Arabs increasingly uneasy with Iran ways

DUBAI — It’s not often the United States, Israel and the Gulf Arab states worry about the same thing. But right now, they are all focused on Iran.

The country’s spiralling militarism — trumpeted this week in missile tests and military manoeuvres — plus its influence in Iraq and its controversial president, appear to be making some Arab states more nervous that there could be future menace in Tehran’s ways.

Yet, many here have been reluctant to speak out because they feel stuck between favouring Iran or favouring its arch-enemy Israel, both states with which Arabs have fought bloody wars.

“There is the feeling that attacking Iran at the moment plays into the hands of Israel. Gulf countries don’t want to play that game,” said Dubai-based political analyst Abdul Khaleq Abdulla. “But Tehran deserves a lot of this. Unfortunately, it’s going in a very worrying direction.”

The Arab world has long had on-and-off tense relations with Iran. Many Arab countries backed then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his 1980s war against Iran. They also have worried for decades that Iran’s Shiite-majority Islamic theocracy could spill over onto into their largely Sunni countries, all of which have Shiite minorities.

But the relations have plummeted since the election last year of Iran’s firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since then, Gulf Arab countries have offered quiet support for moves against Iran’s nuclear programme, which, despite Tehran’s assurances to the contrary, many fear is aimed at creating weapons, said Abdulla.

Gulf Arab countries also would be likely to back forthcoming United Nations Security Council moves against Iran, if Tehran refuses UN demands to halt uranium enrichment, said Mustafa Alani, a military analyst with Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.

“If the Security Council imposes restrictions on Iran, these countries will be happy to join those sanctions or boycott against Iran,” Alani said.

Yet the worry over Iran does not mean the Arab nations are totally supportive of the US position towards Iran.

Indeed, many here say their greatest worry is that the United States might launch military action against Iran — a move they fear would destabilise the region and draw retaliation against them.

Many here also blame the United States for empowering Iran by launching the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That war destroyed an Arab military, led by Saddam, seen regionally as a bulwark against Iranian domination of the Gulf, while leaving Baghdad open to Iranian political manipulation, Abdulla said.

Top intelligence officers from several Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been meeting secretly to coordinate their governments’ strategies in an attempt to block Iran’s interference in war-torn Iraq, several Arab diplomats told the Associated Press earlier this week. The meetings came after several Arab leaders voiced concerns about possible Shiite domination of Iraq.

Since Iran began publicising military manoeuvres and tests of missiles and torpedoes this week, Arab pundits also have warned that Ahmadinejad appears to be exhibiting the type of defiance that has brought similar leaders down.

Kuwait’s daily newspaper Al Siyassah said Wednesday that Iran’s military swagger resembled that of former Egyptian President’s Gamal Abdul-Nasser and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — just before they provoked punishing attacks by the West.

In Monday’s London-based Asharq Al Awsat, Abdel Rahman Al Rashed, director of Al Arabiya TV channel in Dubai, went further, saying Ahmadinejad’s war games were giving America “an excuse to start a showdown.” “Iran is wasting money and inviting the hostility of the world, especially the world’s big players,” Rashed wrote.

“A future war will destroy everything Iran has achieved in a matter of days, if not hours, as happened in the case of Saddam.”

Not all Gulf Arab leaders agree, and Iran assured its neighbours that its manoeuvres and missile tests aren’t aimed at them. It made clear they were meant to impress the United States and Israel.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal said Wednesday that the kingdom sees no threat in Iran’s military manoeuvres or its civilian nuclear power ambitions. Instead, Prince Saud, who said he would soon visit Tehran, said it was Israel’s nuclear monopoly that constituted the region’s gravest threat. Israel, which refuses to confirm or deny its nuclear arsenal, is thought to harbour hundreds of warheads.

Despite the general nonchalance over the military tests, there is unease over Iran’s intentions.

“No expert in the region takes this backward technology seriously,” Alani said of Iran’s touted missiles and torpedoes. “What is frightening is the message the new Iranian administration is conveying: They are ready for a challenge and they are willing to take that challenge as far as possible.”

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