Iran General NewsU.S. seeks to assure Arabs on Iran

U.S. seeks to assure Arabs on Iran

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ImageWall Street Journal: The Obama administration is dispatching its point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, to the Middle East this week in an effort to win greater Arab support for Washington's engagement strategy toward Tehran, U.S. officials said.

The Wall Street Journal

By JAY SOLOMON

ImageWASHINGTON — The Obama administration is dispatching its point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, to the Middle East this week in an effort to win greater Arab support for Washington's engagement strategy toward Tehran, U.S. officials said.

A number of Arab governments in recent weeks have voiced concern about the U.S. outreach, fearing it could help entrench Iran as a Mideast power while failing to end its nuclear program, the U.S. officials said.

Arab governments have been seeking assurances from Mr. Ross and other U.S. officials that Washington's overtures toward Iran won't undercut their security interests, U.S. and Arab diplomats said. The Arab governments are asking the U.S. to consult regularly with them as President Barack Obama seeks to hold high-level negotiations with Tehran aimed at ending its nuclear activities.

"The discomfort among the Arabs is quite real. They have deep anxieties about Iran," said a senior U.S. official working on the country. "The first thing is to be in the position of consulting with them, and taking into effect their concerns."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an interview broadcast Sunday, declined to commit to a firm timeline for negotiations with the U.S., saying Tehran is preparing its own package of proposals. "We are reconsidering our proposed package. We are adding new issues to the realm, if you will, of the talks. And we are going to make that public as soon as possible," he said on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on ABC.

U.S. officials said Mr. Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have offered an "unsettled" response to the U.S. overtures. "It's hard to know whether it's part of an internal process on their side, whether there's real opposition to engagement .. There's no indication at this point," said the senior U.S. official.

To address regional concerns about the U.S.'s Iran strategy, Mr. Ross will travel this week to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional security and trade body grouping six Persian Gulf states. The GCC was established in 1981 to counter Tehran's regional influence in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and as a response to the Iran-Iraq war.

The trip will be Mr. Ross's first since being named Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia. The career diplomat and negotiator is overseeing the Obama administration's review of U.S. policy on Iran, which already has seen significant shifts from the Bush era.

Mr. Obama has eased restrictions on U.S. diplomatic contacts with Iran. Last month, he delivered a speech calling for better relations with Iran after 30 years of enmity. The U.S. also has dropped its precondition that Iran freeze all its nuclear activities before the two sides hold talks.

Some Arab officials said they have seen little evidence that Iran is moderating activities that they view as destabilizing to many Mideast governments. Morocco severed diplomatic ties with Tehran last month, alleging Iranian diplomats were seeking to convert Moroccan citizens to Shiism, Iran's predominant religion. Egypt this month arrested 50 members of Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia and political party, for allegedly seeking to undermine President Hosni Mubarak's government while transferring arms to the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Iran has denied that it is seeking to destabilize its neighbors. Mr. Ahmadinejad has attended GCC summits and called for better relations between Iran and other regional countries.

Egyptian officials in recent weeks have publicly cast doubt on the utility of holding negotiations with Iran's leadership. "Any talk about dialogue with Iran is complete admission and submission to the fact that Iran has an influential role," Hossam Zaki, the Egyptian foreign-ministry spokesman, told reporters this month.

U.S. officials have been seeking to engage Iran on regional security issues, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as a vehicle through which to build diplomatic ties. They have said a rapprochement with Tehran could lead to Iran being included in international security forums. The challenge, the officials say, is to include Iran without being seen as condoning what many view as its threatening behavior. Recent comments by Iranian officials suggesting that the Persian Gulf island-state of Bahrain is a wayward Iranian province have incensed Arab leaders.

"The Gulf states need to be told from the highest levels in Washington that there won't be a grand bargain cut behind their back," said a senior Arab diplomat engaged on the Iran issue.

GCC countries have increased spending on missile-defense systems in recent months in a sign of their concerns about Iran. In December, the U.A.E. agreed to buy Patriot missile systems valued at more than $3 billion from Raytheon Co.

Mr. Ross also is expected to carry the message that Washington's overtures towards Iran won't be open-ended. He and Mrs. Clinton have been telling foreign leaders in recent weeks that the U.S. would seek to further isolate Iran internationally if it doesn't make concessions on the nuclear issue. U.S. officials said they are preparing substantial, new economic sanctions on Iran should negotiations break down.

"We are also laying the groundwork for the kind of very tough .. crippling sanctions that might be necessary in the event that our offers are either rejected or the process is inconclusive or unsuccessful," Mrs. Clinton told the House foreign-affairs committee last week.

Arab leaders also want commitments from the Obama administration that it will pressure Israel to engage in negotiations aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state. Arab diplomats have said that Tehran has been using the recent Israeli military operations against Hamas as a justification to challenge Arab governments seeking peace with Jerusalem.

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