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    Middle East
     Aug 10, 2012

Iran's new summit diplomacy
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

August is a crucial month in Iran's diplomatic calendar for 2012. If it plays its cards right, Tehran could see big dividends for its counter-sanction and regional strategies.

The venue for Tehran's efforts will be summits in Iran and Saudi Arabia - the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Mecca on August 14 and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran on August 29-30 - which will bring dozens of world leaders to the Persian Gulf region.

The first of the meetings, the OIC, presents an opportunity for improved Iran-Saudi relations and - perhaps - even a collaborative effort between Tehran and Riyadh to tackle the political crisis in Syria.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who received a


personal invitation for the OIC from the Saudi King, has confirmed he will attend and take part in its deliberations on Syria. [1] This is tantamount to an olive branch towards Riyadh, which is constantly criticized in the Iranian media for fueling the bloodshed in Syria by funneling arms and finance to the rebels.

It is likely that by the time the OIC gets underway, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces will have succeeded in securing Aleppo - latest reports suggest rebels fighting there are already on the backfoot. This will be a rude awakening to the Saudis, Turkey, and of course the US, which have openly backed "regime-change" through supplying arms to the rebellion.

Although this author noted the vast differences between the West's "victory" in Libya and the Syrian crisis several months ago, these are only now coming into focus for the West, making it less and less likely that there will be a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) campaign to topple the regime in Damascus. (See Does Gaddafi's fate await Assad?, Asia Times Online, August 25, 2011.)

Iran, Russia, and even China - which has put aside its traditional conservatism by dispatching a warship to the area - are solidly behind Assad's regime, while Assad has deftly played the Kurdish and Christian cards against Turkey and the "Free Syrian Army". Future historians will likely say that after decades of Western interventionism, the buck stopped in Syria.

This will represent a major setback for Turkey, which has harmed its own image by acting as a Trojan horse for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Israel. Ankara will now likely seek a more balanced foreign policy, rather than pander to American designs.

The Palestinians, currently displaying the same lack of foresight that saw them back Saddam Hussein in his invasions of Iran and then Kuwait during the 1980s and 1990s, are another potential loser. Should Damascus regain control of the whole country and put an end to the civil war, we may then witness a less hospitable attitude toward the Palestinians.

In spite of Israel's opposition, Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Mahmoud Abbas has decided to participate in the Tehran NAM summit, which will offer an historic opportunity for Iran and the PLO to mend ties. Tehran's relations with Hamas have been strained since it closed its headquarters in Damascus in support of the Saudi-backed rebels, a grave miscalculation.

The question of Egypt
An important question regarding both summits centers on Egypt and whether President Mohammed Morsi will accept Iran's invitation, which was submitted by Iran's Vice-President Hamid Baghei on Wednesday.

Israel has been trying to sabotage a thaw in Iran-Egypt relations, for instance by accusing Iran of a direct hand in the Sinai attack on Egyptian border guards last Sunday. However, Egyptian analysts are increasingly blaming this attack on Israel, calling it a "false-flag" operation aimed at closing the Egyptian border with Gaza - and this is exactly what Morsi has done, suggesting he's fallen into an Israeli trap.

Morsi's participation at the Tehran summit is extremely important, firstly because it will give a clear indication of how far the "new Egypt" has progressed towards developing a regional identity not shaped by Western powers. It will also reveal how far Cairo has moved forwards in its rapprochement with Iran.

Morsi will likely coordinate his Iran policy with Saudi Arabia, which is keen on A new dialogue with Iran on a range of regional security issues, particularly in light of setbacks to its "regime change" strategy vis-a-vis Assad's regime. So far, the Saudis have not indicated who they will send to the NAM summit, though Tehran has invited Saudi King Abdullah. This is a decision Riyadh will likely make after the OIC summit, depending on how diplomatic rapprochement progresses with Tehran.

According to a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, Iran's goal is to find a "pan-regional solution for Syria, with the cooperation of all the regional stakeholders".

A major obstacle to this solution is the opposition of the US and Israel, which are grappling with the challenges of a coercive Iran policy that has not yielded any results despite "crippling sanctions". Tel Aviv is now lamenting that "Iran's centrifuges are spinning faster", and there is virtually no sign that Iran will succumb to outside pressures and suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Tehran editorials are awash with descriptions of the upcoming NAM summit as "making a caricature of sanctions", while expecting an inevitable diplomatic boost for Iran through hosting an international summit at a time when US and Israel are making every effort possible to isolate the country in the international community.

"NAM has always supported Iran's nuclear rights and will do so again at the Tehran summit, and obviously this goes against the grain of the Western [coercive] approach toward Iran," said the Tehran professor.

At the same time, the academic cautioned against "potential circuit-breakers" that the US and or Israel may resort to between now and the end of August, prior to the NAM conference, in order to overshadow the summit and thus deprive Iran of the opportunity to harvest the results.

The spoiler may come in the form of tensions in Persian Gulf, or new acts of terrorism attributed to Iran. However, Iran is fully cognizant of such "contingencies" and is putting extra effort to maintain a calm environment for the sake of the NAM summit.

1. See here

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press). For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) andLooking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations, CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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