The need for an Arab presence in international negotiations with Iran

By Tariq Khaitous | October 28, 2008

Since 2002, the Iranian nuclear program has been a major threat to stability and security in the Middle East. To curb it, many countries and international bodies have engaged Tehran diplomatically. The European Union (EU) has shown unity and solidarity in dealing with Iran. Russia, the largest supplier of nuclear technology to Tehran, is also involved in the negotiations. Another active party is China, which has a strong economic relationship with Iran. Even the United States, which has been criticized for refusing to engage in a direct dialogue with Tehran, has sent a negotiator to represent it in the discussions. Yet, for the most part, Iran’s regional neighbors, the Arab states, have been missing from the dialogue–aside from a few unsuccessful bilateral meetings between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a handful of Arab leaders.

This dynamic must change. It’s imprudent for the Arab states to solely depend upon the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council to devise a solution to a problem that has wide-ranging regional security implications–namely, a nuclear-armed Iran, whether opaque or transparent, will most likely lead to a regional arms race in which many of Tehran’s neighbors aggressively pursue nuclear weapons of their own. Precedence also dictates that they have an influential seat at the negotiating table, as North Korea’s neighbors have been involved in talks regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Therefore, the Arab states need to offer strategies to the Iranian nuclear situation in concert with the other international players.

To do so, the Arab countries should first put aside their political tensions with each other–i.e., ideological differences and territorial disputes–to ensure that they stand together when negotiating with Iran. In addition, the Arab regimes should normalize their relationships with Tehran and open a new era of diplomatic relations based on trust, honesty, and mutual respect. It’s especially necessary for major Arab states such as Egypt to have a diplomatic representative in Tehran. (See “Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s Policies Toward Iran’s Nuclear Program.”) Diplomatic normalcy would restore confidence and facilitate dialogue between Tehran and the Arab capitals. Once this is achieved, the Arab states should use the Arab League as a base of negotiation between Iran, Arabs, and the West. (See “Arab States Seeking to Improve Ties with Iran: Amr Moussa.”)

As further aid, the Arab League should take advantage of its good relationship with the EU, Russia, China, and particularly, the United States to express its determination to host multilateral talks with Iran. (See “EU Must Involve GCC in Resolving Iran Nuclear Crisis.”) In addition to the usual negotiation sites in European capitals, it will be important for the Arab League to bring the talks to the Middle East. Such an initiative will boost regional efforts and let the Arab regimes use their diplomatic skills to convince Iran to halt its program.

For their part, the Gulf States could exploit Tehran’s interest in strengthening its relationships with them. In particular, Iran wants to create a free-trade zone with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. (See “GCC Considers Free Trade with Iran.”) In recent years, Iran has transferred most of its investments to the growing Gulf state economies, becoming a major economic partner of Qatar and Oman. Tehran has also become an important trading partner with the United Arab Emirates–despite a bitter territorial dispute over three Gulf islands.

Iraq, too, could help resolve Iran’s dispute with the West. Clearly, the fight against terrorism and sectarian violence is the Iraqi government’s first priority. But it shouldn’t ignore the development of Iran’s nuclear program. The national security of Iraq and Iran are interdependent due to long, contiguous borders and shared history and religious beliefs. Not surprisingly then, U.S. and Iranian parties have met in Baghdad to talk about Iraq’s security. Such discussions could also include the nuclear issue.

Similarly, Syria could take advantage of its strong alliance with Tehran to sway Iranian officials to stop their nuclear program. By doing so, Syria will restore its image globally and give itself a chance to come back into the international fold. During French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s last visit to Syria on September 5, he called upon [in French] Damascus to exploit its relations of “confidence” with Iran to resolve the nuclear issue.

Likewise, the North African states could also engage Tehran. In particular, Libya could show Iran how dismantling its nuclear program in 2004 remarkably improved its relations with the international community. To wit, earlier this year, Libya was elected to lead the Security Council without any opposition, after decades of being treated as a pariah by Washington and the EU. Moreover, many international companies are competing to invest in the Libyan market, hoping to take advantage of Tripoli’s growing energy sector. Better still, Algeria has a history of helping resolve problems with Iran. For instance, in 1975, Algeria mediated territorial disputes between Iran and Iraq that led to the historic Agreement of Algiers. Shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Algeria demonstrated itself to be an important Arab mediator between Washington and Tehran in the release of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. Having gained the trust of both countries, Algeria continued to manage Iranian interests in the Algerian Embassy in the United States until the Algerian Civil War in 1992 when Pakistan took over this role. Five years ago, Iran offered to share its nuclear expertise with Algeria in order to develop Algeria’s substantial uranium deposits. Plus, Iran believes Algeria maintains a close relationship with Washington–especially in military, energy, and war on terror matters–making Algeria a strong potential mediator.

Clearly, Iran’s Arab neighbors have much they can exploit, alongside the international community, to deal with the Iranian nuclear crisis in a more effective way. But if the Arab regimes remain dormant, the West will continue to struggle to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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