New York Times: As the West raises the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, Arab governments, especially the small, oil-rich nations in the Persian Gulf, are growing increasingly anxious. The New York Times
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — As the West raises the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, Arab governments, especially the small, oil-rich nations in the Persian Gulf, are growing increasingly anxious. But they are concerned not only with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran but also with the more immediate threat that Iran will destabilize the region if the West presses too hard, according to diplomats, regional analysts and former government officials.
On Thursday, Iran will meet with six world powers to discuss a variety of issues in what will be the first direct talks between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran would appear to enter the discussions weakened by a bitter political dispute at home and by the recent revelation of a second, secret, nuclear enrichment plant being built near Qum.
But instead of showing contrition, Iran test-fired missiles — an example of the kind of behavior that has caused apprehension among some of its Arab neighbors. The cause and effect of conflict between Iran and the West is never experienced in Washington or London but instead plays out here, in the Middle East, where Iran has committed allies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
“If the West puts pressure on Iran, regardless of the means of this pressure, additional pressure, increased pressure, do you think the Iranians will retaliate or stand idly by and wait for their fate to fall on their head?” said Ambassador Hossam Zaki, spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry. “The most likely answer is they will retaliate. Where do you think they will retaliate?”
Among Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors there is growing resignation that Iran cannot be stopped from developing nuclear arms, though Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful uses. Some analysts have predicted that a regional arms race will begin and that vulnerable states, like Bahrain, may be encouraged to invite nuclear powers to place weapons on their territories as a deterrent. The United States already has a Navy base in Manama, Bahrain’s capital.
“I think the gulf states are well advised now to develop strategies on the assumption that Iran is about to become a nuclear power,” said Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at United Arab Emirates University. “It’s a whole new ballgame. Iran is forcing everyone in the region now into an arms race.”
This realization, in turn, is raising new anxieties and shaking old assumptions.
Writing in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, for instance, the editor, Abdel-Beri Atwan, said that with recent developments “the Arab regimes, and the gulf ones in particular, will find themselves part of a new alliance against Iran alongside Israel.”
The head of a prominent research center in Dubai said that it might even be better if the West — or Israel — staged a military strike on Iran, rather than letting it emerge as a nuclear power. That kind of talk from Arabs was nearly unheard of before the revelation of the second enrichment plant, and while still rare, it reflects growing alarm.
“Israel can start the attack but they can’t sustain it; the United States can start it and sustain it,” said Abdulaziz Sager, a Saudi businessman and former diplomat who is chairman of the Gulf Research Center in the United Arab Emirates. “The region can live with a limited retaliation from Iran better than living with a permanent nuclear deterrent. I favor getting the job done now instead of living the rest of my life with a nuclear hegemony in the region that Iran would like to impose.”
The Middle East is a region defined by many competing interests, among regional capitals, foreign governments and religious sects, and between people and their leaders. An action by one, in this case Iran, inevitably leads to a chain reaction of consequences. It is too early to say how the latest revelation will play out.
Some regional analysts have said that fear of a nuclear Iran could yield positive results, possibly inspiring officials in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to work harder at reconciling with leaders in Syria, which has grown closer to Iran in recent years as its ties have frayed with Arab states.
The report in Al Quds Al Arabi by Mr. Atwan said gulf states were taking measures to try to persuade Russia and China to stop supporting Iran. The report said that Saudi Arabia had offered to purchase billions of dollars of weapons from Russia if it agreed not to sell Iran sophisticated missiles. And it said gulf states might join together to offer China one million visas for its citizens to work in the region.
The latest conflict over Iran’s nuclear program has also allayed some longstanding fears. Arab capitals aligned with the West are now less worried, for example, that President Obama will strike a deal with Tehran that might undermine Arab interests, analysts, diplomats and regional experts said.
“It was a concern that, well, maybe the West was going to try to appease Iran on a number of regional issues in return for something,” Mr. Zaki said.
But that is a relatively small consolation, given concerns that Iran might develop nuclear weapons or, if pushed, activate its allies, Hezbollah or Hamas, political analysts here said. Arab capitals already have accused Iran of fueling the recent fighting between Shiite rebels and the government in Yemen, and of inciting conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in places like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — charges Iran has flatly denied. Egypt has accused Iran of using its ties with Hamas to undermine Palestinian reconciliation and negotiations with Israel, as well.
“There is no doubt, given the recent events, that the degree of threat and amount of fear has increased,” said Anwar Majid Eshki, director of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jidda, Saudi Arabia.
But Arab analysts are also not sure how the United States and its allies should proceed. Mr. Zaki and others offered little advice, other than to call on Washington to press to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which many see as the root cause of regional instability.
“No one said it was an easy situation,” Mr. Zaki said.
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.