Diplomacy in the Middle East: Arab Allies Their Own Agendas

By Ottaway, Marina | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Diplomacy in the Middle East: Arab Allies Their Own Agendas


Ottaway, Marina, Harvard International Review


During Cold War, countries of the Middle Eat, like most around the world, were divided into allies of the United States and allies of the Soviet union US allies sought Washington's security protection and in general followed its lead except in policy toward Israel--n that topic, even the most staunchly pro-US countries diverged sharply from Washington. Countries aligns with the Soviet Union followed Moscow's lead and were hostile to both the United States and Israel.

Today the alignment of the Middle East is quite different, but in the way the United States envisaged after the disappearence the Soviet Union The number of Arab governments truly antagonistic to the United States dwindle o almost none once Saddam Hssen was removed from power in early 2003 and Libya's Muammmar Qaddafi rernounced the pursuit of nuclear weapons and turned to the West later that year Even Syria and the Sudan would like to establish better ties to the United States However, regimes that have long been friendly to the United States are increasingly reluctant to follow Washington's lead on any issue They are not enemies of the United States but they are not faithful allies, either Rather, they follow the policies they believe best protect their interests, regardless of what the United States wants.

This new independence from the United States is particularly evident among the countries of the Gulf in their policies toward Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian problem It has stymied Washington's attempts to build an anti-Iranian alliance Nor is it just the Arab allies that are refusing to march to the beat of the United States Israel too has ignored US opposition to its negotiations with Syria, turned to Turkey as a mediator, and pursued a truce with Hamas.

This diplomatic activity clearly goes against the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East, which have been based on a sharp, black and white distinction between friends and foes and on the conviction that using diplomacy when dealing with foes amounts to appeasement But the independenct diplomacy of the Gulf countries does not neccessarily go against US interests It is not self-evident that the United States can protect its interests and security in the Middle East better by confronting Iran, Syria Hamas, and Hezbollah, rather than by cooperating with governments that are secking to create a new balance of power and regional security system that does not depend on the United States.

The Threat of Iran

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the resulting fragility of Iraq--Which had been the only country in the region with the power to contain Iran's ambitions, and which still only functions because of the presence of over 140,000 US troops--have been gifts to Iran The consequential growth in Iranian influence has been a matter of great concern not only to the United States, but also to all nearby countries, particularly those in the Gulf Despite their palpable fear of Iran, however, these countries have strongly resisted entering into an alliance with the United States.

Beginning in the fall of 2006, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice undertook an effect to form an anti-Iranian coalition of "moderate"--or Sunni--regimes. After several months of desultory meetings beginning at the United Nations in September Washington managed to bring together the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar), Egypt, and Jordan--the GCCat a meeting in Kuwait on January 17,2007 The meeting produced a vegue commitment to "regional security and peace" by all participants, but no specifies Most important, the GCC has never convened, let alone been mentioned again.

Efforts by the Gulf countries were directed instead at seeking ways to defuse the threat of an increasingly influential Iran, namely by pursuing their own initiatives Saudi Arabia played a particularly important in the contacts with Iran, but other GCC members, notably Qatar, also contributed greatly Saudi diplomatic efforts to include Iran in the discussion of regional problems started after the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which left behind an unstable situation with good possibility of reignition. …

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