Iran: America in the cold as erstwhile allies flock to Tehran

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The Independent Online
Arab leaders arrive in Iran this week for an Islamic conference that signals the collapse of American prestige in the Middle East. Israel's refusal to accept a Palestinian state, Robert Fisk reports from Tehran, is bringing even Washington's Arab 'friends' together in the capital of its principal adversary in the region.

Could there be a more potent symbol of American failure? In the high, chilly city of Tehran, windswept below the Elborz mountain range, the so-called "partners for peace" will be gathering alongside Washington's enemies in the Arab world. In the city which US news magazines like to call the "capital of world terror", the flags are already flying for Jordan and Egypt and the Palestinian authority - the very powers which have made peace with Israel - as well as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Iraq and more than a dozen other Arab nations.

Yasser Arafat will be there, of course, the man who shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn four years ago. So, the Iranians believe, will Jordan's King Hussein, whose fury at Israel's attempted murder of a Hamas official in Amman has still not abated.

Amr Moussa, the Egyptian foreign minister, will be in Tehran - and efforts are being made to persuade President Hosni Mubarak himself to come. Crown Prince Abdullah has indicated he will represent Saudi Arabia.

Taha Yassin Ramadan, the Prime Minister of Iraq - the very nation which invaded Kuwait seven years ago and threatened the Saudis - will represent Saddam Hussein.

It is, of course, an Islamic rather than an Arab conference; the Muslim nations of South-east Asia will be participating, along with Pakistan, Bosnia and Turkey. The Arab League will be represented and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has been invited.

Many of the delegates arriving in Tehran will be anxious to see if President Mohamed Khatami is truly freeing his society from the social chains of post-revolutionary Iran as his supporters claim. They will want to know what the anti-Khatami clique is trying to do by victimising Khatami's 75-year-old fellow cleric, Ayatollah Montazeri.

But the substance of the conference, which will include discussions on women's rights and education as well as the Middle East crisis, is far outweighed by its timing - at the very moment when almost every Arab nation has abandoned hope in the so-called "peace process".

How thankful the Iranians must be to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. His latest announcement of yet further Jewish settlement on occupied Arab land is a windfall for those in Tehran who have always maintained that the process - the 1991 Madrid Arab-Israeli conference as well as the 1993 Oslo agreement - was an American trick to turn the Arabs into supplicants of Israel.

Not that the Saudis or the Kuwaitis - or for that matter the Egyptians - are subscribing to Iran's animosity towards the Arab-Israeli agreements. Mr Mubarak has been cursing his own Islamist opponents since the massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor last month and is in no mood to embrace any form of Iranian-style Islamic renaissance. Mr Arafat, whose security forces have been obediently locking up Israel's enemies in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements - whom Iran openly supports - is not coming to Tehran to seek Iranian assistance for his grubby little statelet in Gaza (albeit Israel will probably draw that conclusion). The Saudis will go on repressing their own Shia minority however much they will be welcomed in Iran.

But that is not the point. What the Tehran summit will reflect is how dismally the United States failed to persuade its "Arab friends" to attend the Arab-Israeli economic summit in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar last month and how willingly those same absentees are prepared to come to the nation which the US is still attempting to isolate and - given official CIA funding to destabilise Iran - to overthrow.

It has always been Iran's belief that those Arabs who signed up for peace with Israel - and believed Washington's guarantee meant that a neutral America would ensure the fulfilment of the agreements of land for peace - would be betrayed. And now, with no help from Iran, Mr Netanyahu and the power of the Israeli lobby in the US has proved to the satisfaction of many Arab countries what Iran had all along been saying.

Fears of Iranian subversion in the Arab world, of territorial disputes with Arab gulf states and allegations that Iran is behind Islamist violence (one of Mr Mubarak's favourite claims) are now less important for the Arabs in the face of America's refusal to keep Israel to the letter as well as the spirit of its agreements.