AP: Iran and its U.S.-allied Arab neighbors have long had testy relations. Now the talk is getting tougher as they compete for power in the Middle East. Associated Press
By ANNA JOHNSON
Associated Press Writer
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – Iran and its U.S.-allied Arab neighbors have long had testy relations. Now the talk is getting tougher as they compete for power in the Middle East.
Nowhere was the friction more evident than at the World Economic Forum held in Jordan over the weekend. The conference was supposed to promote regional collaboration. Instead Arab nations gave Iran the cold shoulder, underscoring their resentment to Tehran’s growing influence in the region.
Iran set the hostile tone when a few delegates led by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki harshly criticized the Arabs along with the United States and Israel, Tehran’s two main enemies.
The Arabs responded in kind.
At one panel on peace and stability, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas put a hard-line, influential Iranian on the spot.
The Palestinian, Saeb Erekat, chided Mohammed J.A. Larijani, a former Iranian deputy foreign minister, telling him Iran should stop its anti-Israel rhetoric and help create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“Add Palestine to the map instead of removing Israel from the map,” Erekat said, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s “Zionist regime” to be “wiped off the map.”
Moderates like Abbas and Erekat see Iran’s meddling as a major threat to Palestinians reaching a two-state solution to the conflict. That inference includes Tehran’s support for the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups that refuse to recognize Israel.
The same sort of resentment can be found regarding Iran’s support for the Shiite-led government in Iraq. Most of the Arab nations are dominated by Sunni Muslims, the sect fighting Shiites in Iraq.
Even in the Gulf, tensions are high among neighbors. Ahmadinejad recently struck a nerve with Emirates officials when he demanded the U.S. military leave the Gulf. The U.S. keeps 40,000 troops on bases in Gulf states and another 20,000 in Mideast waters.
Mottaki’s comments at the Jordan conference were even harsher. He slammed an Arab initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace as sure to founder, arguing Israel had no intention of striking a deal.
“We had some 130 plans in the past 30 years, but none of them were realized because of the approach of the other side (Israel),” Mottaki said.
Arab countries defended the plan, which they revived this spring but has yet to take off amid internal Palestinian fighting.
Former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, scolded Iran, saying that the predominantly Persian country had little to do with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
“It’s an Arab issue and should be resolved within the Arab fold,” he said.
But the tough talk from Arabs did little to quell Mottaki, who at one point referred to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council – which includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE but not Iran – as the Persian Gulf Council.
That offended Arab Gulf countries, which refer to the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf and for whom the name carries great significance.
Despite the bitter words, both Mottaki and Larijani tried to reassure their Arab neighbors that Iran was not the problem and had good intentions.
Larijani, the brother of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, also urged Arab countries to support his country’s nuclear program.
The U.S. and some of its allies have accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons; Iran says its program is peaceful.
But Mideast neighbors have grown worried, and some, including the GCC, Egypt and Jordan, have announced they want to start their own nuclear programs for peaceful purposes.
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was perhaps the most blunt.
“We say stop your interference in our internal affairs, stop settling scores on our soil … and sit down with us to settle our differences,” al-Hashemi said.