Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Warming relations with Iran might prove dangerous

Adelina Marini, April 21, 2009

Signs for possible warming of relations between Iran and the US are one of the leading international news in the last few days. The new American administration reached out its hand toward Iran not only because any confrontation with this especially influential in the Middle East state which would only lead to more tension in the region, but also because Washington needs Iran's assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an analysis in the "Financial times" Roula Khalaf says that improvement of American-Iranian relations is not that simple:

"When Egypt this month announced that it had broken up a Hizbollah cell plotting attacks on its soil, hardly anyone outside the Middle East took notice. It was assumed Cairo had dreamed up a menacing tale to justify a new round of arrests of Islamists.

But then something curious happened: the chief of Hizbollah, Lebanon’s Shia group, appeared on television to declare that, while allegations of a plot against Egypt were nonsense, Hizbollah had indeed sent an agent to Egypt to organise help for Palestinians.

Cairo could not contain its satisfaction, even with a partial confession. And it promptly unleashed its rhetorical fury, transforming the controversy into a full-blown diplomatic row with Hizbollah and, more worryingly, with Iran, the group’s backer.

Regional newspapers have published strident daily attacks on Tehran, accusing it of a conspiracy to set up a foothold in Egypt as a bargaining chip for its negotiations with the west.

“Iran and its followers want Egypt to become a maid of honour for the crowned Iranian queen when she enters the Middle East,” was how Ahmed Abul Gheit, Egypt’s foreign minister, described Tehran’s alleged designs. Iran has fired back, saying that Egypt fabricated a story, after dishonouring the Arabs by co-operating with Israel.

Behind the Hizbollah controversy lurk much deeper anxieties in Cairo, also felt in other Arab capitals, that Iran is consolidating its power in the Middle East and that its status will be confirmed, rather than restrained, by US engagement.

Arab officials have been telling Washington that Iran’s influence in the region is as dangerous to them as its nuclear programme.

The Arab world is not united in its thinking towards Tehran. Some countries, such as Qatar, have been cosying up to the Islamic Republic but others are growing increasingly suspicious.

When, earlier this year, a former Iranian parliament speaker foolishly claimed that Bahrain was historically part of Iran, the state-run Arab media went into an anti-Iranian frenzy. Iran apologised but Morocco suspended diplomatic ties (it also claimed that Tehran was spreading the Shia faith among its Sunni population). Even the diplomatically shy Saudi Arabia has been more openly critical of Iran in recent months, while the United Arab Emirates is making clear that Iranian business is less welcome.

There is some logic behind the tensions. Tehran’s support of militant groups in the region has helped undermine the peace process and destabilise Lebanon. Iran’s influence in Iraq – won thanks to the 2003 American invasion – has more firmly tilted the balance of power in its favour.

The level of Arab paranoia, however, is soaring to alarming levels – and should raise US concerns."

There's not much to be added after this analysis of Roula Khalaf but it is crystal clear that the US will find it very difficult to take part in the new power shift in the same way as before, especially against the background of the fiasco at the UN conference against racism, which, as a matter of fact was a small demonstration of what's ahead as a challange for the new American administration.

N.B. The article is shortened from the original in the "Financial times"