U.S. Senator John McCain's wisecracks at the expense of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were just one instance that preceded the latter's recent visit to Cairo. Days prior, Iranian government spokespeople said that the country's array of centrifuges had been upgraded, thus expediting the pace of its nuclear weapons development program. There was also news that Iran's military industries had developed additions to the tank and missile arsenals. A picture was released showing an Iranian "stealth" fighter jet. The only problem was that it was so "stealthy" it lacked most of the capabilities required to take off. Then there was the picture of a monkey with a mole on his right eye who was supposedly launched into space. Then the monkey magically returned to earth without the mole. When news of the launch was made public by Ahmadinejad, McCain expressed his amazement on Twitter.
"So Ahmadinejad wants to be first Iranian in space," McCain tweeted. "Wasn't he just there last week?"
Ahmadinejad may not have been to space, but he certainly was in Egypt. This was a historic visit to a land that was once ruled by the Shiites. With the dust that has been kicked up by the Islamist conflagration commonly known as the Arab Spring yet to settle, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation held its conference in Cairo this past weekend. Ahmadinejad said that his visit to the bastion of Sunni Islam was a gesture of goodwill.
The Iranian president met with his Egyptian counterpart, Mohammed Morsi, as a way of containing his opponents by the scam and double-speak method known in Shiite Islam as "taqiyya." It is obvious that the pressures of harsher sanctions against Iran have been exacerbated by the disintegration of the Syrian-Lebanese axis upon which the ayatollahs have relied for so long.
Perhaps Ahmadinejad was intent on propagating an illusion of a "tolerant" Shiite-dominated Islamic unity that would refocus its energies against the "Christian, imperialist, and usurping" West. This illusion, however, was debunked in Cairo.
While the Iranian leader was visiting Cairo, conciliatory messages were being voiced in Washington. President Barack Obama and his aides were indicating that they were amenable to negotiations that would end the diplomatic stalemate with Tehran and eventually prompt the Iranian leadership to decommission Iran's nuclear program. Iranian officials also heard defense secretary candidate Chuck Hagel say unequivocally that the U.S. would not reconcile with a nuclear-armed Iran.
In light of these developments, Iran saw the need to flex its muscles with staged shows of strength courtesy of the Islamic Republic's military industry. Ahmadinejad's declaration at the conclusion of the summit, that "Iran is a nuclear state," was meant to strengthen its opening hand as it prepares for negotiations with the West. It was comforting to hear Ahmadinejad generously "assuage" the concerns of Israel by stating that his country had no plans to attack Israel. There's an Arab proverb which states: "Man comes to apply makeup to a woman with a paintbrush, ends up blinding her completely."
Iran has more than one reason to be concerned about the future of its economy as well as its nuclear program, not to mention the fate of the countries that assist in pursuing its strategic policies in the region. This strategic alignment was built with tremendous Iranian investment of money and arms, particularly to Syria and Lebanon. Now, this relationship is on the brink of collapse.
Unfortunately for Ahmadinejad, the Egyptians were not so quick to buy the Iranian tales of "friendship." The Iranian president was met with a series of blunt Egyptian messages that made clear to him that his offer had fallen on deaf ears. The Egyptians followed protocol by politely listening to the Iranian overtures, but they emphasized that any warming of relations with Tehran would not come at the expense of its alliances, including its ties with Sunni nations like Turkey.
Ahmadinejad failed to achieve the desired objective during his visit. Upon his return home, he was greeted with the news that just across his country's south-eastern border with Turkey, Patriot missile batteries deployed by the NATO alliance had become operational, thus imperiling the Syrian-Iranian alliance. This was not a minor setback. Indeed, this was a defeat for those who pursued a strategy of containment, particularly Ahmadinejad and his ayatollah mentors.
Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque and the president of Al-Azhar University, is considered the preeminent religious authority in Sunni Islam. He demanded a commitment from Ahmadinejad that Iran cease its meddling in the affairs of Sunni Arab states in the Persian Gulf, particularly in Bahrain and its environs, an area that has long been the object of Tehran's desires.
The sheikh also called for an end to the bloodletting perpetrated by the Syrian regime, which is acting with Iran's support. He demanded an end to the spread of Shiite-Iranian influence in the Sunni Arab realm while also calling on the Iranian government to cease its persecution of Islamic communities within Iran.
