As President Bush travels through the Middle East, the prevailing assumption is that Arab states are primarily focused on the rising Iranian threat and that their attendance at the Annapolis conference with Israel in November was motivated by this threat. This assumption, reflected in the president's speech in the United Arab Emirates yesterday, could be a costly mistake.
Israel and the Bush administration place great emphasis on confronting Iran's nuclear potential and are prepared to engage in a peace process partly to build an anti-Iran coalition. Arabs see it differently. They use the Iran issue to lure Israel and the United States into serious Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking, having concluded that the perceived Iranian threats sell better in Washington and Tel Aviv than the pursuit of peace itself.
Many Arab governments are of course concerned about Iran and its role in Iraq, but not for the same reasons as Israel and the United States. Israel sees Iran's nuclear potential as a direct threat to its security, and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas as a military challenge.
Arab governments are less worried about the military power of Hamas and Hezbollah than they are about support for them among their publics. They are less worried about a military confrontation with Iran than about Iran's growing influence in the Arab world. In other words, what Arab governments truly fear is militancy and the public support for it that undermines their own popularity and stability.
In all this, they see Iran as a detrimental force but not as the primary cause of militant sentiment. Most Arab governments believe instead that the militancy is driven primarily by the absence of Arab-Israeli peace.
This argument has been a loser in Washington, rejected by many and not taken seriously by others. The issue of Iran gets more traction inside the Beltway.
Last year, King Abdullah II of Jordan delivered an address to a joint session of Congress. His focus was not on Iran or Iraq -- or even the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees his small country is painfully hosting. In urging American diplomacy, his message was clear: "The wellspring of regional division, the source of resentment and frustration far beyond, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine." This address was hardly noticed in our press. In contrast, when the king highlights the Iranian threat to his American visitors, everyone listens.
One does not have to accept the view that Palestine explains all regional ills to acknowledge the king's central concern. Either he genuinely meant what he said or he believed it was so central a matter to his public that he needed to use this chance to address Congress to appease his constituents. (Three-quarters of Jordanians and other Arabs have ranked Palestine as their "top issue" or "among the top three" in their priorities for five years in a row.)
President Bush needs to listen. The war in Iraq has increased Saudi influence in the region, while America's Iraq troubles and its confrontation with Iran have weakened the U.S. position. America now needs Saudi Arabia more than the Saudis need Washington.
To be sure, there are many common economic and security interests. But in the end, the American presence in the Persian Gulf, which helps provide security for Arab governments, cannot be used as a lever. U.S. forces are there to protect American interests, not the local governments; a threat of withdrawal is not credible. If one adds the increased economic power that comes with the substantial cash flow generated by $100-a-barrel oil, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states have the potential influence that comes with being one of the top creditors of the United States.
And even though Gulf Arab governments need the U.S. military umbrella for their security, their publics view the United States as a far greater threat than Iran. It is a challenge for these governments to have to continually depend on an America whose foreign policy is rejected by their own publics and whose record in recent years has been more of failure than of success.
Confronting Iran does not solve their dilemma. Arab-Israeli peacemaking does. Most Arabs identify successful American peace diplomacy as the single most important factor in improving their views of the United States.
When Saudi and other Arab representatives decided to attend the Annapolis conference, they hoped it would help Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert deliver the kind of visible concessions that would empower Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and dissuade Palestinians from supporting Hamas. President Bush sounded optimistic in Jerusalem. But Arab trust of speeches is low, and tangible benefits, particularly removal of Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank and a freeze on Israeli settlements, have not materialized. Increasing Arab skepticism about peace prospects is one reason they are hedging their bets by defusing tensions with Iran.
In making his case for confronting Iran, Bush is likely to get polite nods from Arab leaders. Don't mistake that for an embrace of American policy. What they need above all is for the United States to succeed in mediating Palestinian-Israeli peace -- not dismiss their peace calls as a fig leaf for some deeper desire for confrontation with Iran.