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April 14, 2015
In the aftermath of the Houthi’s attempted takeover of Yemen, which was widely seen as being Iran-backed, Arab countries have banded together to counter what they see as Tehran’s covert and overt influence in the region. Partly to blame for this newly-emboldened Iran, say some regional observers, is the resistance of the United States to include Iranian skullduggery as an item of discussion in the P5+1 nuclear talks. Some have suggested that Iran could go some way to allay its neighbors’ fears and reap the “peace dividends” resulting from a nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions by attempting a rapprochement with its Arab neighbors and dealing with them in a more transparent fashion.
Saudi newspapers and commentators have been especially vocal in making their case for allied Arab action against the Houthis. Recognizing the link between the lifting of the sanctions and Iran’s economic growth, the Arab News editorial staff called on the Obama administration to make Iran’s growing involvement in the region a topic of discussion with the Iranians: “The arrival of two Iranian warships off the coast of Yemen is a clear signal. Their commander said they had come to protect vessels from piracy. But everyone knows the maneuver is a further attempt to expand Iran’s interference in the Arab world....It is obvious that there must be some linkage formed between Iran’s meddling in Yemen and the lifting of sanctions. The Obama administration must recognize the risk of an economically re-empowered regime in Tehran....The Kingdom and its allies are physically combating Iranian meddling in Yemen with international support. Now the diplomatic screws need to be tightened on Tehran as well. A nuclear deal cannot go ahead in isolation. Iranian malevolence throughout the region has also to be taken into account.”
Al Arabiya’s Raghida Dergham fears a “de-facto alliance between Washington and Tehran” might be building, suggesting that the only way to allay fears of abandonment on the part of its Arab allies is to continue to put pressure on Iran: “it is imperative for the Arab leaderships to demand from the Obama administration more determination and insistence, especially with regard to showing firmness with Iran to compel it to stop sending military aid to the Houthis and cease its naval deployment in the Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Mandab. Any delay in such a determination would have disastrous consequences on Yemen and Decisive Storm, which the Arab coalition cannot afford to lose no matter what the cost is. This is a fateful battle for the forces of the coalition, including Saudi Arabia, and failure will lead to extremely dangerous regional repercussions.”
Gulf Arab distrust of Iran in the region is historical and seemingly intractable, but the recent events on the ground, as Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Aldossary points out, have done nothing to help: “If Iran is genuine about ending the war in Yemen, all it need do is convince its Houthi ally to acknowledge the legitimate political authority in Yemen, return all weapons seized from the state back to their rightful place, and end its shameless coup. This is the only way that any real dialogue in the country can restart. As for Iran’s machinations, well, the countries of the region have had enough of them, and they are so obvious and exposed now, that it is frankly ludicrous if Tehran believes anyone is fooled any longer.”
That distrust is further exacerbated by reports published on Gulf News of the capture of two Quds Force officers, which for many in the region is the latest proof of Iran’s direct involvement in the Yemeni conflict: “Tehran has been caught red-handed. There is no other possible explanation for the presence of the Quds Force officers in Aden, other than to offer help and advice to Al Houthis in their subversive campaign of terror to destabilise Yemen and complete their plans to overthrow the rightful civilian government of President Hadi. But their arrest also begs the question of how many more Iranian advisers are on the ground in Yemen, offering training to Al Houthis, teaching how to kill Yemenis and how to seize power.”
The United States is not the only actor that can do something about the current atmosphere of distrust. Iran itself, argues Camelia Entekhabi-Fard in an op-ed published by Al Hayat and Al Arabiya, must make serious efforts to build bridges with its Arab neighbors: “The insecurity and repercussions of this upcoming nuclear deal with Iran have preoccupied the region, and have led to many regional powers to rethink their foreign policy, especially their longstanding good relations with the United States. Not knowing the consequences of this deal — other nations in the region feel like the U.S. want to build an alliance with Iran, while abandoning its old regional allies....What makes Iran’s neighbors hesitant to support a nuclear deal comes from their lack of information and dialogue, especially with Iran.... it would have been better if, rather than President Obama inviting Arab leaders to Camp David, Iran’s Rowhani invited his Arab neighbors to the Caspian Sea to give them a firsthand briefing.”
Writing for the UAE’s The National, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani also feels that Iranian politicians now have a choice to make. Will they invest in their economy so as to boost domestic production and increase employment, or will they spend more money in military programs? “Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a terrible record in predicting the future of Iran’s nuclear programme, but it’s hard to argue with his suggestion that last week’s accord between Iran and the P5+1 countries will ‘bolster Iran’s economy’....Mr Rouhani’s famous refrain that as the centrifuges turn so should the wheels of the economy seems to be coming to pass with last week’s deal. It remains to be seen if he can take much of the turning to production lines rather than shopping malls. If he manages that, the world would eventually realise that Mr Netanyahu’s cynical warning that an economically stronger Iran is a threat to the world is just one more foolish prediction.”
At the end of the day, the Iran nuclear deal would have been impossible without U.S. President Barack Obama being willing to gamble his prestige and legacy on a diplomatic rather than military solution. That, argues a recent Khaleej Times editorial, is as much at stake in the current debate as is the fate of Yemen and other hot spots in the region: “Barack Obama appears to be battling the odds as he reaches out to foes at home and abroad. His latest challenge is to convince Congress to back the Iranian nuclear framework agreement....A non-interventionist U.S. policy could be in America’s interests but the President has a task on hand to convince his foes to look beyond the ideological divide and petty partisanship....America may have slid in the world’s eyes as a honest mediator and peacemaker, but the president is striving for a fair exit from its former areas of influence, away from war and conflicts. He has moved ahead with his policy of non-partisanship despite the mounting criticism from all quarters. So what next for the President? An olive branch to North Korea?”
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