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Tehran feels an Arab sting

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By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS – Never has the Arab press been filled with so many critical stories of Iran. The trend is striking, and proves just how influential the Saudi and American media have been at painting a very dark and “dangerous” picture of the Islamic Republic.

Slowly but surely, Arab columnists have started filing story after story critical of Iran’s role in the region. That became strikingly clear when prime coverage was given to the death of General Hisham Sabah al-Fakhri, a decorated officer from Saddam Hussein’s army, who made a reputation for himself for fighting the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

He was treated as a celebrated Iraqi, although nothing had been said of him since he fled the violence in Iraq and took up residence in Syria in 2003. He is now hailed in several Arab dailies as a war hero. Last week, veteran Palestinian journalist Jihad al-Khazen wrote in the Saudi daily al-Hayat, “I call on Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to seriously strive [at obtaining] nuclear abilities.”

He added that they should embark “immediately” on a nuclear program, “in action not just words, because Arab citizens should not remain under the mercy of the nuclear Israeli arsenal, when Iran’s arsenal is forthcoming”. The column adds further proof to just how afraid certain powers are in the Arab world of a nuclear-armed Iran. Khazen wrapped up, “Iran strives to have a nuclear weapon no matter how strongly it denies that.”

The bluntness of his words, and those that follow, are remarkable. In another Arab daily, a senior member of the ruling National Party in Egypt bluntly accused Iran of assassinating Ihad al-Sharif, Egypt’s former ambassador to Iraq, in 2005. Then, the Iraqi government had refused to allow Egyptian prosecutors to investigate the envoy’s murder. The semi-official al-Ahram daily in Cairo ran a front-page story back then claiming that the assassination was aimed at “cutting off the legs of Egypt” from Iraq.

The Iranians, meanwhile, continue sending contradictory messages to the Arab world. On September 8, Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh (who is allied to Iran) threatened to prosecute and arrest members of the Iraqi Awakening Councils (close to Saudi Arabia) if they continued to press for being incorporated into the Iraqi army. Dabbagh, and most mainstream Shi’ites, are afraid of the 100,000-strong Awakening Councils, who are Sunnis, and armed to the teeth with Saudi and American money, to combat al-Qaeda.

They claim that once the Awakening Councils are through with al-Qaeda, they will turn their arms against Iraqi Shi’ites. All attempts at incorporating them (being members of the Sunni tribal community) into the Iraqi army are regarded by Iran as a way of legitimizing Sunni arms, to be used against its interests in Iraq.

Of the 100,000, only 600 have been accepted into the Iraqi police, with authorities claiming that the rest need discipline, training and education to qualify for the armed forces.

Last week, to soothe the fears of Lebanon’s Sunnis, in light of thundering rhetoric about war by Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, they received former Lebanese prime minister Omar Karameh, a scion of one of the country’s leading Sunni families, giving him red-carpet treatment in Tehran.

Karameh, who is allied to Nasrallah in Lebanese domestics, is nevertheless someone who carries weight in the Sunni community. The timing of his visit was used by the Iranians to tell the world, “We are not working against Lebanese Sunnis.”

Yet, coinciding with the Karameh visit, was a vociferous response by the Iranian government to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over the controversial Abu Musa Island contested between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They basically warned the GCC to stay out of Iranian affairs and defended their stance on Abu Musa. Iran had opened two administrative offices on Abu Musa island, angering not only the UAE but the entire GCC and Arab League.

As if that were not enough to scare off whatever sympathizers it had in the Gulf, Iran created more tension when Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi said that Arab Gulf states and their rulers would soon face a crisis of legitimacy, noting, “The Middle East will remain as a center of developments and crises so long as the royal regimes in the Gulf remain in place, and conflicts will not be resolved without the disappearance of these traditional regimes.”

While these words sent shockwaves throughout the Gulf, Iran went one step further by announcing the launching of its first communications satellite, with plans to build a spy satellite by 2015.

The UAE, insisting on normal relations with Iran, let the issue pass, and went ahead with sending an ambassador to Iraq (the first from an Arab state since the murder of Sharif in 2005). The UAE ambassador presented his credentials to Vice President Tarek Hashemi in Baghdad, who represents Iraqi Sunnis in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s administration.

The other Vice President, Adel Abdul-Mehdi (a strong supporter and ally of Iran), was not there to witness what was described as an historic step by the Iraqi media. He was busy in Tehran, meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and parliament’s speaker Ali Larijani. Ostensibly, Abdul-Mehdi had official duties to care to, but many believed that his no-show at the ceremony of UAE ambassador Abdullah Ibrahim al-Shahhi was deliberate. He was not pleased that the Emirates was sending an ambassador to Baghdad.

The UAE move comes in close coordination with other Arab states, aimed at bringing Iraq back into the Arab family, away from Iran, which has enjoyed an unparalleled status in Baghdad since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Saudi Arabia announced that all Iraqi prisoners in Saudi jails would be repatriated, encouraging the Iraqis to warm up to Riyadh.

Bahrain, which reopened its embassy in Baghdad last March, also appointed Salah al-Malki as its first ambassador to Maliki’s Iraq. Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Na’sr Mohammad al-Sabah will visit Iraq this September, to boost ties that have been minimal since Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Iraqi is currently required to pay 5% of its oil revenue to a fund created by the United Nations as compensation for the invasion of Kuwait. That will likely be canceled by the Kuwaiti prime minister. Last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan visited Baghdad, with the same purpose, and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora went to Iraq, acting as proxy for the king of Saudi Arabia.

In addition to shedding light on all of the above, praising all Arab efforts towards Iraq, the Arab media has been filled with front-page coverage of a speech critical of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, given by former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rohani.

Speaking from Tehran, Rohani (who is close to ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) accused Ahmadinejad of “emptying the pockets” of the Iranian people and “subjecting their pride for sale” by resorting them to a people at want. Rohani pointed out that Saudi Arabia had a surplus of US$870 billion from oil sales, asking, “Why not Iran?”

A week ago, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei surprised onlookers by endorsing Ahmadinejad’s candidancy for the presidency in the summer of 2009. He said, “Do not think that this year is your last year as head of the government. No. Act as if you will stay in charge for five years.” He added, “Imagine that in this year, plus the four that follow, you will be in charge, and plan and act accordingly.”

This has dampened the hopes of Arabs who want to see the end of the radical Iranian leader who has been a nightmare for them since coming to power in 2005.

But the words of Rohani came as music to Arab ears. Rohani would never dare utter these words, especially after Khamenei commended Ahmadinejad, unless given the green light directly by the grand ayatollah. The aged Khamenei apparently wants to send conflicting messages to the presidential hopefuls in the Iranian presidential elections.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

Irancove @ September 13, 2008

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