Iran at the heart of Egypt's Arab Summit

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 28 Mar 2015

The headline agenda of the Arab Summit, opening today in Sharm El-Sheikh, is almost entirely focused on Iran's expanding regional influence amid grave developments in Yemen and Saudi fears

An armed man walks on the rubble of houses destroyed by an air strike near Sanaa Airport March 26, 2015. REUTERS

It was supposed to be about the "full return of Egypt to its leading Arab role." But the Arab Summit that will be inaugurated today, Saturday, in Sharm El-Sheikh is more about Iran than anything else.

When Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi takes over the rotated presidency of the annual Arab Summit he will find himself face to face with some very disturbing regional developments directly impinging on Egypt’s national security: the expanding challenge of radical militant Islamic groups, including the Islamic State; the increase in disorder and instability in neighbouring Libya; continued havoc in Syria and Iraq; and worst of all the seemingly inevitable fall of Yemen into an open Sunni-Shia proxy war between Saudi Arabia — Egypt’s most important Arab supporter — and Iran, Egypt’s regional adversary for four decades.

This is not the scene that the Egyptian president wished to confront. Rather, he was hoping for a ceremonial event where his picture with other Arab leaders would be added to the glow of the Egypt Economic Development Conference, which convened earlier this month also in Sharm El-Sheikh, to remind his foes at home and elsewhere that he is the uncontested president of Egypt.

Instead, at the Arab Summit, El-Sisi is faced with responding in kind to the generous Arab Gulf economic support endowed upon him and the authorities he has led since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013. What the Saudis hope for is unconditional Egyptian diplomatic and military support for their scheme to return neighbouring Yemen to predominantly Sunni rule.

The Arab Summit, to the dismay of Cairo, is therefore not an event where the Egyptian president can focus on underlining his legitimacy while securing support for his "war on terror groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State."

“The Islamic State is not the top issue for the Arab Summit now: Iran is. It is there not just because of Yemen, but because of its wide presence across the Arab Mashreq and Arab Gulf, which constitutes an annoying fact to the Saudis,” said an Arab League source.

Iran is always present in the deliberations of Arab leaders. In almost in every Arab League summit, since the top level meeting was made an annual event in 2000, Iran has been called upon by Arab leaders to end its occupation of three Gulf islands that are deemed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to have been occupied by Iranian forces.

Indirect criticism has also been made of Iran’s influence in Lebanon through Hizbullah, and on Hamas through financial and technical assistance, in resolutions Arab summits have adopted throughout the past few years.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, hostility against Iran retreated with the present Arab League secretary general and former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi arguing there is no reason for Egypt, which has had no diplomatic ties with Iran since the Islamic Revolution, to not move towards normalising ties with Tehran on the right basis.

Gone are those days. The Arab Spring is practically over, thanks to the dedicated keenness of Riyadh to restore the "traditional ruling equation in the Arab world," according to some North African diplomats. Meanwhile, old fears of Iranian influence are coming back with new vigor, prompted by the anticipated (even if difficult to strike) deal between the West and Tehran over the Iranian nuclear programme.

This week in Sharm El-Sheikh the top question on the agenda is not really about how to save Yemen, but rather how to crop out Iranian influence, perceived by the Saudis as essentially a "Shia invasion" in the immediate backyard of the oil-rich monarchy.

“We are not really talking about securing a settlement for Yemen, as we would, for example, be doing when we discuss Libya. We are rather talking about restoring Yemen to the followers of (Sunni and Saudi-supported Yemeni President) Rabbu Hadi,” said a source in the Sharm El-Sheikh Arab League Summit conference hall following ministerial meetings.

According to the same source, a certain phobia on Iran is present in discussion on developments in Iraq and is “much more present than concern over the Islamic State, though the Saudis are concerned over the Islamic State as well, for sure.” Same for Syria.

Arab League sources say that contrary to what was anticipated a few weeks ago, the Sharm El-Sheikh Arab Summit is not going to be an "anti-terror summit" par excellence, but rather focused on neutralising what is deemed an unmasked Iranian takeover of the strategic horizon of several Arab countries.

Delegates at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit were keenly discussing developments in Yemen and the Saudi wish (though now somewhat toned down) for a more aggressive attack on the Houthis in Yemen when a statement of Lebanese Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah was aired directing criticism on the Saudi-led war on Yemen, with implicit indications that the group is unlikely to turn a blind eye to this development.

Nasrallah spoke as Saudi delegates were telling counterparts that if the intervention in Yemen failed it would undermine further the supporters of Hadi, especially amid "consistent Iranian supplies of arms and militants" to help the Houthis in their “hostilities on the followers of the legitimate president.”

The issue that the Saudi delegation has faced at the summit is that its fears on Iran are not necessarily shared by all Arab League member states. Oman, a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member with traditional, stable and peaceful ties with Iran, and which declined to sign a GCC statement issued a few days ago in support of Hadi against the Houthis, has been promoting in Sharm El-Sheihk calls for dialogue.

The Omani stance found Qatari support, even though Doha decided to accommodate Riyadh on Yemen. It also gained explicit support from Algeria and Iraq, and implicit support from Lebanon.

Arab League sources say that at the end of the day there will be no contention on the language of a resolution proposed by the Saudis on Yemen and Iranian intervention in the affairs of Arab countries.

What might be watered down, however, according to the same diplomats, is the language of the commitment the Saudis want from the Arab Summit regarding military operations against Houthis in Yemen.

“Clearly the entire member states of the Arab League would no want to go against the wish of the Saudis, but for sure there are different shades of concern over Iran,” said a delegate who took part in the preparatory meetings for the summit that will open today and close tomorrow in the Red Sea resort.

These shades are also reflected in debate over an Egyptian proposal to establish a joint Arab military force — something that was approved for further discussion by foreign ministers during their meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh on Thursday, ahead of the summit.

“I will be very surprised if this proposal really picks up. It is all about the deep concern of the Saudis on Yemen and the deep concern of Egyptians on Libya, but it is not something that is easily agreed upon by the [Arab League] member states,” said the North African diplomatic source.

Agreement is likely to come easy to delegates in Sharm El-Sheikh on other issues, including continued support for a Palestinian independent state, the right of Arab countries to face terror groups, and the right of Arab countries to pursue development.

But the Sharm El-Sheikh summit, this year’s top level Arab congregation, is all but hijacked by developments in Yemen and Saudi fears, shared also by Bahrain and the UAE, over Iran's ability to generate domestic political hiccups through minority Shia communities — which constitute no less than 20 per cent of the population in Saudi Arabia – in oil rich Gulf countries.

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