El-Tayeb even demanded a halt to the practice of denouncing the Sahabah, the Arabic term which describes the disciples of the Prophet Muhammad. Ever since the internecine split that came about as a result of the dispute between Muhammad and Ali (the symbol of Shia Islam), the disciples are constantly slandered by religious figures in Iran as well as Shiite preachers around the world. Just to ensure balance, the sheikh offered his obligatory warning to Israel over its plans for Al-Aqsa mosque.
At the end of the summit a statement was issued calling for dialogue, though it did condemn the Syrian government for the bloodshed that has ravaged the country. The Arab League also issued a statement expressing its support for any push that would lead to a cessation of violence.
Who will blink first?
The smoke is clearing over the wreckage left behind by the attack on the Syrian weapons convoy destined for Hezbollah. The mutual recriminations between the Syrian regime and the rebels, each accusing the other of treachery that enabled the Israeli attack to take place, are beginning to fade as more grave, more disastrous events continue to unfold on a daily basis in Syria.
The threats from Iran, which vowed to treat any attack on Syria as an attack on Iran itself, have also died down to nary a whimper. The news coverage as it relates to Israel's decision to deploy Patriot and Iron Dome batteries in the north as part of an effort to prepare for a possible attack has also evaporated, while the shooting in Syria continues.
Nonetheless, this does not mean that we can put our feet up and get comfortable. It is still premature to consider slashing the defense budget. The boys with the mortars and rocket-propelled grenades are still looking at us from their bunkers in Quneitra (on the Syrian Golan Heights), and they are waiting.
Given the anticipated collapse of Syria, which is the most important link in Iran's Shiite axis of evil, Ahmadinejad tried to persuade Cairo to withdraw its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ouster, but to no avail.
Ahmadinejad, who is an overt supporter, financer, and weapons supplier of the Syrian regime, failed in his effort to sway those who are allied with his enemies.
If only the Iranian president would offer a face-saving way out for the Syrian regime as part of a comprehensive package that would also include surrendering its nuclear program and coming to terms with the West, all with Egypt's mediation, perhaps his offer would arouse interest while at the same time enhance the regional standing of both countries in an uncertain environment.
This hypothetical offer has apparently not been discussed, and Iran's other initiatives were also met with outright rejection in Cairo. Egypt declared that it has no inclination to betray Turkey and, by extension, the U.S., which is assisting Cairo militarily and financially. It also has no plans to alienate its allies in the Gulf for the price of a partnership with a hostile Iran.
The situation whereby the Iranians are assisting the Syrian regime while the Egyptians are backing the Gulf states and the rebels in their efforts to unseat Assad remains intact. Meanwhile, the situation in Syria also threatens the weak link that strategically connects Iran with the Shiites in Iraq, the Alawite regime in Syria, and the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon.
As the situation grows increasingly dire, the Syrian regime is intensifying its campaign against its citizens, deploying tanks in civilian neighborhoods and using fighter jets to drop bombs on residential areas in broad daylight. There are a growing number of reports indicating that the regime has massacred prison inmates. Thousands of refugees are streaming out of the country, and the killing of civilians in the streets has become commonplace.
There are also discouraging signs emanating from Russia regarding the viability of the Syrian government. Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, recently flew to China for an urgent meeting with officials there. On the other hand, Syrian opposition figures who receive Arab and Muslim (Sunni) backing as well as international support are due to meet with U.S. officials. They are even expected to open official missions in the U.S. The rebels are also amassing numerous victories, conquering strategic points within Syria.
Nonetheless, both sides are beginning to acknowledge that the mass slaughter will have to come to an end by way of dialogue. Now the question is which side will blink first. The rebels are wracked by internal strife and crises of leadership. Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, one of the opposition leaders, said that he repudiated the radical Islamic elements that were part of the effort to topple the regime. It was obvious to all that an Islamist regime that included sympathizers of al-Qaida and al-Nusrat Islamiya would have a hard time winning Western support in any post-Assad order.
Rebel efforts to focus their attacks on specific targets and key installations led to a weakening of their positions in the suburbs and rural hinterland. They also suffered losses at key access points and strongholds that they had captured earlier in the struggle. To break the stalemate, al-Khatib, who heads the coalition that includes the Free Syrian Army, met with Iran's foreign minister. The meeting took place during a gathering of foreign ministers from Islamic states in Berlin. The fact that the meeting was held contradicted a long-held opposition demand for an unconditional withdrawal by the army. It also demanded that no immunity be granted to the regime for its crimes, and it held to its position that there would be no negotiations with the government on these matters.
