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Commentary: Guyana and Suriname Middle East ties and the Shia/Sunni rivalry
Published on October 5, 2013 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Ray Chickrie

Guyana and Suriname’s ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the richest countries in the world, may pay dividends, especially if US /Iranian ties normalize in light of dramatic developments recently. For the first time since 1979, a US president and his Iranian counterpart have an open line of communication.

Born in Guyana, Raymond Chickrie was a teacher in the New York City public school system and has also taught in the Middle East
US President Barack Obama and the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, recently had a telephone conversation. Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, for the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, held bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Presidents Obama and Rouhani have been exchanging letters for some time now. The tone between Tehran and Washington has definitely been cordial and mutually respectful; especially in that Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved these overtures. And just a few days ago, the Iranian Majlis (Parliament) voted overwhelmingly to approve Rouhani’s diplomatic initiative with the United States.

It is the most serious indication that US-Iranian ties may improve now that President Rouhani is serous in solving the nuclear issue. However, this could all be derailed by powers such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, who prefer to drag the US into a war with Iran, according to media reports.

These developments could very much affect Guyana and Suriname’s ties with Iran because a more moderate leader in Tehran makes it easier for stronger Caribbean Community (CARICOM)/Iran relations, which can translate into tangible economic aid to the region. Both Suriname and Guyana are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) like Iran. Guyana and Suriname are also members of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), which Iran currently chairs.

However, small states such as Guyana and Suriname should be shrewd in dealing with the turbulent Middle East, especially as it relates to the Sunni and Shia rivalry. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon make up the so called “Shia crescent.” While, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf Arab Kingdoms are predominately Sunni Muslims. However, there are considerable numbers of Shias in Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These people, the Arabs, Persians and Turks, have very different narratives of history and on regional conflicts today.

Thus, it was very interesting -- and could have significant repercussions -- how Guyana and Suriname in the past week dealt with ongoing conflicts in the Middle East when their representatives addressed the 68th UN General Assembly.

Suriname’s statement, delivered by its Foreign Minister Winston Lackin, was very tempered, while Guyana’s President Donald Ramotar’s statement on the Middle East situation was very bold and might even be viewed as discordant, since Guyana took a position on the Syria crisis whereas other statements on the issue from CARICOM member states such as St Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize and Grenada were very neutral.

In seeking foreign direct investment (FDI) and capital from the Arab Gulf Sunni regimes, it is important that Guyana and Suriname sit on the fence and see how these thorny issues such as the Syria conflict and the Iranian nuclear dossier play out. While it is safe to be bold on the Palestinian issue, addressing Syria and the Iran nuclear dossier are more problematic.

After all, Syria can’t offer the Caribbean much financial aid and investment as can Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran. Iran is still under an embargo but there are signs of a US/Iran detente and post embargo Iran could be a strong economic partner of Guyana and Suriname.

Iran is one of the richest countries in the world, considering both natural and human resources. This ancient civilization has one of the best human and technology infrastructure in the region and in all areas such as medicine, education, health, agriculture, infrastructure, and manufacturing can offer a lot of help to Guyana and Suriname. Thus, the move by Suriname in sending Dr Anwar Lall Mohammed to attend Rouhani’s inauguration was pragmatic and could pay dividends later when sanctions are lifted.

The previous leader of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo and president of Guyana today, Donald Ramotar, visited the Islamic Republic in 2010 and there were several follow up visits from Tehran to Georgetown but that relationship cooled off after Guyana cancelled Tehran’s offer to map Guyana’s mineral resources. At the same time, Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian leader, visited Guyana’s neighbour Venezuela several times, but never made it to Guyana. It is not know if an invitation was ever extended to him to visit Guyana. It could have also posed a challenge for the PPP regime in Guyana inviting Ahmadinejad to Guyana.

President Ramotar visited Iran as part of former President Bharrat Jagdeo’s delegation to that country. Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett was also part of that delegation. Rodrigues-Birkett was swathed in the black Iranian Chador. At the end of that visit, the two countries signed a few agreements, one by which Iran promised to map Guyana’s mineral resources, which came under heavy local and international criticism. This was followed by several visits from Iranian officials to Guyana.

The promise to map Guyana’s mineral resources never materialized and there was speculation that Guyana caved in to western pressure and ended the project. This, however, was dismissed by Rodrigues-Birkett, who told Guyana’s Stabroek News, “The Iranians have promised that they will map our natural resources. It was a number of years ago but we didn’t move far with the whole issue because there are other countries that are also more experienced in this area… it has nothing to do … with this matter… we just didn’t move far with that.”

Rodrigues-Birkett was referring to Argentina’s state prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s accusations that Iran has “terror cells” in Guyana. Guyana is still awaiting specific facts to back up such allegations from Argentina, Guyana’s chief presidential spokesman Roger Luncheon has said.

“The Argentine government has not submitted in any official way that they have evidence of terror cells set up here by the Iranians,” Dr Luncheon said.

Luncheon said that CARICOM also demanded answers from Argentina.

“Those disclosures were the first that had been brought to our attention, indirectly, because I know for a fact that the Argentine government and international bodies have not submitted to the government of Guyana in any official way that they have evidence or they have concerns about setting up of terrorist cells by Iran in Guyana,” Luncheon added.

