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(photo credit: AP)
Earlier this week, nine Arab foreign ministers met in Abu Dhabi. In attendance were the representatives of the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the (West Bank) Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia.
The gathering was officially held to support Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza. Its underlying, more significant focus was to bring together Arab states concerned at Iran's growing attempts to gain influence in the Arab world.
The gathering and some of the remarks made at it offered the latest evidence of the emergence of a new Middle East Cold War as the defining local strategic pattern. This emergence is of real significance, though it neither constitutes nor heralds a deep change in the prevailing political culture of the region.
The Abu Dhabi gathering saw some of the most explicit criticism of Iranian interference in Arab affairs yet publicly expressed by senior Arab officials. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, UAE foreign minister, said the purpose of the discussions was to stop "all unwelcome interference in our Arab affairs by non-Arab parties," which he went on to describe as taking place in a "nonconstructive manner."
Khairi al-Oraidi, Palestinian ambassador to the UAE, blamed Iran for Palestinian disunity.
Oraidi described Palestinian internal disputes as "not genuinely Palestinian." Rather, he said, they were "the result of interference by foreign countries who want to impose their own agenda on the Palestinian interests."
Abu Dhabi was the latest stage in a "war of summits" currently taking place in Arab diplomacy. During the Gaza crisis, Qatar tried and failed to obtain a quorum for an emergency Arab League meeting which would have condemned Israel. Rival gatherings of pro-Western and pro-Iranian Arab states then took place in Kuwait and in Doha, respectively. The meeting in Abu Dhabi - which, unlike the Kuwait event, had a specifically political/diplomatic, rather than an economic focus - was the latest consolidating move by the pro-Western camp.
The next high level demonstration by the pro-Iranian camp is set to take place in Syria, to celebrate Hamas's recent "victory" in Gaza.
The Damascus gathering promises to bring together all key members of the Islamist and pro-Iranian regional alliance. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has been invited. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani have also received invitations - as has the pro-Iranian alliance's friend across the water, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The precise contours of the new Middle East Cold War have not yet been finally set, but they are becoming increasingly clear. An interesting aspect is the relatively small presence of Arab governments (as opposed to paramilitary organizations) on the pro-Iranian side.
Qatar appears to be more and more openly opting for the Iran-led axis. Syria, the perennial guardian of the political culture of anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiment, is a charter member of this camp. Lebanon, depending on the results of June's elections, may soon find itself absorbed within this group. But the strongest and most influential of Arab governments - most importantly Egypt and Saudi Arabia - are also the most worried at Iran's emergence as a region-wide force for instability.
Concern at growing Iranian influence is not confined to the Palestinian sphere. Iran's involvement in Iraqi politics is also being observed with concern throughout the Arab world. Countries with large Shi'ite minorities (or in the case of Bahrain - majorities) have particular cause to keep a close eye on Teheran's "outreach."
But the overwhelming public support throughout the Arab world for Iranian-sponsored violence against Western and Israeli targets means that no Arab ruler can afford to ignore Iran's regional ambitions. The Sunni Arab population of the region is thrilled by the pageant of martyrdom, defiance and self-sacrifice put on by the Arab clients of Iran. (It is worth noting in this regard that the Iranians may well be willing to fight Israel to the last Arab. The precise number of Iranian martyrs killed in suicide operations against the West and the Zionists currently stands at zero.)
Arab governments - including Saudi Arabia and Egypt - neither wish nor are able to present an alternative vision of legitimacy to the Islamic-revolution-until-victory version of the Iranians and their clients. For this reason, the deep contours of the anti-Western and anti-Israeli political culture of the region are not shifting with the power realignment currently taking place.
But behind the bickering, the rival summits, the proclamations and the sniping between rival governments' media operations is power politics of the most profoundly serious nature. Teheran's regional influence rests ultimately on the growing sense of Iran as an emerging military power, with accelerating abilities in the key areas of military technology. Monday saw the launch of an Iranian satellite into space, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. It is an important indicator of just how far Teheran's capabilities in rocket technology have progressed. The launch follows recent advances in the Iranian ballistic missile program.
Arab governments are becoming uncomfortably aware that the old shibboleths of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the centrality of the Palestinian issue are increasingly devoid of meaning. There is now a real, non-Arab, nuclear-ambitious force which seeks the transformation of the old order of power in the Middle East.
The war of summits of recent weeks is the visible evidence of the regional order adjusting to take into account this reality. A new phase is beginning.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.