This break by al-Khatib created divisions within the opposition camp, which includes the Free Syria Army as well as figures in exile. Al-Khatib explained that he was willing to negotiate with the Syrian leadership so long as they agreed to leave the country. He heaped praise on anyone willing to work toward this end.
It seems that many figures in the Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National Council, thought that the meeting was tantamount to "a knife in the back." They expressed their opposition to any arrangement. These oppositionists are determined to stick to their position, ruling out any talks with the regime or its Iranian sponsors. They also oppose extending immunity to regime figures.
Aside from the future of the Syrian leadership, the issue of denying immunity raises questions about what awaits the Christian and Druze officers and pilots who are now raining destruction upon the country's civilians at the behest of the regime. Their uncompromising position on this issue doesn't leave much choice for Syrian army soldiers, who are now more determined to continue the fighting.
As of this writing, there has been no response from the Syrian government regarding the prospect of negotiations. Those who oppose al-Khatib's initiative claim that the regime, which initially offered to talk but has since retracted its willingness to negotiate, views these initiatives as signs of weakness by the rebels. Hence, the refusal.
Commentators in Arab-language media are convinced that feelers are being put out by both sides who are tired of the conflict and wish to halt the bloodshed, and that it is still too early to expect the government to respond favorably to the initiatives put forth. There are also signs that Iran and Russia are softening their support for the Syrian government, but analysts say that as long as Iran continues to back Syria due to the religious ties shared by the two countries (Alawites are considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam), it will be easier to get Russia to support a deal.
In Lebanon, disagreements also abound. There is great debate over the necessity of disarming Hezbollah, which many believe to be behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the terrorist attack in Burgas.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced that his government would cooperate with Bulgarian authorities investigating the attack. The divisions between the supporters of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah and the opponents of the Damascus government are intensifying. There is also a growing chorus of voices in the West who are urging the European Union to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, something which it has inexplicably failed to do until now.
A disappointing spring
Since the eruption of the Arab Spring there have been numerous flashpoints of killing and violence that have erupted in various points across the Middle East and North Africa. The hope that the spring would allow for the emergence of democratic forces has instead been a nightmare in which reactionary Islamist and anti-democratic elements, like the recidivist criminals and serial rapists who descended on Tahrir Square, have come to the fore.
The anarchy that has taken hold in the Middle East has yet to be contained. It is now raging in Mali, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen. It threatens to rock the foundations of stability in the Gulf states and other areas of North Africa. It is beginning to bubble up in Jordan and Lebanon. In our neck of the woods, Islamist operatives are working to foment a third intifada in Judea and Samaria.
It is reasonable to assume that Obama's scheduled visit to Israel will coincide with efforts to create a united Sunni Muslim front that will seek to confront the challenges posed by the Iranian nuclear project. Against the backdrop of Obama's tour of the region will be the palpable concern shared by the countries of the region that any attempt to peacefully gain the nuclear disarmament of Iran will be unsuccessful.
Obama's visit to Israel will be devoted to clearly defining Israel's role in a coalition that is comprised of a number of actors that are overtly hostile to it. There is a chance that the renewal of the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be discussed as a way of reducing the friction in the yet-to-be-formed coalition.
In the meantime, the PA finds itself in a diplomatic mess. It is losing ground to Hamas on the security front. It is wracked with internal divisions and it lacks public legitimacy. It is also in the midst of a serious financial crisis. The "old guard" in Ramallah is gradually disappearing and there is no new peace-seeking leadership on the horizon. This state of affairs jeopardizes the chances that an agreement — if indeed one is signed — would hold up given the decrepit state of this entity.
Given the chaotic state of the region, one needs to try very hard to take an active interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More so, one would need to try extra hard to recall the roots and reasons for the conflict. One would also need to be viciously biased to stick to the claim that the conflict is the source of all problems in the region, and that its resolution would usher in an era of peace throughout the Middle East.
The visit by the president of Shiite Iran, who traversed the Syrian-African rift to make the trip to Sunni Egypt, offers a perfect illustration as to just how ridiculous this claim is. It is remarkable to see that this natural boundary nearly runs exactly along the blood-soaked fault line between Sunnis and Shiites, two streams of Islam which have been engaged in one of the most bitter conflicts in our region. It is a conflict that has been vividly expressed in recent months.
As for us, an Arab saying offers the best advice: "When nations fight each other, keep your head."