“The Iranians are coming!” That was the conviction widely and vehemently expressed by Arab intellectuals and activists at the Ninth Annual Al Jazeera Forum in Doha, Qatar, last week. Iranian diplomats were greeted with skepticism and hostility at the annual gathering of journalists, policy-makers, and media professionals from across the Arab world. There was widespread suspicion, moreover, that the United States is increasingly on the side of Iran.
That the views expressed by politicians and intellectuals at the forum are also widely held in Arab capitals was demonstrated this weekend when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman abruptly pulled out of President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council nations. It can only be speculated that Obama’s insistence on a rapprochement with Iran and increasing skittishness over the bombing of Yemen were behind that snub.
Al Jazeera has long had a reputation for giving a platform to various sides of an issue, and so it invited Kazem Sajjadpour, former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations and now adviser to the Iranian foreign minister, to give a keynote speech. Also presenting was Hassan Ahmadian, senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research in Iran, on a panel with Khalid Saleh, head of the Syrian National Coalition. Fireworks ensued. Sajjadpour admitted that Iran is an ascending regional power, but insisted that it is the solution to the region’s problems, not a problem in its own right. He pointed to Iran’s role in taking on ISIL in Iraq. He portrayed Tehran as uniquely indigenous in its sources of power and authority, a country that “produces its own security.” He implicitly slammed the Arab states for accepting an imperial, American security umbrella.
The Arab intellectuals were having none of it. Peace Prize Nobelist Tawakkol Karman of Yemen slammed the “mullahs” (i.e., clerics) of Iran for supporting the Houthi rebels in her country. She maintained that Yemen had had a political process and was moving toward new presidential and parliamentary elections when the Zaidi Shiite militia abruptly marched into the capital of Sana last September and threw the country into chaos, with Iranian support. (The Houthis have menaced Ms. Karman, who has been scathing in her criticism of their extensive human rights abuses.) Another Yemeni politician slammed Iran for “occupying” his country. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Gulf Cooperation Council states, along with Jordan and Morocco, in a bombing campaign against the Houthis and appears to be making preparations for some sort of land campaign. Iran has denounced the bombing as illegal aggression that has resulted in extensive casualties among noncombatants.
Security analyst Ahmadian pushed back. “You are making it sound,” he said, “as though the Houthis are foreigners. They are a Yemeni movement of local Arab people.” He rejected the idea of any Iranian “occupation.” (There is no good evidence for an Iranian military presence in Yemen, though Tehran may have sent some arms or funding to the Houthis, who hail from a different branch of Shiite Islam than the one common in Iran. The lion’s share of Houthi weaponry, however, is American and was simply captured from the collapsing Yemeni military.)