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Iran’s Nuclear Program: Don’t Forget the Arabs

Asked at a major press conference earlier this week about the prospects for talks with Iran, President Obama highlighted two issues which could likely derail any meaningful exchange. First, Iran’s nuclear program, and specifically the fear that it could trigger … Read More

By / February 12, 2009

Asked at a major press conference earlier this week about the prospects for talks with Iran, President Obama highlighted two issues which could likely derail any meaningful exchange. First, Iran’s nuclear program, and specifically the fear that it could trigger a regional nuclear arms race. Second, Iran’s funding of terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Obama’s emphasis on the regional consequences of Iran’s nuclear ambitions was a pertinent reminder that Israel is not the only factor here. The authoritarian, western-oriented Arab regimes, along with Turkey, are terrified by the vision of Tehran’s mullahs attaching nuclear warheads to their long-range missiles, or sharing their newly-discovered knowledge with eager jihadis.

Back in December, Tariq Alhomayed, the editor-in-chief of the Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat, captured the gnawing fears of Arab conservatives perfectly. "Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a serious threat to our region, not Israel," he wrote. "Amid the Israeli threats against Iran, Tehran always responds threatening the security of the Gulf. If the West fears the missiles that Iran claims it is developing, then we fear the Iranian bombs that are planted among us!"

If that wasn’t enough, another Arab commentator, Emile Hokayem, asserted that a dialogue between the US and Iran could potentially damage the "political and strategic interests" of the Arab states – a carbon copy of an argument that more routinely invokes Israel. And this week, the thirtieth anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution was an occasion for more fear – and scorn – in the Arab press. "We wish that Iran would export something other than this Revolution which is ridiculed by everyone except for some in southern Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq," grumbled Abdullah al Awadi in the conservative Al Ittihad newspaper.

Despite all this, the notion that the Arab states, when it comes to Iran and its nukes, have their own set of interests independent of Israeli imperatives, is barely acknowledged by western observers. Sure, there will always be those, like Helen Thomas, unable to resist a swipe at Israel whenever the issue comes up. And you can faithfully rely on Jimmy Carter and Stephen Walt to force the linkage between the nuclear question and the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track ("The best way to constrain Iran’s potential movement towards nuclear capability is to have peace in the Middle East, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians," says Carter; "Engaging in a serious and non-confrontational effort to reach a modus vivendi with Iran would reduce Tehran’s incentive to play spoiler on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which will in turn encourage Hamas and other radical groups to rethink their own positions," agrees Walt.) Fact is, they are not alone in saying so.

Part of the reason for this resides with the Israeli elections. Sift through the reportage of Obama’s comments and the consensus is clear: the powerful electoral showing of Israel’s so-called national bloc is the main obstacle to, as the AP puts it, "Barack Obama’s conciliatory overtures to Iran." David Sanger deftly summarizes the Obama Administration’s dilemma ("It’s almost inconceivable, some of Mr. Obama’s aides acknowledge, that the Iranians will be willing to give up everything needed to produce a weapon, "he writes, "and it is hard to imagine that the Israelis will settle for anything less,") but even he neglects to mention that the Arab states won’t settle for anything less either.

In that sense, both Israel and the conservative Arab regimes have grasped a basic truth about Iran which eludes those who do what Obama, in my opinion, has not done: namely, equate talking with reconciling. To be sure, given the long tradition of dissent against the Islamist regime among the Iranian people, particularly its intellectuals, as well as the frictions within the regime itself and the pressing economic crisis engulfing the country, it is somewhat crude to portray Iran as a unified actor with a single, relentless purpose – in essence, as a state become suicide bomber. But it’s equally true that Iran’s raison d’etat is that of a confrontation state; if it didn’t challenge American hegemony, if it didn’t engage in what Obama called "bellicose" rhetoric against Israel, it would quite simply stop being Iran.

This is why the prospect of an Iran made kinder and gentler by the act of talking with the US is hard to take seriously. For instance:

– Despite outward enthusiasm for Obama’s overtures, it’s business as usual inside Iran. When it comes to the Palestinians, the regime’s passion for fusing theological quackery with naked aggression is in full swing; meeting with the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hailed the Palestinian "victory" in Gaza as a "miracle." And Israeli spies are everywhere: seven adherents of the brutally persecuted Baha’i faith are the most recently exposed.

– That man Khamenei is the principle reason to avoid getting overly excited about the reforms which might follow the upcoming Presidential elections. As the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji pointed out in a recent essay, Khamenei’s "Sultanist" hold on power as Supreme Leader is near absolute: "he is the head of state, the commander in chief, and the top ideologue." And anyway, Mohammad Khatami, the reformist challenger to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not much of a reformer when he was President from 1997-2005.

– Nothing has really changed in the substance of the US position. Obama made it clear before his overture to Iran that the attainment of nuclear weapons by the regime is not an acceptable outcome, which earned him a rebuke from the mullahs. He has said nothing to suggest that his position has altered.

"What would it be," the French philosopher Michel Foucault once ruminated about the Iranian revolution and its potential impact upon the Palestinians and the Arabs more generally, "if this cause encompassed the dynamism of an Islamic movement, something much stronger than those with a Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist character?" Written in 1979, there is a remarkable prescience about that question. In thinking through the answer, we should think about the US and Israel, certainly; but let’s not forget the frayed nerves among the Arab rulers while doing so.

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