OpinionIran in the World PressGulf Arabs chart delicate course between Iran and U.S.

Gulf Arabs chart delicate course between Iran and U.S.

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Reuters: President George W. Bush will seek Gulf Arab leaders’ support this week to curb Iran, but may find these traditional U.S. allies more wedded to their own diplomatic drive after long frustration with his policies. By Lin Noueihed – Analysis

DUBAI (Reuters) – President George W. Bush will seek Gulf Arab leaders’ support this week to curb Iran, but may find these traditional U.S. allies more wedded to their own diplomatic drive after long frustration with his policies.

Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have watched nearby Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories slip into crisis and Iranian influence spread rather than wane during Bush’s seven years in office.

“The royal families in the Gulf are looking at the Bush visit with slightly weary resignation and perhaps a vain hope of making a case that they absolutely need the Palestinian-Israeli peace process to work … and on the Iran issue,” said Gerd Nonneman, Professor of Arab Gulf Studies at Exeter University.

“On the one hand they want a joint diplomatic strategy to avoid a nuclear-armed Iran but also they are saying we think we can engage Iran more effectively. We think we can take the sting out of this by engaging with Iran.”

Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states, including heavyweight Saudi Arabia, have long eyed their large and ambitious Shi’ite neighbor with unease, but have engaged Iran publicly this year.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Saudi King Abdullah for the first time in March. He became the first Iranian president to be officially invited to the Muslim haj pilgrimage in the Saudi city of Mecca in December.

Earlier that month, Qatar invited Ahmadinejad to a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). He was the first Iranian leader to attend the Sunni Arab-dominated body, though his comments did not put minds at ease. He also visited Bahrain.

Such high-level engagement raised some eyebrows in Washington; but for Gulf Arab states on Iran’s doorstep — some like the United Arab Emirates with long-established trade ties with the Islamic Republic — talking makes sense, analysts say.

That Bush visits the Gulf states — all military, economic and political allies — for the first time in his last year as president reflects a lack of hands-on engagement, they add.

“There was the perspective that the United States was simply not on top of it, in some cases making things worse or not showing a coherent policy,” Nonneman said. “This increased the feeling that they have to get their own act together.”

MISSTEPS

Iran’s influence in Iraq has grown since the U.S. invasion removed Saddam Hussein and installed a Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad, many of whose members have close ties to the Islamic Republic where they lived in exile for years.

Lebanon’s infrastructure was hit by the 2006 war with U.S. ally Israel, yet pro-Iranian Hezbollah emerged politically strong. Lebanon has since lurched from one crisis to another as a U.S.-backed cabinet and Iran-backed opposition vie for power.

Gulf states risked public ire by attending the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference at Annapolis only to watch Israeli settlement expansion continue unabated.

To add to the confusion, Bush has refused to rule out the military option to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, though the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said the Islamic Republic’s atomic weapons program was halted in 2003.

While Tehran has had hostile ties with Washington for 29 years, it is the United State’s Arab allies who face public anger over its policies, anger that may well have helped al Qaeda win new recruits.

“Welcome as he will be, President Bush must be ready to listen to Arab complaints about how his Iraqi adventure has inadvertently strengthened Iran’s hand in Baghdad and weakened the Arab front against potential Iranian expansion,” wrote Imad Harb of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

“Arab leaders… want to hear the president explain the logic behind his insistence on wielding the stick to the exclusion of the carrot in… dealing with Iran’s nuclear file.”

Saudi Arabia has made its own efforts in recent years to mediate between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Islamist Hamas. It has also weighed in to avert escalation in Lebanon.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was clear on Wednesday that national interest came first when dealing with Iran.

“We have relations with Iran and we talk with them, and if we felt any danger we have links… that allow us to talk about it. So we welcome any issue the president raises and we will discuss them from our point of view,” he told a news conference.

There is no question of Gulf Arab states loosening their close ties with the United States; it is their main supplier of arms while they are crucial to world oil supplies, analysts say.

With a new president due in the White House next year, they will bide their time rather than seeking a strategic shift.

But this week’s incident, in which Washington said Iranian boats had approached three U.S. war ships, shows how quickly tensions in the Gulf can escalate.

“GCC states will push for reassurance of a continued firm stance on Iran… but reassurance is also needed that there will not be an overreaction, like with this incident,” said Neil Partrick, Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The confusion will only go with this administration… Now they are looking at who comes in and how they formulate policy.”

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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