Gulf States Hesitant on Iran Threat

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Greg Bruno 

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President Bush in Bahrain during his Mideast trip. (AP Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Bush maintained a steady message of alarm about Iran during his weekend Persian Gulf trip. On January 13 in Abu Dhabi, he called on Arab allies to confront “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.” His decision to expedite the sale of high-tech "smart bomb" technology to Saudi Arabia (JPost) is an example. But as the U.S. president continues his tour of the region, the message from Arab allies regarding Iran is more subtle, nuanced, and cautionary.

Washington has pressed for containment of Tehran’s regional influence—including alleged support of militants in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—as well as its uranium enrichment plans. Israel supports Washington’s efforts to use diplomacy, sanctions, and even military action to reduce Iranian influence in the region. The recent altercation between U.S. warships and Iranian speed boats in the Strait of Hormuz was viewed by the White House as further evidence of the Iran threat (AP). But some Gulf Arab allies on Bush’s itinerary have cautioned against any escalation. “We don’t want our region to be an area of wars and bloodshed” (AFP), a member of Kuwait’s parliament said in advance of the presidential visit. Leaders in Bahrain, including the state minister for foreign affairs, stressed the importance of bilateral ties with Washington but also sought to “steer the region away from the specter of war” with Iran.

President Bush could also face resistance to tough action on Iran during his trip to Saudi Arabia, which started on January 14. Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom will welcome Bush’s opinions on Iran, but would oppose military confrontation (Telegraph). “Saudi Arabia is a neighbor of Iran in the Gulf,” the prince said. “We are keen that harmony and peace should prevail among states of the region.” F. Gregory Gause III, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont, tells that Riyadh is in a tough spot—trying to “contain and embrace” Iran while maintaining ties with the United States. “The Saudis share the American view that Iran is a threat and has to be contained,” Gause says, but they don’t want to be caught in the cross fire.

Washington's hard-line policy toward Iran has been complicated (BosGlobe) by a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concluded Iran likely ceased its nuclear weapons development in 2003. Israel and Arab states see the NIE as weakening Bush’s position dealing with Iran, a view Washington has sought to dispel. Just after the NIE became public, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Bahrain to assure members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Washingtonwould “keep all options open.” Iranian leaders, for their part, have conducted their own diplomacy in the region (FT), and dismissed Bush’s efforts at rallying Arab states against Tehran. “Americans mistakenly think they can bring the Iranian nation to its knees with pressure,” Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei was quoted as saying (NYT).

Some analysts believe Washington and Israel should adjust their respective positions vis-à-vis Tehran. CFR’s Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh argue in Foreign Affairs that the president’s containment strategy could make matters worse. Trita Parsi, another Iran expert, is equally critical of Israel’s policy toward Iran. But the Bush administration’s unease over Iran’s nuclear ambitions is shared by many in the U.S. policy community, as well as European allies. Tehran’s announcement on January 13 that it will provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with answers about its nuclear program (ISNA) could set aside some fears about its past activities, but the BBC reports that fears over Iranian uranium production could well linger (BBC).


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