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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 May 2018

Time for Arabs to be active in Washington’s policy circles

The Arab states need American partners, not clients or customers

There has been a wide range of reactions in the Arab world to the interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community. But a clear common thread is concern about the long-term trajectory of American policy towards the region. The good news is that there are practical, effective measures the Arab states could take to have more input into the American foreign policy conversation.

There is a subtext of anxiety detectable even among Arab societies that have emphasised the prospects for greater regional stability suggested by dialogue with Iran. Most of the Arab world does seem to be wondering where, exactly, American policy is going and, indeed, is worried about it. And that, precisely, should spur interest in impacting the American conversation about the region.

Arab concerns are understandable. Over the past 30 years, Iran has emerged as a would-be hegemonic power that effectively uses proxies that engage in extreme forms of violence, and a potential second regional nuclear power (alongside Israel). The prospect of any version of an American “policy shift” towards Tehran, and therefore perhaps also towards its regional clients, is bound to provoke Arab unease.

Alarm is premature. A change in focus on crucial matters of international relations requires the slow and public building of a consensus before it can genuinely reorient Washington’s fundamental attitudes. The behemoth of American foreign policy almost always moves glacially. It is answerable to a vast and complex political system, with a huge range of inputs and influences that go into shaping the core basis of policy. And Arabs can do much more to influence this conversation.

The idea that the United States is preparing to shift its focus towards an understanding with Iran and its allies at the expense of Arab states is still implausible. Such thinking would imply that secret US-Iranian contacts must have dealt with a far broader range of issues than simply the nuclear file, and made at least some movement in each other’s direction for the nuclear issue to become a viable negotiation.

These anxieties tap into a deep and persistent Arab nightmare: that the great powers will ally with any and all other Middle Eastern entities – Israel, Turkey and even Iran – but always at the expense of the region’s majority, the Arabs. There is a historical basis for these visceral fears, but also a degree of fatalistic passivity. Arabs can do much to impact their own future.

After all, the US remains deeply enmeshed with its Arab partners, even at a time of strained relations with key players such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The commercial, military, intelligence, educational and cultural links are too deeply rooted to be quickly upended.

Moreover, the “breakthrough” with Iran remains limited in scope and, as both sides insist, time-sensitive. The sanctions are only partially lifted, and some of the most damaging – such as the exclusion of Iranian financial institutions from the Swift code network which cripples its banking sector – are still in place.

And, while the prospects for the kind of short-term, time-buying agreement reached in Geneva long seemed promising, a broader agreement significantly rolling back Iran’s nuclear programme and dealing with other strategic issues will be far more challenging.

On both sides, it may be up against the clock. Hardliners in Iran have made their opposition perfectly evident to even the limited concessions to which Tehran has thus far agreed. And, within a year or so, the American electoral cycle will resume. The issue of negotiations with Iran will undoubtedly be subject to broad debate and scrutiny, and, in all probability, powerful and focused political attacks.

A somewhat more plausible, but still from an Arab point of view alarming, scenario is that the US is seeking to create a balance of power between what amount to Sunni and Shiite regional alliances. Such an equilibrium, this logic holds, would allow the US to start to draw down its own posture in the region and concentrate on the long-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia”. But, again, there still isn’t any real evidence to support such a conclusion.

Yet if such fears are indeed causing significant anxiety in Arab capitals and policy circles, there remains a powerful and largely untapped means to effectively communicate such concerns in Washington. Most of the US’s Arab allies still have not developed a consistent, on-the-ground presence in Washington policy circles.

Instead, they cultivate highly focused and specific relations with entities like the department of defense. Beyond that, their policy interventions tend to be reactive, limited and even sporadic, rather than proactive and sustained. This will not have a major impact on US decision-making.

Developing such influence necessitates building partnerships with experienced and effective American advocates with a genuine understanding of, and affiliation with, Arab interests. A sustained, professional partnership must be based on integrity and common understandings rather than a simple exercise in public relations. The Arab states need American partners, not clients or customers.

This is not a challenge of marketing. It is a challenge of policy intervention. Arab interests still have a real opportunity and time to do far more to influence the decision-making and policy framing process in Washington.

If Arabs are concerned about where US policy towards the Middle East is headed, the cultivation of genuine American partners for sustained policy intervention is one of the most direct and effective correctives possible.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a columnist for Now Media and blogs at www.ibishblog.com

On Twitter: @ibishblog