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Messages to Tehran

Dina Ezzat examines prospects for de-escalating regional confrontation with Iran

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 23 May 2019
King Salman
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (Photo: AFP)
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At the request of Saudi Arabia Arab leaders are expected to meet in Mecca on 30 May for an emergency summit. It will follow a leaders’ meeting of member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Saudi King Salman is hosting on 29 May, though it remains unclear whether Qatar will be represented.

An official Saudi statement earlier this week said the consecutive meetings were intended “to consolidate security and stability in the region” and directly linked the summits to the escalation in rhetoric between the US and Iran which has been unfolding for weeks and could ignite a proxy war.

The meetings also follow diplomatic efforts to contain rising tensions conducted by the EU, Switzerland and Oman.

Arab diplomatic sources say it is too early to predict the outcome of the Mecca meetings. According to one source, the Saudis and Emiratis, whose oil installations have been the target of attacks, want to present a united front to Tehran in the face of potential Iranian, or Iranian-ordered, attacks.

But what are the chances for de-escalation? Quite high, say Cairo-based Western sources, given the realisation in both Washington and Tehran of the potentially disastrous ramifications of any proxy war.

And that is the direction in which the conflict will most likely head given that no one is talking of direct attacks, surgical or pre-emptive, against Iranian targets.

On Monday British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Tehran of underestimating the “resolve on the side of the US”.

The Americans “don’t want a war with Iran”, he said, “but if American interests are attacked they will retaliate. And that is something that the Iranians need to think about very, very carefully.”

On the same day US President Donald Trump said that the US would respond with “great force” if Iran attacked US interests.

Washington has already ordered a reduction of its diplomatic staff in Iraq — one of the most obvious sites of any proxy war between the US and Iran — and consolidated its military presence.

At the same time the US gave a nod of approval to attempts by Switzerland, the EU and Oman to engineer a de-escalation.

According to one Cairo-based European diplomat, the Omanis discussed their planned mediation in detail with the US before sending their foreign minister, Youssef bin Alawi, to Tehran late Monday evening.

The Omanis themselves announced that Sultan Qaboos had spoken at length with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shortly before Bin Alawi was dispatched to Tehran.

“The Omanis have a traditional role mediating when it comes to Tehran and they have very good in-roads in Washington,” the diplomat said, adding that the Iranians seem keen to avoid any form of war.

This week Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran preferred diplomacy to confrontation but that there are no clear outlines for any potential dialogue with the US.

Last week Rouhani said categorically that there will be no war with the US while Pompeo, following meetings in Russia with President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said the US is not seeking conflict with Iran.

While there are a great many mediation channels the European diplomat said it remained unclear which will be able to produce a de-escalation and ensure things do not “un-intentionally” get out of hand.

He added that the problems are compounded by the fact that there are some in Washington and in the Middle East who actually want the US to force Tehran into a confrontation, believing this will significantly weaken Iran and possibly lead to the collapse of the regime.

Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, says both the US and Iran have no real interest in a military confrontation, even by proxy.

“Both sides know the price is too high,” he says. “The Americans do not want their interests in the Gulf to be harmed and Iran does not want to worsen an already dire economic situation.

The more pressing question for Al-Sayed, then, is what form a deal might take. He argues the demands Trump is making of Iran — complete suspension of its nuclear research and missile programme — will be impossible for Tehran to accept if it gets nothing in return.

But given “Trump is not offering anything in return — on either the political or the economic front” — the political confrontation could take some time to end.

It is against this backdrop that Riyadh is calling on its Arab allies to offer full political and military support.

Saudi Arabia wants to make sure that if tensions do escalate its Arab allies will be onside, said an informed Egyptian official. Riyadh will expect the Mecca summit to produce a statement making clear Riyadh’s Arab allies “will be there” should the escalation continue.

But even this is not a foregone conclusion. “Consultations are underway but you need to take into account that within the GCC there are three states that do not favour any confrontation scenario,” says the official.

Oman and Kuwait have traditionally opposed any military confrontation with Iran, as does Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy in the Gulf and host to the largest US military base in the Middle East.

There has been no clarification yet as to whether Saudi Arabia will actually invite Qatar to the summits, or who will represent Doha should an invitation be extended.

“The US cannot get into a political mess with its Gulf allies, and we know that all the attempts of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to turn Washington against Doha have failed,” said a Cairo-based Western source.

According to Al-Sayed, it is hard to imagine the majority of Arab countries caving in before Saudi Arabian encouragement to confront Iran. “It would be too much of an upheaval for a region that has enough problems already,” he said.

“I think it is reasonable to expect the Mecca summits to produce statements calling on Iran to end its attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of Arab states and its support for militias like the Houthis of Yemen that have been attacking Saudi oil installations in border cities,” the Egyptian official said. The statements, he added, are also likely “to denounce recent attacks against Saudi and Emirati targets and express solidarity with Gulf countries against possible threats”.

On Friday 31 May, Saudi Arabia will host a third summit, this time for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), also in Mecca, during which Riyadh will receive the rotating presidency of the Islamic grouping of over 50 member states from Turkey.

Iran is a leading member in the OIC. It is not yet clear who will be representing Tehran at the summit

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Messages to Tehran

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