A few weeks ago, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair evoked the idea of a bloc of moderate Arab states helping to stabilize the Middle East, many dismissed it as a pie in the sky: How, the pundits wondered, could Arabs, notorious for internecine feuds, develop a common strategy? Yet it looks as if such a bloc is taking shape.
The latest sign came last week, when the rival Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah reached an accord to share power and stop their burgeoning civil war. The accord, brokered by Saudi King Abdullah Ibn Abdul-Aziz, was signed in Mecca in view of the Ka'aba (the holiest place in Islam), thus enjoying special solemnity.
In their speeches, Mahmoud Abbas (the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority) and Khalid al-Meshaal (Hamas' "supreme guide") vowed to implement the accord in full: "We promise here in this holy city and with the Ka'aba as our witness that we will not let the dark events of the past to be repeated."
With the prospect of Palestinian harmony, revival of the peace process now looks possible for the first time in six years. And that could make a great contribution to easing regional tension.
The Palestine-Israel issue is not the most important, let alone the only, cause of instability in the Middle East. But it has always been the easiest to exploit by those who wish to destabilize the region.
As yet, the new bloc of moderate Arab states has no official name or structure. It is made up of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Jordan and Egypt, so some call it "the 6+2 group"
As always with alliances, this bloc formed in response to a clear and present danger. The perceived threat comes from the Islamic Republic of Iran - which can't decide whether it is a nation-state or a revolutionary cause.
The Mecca accord is a blow to the Islamic Republic's investment in Hamas and in Islamic Jihad in the hope of overthrowing President Abbas and extinguishing any chance of talks with Israel. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had designated the Palestinian territories as part of Iran's turf in an eventual war with Israel and the United States; with the Mecca accord, Tehran loses that part of its imagined power.
Back in 2004, with the United States apparently bogged down in Iraq, the "revolutionary cause" advocates in Tehran moved onto the offensive. They argued that America would run away, first from Iraq and then from the whole region, burying dreams of a Pax Americana - so that Tehran could then impose a regional Pax Khomeinista as a first step toward claiming the leadership of Islam.
The first move was to turn Syria into a client state; the next, to trigger last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah. The perception that Israel was humiliated in that conflict enhanced Iran's prestige as a power capable of, one day, wiping "the Zionist enemy" off the map.
But then Tehran overplayed its hand by ordering Hezbollah to try to seize power in Beirut. The specter of a "Shiite Crescent," first evoked by Jordan's King Abdullah II and dismissed as hyperbole, suddenly appeared real.
After some initial hesitation, the 6+2 nations decided to draw a line in the sand on Lebanon: Tehran would not be allowed to seize power in Beirut. The group's determination made it possible for the broader international community to also rally behind the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. By the end of January, it had become clear that Tehran's bid in Beirut, although damaging Lebanon, had no chance of sweeping Hezbollah into power.
Tehran's second mistake was to play a game of smoke and mirrors over its alleged nuclear ambitions. The leaders of the 6+2 bloc never believed that the Islamic Republic had told the truth on this issue. When Khomeinist emissaries appeared in Arab capitals to demand the use of oil as a political weapon in case the United States took military action against the Islamic Republic, suspicions rose further: Why was Iran's leadership prepared to risk war in defense of a nuclear program that it claims is entirely peaceful?
The 6+2 bloc's response came in the form of a "technical statement" by Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Nuaimi, reiterating the kingdom's 34-year-old policy of never playing politics with oil. Thus, if the Islamic Republic provoked a war, it would find itself as alone as Saddam Hussein was in 2003.
Tehran's third mistake was to renew contacts with dissident Arab Shiite groups seeking the overthrow of Gulf regimes. Tehran had stopped supporting such groups in 1993, after an understanding between the Saudis' then-Crown Prince Abdullah and Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Iran's president.
Tehran's fourth mistake was to set up a network of direct influence in Iraq. To do so, it bypassed its traditional Shiite allies (including Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) for clients such as Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. In response, Hakim and the Da'awah Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had to tone down their Shiism and emphasize their Arab-ness.
That offered the 6+2 states new opportunities to develop a positive Iraq policy. Plans are under way for the bloc's next initiative, which centers on Iraq. Contact has already been established with key Iraqi leaders, Sunni and Shiite; a national reconciliation conference in Mecca could be organized within months. The expected improvement of the security situation in Baghdad under the new "surge" plan, led by Gen. David Petraeus, could help the process.
Ahmadinejad may have to rethink his dismissal of the Gulf states as "gas stations, not real countries." The 6+2 is emerging as a real force. It has much scope for expansion by including such moderate Arab states as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Somewhere down the road, Iraq , too, will join. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are already undeclared allies of the 6+2, as is Turkey.
The Islamic Republic, by contrast, has no allies outside Syria - and no prospect of attracting any.
The 6+2 message is clear: Even if the Americans run away post-Bush, these nations won't submit to a Pax Khomeinista dictated by Tehran.
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