, he could imagine Iran renewing diplomatic relations with Israel.
Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue could also lead to improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations. The United States has been so intent on portraying Hamas as a creature of Iranian surrogate aggression against Israel and the United States, they have forgotten that Mahmoud Abbas is still held in some esteem in Iran. When Yassir Arafat had passed from the scene, Iranians were speculating about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ potential leadership among the Palestinians, but also about his possible role as mediator between Iran and the United States. If he is strengthened in his role in the Israel-Palestine conflict he could indeed play this role.
Syria would also have to come on board in a comprehensive settlement, adding another link to Iran. In this scenario, the Siniora government in Lebanon, which the Syrians oppose, would have to be sacrificed. However some settlement of the Golan Heights problem with Syria would be worth tossing out a faction that represents a minority of the Lebanese population.
If all these things transpire, there will be no real reason for Arab opposition to Iran. Iran would be on the path to rapprochement with both the United States and with Israel, and thus on the same side as American’s Arab allies. Hezbollah would be on the rise as rulers of Lebanon, but would no longer be a threat to Israel. But aside from these rosy prospects, it is wise to remember that there never was any real threat from Iran toward any Arab nation anyway.
Of course, these positive developments are unlikely to transpire in Annapolis, and if they don’t, Iran will be no worse off than it is now. Arab states will still not be any more likely to oppose Iran then they were before. Hezbollah’s power would continue to grow in Lebanon, and the Palestinian issue would continue to fester and discredit American’s bona fides in the Middle East.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His latest book is The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, which will be issued in Paperback by the University of Chicago Press next month.