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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

GCC and Iran

The attendance of Iran’s President Ahmedinejad (AN) at the GCC Summit on December 3 was blessed by all countries in the GCC, said Hamid bin Jassim at the closing GCC press conference. The Qatari prime minister and foreign minister said that there have been many other such invitations to non GCC heads of state. On this occasion the desire was expressed by the Iranian president to attend, and the foreign ministry in Qatar was notified accordingly by Iran, and we extended an official invitation. It was seen as important to extend the dialogue in this fashion. Outside the press conference a senior Kuwaiti media official told me that the attendance was important as a way of expanding the current dialogue with Iran, although he acknowledged that the Kuwaiti foreign minister for example had said that we are not clear on what is wanted by any part of the regime in Tehran. He added that this is a GCC view, not just that of Kuwait. He rejected idea that the speech by AN and the press conference yesterday was in effect saying “halas” to the Saudi idea for a Swiss nuclear bank. His caution may related to the KFM saying that he heard of the invitation in the press. The problem the Kuwaiti said is that Iran wants to ease the tension by deflating the football outside of the region. In other words there is a perceptible lack of genuine Iranian diplomacy. This same ball he had claimed was in Iran’s court as the GCC had made its proposals known on nuclear compromise.

Other comments in the margins at the summit suggested surprise, even anger, among GCC participants that an invitation that may not have been a matter of consensus was not responded to with warmer words by Iran. The speech to the GCC, the first in the history of the GCC by an Iranian participant, let alone a head of state, had not even mentioned the nuclear issue. When questioned about this at his own press conference, AN said that he did not want to dwell on something used by “two countries” to cause problems and that the issue was “over”. This comment was not seen positively by the GCC participants, least of all the hosts Qatar. The Qatari premier told the press on December 4 that we should not allow outsiders to be drawn into conflict, implying the US. Iran should take into account the concerns of the countries of the area, he said. If it is extending the true hand of cooperation this is good, but if we allow outsiders to be drawn into the conflict this is not acceptable. One question from a locally based AFP correspondent concerned the latest US intelligence (NIE) judgment that a weapons programme had not been continued after 2003, and whether this meant that the dispute was over. HbJ said that he did not know as his only information came from the IAEA and the “brothers” in Iran. It has a right to a peaceful programme and thus the dispute should be resolved by peaceful means and direct dialogue by the parties concerned, referring to Iran, the IAEA and it seemed the leading international countries involved in the dispute. In the normal fashion, he did not choose to identify the GCC as an interested party in this respect. The GCC does regards AN’s proposals as positive, said HbJ – the Iranian leader issued a 12 point programme for cooperation in his speech – and as practical ways to enhance cooperation and we said so in our agreed closing statement read out at the conclusion of the conference. Iran is a neighbouring country and should remove causes of tension between the GCC and Iran. In this respect HbJ mentioned the islands dispute and added that all the countries of the region (including Iran) were interested in a peaceful conclusion to the current situation. One questioner suggested that there could be (reciprocal) steps taken toward Iran on a bilateral or a multilateral basis by GCC states. Kuwait he said had argued that individual countries could consider initiatives. However all were in agreement that ideas of individual countries had to be agreed collectively. (It was not clear to this observer what the collective status was of the Saudi initiative for a nuclear enrichment bank)

Afterwards another well-connected Kuwaiti raised the issue with me of the NIE, believing that the making of a US-Iran deal could be in the wings, and that the report was possibly released to underline the idea of engagement with a locally feared Iran. While sounding fantastic it seems that the war option has been largely taken off the table, even if the risks of conflagration should not be downplayed too much. Conspiracies always abound in the region. Gulf Arabs will wonder again about US will-power at a time when, as the Kuwaiti argued with me, there had been a shared view about who was causing the problems in Iraq and what needed to be down about it. In this situation a GCC reluctance to come forward with plausible diplomatic initiatives with Iran, despite the ball actually being in the GCC’s court after the Ahmedinejad GCC speech, will be underlined. The refrain of powerlessness will go out with greater vocal strength now that the US has, quite possibly without management of the soft intel, effectively signalled that its Iran policy, like that of Iraq previously, is in freefall. Perception is nine tenths of the political law out here.

There was a question at the GCC press conference on whether there had been discussion about revaluation of individual currencies outside of the peg to the dollar. The summit declaration had reinforced the target date of 2010 for a common currency, with a review at the next summit in Muscat, and has not passed judgement on individual currency policy. In response to the question HbJ said that collective decision making was desired in terms of currency policy (mindful it seemed of their impact on the currency union goal). However he noted that the decision was for sovereign countries who “can do what they want”, and noted that this had already been exercised by Kuwait. Before the summit the desire for collective sanction had been expressed by the UAE and others at the time of the pre summit finance ministers meeting. A GCC common market will however come into being in January, for it has been deemed so at Doha. Some countries will have to move quickly to make the claimed equality of treatment in business and investment terms a reality in less than a month. This will not be a common market with a level playing field however, as Dubai’s open platform for foreign (non GCC) ownership and investment is hardly the same as current practice in Saudi.

More positively, and key at a time of apparent regional tension, the Saudi-Qatari kiss and make up appears to be genuine. Abdullah turned up to the summit, and al Jazeera continues to turn down its negative kingdom coverage. Saudi is the backbone of the GCC, declared HbJ to much scribbling in the press conference. The big brother is back, especially when Doha had thought it would be in the frontline of a US-Iran conflict and thus needed to ensure solidarity to reduce exposure.

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