Arab leaders wary of potential US-Iran thaw

Arab leaders wary of potential US-Iran thaw

Sunni leaders waiting for the next round of P5+1 talks in Geneva to judge Tehran's intentions

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

US President Barack Obama speaks to his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, on September 27, 2013, marking the first time the two countries' leaders had engaged each other since 1979. (Pete Souza via White House Twitter page)
US President Barack Obama speaks to his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, on September 27, 2013, marking the first time the two countries' leaders had engaged each other since 1979. (Pete Souza via White House Twitter page)

Most leaders in the Arab world have been cautious, some to an extreme, when discussing the recent thaw in US-Iran relations.

Some have even appeared to fall in line with Israel’s worried position on the issue. After all, certain countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE, have good reason to lack faith in the credibility of Tehran’s new media-based outreach strategy.

Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities are not the only threat these Arab leaders face. The persistent efforts made by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to induce instability among the Shiite populations in their countries are cause for constant concern.

At this point, though, Arab states have shown a preference not to directly condemn Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, or his new “clear-eyed” American negotiating partner President Barack Obama.

In an interview this week for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, the foreign minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammad Al Khalifa, said that US Secretary of State John Kerry assured the Gulf Cooperation Council that the US would not make a single move in the region without first consulting with its local allies.

He said that the only difference in Iran so far is the type of speeches and declarations being made, but that Bahrain would welcome any real actions and stability that may stem from those declarations.

The leaders of the majority of the Sunni Arab countries seem willing to wait for October 15th — the date of the next scheduled meeting between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva — to decide whether the Iranians are just trying to buy time once again, or if they really intend to present a proposal that will pave the way toward an agreement with the international community regarding their nuclear program.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — one of the most important organizations in the Muslim world — said that it is still too soon to be optimistic about a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Ihsanoglu attended the UN General Assembly in New York, where he also criticized the international community and particularly the Obama administration over Syria — specifically for focusing solely on the agreement between Russia and the US, dealing with the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, rather than the ongoing bloody civil war there.

And indeed, a special team arrived in Syria this week to supervise the process as the regime relinquishes its chemical weapons, while indiscriminate murder continues undisturbed throughout the country, and with little comment from the international community.

According to the latest reports from Syria, the death toll has exceeded 115,000.

Infighting among the various factions within the opposition threatens to weaken the military capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and other opponents of Assad.

Whereas last month saw vicious battles between Al-Qaeda supporters and several “battalions” affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in the Azaz region near the Turkish border, this week there was an escalation in the violence between the two groups affiliated with al-Qaeda: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front. The latter recently joined forces with nine other Islamist groups and signed a collaboration agreement to work together to establish a Muslim state in Syria.

A key objective of the agreement was to isolate ISIS, though so far ISIS combatants, most of whom arrived from Iraq and other countries, seem unconcerned by the merger. ISIS fighters have violated the cease fire in Azaz, waged battles against the Free Syrian Army there (with a death toll of 20 people on both sides) and in Raqqah, and looted the headquarters of other opposition groups.

According to soldiers from the more moderate opposition groups, ISIS has taken over regions that have already been liberated from the Assad regime, exploiting the sparse presence of the Free Syrian Army, as its soldiers are engaged in battles elsewhere.

Opposition soldiers claim that ISIS uses terror and intimidation to force their ideology on the residents of the areas that they conquer.

One of the battalions in the Free Syrian Army proclaimed this week that ISIS is actually working for Assad. The battalion, known as Northern Storm, wrote on its Facebook page that “just as we transformed Azaz into a burial ground for Bashar Assad’s tanks and soldiers, we will transform it into a burial ground for ISIS soldiers as well.”

ISIS does not currently appear to aspire to conquer all of Syria, at least not in the near future. But they do aspire to expand the territory under their control in order to maximize their access to food stores and military equipment. This would explain why the majority of their battles are held near the Iraqi and Turkish borders.

In addition, the organization has been working to establish a new education system in the “liberated areas” of Syria to replace the system that has, in effect, been shut down. While some other groups have already succeeded in restoring studies, and begun to teach English and math to children and teens (though not history or geography, as all of the textbooks on these subjects were written by Assad’s regime and their content perpetuates his leadership), the ISIS schools teach only Sharia and Islam.

ISIS has also taken responsibility this week for 12 car bombs that exploded in Bagdad, killing 25 people — part of the war between the Sunnis and the Shiites in Iraq. The intra-Islamic conflict is presumably far from over.

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