Making Arab challenges opportunities

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Article Summary
While challenges and crises facing the Arab world are common media fodder, little attention is given to how these challenges might serve as opportunities for progress in the region.

It has always been my perspective that problems can become challenges, which in turn can evolve into opportunities. This exchange between challenges and opportunities is present today, perhaps more so than it has been throughout the past decade.

I say this now, or I decide to do so, on the occasion of the US-Iranian agreement or Iran’s conclusion of a preliminary agreement with the international community regarding its nuclear program. Since the beginning of his first term in office, President Obama has appeared to rely on what has come to be known as soft power, particularly in the Middle East and in regard to the Iranian question.

Since 2005, seven resolutions have been issued by the [UN] Security Council on the Iranian nuclear file. From 2004 until the latest resolutions dolling out sanctions and economic blockade against Iran in 2011, the US (and international) approach has been unchanging: lowering the percentage of enrichment and opening Iran’s nuclear facilities to supervision and monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which Iran agreed to and agrees to now. Arab parties have feared such an agreement, fears that are in some ways founded. The reasons for this fear have come to be known as reciprocation, or there might be an agreement or preparedness for an agreement between the United States and Iran that would make the United States Iran’s hand in the region in exchange for a guarantee that Iran will give up its aspirations of developing nuclear weapons of mass destruction and that it will strive to improve relations with the United States and Western Europe.

The reality is that this Iranian hand in the region has been present for more than a decade. There is no difference in the position on this worrying trend between the Bush and Obama eras except in the details. The Americans turned to the Iranians for help in Afghanistan and Iraq since they held a practical sort of control over Iraq and allowed, without any serious objection, Iranian political and military intervention in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. As I see it, given the difficulties and warning signs, things may change in the short term through Arab soft power and not that of the United States. [They may also change] by showing an ability to adapt to changing times, readiness for the implications of this, dealing with its requirements and effectively working to turn current problems into opportunities. This will then realize hope for the Arab and Iranian peoples in reclaiming trust, rapport and cooperation.

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Three problems

In the Arab Levant and the Gulf, we have three problems: First is disorder created by the movements for Arab change launched in 2011, in which the “Arab Fall forces’” [negative] reaction to the Arab Spring movement had the biggest role. [Second] is the exorbitant Iranian role in the region. [The third problem] is the weakness of Arab cooperation in facing ever-increasing challenges. This last problem particularly applies to the Palestinian cause, in which Arabs have less influence than ever before. This has left room for Iran and its entourage to win the loyalty of Jerusalem, Palestine and its cause. Iran also [won favor] following the important successes it helped realize in liberating South Lebanon in 2000. It was not long, on the other hand, before this deeply seated issue in the Arab and Muslim psyche was used in the favor of Iran and to reinforce its influence in the region, specifically in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

It has become necessary in light of these developments to reorganize cooperative Arab efforts through the Arab League. These three problems have implications that are not in the interest of Arabs, and they will continue for the foreseeable future in this way if they continue to be dealt with as they are now without taking initiative based on the changes that have happened in the Arab world up to this point. At the [Arab League’s] 2010 Sirt Summit, Prince Saud al-Faisal called the state we are in now a “strategic vacuum.”

The body upon which Arab security and decision-making have come to rely is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC has been resilient in the past three years, benefiting from unity in its ranks, good relations with the rest of the world, the state of division and external intervention in Bahrain, chaos in Yemen and the state of affairs that had prevailed in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood had assumed power. The GCC was able in all three cases to have a positive influence just as it tried through soft power to influence the direction of peaceful change in Syria, even if this was unsuccessful, and reaching a two-state solution in Palestine based on the Arab Peace Initiative, though this too has so far been unsuccessful.

This work from the Gulf must continue from our perspective, and overcome the differences that may arise between its constituents to preserve all of their interests and the higher interests of [all] Arabs. The GCC is a focal point and the only body at this time that brings together all the disparate energies. In addition, the GCC may, rather, it must, have greater influence in the coming short term in the Arab Levant and all across the region.

