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El Reedy: Arabs Need to Talk to Iran on Settling Lebanon Crisis

Interviewee: Abdel Raouf El Reedy, (Egypt) Chairman, Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 4, 2006

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Abdel Raouf El Reedy, Egyptian ambassador to the United States from 1984 to 1992, is alarmed by the possibility of a civil war in Lebanon, and says Arab states need to begin a dialogue with Iran to resolve the crisis. He says that Iran is obviously behind the crisis because of its support both for Hezbollah and for Syria.

“In my personal opinion, the Arab League needs to talk to Iran,” says El Reedy, who is a member of CFR’s international advisory committee and chairman of the Egyptian Council on Foreign Relations. El Reedy says “Iran is already a power, a force, a factor, in the Middle East and the Arab nations.”  He said if high-level talks are held between Iran and leading Arab states, “then we could maybe find some intermediary and the feelings could cool off” in Lebanon.

There are many things going on in the Middle East these days: the effort to overthrow the government of Lebanon, the Israel-Palestinian issues, and of course the civil conflict in Iraq, and Iran’s nuclear issues. What do you think is the most dangerous right now?

The whole situation is dangerous. The fallout from each affects the others. For instance, let’s start with the Lebanese crisis, which seems threatening and menacing to me because of the possibility of a civil war breaking out. There is no question that a major factor in this is Iran, because Iran supports Hezbollah, and Iran is strengthening its posture vis-a-vis the United States in the region. So the hard position now being taken by Hezbollah in Lebanon is aggravated by the relationship between Iran and the United States.

Each of these crises to some extent affects and is affected by the other. And, of course, you could say that also about Iraq. Some of the things taking place in Iraq are influenced by Iran. But there is another threat which is not localized, but is spread across the whole region, which had not been present before. It has erupted as a result of the Iraq situation and that is the Sunni-Shiite rivalry. There were no sectarian feelings before between the Shiites and Sunni.

You’re saying the Sunni-Shiite split is something really new to the region?

Yes, because in past years the emphasis was on “the nationalist state,” such as during the time of Saddam Hussein, for instance. Saddam executed the Shiites in certain cases and in certain locales. But between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq, there was intermarriage, nobody was aware whether one was Shiite or a Sunni, there was no war or conflict between the individuals when Saddam was persecuting.

In other words, you’re saying that whereas Saddam was responsible for killing people, now everybody’s killing each other?

Yes, that’s the problem. Now, Shiites are killing Sunnis, Sunnis are killing Shiites. Shiites are saying, “You are Sunni.” Sunnis are saying, “You are Shiite,” a phenomenon which did not exist before. [United Nations Secretary-General] Kofi Annan says that for the people in Iraq things were better during Saddam. Security has broken down and sectarian feelings are rampant. I’m sure you are well aware.

Obviously, it’s a major problem for the United States to say the least.

Of course it’s a major problem for the United States. My understanding, if I read the American situation right, is that the United States wants to find a way out, and wants to have an exit out of this mess. A way out is becoming more complicated than before.

Yes, well you started out by saying there’s a danger of civil war in Lebanon. Of course, some people think there’s already a civil war in Iraq.

Well, Iraq is on the verge of civil war. And Lebanon, the whole situation is heading toward a civil war, unless something very crucial can happen to prevent it. It is like a car heading towards a cliff, on the edge of a cliff. Who can stop that car going off the cliff?

Well, what about the other Arab states? Shouldn’t the Arab League get involved in Lebanon?

[Arab League Secretary-General] Amr Moussa is in Lebanon talking to various parties. In my personal opinion, the Arab League needs to talk to Iran.

Because Iran is already a power, a force, a factor, in the Middle East and the Arab nations. And I believe in order to find a solution in Lebanon, you need to talk to Iran.

Some people think you should talk to Iran also for a solution in Iraq. Do you agree to that too?

Yes, I agree with that. When I was in New York at the international advisory board meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in October, we discussed Iraq and I said the United States should talk to Iran.

What about Syria? You haven’t mentioned Syria yet. Syria is obviously involved deeply in Lebanon.

Syria is very important in Lebanon, because if you look at the geography, Lebanon is almost a part of Syria. It is surrounded from everywhere except the south by Syria. And Syria’s influence in Lebanon is major in every way. But Syria depends on Iran. There used to be a coalition between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. This tripartite coalition is the one which helped the United States during the war against Iraq to liberate Kuwait in 1990 and 1991. Now, Syria, for a variety of reasons, has shifted to Iran. Iran in the past was not a factor in Arab politics. You see, if you look at the Lebanese civil war of 1958, the civil war of 1975, Iran was not a factor.

Now, Iran is an important factor. You cannot ignore Iran now in the politics of Lebanon, because Syria itself, which has a great influence on Lebanon, is to a very large extent influenced by Iran. Without Iran, Syria would be isolated in the region.

What kind of compromise could Iran arrange in Lebanon? Get Hezbollah to stop trying to overthrow the government?

That is one thing. I cannot tell you how exactly it could come out, how to defuse the situation, how to make Hezbollah call off the demonstrations in the streets. There is one positive element in Lebanon, and that is the fact that no side wants to have a civil war. Here, maybe if we talk to Iran, maybe if Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others talk to Iran, and recognize that Iran is a factor, then we could maybe find some intermediary and the feelings could cool off.

I know Egypt has been very active lately in trying to work out a compromise between Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, and also to get the release of this Israeli soldier as part of a general prisoner release. But so far I guess Hamas has been difficult to deal with on this.

Yes, but I think the Hamas people also want to find a way out. They talk about a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders; they are coming very close to the Arab initiative of 2002. So I believe that Hamas’ stand is evolving, not at the same speed that we would like to see, but it is evolving. And I believe [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas is talking to the Israelis, and the Israelis are talking to him, and I think there is a very active effort to find a solution.

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