ANALYSIS: Keeping Iran Away From 'Members-only' Arab Club

Mubarak fears control over 'Arab policy', traditionally dictated by Egypt and the Saudis, will be taken over by Iran.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's concern about Iran's involvement in Gaza does not stem only from Hamas' growing military capabilities. Rather, his primary fear is that control over "Arab policy" - which has traditionally been dictated by Egypt and Saudi Arabia - will be taken over by Iran.

Mubarak is particularly incensed that Syria, whose close ties with Iran he had until recently refrained from criticizing, continues to thwart the Arab League's efforts, as well as his and Saudi King Abdullah's personal efforts, to resolve the crisis in Lebanon. But it is not the Lebanese crisis only that shows signs of Iranian involvement: Iraq is also under Iranian influence, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia have virtually no leverage there, and Sudan also maintains close ties with Iran. Egypt's fear is that Iran is building a web of diplomatic influence among Egypt's neighbors, and thereby building itself up as a rival to the Arab club - and especially to members of what is known as the moderate axis.

But the Arab club itself is not conducting a consistent anti-Iranian policy. In January, Mubarak hosted the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Gholam Ali Hadad Adel. There are periodic Egyptian declarations about plans to renew diplomatic ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia, for its part, maintains close commercial and political ties with Iran (Abdullah invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and promised to host him). Jordan, in contrast, maintains a hard line against Iran. But, unlike Saudi Arabia, it has recently improved its relationship with Syria.

Iranian assistance to Hamas, together with the dependency of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Syria, which "hosts" their leaders in Damascus, presents Egypt with another difficult dilemma, because the continuing Israeli sanctions on Gaza effectively turn Egypt into the only haven for Gaza residents. Officially, Mubarak continues to hold Israel responsible for the situation in Gaza, but he understands he cannot ignore what is happening there, particularly in light of Hamas' breach of the Gaza-Egypt border fence in January.

In his view, the logical solution is the establishment of a Palestinian unity government in which Hamas would participate. That would make it possible to once again deal with Gaza and the West Bank as a single unit, thereby freeing Egypt of its immediate worries about Gaza. Egypt consequently worked hard to conduct a dialogue between Hamas and Fatah and even gave its blessing to Yemen's initiative on this matter. Mubarak hopes that such a deal would restore Hamas to the Arab club and remove it from the influence of "foreign elements," namely Iran. But promoting this process requires support from Syria and Iran - and they are seeking to achieve a package deal that would also include a solution to the Lebanese crisis along the lines proposed by Damascus.

For the moment, this is a vicious circle, and all that Egypt can do to affect it is to partially boycott the Arab League summit taking place in Damascus this weekend, accuse Hamas and Syria of following policies dictated in Tehran, and thereby try to undermine both Hamas' nationalist legitimacy and Syria's Arab legitimacy.