Iran Occupies Center Stage at Davos But Finds Itself Under the Microscope

01/31/2014 07:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2014

A lot of things happen behind the scenes in Davos, in parallel with the official program of the World Economic Forum (WEF), traditionally attended by more than 40 heads of state and government. The star this year was Iranian President Hassan Rohani. But Professor Klaus Schwab, the visionary and energetic Executive Chairman of the WEF, took him away from the spotlights into closed sessions, to discuss the Syrian and Palestinian questions, and search for new ideas that could revive the search for solutions there and elsewhere. In those brainstorming sessions, participants work hard to find a way to overcome the deadlock and come up with new approaches to issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In Davos, behind closed doors, more than 25 ministers and non-establishment intellectuals rubbed minds in search for ways to support the efforts of Joint International-Arab Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva, to launch a transitional political process in Syria. Iran, which was strongly present in Davos, but absent from Montreux and Geneva, occupied the center stage, but it is also now under close scrutiny.

The climate at the 44th Annual Meeting of the WEF in Davos was markedly different from the sessions of the two previous years, when the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood went to the Alps with a triumphalist air over what they falsely perceived as their victory. Back then, one of those who were overly celebrated at the WEF, told me half-jokingly, "We will destroy you," in reference to civil activists, moderates and secularists. This year, the rockstar treatment previously afforded to Muslim Brotherhood leaders at Davos is gone, and Brotherhood-affiliated participants were ordinary participants. There was no enchanted mob surrounding Rashid Ghannushi, secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood's party in Tunisia, this time around, as he crossed the corridors of the conference venue.

Tunisia is now the experiment and the model for having redressed the distortion imposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and is being celebrated internationally because the champions of the civil state there precluded the imposition of religion on the state. Tunisian women have been able to impose themselves as full partners rather than "complements" to men, while takfir, the act of declaring people with different opinions as apostates, has now been outlawed in the country. Thus, in the span of three years, Tunisia -- and Egypt too -- has proven that it can stand up to the monopoly of power by tyrants, regardless of their ideological affiliations.

Rohani in Davos was the star, with his message of moderation. He addressed businesspeople and energy firms, calling on them to invest in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But reading between the lines of his speech at the forum -- something that the majority of people who are not familiar with the Iranian political discourse have failed to do -- revealed the limits of his independence vis-à-vis the pillars of the regime in Tehran, namely, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) led by Soleimani. To be sure, the Iranian President Hassan Rohani used the same rhetoric used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in diagnosing the Syrian crisis, reducing the whole conflict to something that falls under the "fight against terror" label.

The Iranian president, who took full advantage of the charm of his broad smile, spoke about Iran's desire to "deepen ties with neighboring countries," mentioning by name countries like Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asian states. But when alluding to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in the context of his remarks about neighboring countries, he reduced them to being nothing more than "riparian states of the Persian Gulf." Iranian President Hassan Rohani went to Davos, boasting Iran's achievements in science and technology -- including nuclear technology. He spoke about rearranging the world order, and about a new era in regional security. He spoke about oppressive forces in the region, and portrayed his country as the only partner qualified to safeguard regional security, which is indispensable to international security.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has already began to lose some of the charm of his broad smile, because scrutinizing his words and deeds has now placed him under the microscope. His call for a new joint security regime in the Gulf, including the six Arab countries of the GCC, appears on the surface as an epitome of cooperation of moderation. That is, until its true goal becomes clear, namely, dismantling the GCC and establishing Iran as the regional hegemony that is solely eligible to safeguard regional security. Javad Zarif is fond of television cameras, and does not trust the print press -- as he himself says. This is interesting because revisionism is possible with sound bites, compared to written statements.

His reputation is that he likes "showing off" on television, as one Iranian has put it. His signature mark is his "wit," which has brought him closer to people like Catherine Ashton. So much so that she often concludes their conversations by stressing that she would keep in touch with him as usual, via e-mail, using the word "love." These appearances are important and useful no doubt, but the broad-smile diplomacy will not be enough to entice the world, as long as Iranian policy is to make the regime in Tehran a partner of the tyrant in Damascus -- which is exactly what American actors have their eyes on.

President Hassan Rohani does not have the final say over Syria in Iran. It is the IRGC that does. Some assert that if it were up to Rohani, then he would have withdrawn from Syria and would have stopped supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon with arms and funds. The reason is that Rohani's priorities are economic recovery achievable by lifting the sanctions and openness to the West. Rohani fully understands the impact of Iranian policies in Syria and Lebanon on his efforts to rid Iran from the sanctions. President Rohani understands that among the most important U.S. laws that prevent any company from investing more than $20 million in Iran -- while Iran needs investments in its oil sectors of up to $20 or $30 billion -- is the D'Amato Bill. The bill links Iran's terrorist activities in Lebanon and Palestine to the ban on investments in Iran. As long as this bill is in force, Iran will not be able to sell oil and gas to the extent that it needs to save its economy.

