MANAMA // Iran's controversial nuclear programme and the security situation in Afghanistan will be the central issues of an annual international security conference opening tomorrow in Manama, according to the meeting's organisers. Iran is likely to be the focus of the sixth Manama Dialogue, with its foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, scheduled to lead his country's delegation to the three-day event that will also host the foreign ministers of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - all countries that must negotiate Iran's growing regional influence.
But the most concerned delegates will most probably be those of Gulf countries. Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, on Tuesday during a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said that one of the key issues relating to security and stability in the Gulf was the development of Iran's nuclear programme. "Whether we were on a path of peace and stability or a path of collision was one of the things we discussed during our meeting, and this issue represents an important matter to us. We prefer that a diplomatic solution be reached; no one in this world wants to see violence used to resolve any issue," Sheikh Al Khalifa said.
Mr Aboul Gheit for his part warned Tehran against continued ambiguity surrounding its nuclear programme, as it risks losing the trust of the international community and threatens regional stability. "Iran is a co-signer of the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty and has the right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, but we tell Tehran, from the Gulf, that they need to be cautious about not losing the international community's confidence through its actions," Mr Aboul Gheit said.
He added that the building of secret nuclear installations contradicts Iran's commitments under the treaty's terms. "When there are suggestions that the programme could be of a military nature we find that to be deeply concerning because the Middle East will fail in its endeavour to be a nuclear- and weapons of mass destruction-free zone," he said. "Also concerning for us is that the Middle East would find itself under two nuclear umbrellas - one in Iran and another in Israel."
Mr Aboul Gheit said the possibility of an attack either by the West or Israel against Iranian nuclear installations could drag the region into violence. While it is not clear yet who will head the Saudi delegation, Yemen's national security agency chairman, Ali Muhammad al Anisi, confirmed his participation. Both Saudi Arabia and Yemen continue to fight Al Houthi Yemeni rebels, which they claim have received backing from Tehran.
Andrew Parasiliti, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the main organiser of the Manama Dialogue with the support of the foreign ministry, said the promise of diplomacy following talks between the P5 plus one group - the US, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France - and Iran in Geneva on October 1 has dimmed, and new sanctions may be imminent. "It seems that Iran is no longer interested in transferring its low enriched uranium out of Iran for reprocessing for use in Tehran's medical research reactor, as was discussed in Geneva and the diplomatic track seems to be stalled," he said.
"The US House of Representatives will be voting on the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act this month and, unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough, the US will probably push for a new UN Security Council resolution on Iran in early 2010." He added that with the absence of more stepped-up diplomacy, including direct talks between the United States and Iran, there is likely to be further tension between the rivals.
"As an impending crisis that could directly affect the national security of all of the Gulf states and of their partners in the wider Middle East and beyond, the Iran nuclear issue is likely to impinge in one way or another on almost every aspect of the Manama Dialogue," said Mark Fitzpatrick, IISS senior fellow for non-proliferation and director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme.
"We really hope that Iran will attend this year - for the last two years they've pulled out at the last minute, but they really need to be part of the security discussion," he added. The IISS does not market the meetings as places where ongoing conflicts are resolved but instead as a venue for leaders to discuss important issues, network and plan. Mr Fitzpatrick also said that despite US President Barack Obama's efforts at engagement, the nuclear issue with Iran could be nearing a crisis stage that has implications across the wider Middle East.
"The Arab-Israeli conflict is neither the cause nor the by-product of the Iranian nuclear crisis. Nevertheless, the two issues have become inexorably linked in terms of both public perceptions and the ability of key players to take effective steps toward a resolution," he said. "Israel has argued that it cannot address the Palestinian issue in ways that could reduce Israeli security until the Iranian nuclear crisis is resolved and it no longer faces an existential threat. The United States has argued that it will be difficult to garner a regional consensus on steps to contain and dissuade Iran unless Israel addresses the Palestinian issue."
The commander of US forces in the region, Gen David Petraeus, will head the US delegation to the Manama Dialogue, while the national defence minister, Vecdi Gönül, will lead the delegation of Turkey, which in recent months has been playing a more active role in regional politics and which recently expressed opposition to a military option against Tehran. The Bahrain foreign ministry and the IISS have worked together since 2004 to organise the Manama Dialogue on Middle East security. The London-based IISS organises similar conferences in Asia and Europe to focus on regional security issues there.
Last October Bahrain and the IISS announced plans for the organisation to open a permanent office in the country. It is set to open its doors in May, ahead of the Bahrain Global Forum, another regional summit organised with the help of the IISS. "The IISS-Middle East office will hold strategic summits, addresses, briefings, workshops and conferences, hosting senior ministers, international governmental officials, military and intelligence chiefs, and global business leaders," said Kathryn H Floyd, consulting dialogues press officer at the IISS. email@example.com