Beyond the Prism: The Arab League should sanction Iran

After greater involvement in both Libya and Syria, the time has come for the Arab League to take steps against the Iranian regime.

Arab League headquarters in Cairo 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Arab League headquarters in Cairo 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since its establishment in 1945 the Arab League has been regarded as an incompetent body that has been deeply divided on political issues. The organization did not play a major role in the most significant regional developments and failed to gain much respect – either in the Western world or among Arab citizens.
A poll offered by the League’s English-language website is a perfect reflection of this reality. Readers are asked to rate the new website and can choose among three options: excellent, very good, or good.
Nonetheless, due to the sweeping changes of the past year across the Arab world, the Arab League has gone through the largest transformation since its establishment.
As Arab television networks and social media services broadcast daily the butchering of civilians by their leaders, the League is in a critical phase of its existence and now has to prove its relevance more than ever, especially in the eyes of its Arab citizens. This understanding led the League to more active involvement in Libya and Syria.
In February 2011, the Arab League suspended Libya and subsequently asked the United Nations Security Council to endorse a no-fly zone over the country. This move paved the way for military intervention. Without this decision, it’s doubtful the United States and the Europeans would have been willing to get involved militarily once again in a Muslim country after Afghanistan and Iraq. Libya’s suspension was only the second in the League’s history, the first being of Egypt after it signed a peace accord with Israel.
In November, Syria, a founding member, became the third country whose membership was suspended. In addition, the Arab League adopted sanctions banning the traveling of top Syrian officials and figures to Arab countries as well as freezing their deposits, banning transactions with the Syrian central bank, freezing the financial assets of the Syrian government, halting financial transactions, freezing the funding of projects on Syrian territory and stopping flights to and from Syria.
An Arab action plan to resolve the crisis in Syria was signed by the Syrian government on December 19, according to which the Syrian government committed to halt all acts of violence from any source, release detainees, withdraw armed forces from all cities and residential districts and open the way for Arab League monitors to move freely in all parts of Syria to observe the situation.
Nevertheless, the League has been criticized from all sides, and the effectiveness of its sanctions has been questioned. An Arab League consensus was once again missing as Iraq and Lebanon voted against the measures, whereas Jordan supported them but later backed out. Arab League decisions are binding only for those states that voted for them.
The observer mission also came under heavy criticism as the Syrian regime failed to abide by its commitments and the killings by pro-regime forces accelerated. Anwer Malek, an Algerian observer, quit the mission and called it a “farce.” He claimed that “the regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime.”
The appointment of Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi to head the observers created great controversy and didn’t help the credibility of the mission. Dabi, whose own role in the Darfur genocide has been raised, is a loyalist of Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
Notwithstanding the criticisms and controversies, it is important to point out that the Arab League’s punitive measures against Syria were the first of their kind in the organization’s history vis-à-vis a member state. Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad committed greater massacres against their own people, yet the revolutionary wave of 2011 was the trigger for the League to be more active.
The Arab League should now adopt sanctions against non-member Iran, since its destabilizing efforts in countries with Shi’ite populations constitute the greatest threat to the Sunni regimes. Iranian nuclear capabilities could be an existential threat to many Arab states and would certainly lead to even more ferocious subversion by the Iranians and their allies. Iranian support for the Assad regime is an additional reason for the Arab League to act.
The grave concern of many Arab states with regard to Iranian domination is well known.
Iran’s export of revolution first succeeded in Lebanon, destabilizing the central government there. Following the US withdrawal, Sunni leaders believe Iraq is now on its way to Iranian domination. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was quoted in US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as saying that the US-led invasion gave Iraq to Iran “on a golden platter” and describing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as “Iranian, 100 percent.”
Referring to Iran, Abdullah called to “cut off the head of the snake.” Saudi Arabia has every reason to be anxious about the possibility of a nuclear Iran as three million Shi’ites live in its oil-rich eastern provinces.
The radical Shi’ite Islamist Iran sees Bahrain, with its Shi’ite majority, as Iran’s 14th province and seeks to undermine that regime as well. Not surprisingly, according to US diplomatic cables King Hamed bin Issa Al Khalifa argued forcefully for stopping the Iranian nuclear program: “That program must be stopped... the danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.”
United Arab Emirates Ambassador to Washington Yousef Otaiba openly stated in 2010 that it would be better to take out the Iranian nuclear sites militarily than to live under their shadow. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed also promoted military action against Iran. Iranian expansionism constitutes a great threat to the other Arab states with significant Shi’ite populations: Kuwait, Qatar and Yemen.
Iran has also been accused of providing riot control gear and paramilitary training to Syrian security forces, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has been providing technical advice and equipment to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Iranian Quds Force Commander Ghassem Soleimani’s recent visit to Damascus is a further proof of direct high-level cooperation between the two states. Iran was also accused of helping Syria evade oil sanctions by attempting to bring Syrian oil to Tehran for resale. Imagine what steps a nuclear Iran would be willing to take to save its closest ally, or how Assad would behave under an Iranian nuclear umbrella.
Iran with nuclear weapons is a major threat to the countries of the Arab Peninsula, perhaps even more so than for the Western world. Instead of waiting for the United States or for Israel to take care of the dirty work for them, the time has come for the Arab League to adopt sanctions against Iran. Such sanctions could send a clear message to Iran, as well as to Security Council members China and Russia, and could actually reduce the likelihood of military confrontation.
The writer is project coordinator at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.