x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Talk to Iran, Arab League chief urges

The Arab League chief's call for members to engage Iran in dialogue over its nuclear development finds backing among experts on the region.

The Arab League chief has urged the 22-nation bloc to open a direct dialogue with Iran over their concerns about Tehran's nuclear activities and perceptions of the Islamic Republic's rising regional influence.

Amr Moussa presented his proposal to Arab leaders at the two-day summit that opened in Sirte, Libya, yesterday. "I realise that some are worried about Iran, but that is precisely why we need the dialogue," he said. Washington may construe that his plan to engage Iran, if endorsed, could undermine efforts by the US and Israel to isolate Tehran, some observers said. But others welcomed it as an important and useful step that could bolster international diplomacy.

"The Iran issue has a major regional dimension. Some Arab countries are already talking to Iran about their concerns but it would be very good to have a collective approach," a European former senior diplomat to Tehran said in an interview. "They could spell out to Iran that the Arabs have their own good reasons for Iran to conform with the resolutions of the Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency."

Also likely driving the Arab push to forge their own strategy on Iran is frustration over Washington's failure to get Israel to back down on plans to build new settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Mr Moussa's plan involves a forum for regional co-operation and conflict resolution that would include Iran and Turkey - both non-Arab nations. His proposal was immediately endorsed by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a summit guest. Turkey, a long-term US ally despite strains in recent years, has also built good relations with neighbouring Iran.

Key Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have resisted engagement with Iran in the past. And they feel that Tehran is in no mood for dialogue now, diplomats said. Other Arab nations, particularly some of the smaller Gulf states, have countered risks arising from Iran with cautious balancing acts, and sporadic attempts at outreach. There is also a perception that Iran's regional clout has suffered a blow since its disputed presidential elections last June. That feeling is likely to be enhanced by the parliamentary elections results in neighbouring Iraq, where the leader of a secular alliance has secured a narrow victory.

Arab nations share the US's fear that Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at producing weapons - an ambition Tehran denies. There is also widespread opposition in the Arab world to Iran's support of militant groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah, as well as perennial suspicion that Iran tries to stir discontent among Shia populations in Bahrain, Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia. "But their main fear is that they could end up living under the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran," said Gerald Butt, editor of the authoritative fortnightly journal, Middle East International.

"At the same time, they're nervous about leaving the matter in the hands of the Americans and Israelis in case it leads to a military conflict where the Arab Gulf states, in particular, feel inevitably they'd be on the front line of any Iranian retaliation," Mr Butt added in an interview. "There is a feeling that there ought to be a regional effort to try to engage Iran to defuse the tension." Washington has tried to allay Arab jitters while strengthening the defence systems in several Arab nations in the Gulf to counter the possible threat of missiles fired from Iran.

Meanwhile, senior US officials, including the defence secretary, Robert Gates, toured the region last month to urge Arab allies to back Western efforts to ratchet up the pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. The US and its Western allies are pressing for a fourth round of UN sanctions in the hope of persuading Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium. "The Americans at the moment feel that isolating Iran is the best course so I think they'd discourage Arab engagement with Tehran, although they can't stop it," Mr Butt said.

Trying to do so would be short-sighted, many Iran experts believe. The Islamic Republic has major interests in the Gulf as well as substantial economic interests on the Arab side of the waterway, the European former envoy to Iran said. "If Iran means anything about what it says about being a good neighbour, it should take into account their concerns. And a united Arab front could tell Iran this," he argued. "Iran is always willing to discuss these questions but Iran's in no mood for flexibility at the moment from what one can discern."