Arab media

News Analysis, Jalal Ghazi,
Pacific News Service, Dec 10, 2004

Editor's Note: Arab media are tracking Iran's emerging strategic importance with great interest, watching as the nation skillfully plays its nuclear and oil cards against U.S. desires for the region.

Arab media are mesmerized by Iran's ability to outmaneuver the United States, not just on the nuclear front, but in Iraq as well.

Some observers believe the only solution to the Iraqi conundrum is to divide Iraq into three federated states. But because most Iraqis share the same Shiite faith as the Iranians, sooner or later Iran will extend its influence over Southern Iraq. Iran could then control a huge part of the world's fossil fuel resources. If this should happen, the United States will have no choice but to welcome a "New Persian Empire," as it did for nuclear-armed enemies the Soviet Union and China.

No single country has benefited as much from the war on terror as Iran. America eliminated two of Iran's fiercest enemies, with which Iran shares long borders to the east and the west: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And because the United States is bogged down in Iraq, Iran feels free to expand its influence, developing its nuclear technology and strengthening its economic ties with China and Europe.

In Iraq, the Americans routed Iran's Baathist enemies, and empowered the Iraqi Shiites. After being oppressed for 35 years under Saddam, the Shiites are now uniting under the roof of what is known in the Arab world as the "Shiite House." The upcoming Iraqi elections will only legitimize the role of the interim government, which the Iraqi Shiites have been controlling since the regime's fall.

Iran could not agree more with U.S. President George W. Bush's demand to hold Iraqi elections on Jan. 30, 2005, despite strong reservations by some Arab countries in the Gulf, which ironically are now accusing Iran of having common interests with the United States. The London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper published an article titled "The Lebanon-ization of Iraq," criticizing the upcoming elections and warning that, should the Iraqi Shiites win illegitimately, the whole region could ignite in ethnic conflict.

Arab media have also been suspicious of the relative calm that has prevailed in Shiite areas in central and southern Iraq since the start of the U.S. occupation. They also question Iraqi Shiite leader Ali Sistani's silence toward American military operations in Falluja. Hoda Husseni, in the Dec. 2 Asharq Al-Awsat, writes, Iran want to open back-door negotiations with the United States in order to ensure that the elections take place on time."

The United States believes that the Iraqi Shiites will not be controlled by Iran. This is due largely to Ali Sistani's assurances to the Americans that he rejects establishing a religious state in Iraq modeled after the one in Iran. Many Arab media are skeptical.

"Nothing guarantees that Iran will stay neutral and not influence the new Iraqi government, not only because it shares the same religious sect, but also for political objectives," a commentator on Abu Dhabi television said recently.

Meanwhile, Iran has been airing "news reports" that more closely resemble advertisements urging Iraqis to vote. These spots appear on Al-Alam Television, an Arabic language TV station owned by the Iranians and widely watched in Iraq. They use quotes from Sistani, such as, "Your religious duty is to vote," and, "Your vote is more valuable than gold." The reports also strongly argue against postponing the elections.

Though they may be concerned with Iran's ability to foment Shiite unrest in the Arab world, many Arab commentators are not threatened by Iran's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. To the contrary, they see an Iranian nuclear bomb as a counter-balance to Israel's nuclear arsenal. In fact, some Arab media admire Iran's ability to forge ahead in developing nuclear technology in the face of U.S. opposition.

For instance, the independent, London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi published a cartoon that poked fun at the lack of Arab ambitions to develop similar technology. It depicted a father trying to light his broken furnace and warning his son to stay clear in case of an explosion. The cartoon's title: "Arab uranium enrichment program for this winter."

Arab media have also been buzzing over Iran's success in strengthening its partnership with China. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, after signing a 30-year, $70 billion natural gas deal with Iran, during a November visit to Iran the Chinese foreign minister told Iranian President Muhammad Khatami that "his country had discussed Iran's nuclear issue with both London and Washington" and had informed them that referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council would "complicate matters more."

Commentator Khalis Jalabi similarly sees Washington's hands as tied due to its economic dependence on countries eager to do business with Iran. He writes in the Dec. 3, 2004, Asharq Al-Awsat that "about half of the world's dollar reserves are in Asian countries' hands." (Japan holds $462 billion and China $271 billion, in contrast to the America's $80 billion in reserves.) Their willingness to buy U.S. Treasury bonds keeps the dollar from dropping further. This has allowed Americans to "maintain a luxurious lifestyle." Yet, since the war in Iraq, many countries started buying euros. For example, Taiwan and Singapore have transformed 20 to 35 percent of its reserves into the euro.

Husseni makes a similar point in Asharq Al-Awsat. "As long as Washington has a huge trade deficit and continues to rely on billions of dollars in Chinese and Japanese banks (to maintain the strength of the dollar), Iran will continue to win." Tokyo and Beijing, she says, would oppose any U.S. efforts to punish Iran economically, due to their need for Iranian energy resources.

The Europeans are determined not to let Bush take Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council and repeat the Iraq scenario. China and Russia support Europe's position. Iran, it seems, is gaining more allies and more leverage by the day.

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