Arab presence

Soft, yet powerful, Arab presence may be enough not only to realize relations with the United States and Russia, but with Iran specifically. The Arab peoples, and among them the Palestinians, have shown a bloodstained perseverance in their struggle for freedom and reclaiming their dignity and to realize stability based on a thriving and secure future. What is needed now, just as it was in recent years, is for the Gulf countries to continue in their insistence, send new blood to the Arab League, work together and lay out their priorities (as they would appear to be doing) as working for the return of stability to Egypt, reclaiming its constitutional institutions, in addition to its role and its prestige. It also needs an active presence to end the Syrian crisis, to address the stalemate in Lebanon, including the return of the state, its national presence and the dignity of its power. The Gulf must also take on its role in ending the unstable situation in Yemen.

The Arabs suspect the US political priorities in the region might differ from their own. This is true; however, coordinated Arab policies, continued insistence and constructive intervention have made everyone, particularly the standing members of the Security Council, take heed. This is because these matters are related to their land, security and powerful and persistent will.

The discovery of Iran’s intentions for the current period in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon is necessary. It is important for Iran, perhaps preferably with Arab soft power, to come to the conclusion that there is a real opportunity to build an oasis of cooperation, prosperity and stability with Arab countries instead of continued policies of totalitarianism, hegemony, bullying and intervention in the internal affairs of others. This requires on the one hand a clear, declared Iranian position that it truly wants to return to the international and regional community as a cooperative country and not as a quarrelsome state that gets involved in the affairs of others, particularly regarding its Arab neighbors. There is no doubt that its position in Lebanon and on Lebanon constitutes an ideal and quick place to show the Islamic Republic’s new leanings toward the Arab world and its desire to be more open and cooperative and to stop intervening or working to take advantage of its hegemony and sparking trouble in numerous Arab countries.

On the other hand, this trajectory requires clear, concentrated and stable efforts by Arabs to realize this triumphant and honorable return of Iran to this international community and the return to forging relationships of confidence and cooperation with Arab countries based on constructive and positive cooperation in a way that helps to find an oasis of stability, growth and sustainable development in the region.

The Bashar al-Assad regime’s relinquishing of its chemical weapons and the acceptance of Iran to give up its goals for nuclear weapons, both of which were seen as a means to achieve strategic balance with Israel, show the auctioneering that has occurred over the course of decades in the name of Palestine and its cause. The main objective, however, was to remain in power, on the one hand, and to increase regional influence on the other. These pretexts have fallen today. The state of things has become an entrance and an opportunity to truly, justly and comprehensively deal with this issue that the Arabs must reclaim from those who usurped it and to hold those loyal to them responsible once again with all the tools and means of pressure they possess.

There is an English saying [that goes along the lines of] “Stop in order to take account of things!” Thus, Arab countries, starting with the Gulf and Egypt, must increase cooperation and coordination among themselves to build up this unified position conducive to stability in the Arab world politically, socially and economically in a way that bolsters the values of moderation and openness and strengthens efforts toward democratic transitions.

Available opportunity

We may no longer be in the “strategic vacuum,” and thus by coordinated policies we may enter into a state of solvency or strategic ability in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and others in the Arab world.

Yes, we are capable of leaving this vacuum and impertinence. It is true that there are still many problems, even though the opportunity is there because of these changes in particular: the powerful and active Gulf bloc that is desirous of reinforcing its solidarity and unity of its decisions as well as its role as an Arab force of attraction for the rest of the Arab countries on the one hand, and capable of contributing to changing US policies and realizing a change in Iranian policies toward its Arab neighbors on the other.

So, the period after the Iranian deal must be intently and closely followed by Arab countries and must guarantee the following conditions:

  1. Ensuring the seriousness of Iran and the extent of its willingness to adapt to the agreement, its requirements and implications with close Arab neighbors.
  2. Following the extent to which this agreement positively effects relations between Iran and its neighbors.
  3. Emphasizing that Iran must show a desire to change over to moderation in carrying out what goes along with this change in region.
  4. In short, there is a window that has been opened  that may be turned into a real opportunity to launch a new and promising trajectory in the region with corresponding policies.

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Found in: syria, pan-arabism, lebanon, iran’s regional influence, iran, gulf countries, gulf cooperation council, gcc
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