Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia are determined not to allow the Qatari emir to open the door to a pro-Iranian victory over Gaza, the way he last year orchestrated a political victory for Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon.
Because of the deep controversy dividing the Arab League, the Gaza conflict has generated three separate Arab summits in the space of four days.
The first was called by the Saudi King for Gulf rulers to meet in Riyadh Thursday, Jan. 15. He acted on an urgent appeal delivered personally by Mubarak Tuesday.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources report that the two rulers were both concerned with finding a way to stop the Qatari emir from inviting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a big surprise to the summit he had convened in Doha for Saturday, Jan. 17.
Al-Thani explained to his friends that the Gaza war is of regional import and therefore, without Iran's weight, no Arab resolution would be worth much. Mubarak warned Abdullah that whereas the Qatari emir used the Lebanese crisis to award Tehran a back seat role, he is exploiting the Gaza crisis to place Iran at center stage and anoint the Islamic Republic the top power of the Middle East.
The Egyptian and Saudi rulers decided that the only effective way to pre-empt the emir was to secure a Hamas-Israeli ceasefire in Gaza – or at least the date for one to go into effect – before the Doha summit gets underway. To achieve this, Hamas would have to be persuaded to defy Tehran; Ahmadinejad would then stay away from the Doha summit and it would be a flop.
Washington and Jerusalem know as well as Cairo and Riyadh that Tehran put Hamas up to refusing to renew the six-month ceasefire when it expired in December and launching instead an 80-rocket barrage against Israeli cities. That barrage on Dec. 24, provoked the Israeli offensive three days later.
Tehran also made Hamas spurn Cairo's ceasefire proposals last week and later to offer consent on conditions manifestly unacceptable to Egypt and Israel.
Should Tehran insult the Qatari emir and risk further alienating the Egyptians and Saudis?
For now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources say the heads of the regime in Tehran face three hard decisions:
1. Should they order Hamas to fight on in Gaza for another few days in order to derail the US-Egyptian-Israel ceasefire plan? This would be taken in Washington as an Iranian move to delay the opening of direct talks with the Obama administration the while improving their initial bargaining position.
Iranian policy-makers were astonished to find that the West never jumped to their plot to stir up a new Middle East war in Gaza so as to divert international attention from their nuclear program. Since the gambit was so successful, why not go on with it?
2. Should they tell Hamas to accept a ceasefire? This would be counter-productive to the Qatari emir's scheme for placing Iran at the center of the Middle East and Arab arena.
3. Is it is worth the Iranian president's while to accept his invitation to attend the Doha summit?
There would be a price to pay. Tehran would thus align itself with the minority faction led by Qatar, Syria and Hizballah of the Arab world and further alienate Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Is that price worth paying?
Furthermore, Ahmadinejad, if he went to Doha, could not just toss out his usual bombast but would have to address the crisis seriously, adopt a leadership position and lay down a course of action.
On the other hand, declining the Qatari ruler's invitation would insult Iran's sympathizers in the Arab world.
Thursday night, Al-Thani was still determined to hold his summit.
Fourteen members of the 22-strong Arab league will attend the meeting. It is one ruler short of an approved Arab summit with authority for passing binding resolutions.
Abdullah and Mubarak stand by their insistence that the Arab summit meeting in Kuwait Sunday, Jan. 18, is the one competent to discuss the Gaza question.
One thing is certain: Ahmadinejad will not be invited to that one.