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Elephants in the Conference Room

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: November 29, 2007

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Hopes for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace were pinned to a high-profile gathering of Arab and Israeli leaders in Annapolis, Maryland, on November 27. Yet those not invited offer a compelling subplot. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, sees Iran as the elephant in the conference room. “Finding a way to counter the threat from Tehran…is fueling this peace meeting more than any other factor,” he tells the Christian Science Monitor. Indeed, CFR Fellow Mohamad Bazzi sees Syria’s invitation as part of an effort to woo it from an alliance with Tehran. The speaker of Iran’s parliament, offering a counter-analysis, says the Sunni Arab states lending legitimacy to the Annapolis talks will merely discredit themselves (IRNA).

The alarm of many Arab leaders at Iran’s rising influence throughout the region is not in question. Held in check during Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party rule, Tehran now has friends in the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Iran’s influence has grown in Lebanon, where Iranian-backed Hezbollah held its own against Israel’s military in their brief war last summer. In Syria, too, Iran has formed “a marriage of convenience.” Tehran has also forged new financial and military ties with Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement which now holds sway in the Gaza Strip. Hamas pronounced the peace talks “doomed” (al-Jazeera) even as they opened.

Coloring Tehran’s political expansions are allegations of clandestine support for Shiite militants in Iraq, and a nuclear program some Western governments—including the United States—worry is geared toward creating a bomb. “Of all the unintended consequences of the Iraq war, Iran's strategic victory is the most far-reaching,” notes Peter W. Galbraith in the New York Review of Books.

Many analysts see Annapolis as a direct result of this Iranian flexing, with the participation of Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt as evidence of a growing desire to counter Tehran. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is attending despite Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the occupied territories, long a Saudi requirement for diplomatic relations with Israel. “Why is Saudi Arabia doing this?” writes Bertus Hendriks, Middle East editor for Radio Netherlands. “Its change of heart has everything to do with Iran.” Shibley Telhami, a Middle East scholar at the University of Maryland, tells the New York Times that fear of rising radicalism, fed by Iran and its proxies, has brought Arabs together. CFR President Richard N. Haass offers similar analysis. The Bush administration sought “to take advantage of and to reinforce the anti-Iranian orientation of much of the Sunni Arab world,” Haass said in a conference call November 28. “For the Arab regimes, in particular Saudi Arabia and Egypt, it was more than anything a desire to push back against …the spread of imperial Iranian power, and reach, and influence in the region.”

But failure at Annapolis could still play into Iran’s hands. David Wurmser, a former Middle East advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, tells the Christian Science Monitor that Iran could come out the winner if Arab participants—principally Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan—are seen as heading home empty-handed. If little comes of vows to reach a lasting peace Islamic hard-liners could be strengthened, Wurmser argues. Despite that possibility, Tehran was not sitting idly as its Arab allies gathered on the Chesapeake Bay. Even before the talks at Annapolis got under way Iranian leaders were calling the meeting a failure (Tehran Times), lashing out (AFP) at Saudi Arabia for attending, and expressing surprise (AP) over Syria’s participation.

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