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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Manama Dialogue 2018: Iran is the region’s biggest threat

Only through co-operation can Arab states push back against this destabilising presence

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir speaking during the Manama dialogue in Bahrain. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir speaking during the Manama dialogue in Bahrain. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

“Light always triumphs over darkness.” So said Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel Al Jubeir, on Saturday at the Manama dialogue in Bahrain as he offered a damning indictment of Iran’s regional interference.

In many ways the modern history of the Middle East has been one of flux, driven by conflict and sectarianism. But, as Mr Al Jubeir powerfully argued, regional conflict today is primarily driven by destabilising regional powers, chief among them Iran. Indeed, a powerful dichotomy has emerged, with one side – Gulf states and their international partners – pursuing economic growth, innovation and security while actively empowering women and the youth. On the other, Tehran peddles sectarianism, terror and conflict.

As the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, told The National in September, “We need to create an Arab consensus”.

There is great strength in unity in the Middle East, but too often Arab voices are not heard. It is evident that the threat is now from within. And only through co-operation can we push back against the forces of darkness.

Tehran’s attempts to destabilise the region are abundantly clear. In Yemen, they have backed and armed Houthi rebels, who overthrew the internationally recognised government of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi in 2014. The dozens of missiles the rebels have hurled onto Saudi soil bear the hallmarks of Iranian manufacturing.

Throughout Syria’s intractable war, Iran has sponsored violent militias and nurtured new ones, to safeguard the Assad regime. As Brett McGurk, US envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS told The National, Iran-backed forces must leave Syria for stability to prevail.

Meanwhile, Tehran’s militaristic proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, is so enmeshed in national politics that it has the power to topple governments, as it did with Saad Hariri’s in 2011.

Similarly, in the Iraqi city of Basra, beset by a chronic water crisis, Iran-backed militia act with impunity. The veritable laundry list of Iranian malfeasance goes on; if justification were ever needed for a mooted “Arab Nato” to take charge of the region’s future, this is it.

Looming large are fresh US sanctions on Iranian oil exports, due to come into effect next Sunday. But sanctions alone will not curb the adventurism of a nation that funds conflict overseas while its struggling citizens take to the streets in protest.

And while the US has been vocal in scolding Tehran – in Manama, US Defence Secretary James Mattis criticised Iran’s “outlaw regime” – other world powers have turned a blind eye. The Europeans, for instance, remain committed to preserving the deeply flawed Iran nuclear deal.

Against that backdrop, it falls to regional powers to counter Iran, not with tit-for-tat violence but with security, growth and, above all, unity.