Iran General NewsU.S.'s Arab allies keep cautious watch on Iran

U.S.’s Arab allies keep cautious watch on Iran

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ImageWall Street Journal: Even as Washington's allies in Europe respond to Iran's heightened nuclear rhetoric with a push for further economic sanctions, the U.S.'s Arab allies are staying on the sidelines.
The Wall Street Journal

By MARGARET COKER

ImageABU DHABI—Even as Washington's allies in Europe respond to Iran's heightened nuclear rhetoric with a push for further economic sanctions, the U.S.'s Arab allies are staying on the sidelines.

In recent weeks, top Arab diplomats have shuttled between the Mideast and Washington to discuss potential policies to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was set to travel to the Middle East this weekend for meetings in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Following news that former President Bill Clinton underwent a stent procedure Thursday, a State Department official said Mrs. Clinton will still be going, but will be departing on Saturday rather than Friday. Her original schedule for appointments began in Doha on Sunday, the official said, and that won't change. She will also visit Riyadh and Jedda, Saudi Arabia, before returning to the U.S. late Tuesday night.

While Iran wouldn't be the only topic on Mrs. Clinton's Middle East agenda, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's boasts of nuclear-technology successes this week would likely be a top concern for Arab officials meeting with her.

Washington's allies here have to balance fear of Iranian nuclear advances with the reality of Iran's proximity and the still-significant trade and economic ties they share with Tehran.

"The situation [with Iran] has looked bad from our point of view for a very long time," said one Gulf Arab diplomat. "Unfortunately, it doesn't look like it's going to get any better." Still, this official said, "those of us here at ground zero have to be very cautious."

On Thursday, Mr. Ahmadinejad announced Iran had successfully produced its first batch of uranium enriched at levels that exceeded its previous capability, which Tehran says it will use in a medical-research reactor.

Western and Arab capitals worry Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

In a speech Thursday, Mr. Ahmadinejad repeated Iran's claim that it isn't interested in building a nuclear bomb, but also suggested it could if it wanted to.

"If Iran wants to make [a nuclear weapon] it has the courage to do so and announce it clearly, but we have no intention of making a bomb," he told a crowd of tens of thousands of government supporters on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founding.

Gulf nations for years have pursued an ambiguous policy toward Tehran, a Persian Shiite theocracy historically at odds with the Arab, Sunni monarchies ruling most of the rest of the Gulf.

They have publicly embraced Tehran as a neighbor and trading partner, but have privately bolstered military defenses against any Iranian aggression.

The issue of sanctions is especially controversial, and few officials in the region say, even privately, that they believe sanctions will have any effect on Tehran's behavior.

As recently as December, Bahraini officials hosting a security conference in Manama, attended by Iranian diplomats and U.S. State Department and military officials, publicly said that they were against new sanctions on Tehran.

Still, the region could play a more discreet role in the current international debate over United Nations-backed economic measures targeting Iran, analysts say.

Martin Indyk, the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank, says Saudi Arabia could persuade China—which is a big trading partner with Iran and so far has indicated little support for further sanctions—that a nuclear-powered Iran is bad for the stability of global oil exports and thus Beijing's oil-dependent economy.

Arab Gulf trade with China jumped to $80 billion in 2008 from just $12 billion in 2002, according to trade statistics from the Gulf countries. That outstrips the $50 billion traded between China and Iran in 2008, according to Mr. Indyk.

A Saudi official declined to comment on his government's position toward Iranian sanctions, or any effort by Riyadh to influence China's thinking on the issue.

Meanwhile, a debate has broken out among regional commentators recently about the wisdom of Gulf states remaining quiet in the face of Iran's stepped-up nuclear rhetoric.

Abdallah al-Shayji, a Bahraini political analyst, wrote in an editorial last week in the Dubai-based Gulf News that a policy of fencesitting by Gulf Arab governments towards Iran would be disastrous for the region.

"Iran has for a long time bet on the [Gulf's] lack of a coherent and well articulated, unified strategy and stance against it," he wrote. "The [Gulf] states, bilaterally and collectively, continue to pursue cordial relations with Iran, hoping that this will prevent it from menacing them. But this strategy has been found wanting and lacks strategic depth."

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