Friday, 13 March 2015

Countering Iran and IS - Muslims take action

          When you find the editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya’s English website praising Israel’s prime minister, you can be pretty certain that something unusual is afoot in the Middle East.  Award-winning journalist Faisal J Abbas did just that recently, when commenting on a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu to military leaders in Tel Aviv. 

        Netanyahu had pointed out that Middle Eastern countries are collapsing, and that terror organizations, mostly backed by Iran, are filling the vacuum.  Commented Abbas: “In just a few words Mr Netanyahu managed to accurately summarize a clear and present danger, not just to Israel (which obviously is his concern), but to other US allies in the region.  What is absurd, however,” added Abbas, “is that despite this being perhaps the only thing that brings together Arabs and Israelis (as it threatens them all), the only stakeholder that seems not to realize the danger of the situation is President Obama.”

            An astute observation, which also reflects Arab reaction to Netanyahu’s speech on March 3 to a joint session of the US Congress.  As far as a swathe of Arab countries are concerned, his warning about Iran hit the nail on the head – much derided though it was by the administration in Washington.  

        A major concern of most Arab states today is the prospect of a rampant Iran, armed with nuclear weaponry, riding roughshod over the Middle East in its pursuit of regional dominance both political and religious.  Many Arab leaders, just as much as Netanyahu, view with alarm the direction the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, under the leadership of the US, appear to be taking. “A better deal” was Netanyahu’s demand of the negotiators – a deal that requires evidence of a change of direction on Iran’s part before it is endorsed.  Most Arab states would go along with that.

   Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, claiming the leadership of the Shi’ite branch of Islam, is known to be playing a double game.  Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, may indeed be battling the Sunni Islamic State (IS) in Syria, but elsewhere it is sponsoring and supporting Sunni terrorist organizations. Iran is not only funding Sunni Hamas in Gaza, but it is actively harbouring leading Sunni al-Qaeda figures, most of whom are dedicated to wreaking havoc within the largely stable Arab states of the region.

Only a few months ago the US Treasury Department issued sanctions against a number of al-Qaeda executives, revealing in detail their connection with Iran for example, Abdul al-Sharikh, described as having served as “chief of al-Qaeda’s Iran-based extremist and financial facilitation network.”
Meanwhile the prospect of an agreement that would, in Netanyahu’s words, “pave Iran’s path to the bomb” has resulted in a flurry of activity in the Arab world.  A few weeks ago, shortly after the brutal murder of a Jordanian pilot by IS, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, travelled to Jordan for a meeting with King Abdullah.  His message: the Muslim world needs to stand at the forefront of the war against extremism; the reshaping of the region has become a political necessity.

The Kuwaiti leader is not alone.  The new monarch of Saudi Arabia is also pushing for Sunni Muslim Middle East countries to set aside differences over political Islam – namely, disagreements over the Muslim Brotherhood – and focus on more urgent threats from Iran and IS and the need for unity.

          The Muslim Brotherhood is a major cause of dissension in the world of Sunni Islam.  The Egyptian government, having overthrown the previous corrupt – albeit democratically elected – Muslim Brotherhood administration, has proscribed the organization entirely and imprisoned thousands of its members.  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.  Last year, along with the UAE and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Qatar over its links to the Brotherhood.  However Turkey, like Qatar, openly supports the Brotherhood.

         These rifts within Sunni Islam have, up to now, inhibited any attempt at fashioning a united Muslim response to the twin dangers facing the Middle East as a whole, namely Iran and IS. A Western diplomat in the Gulf is quoted as saying:  "Saudi Arabia clearly doesn't want to be open to facing too many battles. IS and Iran are the enemy now, everything else can be put on hold."

Which explains the recent unprecedented activity centred on Riyadh.  It was natural enough for the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world to pay their respects to the new Saudi monarch, but King Salman undoubtedly used the meetings to advance his own agenda. 

Following visits to Saudi Arabia by top officials from neighbouring Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and the UAE, on March 1 Egypt’s President Abdel el-Sisi arrived in Riyadh. It is on the record that the discussions centred on a proposal from Sisi for a joint anti-terrorism force to tackle regional threats, particularly from Yemen, Libya and Syria.  In a subsequent interview with the Al Arabiya news channel, Sisi said that the force which, he claimed, Jordan had expressed interest in creating, would be used “for defending the security of our countries”.

One day later Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Riyadh.  The Muslim Brotherhood issue may have inhibited his exchanges with the king, although the Saudi press agency did indicate that “means of enhancing bilateral cooperation in various fields” had been on the agenda. Something much more substantive may, however, also have been discussed – a matter that probably formed the bulk of the talks between the king and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who arrived the next day for a three-day state visit.

Debkafile is a usually reliable source of information about security and related matters in the Middle East.  It maintains that the Saudis, rather than trusting the Obama administration in its nuclear dealings with Iran, have made advance nuclear arrangements of their own. Last year, it asserts, Salman, then crown prince, visited Islamabad and gave Sharif a $1.5 billion grant toward the Pakistani nuclear program.  The quid pro quo: a guarantee that a nuclear weapon would be made available to the Saudis as needed.  According to the Debkafile report on Nawaz’s visit to Riyadh, King Salman was keen to ensure that this secret nuclear accord was securely in place before the P5+1 deal with Iran is finalized.  As part of that accord, the two governments were said to be considering attaching Turkey to their bilateral nuclear pact.

So the prospect looms of a Middle East, in Netanyahu's memorable phrase: “criss-crossed by nuclear trip wires.” The wry comment of journalist Faisal J Abbas is worth repeating: “the only stakeholder that seems not to realize the danger of the situation is President Obama.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 March 2015:

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