Reconciliation, not rivalry, marks region’s politics - GulfToday

Reconciliation, not rivalry, marks region’s politics

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


US President Joe Biden addresses the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York. Agence France-Presse

The gradual US disengagement from this region in favour of a pivot toward Asia has launched a process of reconciliation among countries which have been estranged by competition and rivalries.

This process has been given fresh impetus by developments at the annual opening of this session of the UN General Assembly.

In his pre-recorded address to the Assembly — delivered after more than five years of tension between Riyadh and Tehran — Saudi King Salman voiced the hope that ongoing direct talks between the neighbouring countries will produce confidence-building measures and dialogue. While he said relations between them must be conditioned on respect for national sovereignty and an end to Iran’s backing for sectarian militias, he also gave his support for European Union-sponsored talks in Vienna aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. His statement appeared to signal a change in policy. The kingdom had opposed the 2015 six-power agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for ending sanctions, arguing that once they were lifted, Iran would increase its involvement in Arab affairs.

In his Assembly speech, Iran’s new hardline President Ebrahim Raisi expressed readiness to return to the nuclear deal, which the US had abandoned in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. Talks have been suspended while he assembled his foreign policy team. He has made it clear his objective is lifting all sanctions not just those related to the nuclear deal.

During his election campaign and after his inauguration, Raisi pledged to give priority to re-establishing good relations with Iran’s neighbours. This seems to have encouraged Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi to continue his mediation effort, launched during the presidency of moderate ex-President Hassan Rouhani. This effort is aimed at ending regional enmities, starting with the rift between Riyadh and Tehran.

On September 21st, Iraq’s UN ambassador organised a gathering in his New York home where Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met a number of foreign ministers and senior representatives, including those from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey France, the European Union, the Arab League, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Iranian minister told EU foreign policy Chief Josep Borrell Tehran is prepared to resume the Vienna talks at an early date while Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said that “serious progress has been made on subject of security in the Gulf.”

Iran has since clarified what it means by an “early date” for the resumption of talks in Vienna by saying this would be after the government reviews the file on the first six rounds of talks.

The New York event is seen by Tehran as follow-up to the August 28th regional conference in Baghdad hosted by Kadhimi to reduce regional tensions. The heads of state attending were Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani and French President Emmanuel Macron. The UAE and Kuwait were represented by heads of government while Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia sent foreign ministers. The war in Yemen, the Lebanese melt-down and the still potent threat of Daesh were among the topics on the agenda.

Kadhimi has focused on Saudi-Iranian reconciliation as a national defence issue. Since the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, Iraq has been caught in the crossfire between, on the one hand, pro-Iranian politicians and militia leaders and, on the other, the anti-Iran US. By promoting good relations between US ally Saudi Arabia and US-antagonist Iran, Kadhimi seeks to reduce sectarian tensions within Iraq and undermine the influence of pro-Iranian figures and militias. If successful, this strategy would also reduce pressure from the US on Iraq to cut ties with Iran.

Meanwhile, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have re-engaged with Qatar, Turkey with Egypt, and Jordan with Syria in efforts to re-establish troubled relations at comfortable if not close levels.

It is significant that France, under Macron’s leadership, has taken a leading role alongside Iraq, in the regional reconciliation process. While France, a medium-range power, cannot hope to replace the US on the military level, the diminished hyperpower, Macron hopes to increase his country’s diplomatic reach via mediation. Macron has also presented himself as the main external actor in Lebanon’s political crisis.

As a former regional colonial power, France has stepped in while the US has stepped back.

The US and Nato allies intervened only belatedly in 2014 after Daesh had seized control of north-eastern Syria and swept into Iraq and captured Mosul, that country’s second city.

Macron has also tried to deal with France’s harsh colonial past. Although he has refused to apologise to Algeria for French brutality during its eight-year independence struggle, he acknowledged France’s colonisation of that country was a “crime against humanity.” And, his persistent positive intervention in Lebanese affairs since the devastating August 4th explosion of ammonium nitrate in Beirut port, appears to be his way of trying to cancel France’s terrible legacy of its rule over Lebanon. This is the power-sharing sectarian system which has plunged Lebanon into prolonged crises, resulted in two civil wars, and led to the economic meltdown that threatens its very existence. If implemented properly, the roadmap Macron presented to Lebanon’s recalcitrant politicians would create a non-political government to rescue the country from collapse. Success could lead to the transformation of Lebanon into a non-sectarian democracy.

Washington’s pivot towards Asia — designed to contain China — began during the Obama administration and has continued under its successors. While maintaining its subservient economic and financial commitments to Israel and its punitive sanctions regime on Iran, the US has pulled most of its troops out of Iraq and reduced its military presence in Syria, nearly abandoning to anti-Kurd Turkey Washington’s Kurdish allies who fought Daesh alongside US-led Nato forces. The pivot has had the opposite impact expected by US policy makers. It has prompted several concerned regional governments to cultivate relations with Russia and China.

Nevertheless, determined to reduce further the US global military footprint, the Biden administration has removed Patriot anti-missile batteries from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan and laid down plans to draw-down its regional troop deployment from 44,000. The abrupt and chaotic US abandonment of Afghanistan and 38 million Afghans to the Taliban, the ally and host of al-Qaeda and its progeny has created alarm in some regional capitals where Washington is no longer been as a reliable partner. This region is not alone. Europe also feels weakened by the US pivot east and is struggling to work out European Union-wide arrangements for bloc defence and political cooperation.

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