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    Middle East
     Aug 16, 2012


Saudis use summit to isolate Syria, Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

"To examine the situation in many countries of the Islamic world, intensify efforts to confront this situation, address the sources of discord and division therein, reunify the Islamic Ummah and promote Islamic solidarity."

That is how Saudi Arabia's leaders initially justified their decision to hold a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference (OIC) in Mecca this week - their actions since suggest their real intention was to use the OIC as part of their crusade against an embattled Damascus and their 'cold war' with Tehran.

On Monday, foreign ministers at the OIC decided by majority vote to recommended the suspension of Syria, which was expelled from the Arab League last November. The proposal is expected to

 

be implemented by the 57-member organization at a meeting on Wednesday.

The decision was openly contested by Iran on the grounds that this would simply "erase the [Syrian] issue", to paraphrase Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who is accompanying President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the conference.

Ahmadinejad's expressions of hope for a "meeting of Islamic unity" at the summit in retrospect seem wishful thinking. Instead the meeting has produced a minor shock for Iranian diplomacy as the country gears up to host the summit of Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran at the end of August.

However, Ahmadinejad's trip is still bound to generate some cracks in the robust edifice of Saudi-Iran hostility, which alone may be worth the trip - regardless of its side-effects - one of which has been Ahmadinejad's noticeable absence in areas affected by the recent earthquake.

According to a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, the Iranian delegation to the OIC meeting "may feel cheated a little bit because [Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz] personally invited Ahmadinejad and assured Iran the goal was to promote Ummah unity, not to score foreign policy success against Iran and Syria."

Indeed, it is doubtful that Iran would have participated at such a high level at the OIC summit if it had prior knowledge of the real intention - to prioritize the expulsion of Syria, Tehran had expected the OIC to initiate genuine conflict mediation efforts aimed at fostering a cease-fire and political dialogue between the warring parties.

Itself home to a closed system of government that clamps down on internal dissent, Saudi Arabia has taken a bit of risk by spearheading Syria's expulsion. Critics may also point to how Riyadh sent troops to neighboring Bahrain to quell a mass revolt for democracy, and to the crucial military and financial support it has sent the Syrian opposition despite clauses in the OIC Charter that forbid intervention in the internal affairs of other Muslim states.

Beyond the formal decision to expel Syria, which will have little or no effect on the balance of forces inside the country, the important question is what role the OIC could actually play that would contribute to an end to the crisis.

The answer is simply conflict mediation. If the OIC wills it, there is a tremendous potential for the "pan-Islamic" organization to play a catalytic role in initiating much-needed political dialogue between the government and the opposition, as was called for by the UN's six-point plan that was pursued by the special representative, Kofi Annan, and can still be pursued by his replacement, Lakhdar Brahimi. It does not bode well for the OIC if Saudi Arabia's leading role in it is simply to completely ignore the UN peace plan and opt instead for a confrontational approach.

Iran is by no means alone in actively pushing for a mediated settlement of the Syrian crisis. Several other Muslim nations which participated in last week's Tehran meeting on Syria are also in favor of talks between the government and the opposition, which has shown signs of outrageous brutality recently though these aren't covered by Turkish or Saudi media.

There is chance these other nations, which include Pakistan and Iraq, could join hands with Iran on Wednesday to obstruct the vote on Syria's expulsion. Iran could also threaten to boycott future OIC meetings.

"Iran has been put in a difficult position by the Saudis and their GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] partners, who have presented President Ahmadinejad with a fait accompli on the issue of Syria's expulsion even before the summit of leaders got under way," says the Tehran professor cited above. Tehran will of course rebound from any "isolation effect" come the NAM summit, yet for the moment it would be difficult to hide bruised feelings over the "fast one" pulled by Riyadh and Ankara.

A Saudi Arabia-Turkey duet on Syria has been in the making for quite sometime, which these countries likely now hoping that the diplomatic coup against Syria at the OIC summit will pave the way to a "no-fly zone" which aids the Syrian rebels and cripple the government's aerial offensive.

However, given Syria's strong air defenses and the unwillingness of major North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries to foot the bill for yet another gambit in the Middle East, this may still never happen.

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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