Focus on the Arab and Muslim world
US President Barack Obama’s announcement that he intends to visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan next month is certainly welcome. Obama’s trip, his first to Israel since taking office, shows that he intends to make the Middle East peace process a top priority during his second term. It will also serve as an opportunity for the President and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attempt to forge a common position on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme.
An effort to revive the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process, both by the US and the European Union, is certainly a top priority, but what is also needed is a renewed focus on the Arab and Muslim world and the Arab Spring countries in particular. The news this week was very much dominated by events in the region, most notably the assassination of a leading opposition figure in Tunisia, Chokri Belaid, of the secular Popular Front party.
The killing of Belaid shocked Tunisia – the birthplace of the Arab Spring – and the Arab country which had been considered the most promising in its transition to democracy. Unfortunately, however, there have been a number of attacks against secular critics of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, including attacks on women and liberals.
There have also been attacks by ultra-conservative Salafists on venues considered offensive to Islam, including art galleries and bars. Ennahda leaders have failed to respond to such attacks, either because they secretly sympathise with such a trend, or because they are scared of clamping down on these extremists.
Hamadi Jebali, the Ennahda Prime Minister, last Thursday called for a new government of technocrats after Belaid’s brutal killing, but this was unfortunately rejected by his party. To make matters worse, four opposition groups, including Belaid’s Popular Front, announced that they were withdrawing from the country’s national constituent assembly in protest.
Secularists and Islamists must find a way to co-exist peacefully in Tunisia, and both the US and EU must use their leverage, mainly through financial aid and trade deals, to bring this about. Tunisia is going through a difficult patch, which must not be allowed to disintegrate.
In another interesting development, the US media revealed last week that the CIA has been operating a secret air base for unmanned drones in Saudi Arabia for the past two years. The base was set up to eliminate al-Qaeda operatives in the region, principally Yemen.
This latest disclosure will probably embarrass the Saudi government and cause friction with the conservative elements in the kingdom who strongly oppose the presence of foreign non-Muslim troops in the country. It is important to keep in mind that the deployment of thousands of US troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War had crystallised Osama bin Laden’s hatred of America, as the al-Qaeda leader considered this a violation of the sanctity of Muslim territory.
President Obama has expanded the use of drones to target al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen but this policy has been criticised somewhat within the US, including by members of Obama’s own Democratic Party.
CIA director-designate John Brennan, currently the White House’s advisor on counterterrorism, defended this policy during his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, saying attacks are only carried out “as a last resort, to save lives when there is no other alternative”. Many critics, however, argue that many civilians are killed in such attacks, and the Obama administration would be wise to review such a policy.
In what can only be described as a hardening of Iran’s position, Teheran last week dismissed an offer made by US Vice-President Joe Biden of direct talks with Washington on its nuclear programme. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech posted online that the US was proposing talks while “pointing a gun at Iran”. The US, in fact, extended its sanctions on Iran last Wednesday, aimed at making it difficult for the regime in Teheran to spend its oil cash.
Although Iran is expected to attend a round of negotiations later this month on its nuclear programme with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, such talks have rarely led to any concrete results and have been used by Teheran simply to gain time.
I believe Iran’s nuclear programme will soon turn into the number one foreign policy challenge for both the US and the EU, and sadly both Washington and Brussels are running out of diplomatic options.
The visit to Cairo last week by Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first by an Iranian head of state since the overthrow of the Shah, also raised eyebrows in the West. Should Sunni Egypt and Shi’ite Iran become allies, the whole dynamics of the Middle East would change.
I doubt this will happen, however, as President Ahmadinejad was chided by Egypt’s top cleric, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque, who told him not to interfere in the affairs of Bahrain or other Gulf states, and to uphold the rights of his country’s Sunni minority. Al-Tayyeb also denounced what he described as the “spread of Shiism in Sunni lands”.
The situation in Syria is also extremely worrying, as is the excessive influence of Islamist forces within the opposition rebel movement. I think the time has come for President Obama to appoint a high-profile special envoy for the Arab world (and Iran) such as Bill Clinton. The EU should also do the same, perhaps appointing somebody like Tony Blair, who is currently the Quartet’s Middle East Envoy.