Arab League chief pushes for closer ties with Iran

Salah Nasrawi
5 Min Read

CAIRO: The Arab League chief wants the 22-nation bloc to engage Iran directly over concerns about its growing influence and its nuclear activities, in a step that could undermine US and Israeli efforts to isolate the country, diplomats said Tuesday.

Senior US officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates toured the region last month to urge Arab allies to back Western efforts to increase the heat on Iran over its nuclear program, including through tougher economic sanctions.

Arab diplomats said Secretary-General Amr Moussa will present his proposal in a policy document to a two-day Arab League leaders summit in Sirte, Libya, that starts Saturday. The leaders are expected to discuss a range of regional issues, including stalled Middle East peace efforts and Iran.

The engagement would take the form of a forum for regional cooperation and conflict resolution that would include non-Arab nations Iran and Turkey, two Arab League diplomats said. They agreed to discuss details of the proposal on condition of anonymity because of their sensitivity.

One of the diplomats, who has seen Moussa s document, said the League s chief hopes the inclusion of Turkey – an increasingly influential Sunni Muslim nation – will provide a powerful counterbalance to Shia Iran.

Moussa also wants the leaders to authorize him to initiate direct talks with Tehran on Arabs concerns over what they view as Iranian meddling in regional affairs, including through its support of militant groups beyond its borders.

A senior aide to Moussa, Hisham Youssef, confirmed the secretary-general would present the ideas to the summit.

It is not clear if Moussa has yet consulted with key Arab nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have resisted closer ties with Iran in the past.

They and other US-allied Arab nations – most of which are led by Sunni Muslims – have been deeply concerned over the rising power of mainly Shia and Persian Iran in the Middle East.

They oppose its support of Iraqi Shia and militant groups like the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah and share Washington s concern that Iran s nuclear program is aimed at producing weapons.

But the West s strategy in the standoff with Iran also troubles Arab leaders, who fear that its failure would lead to a military confrontation that could spill across their own borders.

The US has tried to soothe those worries and has been bolstering defense systems in several Arab nations in the Gulf to combat the possible threat of missiles fired from Iran.

A year of efforts by President Barack Obama to engage Iran have hit repeated roadblocks, leaving Washington with few options other than to seek international support for more sanctions.

The United States and its Western allies are after a fourth round of UN sanctions to push Iran to stop enriching uranium, a technology that gives Iran a possible pathway to weapons making.

Iran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes such as power generation.

Another factor behind the Arab push for their own Iran strategy is linked to their frustration over the failure of Washington to stand up to Israel over its insistence on building on occupied land the Palestinians want for a future state.

Arab nations look increasingly less likely to align with the US strategy on Iran if they feel they are getting nothing in return on Mideast peace efforts.

Skepticism is eroding Arab hopes that Obama will be able to help forge a deal between Israel and the Palestinians to end a conflict that has fueled anti-US sentiment in the region.

In another sign of Arab disenchantment, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Tuesday that his country will press the summit to focus on what is widely believed to be a secret nuclear weapons program in Israel and pressure it to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The priority of Arab countries should be to force Israel to join the NPT and place its nuclear facilities under the IAEA guarantees, Aboul Gheit said, referring to the UN s International Atomic Energy Agency.

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