Thursday, April 06, 2006

Many Gulf Arabs Uneasy About Iran

Jim Krane, SeattlePI:
It's not often the United States, Israel and the Gulf Arab states worry about the same thing. But right now, they are all focused on Iran. The country's spiraling militarism - trumpeted this week in missile tests and military maneuvers - plus its influence in Iraq and its controversial president, appear to be making some Arab states more nervous that there could be future menace in Tehran's ways.

Yet, many here have been reluctant to speak out because they feel stuck between favoring Iran or favoring its arch-enemy Israel, both states with which Arabs have fought bloody wars.

"There is the feeling that attacking Iran at the moment plays into the hands of Israel. Gulf countries don't want to play that game," said Dubai-based political analyst Abdul Khaleq Abdulla. "But Tehran deserves a lot of this. Unfortunately, it's going in a very worrying direction." READ MORE

The Arab world has long had on-and-off tense relations with Persian Iran. Many Arab countries backed Saddam Hussein in Iraq's 1980s war against Iran. They also have worried for decades that Iran's Shiite-majority Islamic theocracy could spill over onto into their largely Sunni countries, all of which have Shiite minorities.

Relations have soured since the election last year of firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since then, Abdulla said, Arab Gulf countries have offered quiet support for moves against Iran's nuclear program, which, despite Tehran's assurances to the contrary, many fear is aimed at creating weapons.

Gulf Arab countries also would be likely to back U.N. Security Council moves against Iran should Tehran refuse to halt uranium enrichment, said Mustafa Alani, a military analyst with Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

"If the Security Council imposes restrictions on Iran, these countries will be happy to join those sanctions or boycott against Iran," he said.

Yet the worry over Iran does not mean Arab nations are totally supportive of the U.S. position toward Tehran. Indeed, many here say their greatest concern is that the United States might launch military action against Iran - a move they fear would destabilize the region and draw retaliation against Arab states.

Many Gulf Arabs say the United States empowered Iran by invading Iraq in 2003. The Iraq war destroyed an Arab military, led by Saddam, seen regionally as a bulwark against Iranian domination of the Persian Gulf, while leaving Baghdad open to Iranian political manipulation, Abdulla said.

Top intelligence officers from several Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been meeting in hopes of forging a coordinated effort to block Iran's interference in Iraq, several Arab diplomats told The Associated Press this week. The meetings came after several Arab leaders voiced concerns about possible Shiite domination of Iraq.

Since Iran began publicizing military maneuvers and tests of missiles and torpedoes this week, Arab pundits also have warned that Ahmadinejad appears to be exhibiting the type of defiance that has brought down other leaders.

Kuwait's daily newspaper Al-Siyassah said Wednesday that Iran's military swagger resembled that of Gamal Abdul-Nasser's Egypt and Saddam's Iraq just before they provoked punishing attacks by the West.

In Monday's London-based Asharq al-Awsat, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, director of Al-Arabiya TV channel in Dubai, went further, saying Ahmadinejad's war games were giving America "an excuse to start a showdown."

"Iran is wasting money and inviting the hostility of the world, especially the world's big players," al-Rashed wrote. "A future war will destroy everything Iran has achieved in a matter of days, if not hours, as happened in the case of Saddam."

Not all Gulf Arab leaders agree, and Iran assured its neighbors that the maneuvers and missile tests aren't aimed at them. It made clear they were meant to impress the United States and Israel.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Wednesday that the kingdom sees no threat in Iran's military maneuvers or its civilian nuclear power ambitions. Instead, Prince Saud, who said he would soon visit Tehran, said it was Israel's nuclear monopoly that posed the greatest threat to the region.

Despite the general nonchalance over Iran's military tests, there is unease over Tehran's intentions.

"No expert in the region takes this backward technology seriously," Alani said of Iran's missiles and torpedoes. "What is frightening is the message the new Iranian administration is conveying: They are ready for a challenge and they are willing to take that challenge as far as possible."

Contributing to this report were AP correspondents Nadia Abou El-Magd in Cairo, Egypt; Diana Elias in Kuwait City, Kuwait; Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Donna Abu Nasr in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Sam F. Ghattas in Beirut, Lebanon.