The Islamic Summit challenge: Iran, Turkey and the Arabs. Future conflict or peace?

Arabic News, Regional, Analysis, 9 December 1997

With the occasion of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Teheran, many are viewing this event as a counter measure to the US sponsored MENA economic conference that was embroiled in much controversy as a result of the inclusion of Israel. Israel's current government is rightly being seen as having no interest in peace and as reneging on signed agreements. No one saw fit to reward Israel for such action, and the Arabs refused to attend, to send a clear message to Washington that this behavior from Israel is unacceptable and no amount of pressure will succeed in having the Arab countries forgo their interests just to please the US.

The OIC summit in turn, is seen as a counter measure to MENA, and as an opening to resolve some outstanding problems and show a unified stand by Muslim countries. Iran, sees it as its moment in the sun as it defies all attempts by the US to isolate it. There are many issues of great common interest to the Muslim countries that they will be able to come to agreements on, issues such as Jerusalem, anti-Zionist statements and others.

What will be outstanding are the differences among the Islamic countries, that have different individual and regional interests. Turkey is participating. Turkey had announced earlier this year Israeli-Turkish military exercises and improved ties, only to delay those exercises under pressure from the Arab world. Turkey has serious problems with Syria and Iraq, on the Kurdish problem, and water rights. Turkey will need to state its position clearly. Will Turkey have a pro-Arab or anti-Arab position in today's polarized Middle East conflict. And if Turkey, will not take a pro-Arab position, will it be made clear by the other countries that there will be a high economic cost and the possibility of trade sanctions against it.

Iran with its new president, Mohammed Khatami, is putting on a more moderate face, and seems to have popular support for that position. But Iran has tensions in its policies with Iraq, Bahrain, the UAE and other Arab countries, over ideology, borders, and disputed islands' sovereignty in the Gulf. Will Iran make it clear that it views intervention in other countries' internal affairs as unacceptable? Will Iran seek to resolve its outstanding problems with Iraq peacefully? Steps must be taken on both sides to that end for regional stability, and economic development.

Will Iran give signals to the Gulf neighbors that it wants a genuine resolution to its problems in a forum that does not push these countries to further seek US protection, which is not in Iran's interest? Will Iran tell Egypt and Saudi Arabia clearly and unequivocally that terrorism is not an acceptable form of internal political dialog? These are some of the questions that Iran needs to address, if it is going to strengthen its relations with its neighbors and Arab countries. Iran must be encouraged, to develop peacefully, and should be given support in breaking its isolation, and further economic dealings if the Arab countries' concerns are dealt with in a direct and friendly manner that seeks to resolve the outstanding problems, rather than shoving them under the rug in the hope that Iran can have better terms later, when it is in a much stronger position.

The OIC summit can be a great tool in working on common interests and resolving outstanding issues, and in making the whole, much more powerful than the sum of its parts. But these issues outlined above are of great importance to the Arab countries participating, and not addressing them would leave this summit, much less than what it could be. There is much to be gained, and that is desired, by having strong, peaceful, and vital economic ties between these countries as the new millennium approaches with its economic focus and challenges as competition will be regional more than national. It remains to be seen if the parties involved will rise to the challenge.