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(photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
A quiet Sunni Arab strategic realignment was the topic of conversation among senior American and Israeli analysts - both official and unofficial - gathered Sunday at the Herzliya Conference run by the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the IDF Herzliya, the opening day of the conference. Many were cautiously optimistic that Iranian influence in the Middle East could be curtailed, and that this process has already begun. The causes: isolation in the international system, economic mismanagement and a growing opposition to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"The Saudis have stopped hiding the fact that there are joint interests for Israel and Saudi Arabia, and [Saudi officials] are telling the media that the Iranian threat is greater than the Israeli one," Col. (res.) Eran Lerman, director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee and a former senior IDF intelligence analyst, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
"It is ironic that [the Sunni Arab states] have lived for two generations with the assumption that the Jews have a nuclear weapon, but only when the Shi'ites are developing one do we hear [that they are developing their own options]," Lerman continued.
There is a real strategic opportunity for Israel to reach out to moderate Sunni governments, asserted Dr. Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group and an expert on US foreign policy. This is "particularly true [in the face of] the active promotion of conflict and the aggressive policies of this particular Iranian government," he told the Post.
According to Robert Einhorn, a former US assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and a member of the American Council on Foreign Relations, "there's a Sunni Arab-Israeli commonality of interest in containing an ideologically aggressive Iran."
Einhorn even told the Post that the recent Gulf Cooperation Council declaration that the Gulf states would seek nuclear technology was "a message to Iran that others can do what they are doing and a message to the United States and the West that they had better stop Iran."
The main pressure on the Iranian regime appears to be local, and the lever of domestic opposition was on everybody's mind at the conference.
While "six months ago, Iranians were proud their country was seen - even in the Arab world - as a leader," said Einhorn, "at this point, they are beginning to see Ahmadinejad as a liability."
According to Bremmer, "this [Iranian] government's economic mismanagement" has left it vulnerable to economic action against the regime, particularly centering on the country's energy supplies. "The Iranian economy is under pressure in a way that Saudi Arabia and Russia are not." It is for this reason that "the Saudis are reluctant to talk about limiting energy production," despite the fact that the price of oil has dropped in recent months from $78 per barrel to the current price of $52. "A $50 price pressures Iran," Bremmer believes.
"There are millions of Iranians who want to see regime change," asserted former senior American defense official Richard Perle, declaring that "the failure to help them [on the part of the US administration] is a shocking dereliction."
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said the American administration saw Iran as increasingly more isolated in the international community. He noted tellingly to conference-goers that "Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are US allies," later listing only four countries which support Iran: Belarus, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela.
"With friends like that," Burns jibed to the audience's chuckles, "you can finish the sentence..."