Security tops the bill

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 23 Aug 2022

Arab leaders converged on Egypt’s New Alamein this week for an affable meet


Expectations are high on the possibility of a new nuclear deal between Iran and the West. An informed Washington-based source said the US is already busy trying to sell the deal to Israel and concerned Arab Gulf countries, arguing it is the best way to curb Iranian ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. One Cairo-based foreign diplomat said a deal was a matter of weeks away, adding that European capitals are already in discussions with Gulf partners over the future of regional security arrangements.

An Egyptian government source confirmed that Arab capitals and Israel are already talking to one another about the nature of security arrangements once Iran comes in from the cold. He added that while it is premature to address the details of any security structure for the post-nuclear deal period, “concerned capitals are talking about what they can do to ensure the end of Iran’s isolation does not compound security worries, especially those of Gulf countries.

“For example, we need to make sure the revenues from oil sales that Iran will accrue following the end of sanctions do not go towards funding militant groups like Hizbullah or Jihad,” he said.

Security arrangements following an Iranian nuclear deal would certainly have been high on the agenda of the talks President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi hosted this week in New Alamein for the leaders of the UAE, Bahrain, Iraq, and Jordan.

The meeting, said another government source, offered “a space for informal consultations between the participating Arab leaders” on both bilateral and regional issues.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi had to cut short his visit and return home when supporters of the Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, who is opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq, staged a new round of protests.

Also this week, Jihad and Hamas held a meeting in Gaza, the first between leaders of the two resistance movements since Egypt facilitated a negotiated end to the latest confrontation with Israeli forces. While Hamas had refused to join Jihad, the closest of the two movements to Iran, in its confrontation earlier this month with Israel, during the meeting both movements pronounced a renewed commitment to the cause of resistance.

According to an informed Egyptian security source, the Hamas refusal made it easier for Egyptian mediation to bring the “round of confrontation with Gaza to an end in less than a week”. Now, he added, Cairo must keep a very close watch on what Hamas and Jihad do should they receive larger funds from Iran following the end of the current sanctions imposed on Tehran.

“We have delegations coming and going. We are in a very close contact, not just on a daily basis but around the clock,” he said.

Earlier this week, Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar arrived in Cairo for discussions on how to manage the post-ceasefire phase.

“Egypt is apprehensive about Israeli intentions,” said the security source. He explained that Cairo is worried the Ya’ir Lapid government could opt to escalate “security measures and attacks in both the West Bank and Gaza” in an attempt to attract right wing voters away from a newly resurgent Likud ahead of Israeli elections in November.

“Lapid will be looking at how to send a message to the Israeli public that he is giving Hamas and Jihad a hard time, especially now that the sanctions against Iran look as if they are going to be lifted.”

He added that Cairo and Amman are “on the same page when it comes to the need to avoid any confrontations”.

While Egypt is particularly worried about the situation in the neighbouring Gaza Strip, Jordan is more focused on what might happen in the West Bank, especially in Jerusalem. There is also concern in both capitals about a possible military escalation between Hizbullah and Israel over the still unsettled issue of maritime demarcation. Hizbullah this week said that if US mediation fails to solve the demarcation dispute it could no longer condone continued Israel digging for natural gas in disputed waters.

According to Egyptian government sources, President Al-Sisi discussed the issues with King Abdullah of Jordan while the latter was in New Alamein. The sources added that there is already considerable coordination between Cairo and Amman and the issue will figure high on the agenda of both leaders during their participation in the UN General Assembly in the last week of September.

According to the same officials, the talks in New Alamein will also have covered economic issues, including the trilateral cooperation mechanism established between Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, and in which Bahrain is seeking to play a role.

Meanwhile, though Arab leaders are still scheduled to meet in the first week of November at the Arab summit in Algeria, Al-Ahram Weekly’s sources say the summit might be delayed.

A source from the Arab League who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while “the Arab League’s preparations for the Arab summit have not been called off” some influential Arab capitals have indicated that they would like to see the summit delayed.

“This kind of thing happens, especially at times of political uncertainty and political tension, and there is a lot of political uncertainty in the region,” said the source. He added that “it is still too early to say whether or not it will go ahead as scheduled.”

One issue prompting disagreement is the wish of Algeria, this year’s host and chair of the summit, to allow for the return of Syria which has been suspended from Arab League meetings since 2011, when Bashar Al-Assad used violent force to quell democracy protests.

Arab diplomatic sources agree that Arab capitals are divided on the issue, with some arguing that Syria should be readmitted to the Arab fold in order to provide a counterweight to Iranian influence in Damascus and the presence of Iranian forces on the ground. Other capitals argue that Syria’s return should be conditional on a clear commitment to eliminate Iran’s military presence on Syrian territory.

Egyptian diplomatic sources insist that it is impossible to envisage a comprehensive regional security scheme without addressing the many layers of the Syrian question, including Iran’s influence and presence and the ties between Syria and resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon. The issues, they say, have been garnering a great deal of attention recently, not least in Egypt’s political consultations with Arab interlocutors at the highest levels.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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