Nisman also accused Iran of having terrorist cells in Suriname. The Dutch Foreign Minister, Frans Timmermans said to the media that he has no intelligence to support Nisman’s accusation. The former justice minister of Suriname Chandrikapersad Santokhi also denied the presence of any Iranian cells in his country

Another sign of the tempering relationship with Iran was the low level delegation that Guyana sent to the 16th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit that Iran hosted in August. NAM was always an important forum for Guyana and it was quite unusual that, after much deliberation, Guyana decided to send Housing Minister Irfan Ally. A few days before the summit, there was another twist of events. Narine Nawblatt, Guyana’s High Commissioner to Canada and former ambassador to Brazil reportedly represented Guyana at the NAM summit. There is no confirmation that he made it to Tehran. This was one of the lowest level delegations to a NAM summit in Guyana’s history.

Rodrigues-Birkett said at the time that “due to protracted domestic interests” Ramotar stayed home. According to Rodrigues-Birkett, she had to chair the Caribbean Development Cooperation Committee in El Salvador and could not travel to Iran.

Interestingly, the deputy foreign minister of Iran, Amir Mansour Borgehei’s visit to Guyana in June 2013 to invite Ramotar to the NAM summit did not make news in Guyana. The visit wasn’t covered by the Guyana News Agency (GINA).

During that same trip to the region, Borgehei visited neighbouring Suriname, where the two countries signed a declaration in which the Islamic Republic donated US$1.2 million to Suriname. The money is earmarked for purchasing tractors for Suriname’s rice industry. Borgehei’s visit to Paramaribo was widely covered by the state and private media there.

Suriname, which has never been a major player in the Non-Aligned Movement, sent Michel Kerpens, ambassador at large, and chief of cabinet of the minister of foreign affairs to attend the 16th NAM summit.

Iran and Suriname have close ties and recently signed several bilateral agreements in Iran.

Suriname, according to the Iranian News Agency, was the only CARICOM state that attended Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration. Presidential envoy of Suriname, Dr Anwar Lall Mohammed, represented President Desi Bouterse at the inauguration.

Perhaps in an effort to mend ties with the Islamic Republic, Ramotar decided to send his Middle East envoy, George Hallaq, this past August to Tehran to personally congratulate Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani has expressed his desire to expand regional and international cooperation between Iran and Guyana during his presidency.

With Rouhani in power, and with the support of Khamenei, ties with Guyana may improve. Georgetown may now be encouraged to reciprocate by inviting Rouhani to visit Guyana, since former President Jagdeo had visited Iran at the invitation of the Islamic regime.

Hallaq also delivered a written message from Ramotar to outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling for closer ties with Iran. Ahmadinejad said relations between Iran and Guyana will never be “weakened or severed” despite the long geographical distance between the two countries, according to the Iranian news agency Fars.

Ahmadinejad noted that the two countries “are on the same front,” and urged officials from both countries to explore areas of cooperation.

However, Guyana and Suriname should approach ties with region through the lens of the Shia/Sunni rivalry as they seek stronger economic cooperation from Sunni Gulf Kingdoms and Iran in order to diversify their economic and financial partners. These two OIC members, Guyana and Suriname, must be careful not to be perceived as taking sides in the Sunni/Shia rivalry, especially as events continue to unfold in the region and power and authority are always shifting. Maybe it is best for them to follow the Oman model of dealing with the Arabs, Persians, Turks, Sunnis and Shias.

Thus, it was rather bold when President Ramotar of Guyana, a country seeking investment and financial backing from Sunni Gulf Kingdoms and Iran, in his opening statement at the UN last week, in addressing the crisis in the Middle East -- Syria, Egypt and Palestine -- alleged double standards by major world powers in dealing with the latter issues. He claimed that terrorists, part of the so-called rebels fighting in Syria, are suddenly “freedom fighters,” and that global powers tacitly condoned the military coup in Egypt by remaining silent.

Ramotar said, “We hope too that there would be a withdrawal of terrorist forces operating in Syria. After all, they cannot be terrorists when they were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, but freedom fighters when fighting the Syrian government. A terrorist is a terrorist.”

While many may agree with what he said, it maybe not have been prudent for Guyana, especially since Ramotar is going up against a very powerful alliance -- Israel, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United States, in making such a bold statement. This alliance is accused of sending billions of dollars in weapons and aid to the Syrian “rebels,” which is alleged to have al Qaeda and Wahabbi/Salafi elements.

In contrast, Suriname’s Foreign Minister Winston Lackin, in addressing the Middle East crisis at the UN last week, was more diplomatic in choosing his words, considering his country’s economic goals of seeking more investment from such countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), funds from the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and aspirations to host an OIC office in its capital.

He said, “We express the hope that a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will get more substance, allowing the peoples of both countries the prospect to peace and prosperity. Suriname maintains the position that the multilateral process within the United Nations should prevail in finding a peaceful solution for the crisis in Syria.”

It’s a delicate game of diplomacy dealing with the Middle East, and CARICOM nations such as Guyana and Suriname must be shrewd in how they handle their Middle East ties. Imagine just what the US President Barack Obama is facing in extending an olive branch to Iran after decades of frozen ties. An Israeli official who requested anonymity said to the media: “All governments in the moderate Sunni states, especially in the Gulf, are very worried about the thaw in relations between the US and Iran.”

The senior Israeli official said, “They’re afraid that the American-Iranian deal will come at their expense. There’s pressure not only in Jerusalem, but in the Gulf as well. They’re really wetting their pants.”
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