Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Manama Dialogue: GCC Security and Economic Development; Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al Thani (Qatar)

The second plenary session, entitled "GCC Security and Economic Development" featured a speech by Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al Thani. The speech was given in Arabic and, unfortunately, the translation is not yet available. However, the transcript of the subsequent Q&A is available, and there are several interesting questions and replies.

Several questioners asked about the GCC's perception of the threat posed by Iran. The GCC has long seen Iran as a problem for several reasons, including Iran's revolutionary Shiism. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim responded to the first question by stating that:
It is very important that we tell the Iranians, as we always tell them, that we are a neighbour, we have the same religion, we want to work with you together, but we want to work in equality, we need to work by respecting each other, and that there are a few things that we have to explain to each other from our side. They are blaming for trying to damage stability in the region, because we have foreign countries in the Gulf. We are trying to tell them that we have the foreign countries because we would also like stability in the region, we are small countries and we had no big foreign presence before the invasion of Kuwait.
Later in the Q&A, former US Secretary of Defense William Cohen asked "Does the GCC have a common view about the threat that Iran poses, so that the US could in fact achieve a common approach in dealing with Iran?" The Prime Minister's response:
All the GCC countries have the same opinions about the Iranian threat, or the Iranian dialogue. I cannot see that they have the same opinion, but in principle, yes, they do have the same opinions. Maybe the approach differs between country to country on this, but the whole GCC would like to see a peaceful solution to that.
One of the more interesting questions, particularly in light of the speech by US SecDef Robert Gates at the previous plenary session, asked if the Prime Minister thought that "now is a good time for the US to engage with Iran on a senior level, without preconditions, perhaps negotiating on the kind of grand bargain that the Iranians themselves spoke about some years ago?" In contrast to Gates' assertions that Iran is not interested in engagement and that negotiations need to be couched in sanctions and sticks, the Prime Minister claimed that:
they should have a direct talk and direct dialogue. I always think that if there is a mediator something is lost in the middle. I always think that a direct talk does not mean that you agree with the other party. As Arabs we went to the US a few days ago to make a dialogue with the Israelis, so why then does the US not have a dialogue with Iran? I think that is the only way to at least understand each other on the matter.
Secretary Cohen responded to the sheikh's question by pointing to threats against Israel by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "I do not believe that the head of state of Israel has ever called for the destruction of Iran or to wipe it off the face of the map. That may be one distinction we need to keep in mind as we discuss comparisons, which are all said to be odious in any event. "

The sheikh answered Cohen by referring to Arab and Middle Eastern culture:
In terms of wiping Israel from the map, Secretary Cohen, we also hear it from Saddam Hussein before. These are words, and you have to know the culture of the region. The culture of the region is that we sometimes become more aggressive by saying things, but we do not always mean it.
All in all, the prime minister's Q&A was interesting, but contained nothing particularly revelatory. The Arab states, especially those of the GCC, who are more directly threatened by Iran have long urged dialogue between the US and Iran. it is interesting, none the less, to see the direct contrast between the US approach and that of Iran's neighbors.