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Iran eyes mediation role in Bahrain

Posted by seumasach on April 21, 2011

Kaveh Afrasiabi

Asia Times

221st April, 2011

“America is trying to sow discord among Shi’ites and Sunnis… they want to create tension between Iran and Arabs… but their plan will fail.” Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in a speech on Monday to mark national Army Day.

After weeks of rising tensions with Saudi Arabia over its military intervention in Bahrain, Iran plans to reposition itself as a mediator rather than a suspected interloper in the political impasse gripping the tiny island.

Behind Tehran’s plan is a firm conviction, reflected in Ahmadinejad’s speech on Army Day, that the United States

Israel plan to isolate Iran in the region and poison its relations with the Arab world. This would deprive Iran of benefiting politically from the upheavals that have undermined the pro-West status quo in the Middle East.

Chief among these benefits is a new era in Iran-Egypt relations, with Iran’s foreign policy machinery working overtime to accelerate the process of normalization ties with Cairo. Iran-Egypt relations were severely damaged following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and fell apart following Egypt’s recognition of Israel in the same year.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi recently welcomed a proposal by Egypt’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi for the promotion of bilateral ties. Salehi said that Tehran was ready to resume relations with Cairo.

“Iran is an Islamic country and is not an enemy of Egypt,” Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s military council, said on April 9.

Iran’s blossoming rapprochement with Egypt is an unwanted development for the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, particularly for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s leadership is currently committing huge resources to whipping up Iran-phobia not only in the Arab world but also in Washington and other Western capitals.

Tantawi’s sentiments are shared by a number of prominent Egyptians, including Amr Musa, the head of Arab League. He recently called for “improvement not only in Iran-Egypt relations but also Iran’s relations with the entire Arab world.”

Another proponent of Iran taking a new role in the Middle East is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the current head of the (Saudi-led) Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). He said recently that Egypt under Hosni Mubarak maintained the tensions with Iran in order to maintain the flames of sectarian conflicts in the Abode of Islam.

Seyed Hossein Mousavi, a Tehran foreign policy expert, said in an interview with the that Tehran should deprive its enemies of any excuses to isolate it by trying “to calm the regional environment”. This includes reaching out to the Bahraini rulers and assuring them that Iran has had no role in the recent mass disturbances as well as offering to mediate between the Bahraini government and the opposition.

Mousavi’s otherwise sound advice has the weakness of overlooking the protean value of keeping up heat on Saudi Arabia over its military transgression in Bahrain. Riyadh could interpret Tehran’s conciliatory gesture as a sign of weakness and therefore a green light to lengthen its stay in Bahrain, a Shi’ite-dominated country with strong historical connections to Iran.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has threatened to recall its diplomats from Tehran “unless Tehran can protect them”, after a number of anti-Saudi student rallies in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy.

A more prudent Iranian response would have been the immediate recall of its ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a stern message that until Saudi Arabia departs from Bahrain there would be no normal relations with Tehran. A historical precedent for this response is US’s reaction to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

After their aggression in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia should not be allowed to hold the card of diplomatic brinksmanship, no matter how rattled it is by current setbacks – losing close allies in Egypt, Lebanon, and failing to manipulate Iraq’s political system.

However, much depends on the present Iran-Saudi competition over the hearts and minds of other Arab leaders, including the Egyptians, in light of a recent Cairo visit by Iran’s envoy to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee. This was widely interpreted by the Egyptian media as a clear sign of improvement in bilateral relations, dreaded by the Saudis, whose ambassador to Egypt, Ahmed Alghatan, has gone as far as to threaten Iran with military action.

Fortunately, not everyone in Saudi Arabia is on the same page with Ahmed’s sabre-rattling against Iran. A Saudi deputy defense minister, Khaeld Bin Soltan Bin Abdelaziz, has counseled against any rash judgments and on “the necessity of reason in dealing with Iran”. His remarks came after a virulent Iran-bashing communique from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Since then, despite a high-profile visit to the region by the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, during which he gave explicit support for the Saudi-Bahraini strategy of scapegoating Iran for the internal political problems in Bahrain, the diplomatic wheel is slowly turning in Iran’s favor. This is partly due to Iran’s decision to play the democracy card and appeal to the international community to condemn the Saudi-backed suppression of Bahrain’s pro-democracy Shiites.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi wrote to UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon in April questioning how the body can justify its inaction on Bahrain considering its resolution on Libya. In a clear sign that Iran’s diplomatic discourse on Bahrain is paying off, Ban during his recent trip to Doha, Qatar, put the Bahraini leaders on the defensive by calling on them to show restraint vis-a-vis the protesters and to modernize their political system.

However, with the “big brother” Saudis muscling their clout over Bahrain, undermining Bahrain’s margin of independent action within the realm of GCC politics, Ban’s suggestions should be targeted at the power brokers in the House of Saud.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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