Since the sale of oil and gas as such is not on the table for the time being, because of the D'Amato Bill, Iran will remain weak and marginalized no matter how much stubbornness it shows and/or pretends to be the victorious party. President Rohani, like former President Khatami -- as well as President Rafsanjani to a lesser degree because of his financial record -- is indeed popular. But the conservative right in Tehran hates what Rohani represents, especially in terms of openness to the West and his desire to reform Iran's policies.

Decision-makers in the U.S. Congress as well as the National Security Council support President Barack Obama's policy of encouraging Rohani and Tehran to sign a nuclear deal with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. However, there is the issue of Iranian foreign policy -- particularly toward Syria, Lebanon and Palestine -- which American decision-makers link to lifting the sanctions on Iran. This policy is the purview of the IRGC.

Decision-makers in Tehran, for their part, use Iran's influence and role in Syria and Hezbollah as bargaining chips in negotiations with the United States. Full independence of decision is not possible, no matter how much the moderate camp wants to break off from the Iranian policy drafted by the Supreme Leader and the IRGC.

There is a view that calls for assisting the moderate camp by helping Rohani rescue the Iranian economy from the sanctions. This view purports that this would weaken the IRGC and its backers, especially after dismantling the Iranian nuclear program. But in reality, a rapid improvement in the Iranian economy to respond to Iranian moderation would empower the party represented by the IRGC, enabling it to fulfill its objectives in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

It is best to weaken the conservative right, rather than rescuing it and handing it rapid economic recovery on a platter to continue its plans in Syria. However, it is also necessary to find ways to strengthen Iranian moderation in the region and the world, instead of continuously second-guess it and see it as part of an Iranian good-cop, bad-cop routine.

The participants in the framework known as the Informal Gathering of World Economic Leaders (IGWEL) in Davos, focused extensively on the need for a Saudi-Iranian accord, in order to begin a constructive and creative dialogue between the two countries. Prince Turki al-Faisal explained that he was attending the meeting in a non-official capacity, and stated candidly that he had no confidence in the Iranian statements, especially as regards the Syrian issue.

Some believe that Iran is truly not ready yet for concessions, whether in Iraq where Iran has clung on to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki -- who is firmly opposed by Riyadh -- or whether on the form of post-Assad Syria. Everything that Tehran wants Riyadh does not want, and vice versa.

Others believe that assuming that Iran would remain a marginalized and weakened country as a result of not being able to sell oil and gas is an unwise wager that does not constitute a prudent policy. Indeed, investing in efforts to weaken the Iranian right requires making the distinction between it and the moderate camp. There are many ways to achieve this through a much-needed Saudi-Iranian cooperation. Syria requires international dialogue, accord, and cooperation that would include the Saudi and Iranian sides. Lebanon also requires such dialogue, accord, and cooperation.

Sources familiar with the back channels of the negotiations on the Syrian crisis have reported that work is underway to develop the idea of building a security structure that combines the regular army and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as part of a transitional authority, and a strategy to counter extremism and terrorism. Yet Assad's place in the transitional process remains an obstacle because of the Russian and Iranian attitudes.

What has become clear between Montreux, Geneva, and Davos is that there are common grounds for the international majority, in that it agrees on that all non-Syrian combatants must leave Syria, and on the need to implement the Geneva Communiqué calling for the establishment of a transitional authority in Syria. These two issues could become the foundation of a UN Security Council resolution that would surely test Russia and China's intentions, and challenge them not to wield their dual veto.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought to Davos from Montreux a daily campaign against Bashar al-Assad personally, but not the entire regime in Damascus, calling Assad a magnet that is attracting terrorism to the entire region. Kerry also brought to Davos the fruit of his efforts in 22 visits to work with the Palestinians and the Israelis on a framework agreement, which would contain the outlines of a settlement between them, and which is expected to be announced sometime in the next two weeks.

Palestinian businessman Munib al-Masri brought Palestine with him to Davos, rallying leading Palestinian businesspeople who together had launched a distinctive initiative at the WEF Middle East and North Africa conference in Istanbul nearly a year and a half ago. They are behind a new approach to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state, through cooperation between the Palestinian and Arab private sectors on the one hand, and the Israeli private sector on the other. The title of the initiative was Breaking the Impasse; it had come into existence starting with the back channels of the WEF.

Prince Turki al-Faisal brought to Davos the Arab initiative for peace with Israel, emphasizing that the Arab side remains committed to its initiative and ready to implement it, and that the ball is in Israel's court. Twenty-two Arab countries and 57 Islamic nations had approved this strategic initiative, which dates back to 2002. Israel ignored the initiative, despite the fact that it entails Arab and Islamic willingness to normalize relations with Israel and sign a peace treaty with it in return for ending the occupation. So the question for Israel is: Why has it rejected it? What does it want? And what is it waiting for if it really wants peace?

Davos is not just an annual meeting. It is a continuous process for generating new ideas, thinking outside the box, and working hard to find new approaches. So credit must be given to Professor Schwab for the visionary platform he has given to the world.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi