The 13th Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit closed with traditional optimism with no plan of action how to meet these expectations of unity and solidarity.
Perhaps only one gesture towards achieving this unity was Turkey’s equidistant show of warmth to Iran and Saudi Arabia and President Hassan Rouhani’s acceptance of a formal visit to Ankara — after Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz — made prior to the OIC summit. Among the — most expected — absentees was Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose relations with Turkey have not seen much improvement despite Saudi mediation for a long time ahead of the OIC summit to hand over OIC presidency to Turkey. In his speech of transfer of presidency Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shokry spoke about everything except about the actual issue at hand, and left the stage without waiting for a handshake with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while he approached the dais to take over the presidency. The divide was so clearly visible in a summit called to address the theme of“Unity and Solidarity”.
Saudi Arabia’s mediation efforts failed to bring Egypt and Turkey together to cooperate on Syrian crisis.
But the most important presence was that of Rouhani and King Salman who did not even shake hands. Rouhani made a passionate conciliatory speech specifically saying that ‘Saudi Arabia and Iran are not a problem for each other’. But the summit concluded with an expected anti-Iran communiqué which says “The conference deplored Iran's interference in the internal affairs of the States of the region and other member states including Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, and its continued support for terrorism”. Though it also stresses for “cooperative relations” between Iran and other Muslim countries, message sent to Iran is quite loud and clear. As Syria remains suspended for last two summits, Syrian rebels represented by Syrian National Council were invited to represent Syria — these rebels are deemed by Iran and Syria to be “terrorists”.
The Iranian president skipped the concluding session where these resolutions were to be presented. Iran had warned the OIC not to include such resolutions as it will harm the unity and solidarity but the majority of member states approved these resolutions showing Iran’s increasing isolation within Islamic countries, thanks to its role in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. No surprise then that the Iranian media launched a campaign accusing OIC of being biased and dominated by some members, Saudi Arabia particularly.
This shows the widening gap between Iran and key Arab and Islamic countries on issues of regional security.
The inclusion of Iran in the final communiqué — which accuses Iran of supporting terrorism and Hezbollah, interference in internal affairs of neighbours, comes at a point when Iran’s dependency on Russia for its security and strategic interests in the region has increased. It is unlikely that Russia remains in long-term hostile relations with major Arab and Sunni states and there are already signs of normalising relations between Turkey and Russia and Saudi-Russian cooperation. Iran’s apparent dependency on Russia may not be as reliable as Saudi Arabia’s partnership with its western allies, which is now indeed on a decline. These resolutions are major setbacks for Iran's image and the diplomatic efforts within Islamic countries. Any excessive criticism or confrontation of the OIC by Iranian officials will only deepen Iran’s negative perception in Sunni countries.
Only months before the Syrian crisis, the annual reports of the OIC had generously appreciated Iran’s improving research and development sector — something most Sunni States have failed to do better. Iranian universities stand among the top universities among those in all OIC countries. At some point, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was among the most popular Muslim leaders in the Arab streets, thanks to his anti Israel rhetoric. Iran stood second after Turkey in research and development spending according to an OIC 2012 report. Iranian influence in art, culture and literature is so deep in all Muslim countries — particularly in non-Arab countries — that the Arab countries can hardly replace Iran despite their huge export of Wahhabi/Salafi literature.
That is where Iran’s relation with Pakistan, Turkey and Indian Muslim communities and the largest Muslim population of the OIC has to be understood. With or without an Islamist regime in Tehran, the nature of Iran’s influence will remain the same.
So where do OIC-Iran relations stand after condemning each other?
Perhaps no major change will come as these resolutions are largely of a political nature and non-binding. The Iranian reaction to contain the influence of such resolutions will be through enhancing bilateral engagement as the case of Turkey-Iran and Iran-Pakistan relations indicates. Despite having bitter differences over Syrian crisis, and media-driven hostility between Turkey and Iran, the two countries have steadily developed their trade relations since nuclear sanctions were lifted. Their history of cooperation during the sanctions period has just been exposed by the arrest of Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab in US who successfully sought sanction-proof ways for huge financial transactions between the two countries. Zarrab’s business relations involve influential individuals in Iran’s most powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council, whose deteriorating relations with Rouhani have contributed well to Iran-Turkey hostilities.
Notwithstanding that these resolutions were known to the Iranian leadership, Rouhani decided to attend the summit and later on, headed to Ankara to have bilateral meetings with his Turkish counterpart. From the Turkish perspective, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are irreplaceable for various reasons. Both Turkey and Pakistan have been trying to find a role to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi-Turkey relations — though seen with great expectation in forming an alliance — have little in substance to sustain, as the two nations do not share much beyond a limit and the Egyptian crisis is just one example.
The only significant outcome of the 13th summit is a decision to create an Istanbul-based counterterrorism centre, touted as the ‘Islamic Interpol’. This is important because counterterrorism efforts by western countries have become extremely unpopular and brought heavy political liabilities for most governments, as in the case of drone attacks. A fight against terrorism and extremism led by Islamic countries would have greater legitimacy than the one led by western countries. Cooperation between this centre and other international institutions will be more effective than the efforts of individual countries.
The centre’s real test will be to find a mechanism that gives its members no option to choose between a good terrorist and bad terrorist.
The author holds a PhD in Middle East Studies and is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs. Views expressed are personal.