Saturday, May 14, 2011

GCC Gapples With Iranian Threat

Khalaf Al Habtoor writes: Gulf states must increase their military might and bolster unity to defend their sovereignty 
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 14/05/2011

  • Image Credit: AP
  • Iran's seizure of an oil well on the disputed Iran-Iraq border could trouble Iraq's drive to attract the international investment needed to develop its beleaguered oil sector.
Forget the fiery rhetoric! The US/Israel and Iran have more in common than you might think. All share the same aim: to control oil-rich Arab States and prevent them from forming a power bloc. Earlier, they were co-conspirators in that endeavour. The question is whether Iran truly is an enemy of the West as the Iranian leadership tries to portray?

The rivalry between Persians and Arabs goes back to the Muslim conquests when Persians embraced Islam. Today, Iranians wrap themselves in an Islamic flag yet the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian New Year Nowrouz is still Iran's most celebrated festival. Attempts by Iranian clerics to undermine the Shiite holy city of Najaf in Iraq in favour of the Iranian city of Qom exemplify Tehran's nationalism.

If Iran was a true friend of Arabs, it would not impede Arabic being spoken, the construction of Sunni mosques or parents from giving traditional Arab names to their newborns. Moreover, Tehran still occupies UAE islands, refuses demands from Arab Al Ahwaz (Khuzestan) for autonomy, has territorial claims on Bahrain and threatens airlines that use ‘Arabian Gulf' instead of ‘Persian Gulf' with being barred from Iranian airspace.

Dr Abdullah Al Nafisi, a specialist on Shiite affairs, says Iranians are primarily Persian nationalists who use their faith to reach Arabs via Shiite Arab minorities. He says Iranian officialdom from the Supreme Leader down once followed the teachings of the cleric/politician Abdullah Nouri who maintains that all Gulf States belong to Persia and promotes retribution on Arabs for destroying the Persian Empire. Secret dealings between Israel, the US and Persia extend back to Mohammad Reza Shah when Iranian oil flowed to Israel and, in turn, Israel supplied Iran with missile assembly plants, military training — and details of Jamal Abdul Nasser's military planning according to a book by Trita Parsi titled Treacherous Alliance. When Yasser Arafat met Khomeini he was lectured on the need for Palestinians to reject Arab nationalism for their Islamic roots. Parsi maintains Khomeini didn't seriously support the Palestinian cause. His primary aim was to indoctrinate Arabs with his credo and bolster Arab Shiites.

A research paper by Xue Maior concludes "Iran disseminates the principles of the Iranian revolution under anti-Israel slogans". Israel never took the ‘Little Satan' slur seriously and lobbied Washington to renew relations with Tehran.

In 1981, Iran helped facilitate Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor and during the Iran-Iraq War Iran purchased weapons from Israel, writes Parsi. In early 1986, President Reagan signed a secret memo authorising the sale of US arms to Iran resulting in the Iran-Contra scandal.

With the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Tehran saw its plan to dominate the Arab world slipping away and so began funding and arming Islamist rejectionist groups to spoil the peace process. Despite being included in George W. Bush's ‘Axis of Evil', Iran offered to help strengthen the Afghan army under US supervision and in 2002, the US initiated talks with prominent Iranians. Tehran later urged Iraqi Shiites not to resist the 2003 US-led occupation of Iraq for good reason. Iraq was defanged and is now ruled by pro-Iranian politicians. Bush spent billions and sacrificed lives only to deliver Iraq to Iran. Tehran has since made efforts to woo Washington to get anti-Iranian sanctions lifted although they do not heavily impact the Iranian economy like those that crippled Iraq — indicating the West isn't serious about disciplining Iran.

Pretence of enmity

It's curious, too, that Washington has been flexing its muscles over Iran's uranium enrichment programme since 2006, but has refrained from packing a punch in the way Saddam was punished for his non-existent WMD. In recent decades, Iran has hardened its grip on Lebanon and expanded its influence to Syria, Iraq and Yemen as well as to Shiite minorities in the Gulf. Prior to the Arab Spring veteran leaders kept a lid on Tehran's ambitions. The toppling of strong Arab leaderships invites sectarian conflict, extremist organisations — and civil war. Such divisions under the banner of ‘freedom' serve Iran. The new Egypt has permitted Iranian warships through Suez and is normalising diplomatic relations with Tehran despite GCC reservations.

While the US is supportive of revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya, its condemnation of Iran's repression has been lukewarm. Could the ‘enmity' between Iran and the US/Israel be an elaborate act? If Tehran has covertly cooperated with its enemies in the past, that may be occurring now.

Keeping up the pretence of enmity is a win-win situation for all concerned. Israel has a pretext to propagandise its security needs in the face of an Iranian existential threat. Iran uses anti-Israel slogans to increase its standing among Muslims. And the US has an excuse to maintain its military footprint in the Gulf. What if, in the future, Washington, Tel Aviv formed an alliance similar to the one that existed at the time of the Shah? How would that impact the independence of Gulf States? It may be that scenario is in preparation which would explain the West's softly-softly approach on Iran. I would urge GCC states to increase their military might and unify to defend against threats to our land and dignity. In a climate where major powers are dumping close allies to suit their interests we cannot rely on others' protection. We're on our own — the sooner we start taking care of ourselves the better.

Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and chairman of Al Habtoor Group.

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