March 30, 2007 | The Daily Star

Iran’s Shadow Hovered Over Riyadh

The standard for success at Arab summits is, usually, the avoidance of implosion as differences between the various rulers take center stage and eclipse more relevant issues. The end-result is usually a diluted final statement aimed at preserving a fa?ade of Arab solidarity.

At the Riyadh summit earlier this week, appropriately dubbed the summit of “Arab solidarity,” Saudi Arabia again sought to impose a certain order by avoiding highlighting the various fissures among the Arab states. However, the Saudis also went beyond that by seeking to regain the initiative and cement their newfound leadership role in the region. The driving force behind such efforts was to block Iranian encroachment in the Middle East, especially Iran's drive to capture the Palestinian card. 

At stake was the mainstream Arab states' desire to ensure that they alone control the final decision to wage war or make peace with Israel, particularly after the war in Lebanon last summer, when the actions of Hizbullah led to the possibility of a wider conflagration. The Saudis interpreted that conflict as an Iranian and Syrian gambit played through the Lebanese window, and have been just as worried about Iranian support for Hamas. The Saudis were, therefore, eager to shut both these windows in Riyadh.

That's why it was not surprising that Saudi Arabia would follow up on its recent diplomatic effort to reconcile the Palestinian factions in Mecca with the revival of the Arab peace initiative endorsed in Beirut in 2002, which was at the heart of this week's summit. The purpose of the Mecca Accord, aside from ending inter-Palestinian fighting, was to cut the road off to further Iranian control over developments in the Palestinian territories. The revival of the peace initiative, whatever its problems, would impose restrictions on Hamas, given how the initiative offers “full peace” and “normal relations” with Israel in exchange for returning the Arab territories occupied in 1967, establishing a Palestinian state, and finding a “just solution” to the problem of the refugees.

Both the watered down language on normalization as well as the clause on the refugees were Syrian additions introduced at the 2002 summit to undermine the Arab initiative – as they guaranteed Israeli rejection. The Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat published an article on Thursday indicating that Syria tried to amend the text of the Riyadh initiative as well, in order to introduce even more maximalist conditions on the refugee issue, but it was rebuffed. Instead, the Syrians had to make do with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya's and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's opposition to any challenge to the Palestinian right of return. Syria also objected to any “normalizing” contacts with Israel aside from those carried out by the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan.

Syrian President Bashar Assad was kept on a short political leash, and his speech was also uncharacteristically short, in contrast with Syrian media reports before the summit that he would “present a paper on Arab solidarity.” He was apparently instructed to maintain a low profile, and before the summit it was leaked to the press that both Saudi Arabia and Egypt would not take kindly to any attempt by the Syrian leader to use the summit as a podium to lecture his Arab counterparts.

The Syrians tried to compensate through Lahoud, however, who headed one of two delegations the divided Lebanese sent – the other led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. To everyone's astonishment, Lahoud tried to undermine the Siniora government through last-minute amendments to the statement on Lebanon. He targeted the government's seven-point plan, which served as the basis for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and calls for government control over all its territory. Lahoud failed to get any substantial amendments adopted, however, amid Saudi and broader Arab support for the UN resolution and for the Siniora government. The Saudi position was best expressed by Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, who stressed that it was time for Lebanon to be neutralized as an open front against Israel. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt can afford to hand Iran the keys to regional stability.

Diplomatic sources leaked that King Abdullah's one-on-one meeting with Assad was a fairly heated one, and included a Saudi rebuke for Syria's interference in Lebanese affairs and its blocking of a domestic settlement. The king also reportedly asserted that the Hariri tribunal should be established, and that Syria should respect international resolutions and stop smuggling weapons across its border into Lebanon. 

The final statement of the summit reiterated the Arab states' support for the Hariri tribunal, Resolution 1701 and the seven-point plan, and the Lebanese government. King Abdullah and Saud Al-Faisal also criticized Hizbullah's ongoing sit-in in Downtown Beirut. 

Iraq also received Arab attention. Particularly noticeable was King Abdullah's use of the term “occupation” to describe the American military presence there. Overall, the statement on Iraq called for broadening the political process and rejecting partition, sectarianism, and outside interference in Iraqi affairs. The Arab states also asked for a review of the de-Baathification policy, encouraged the dissolution of all militias, and supported the equitable distribution of oil wealth, all steps that, implicitly, would lend some sustenance to the weakened Sunni community.

But the unmentioned target of the summit was mainly Iran. This was evident in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's warning of a regional nuclear arms race, in what was a clear reference to the Iranians.

Will there be specific results from the summit? That remains to be seen. The Saudis might be thinking that Israel shares their concern about Iran, and therefore that the peace initiative has a chance of appealing to both Israel and the United States. Saud Al-Faisal described matters in stark terms: Either this peace initiative is accepted or Iran will be empowered. Hamas, as was evident from Haniyya's statements, is banking on an Israeli rejection of the Arab initiative to lay the blame on Israel and to avoid any serious change in its own ideological position.

As for Lebanon, though Assad met with King Abdullah, the final statement of the summit showed that the Saudis were sticking to their guns on the Hariri tribunal and the need for Syria to respect Lebanese sovereignty. Riyadh still views Lebanon as a crucial battleground which Iran and Syria must not be allowed to profit from. Moreover, the Saudis' continued support for the tribunal suggests that Assad's options are narrowing on that front if he intends to rely on Arab solidarity.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, where he focuses on Lebanon and Syria. He also hosts the Across the Bay blog (