More than four dozen governments, international organizations and financial institutions will be represented when Middle East talks open in Annapolis today. But it is the uninvited guests -- Iran and its allies Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and other militant factions -- that may have the biggest impact on the peace talks.
Containing Iran and its regional influence is the ambitious challenge for all the attendees except Syria, a goal officials from many participating nations contend is as important as producing peace in the Middle East.
"Iran will be the 5,000-pound elephant in the room, even though it's not present," said former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. "It's in everyone's calculation and motivation . . . [plus] the impact of Hamas and the role it can play in wreaking havoc with whatever happens in Annapolis. . . . The balance of power is not in favor of peacemakers but in favor of the troublemakers."
Iran's impact on the peace process has grown in direct relation to its political and strategic gains over the past year, particularly on three of Israel's borders. Hamas, aided and armed by Iran, last year won the most democratic elections ever held in the Arab world and took control of the Palestinian government and parliament.
The United Nations reported recently that Iran has re-armed Lebanon's Hezbollah movement since its 33-day military showdown with Israel last year. And Syria, Iran's closest Arab ally, has the power to be a spoiler and may have been caught trying to acquire nuclear technology this year.
Iran's growing role in Iraq, where its Shiite brethren control the government, has also changed regional dynamics, particularly for the region's Sunni governments that decided to come to Annapolis.
"They've decided that the problem in the Middle East begins with 'I' but ends with 'N'," a senior U.S. official said in a recent interview. "The problem in the Middle East now isn't Israel anymore, or the Israelis, it is Iran. . . . I think the Arab states believe [the peace] . . . needs to be resolved, as part of their effort to deal with the problem of Iran."
The same is true for the United States. "Over the past year, Washington has come to see the containment of Iran as the primary objective of its Middle East policy. It holds Tehran responsible for the rising violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lebanon's tribulations, and Hamas's intransigence, and senses that the balance of power in the region is shifting toward Iran and its Islamist allies," Vali R. Nasr and Ray Takeyh write in the January 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
‘Unresolved tensions that it can exploit’
The common fear has effectively joined the United States, Israel and Sunni governments behind the goals of promoting peace and containing their common nemesis, experts say. "As long as there is no peace, Iran's influence in the Arab world continues to grow. There are unresolved tensions that it can exploit," said Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Iran has made no secret of its opposition to the meeting since the Arab League agreed Friday to go to Annapolis. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said yesterday that the Annapolis conference would not resolve the 60-year dispute. "All politicians in the world are aware that this conference is doomed to failure," Khamenei said in a televised speech. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blasted Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, for agreeing to attend.
Iran will still have leverage in the event of peace, Arab officials concede. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said yesterday that any peace agreement would eventually have to include Hamas, since it controls Gaza and half the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the two major Palestinian parties -- Hamas and Fatah, which controls the West Bank -- would need to join a national unity government, he said.
Search for consensus
An agreement signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders would need ratification by their respective parliaments, and Hamas still controls the Palestinian parliament.
"Unless you bring Hamas in tune with what is happening on the peace side, you are really not fulfilling a basic requirement," Faisal said. "One man cannot make peace; not even half a people can make peace," he told a roundtable of U.S. journalists. "There has to be consensus about peace among the Palestinians for this to go smoothly."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.