Iran High on Bush Middle East Trip

CAIRO, Egypt – Iran is the one issue where President Bush and Arab leaders have shared concerns. Ahead of the president’s Mideast trip, Arab nations are eager to contain growing Iranian power, though they’re wary of doing so militarily.

Arab countries, particularly those in the Gulf region, are worried the long standoff between Iran and the U.S. could escalate into military action — and that they could get caught in the crossfire and their vital oil exports could be disrupted.

Arab nations also worry about Iran’s increasing influence around the region, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon.

Sunni Muslim countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states fear Iran will dominate Iraq in coming years through its influence on the country’s Shiite politicians, particularly if U.S. troops withdraw. So they want to ensure the position of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority.

Even before Bush began his Mideast tour, America’s Arab allies were pushing an effort to isolate Iran. Their focus was Lebanon, where they fear Iran — through its allies Syria and Hezbollah — can strengthen its foothold on a sensitive border with Israel.

A weekend confrontation between Iranian boats and the U.S. Navy underlined Arab fears that tensions could turn violent. Five small Iranian boats harassed U.S. warships in the Gulf’s Hormuz Strait, dumping boxes in the water and threatening to blow up the ships, the Pentagon said Monday. The U.S. craft were on the verge of opening fire when the Iranian boats fled.

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman called it a “serious incident” that Iran must explain. Iran maintained the encounter was “normal,” insisting Revolutionary Guards boats approached the U.S. vessels, asked them to identify themselves, then allowed them to pass once they did so.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “the United States will confront Iranian behavior where it seeks to do harm, either to us or to our friends and allies in the region.”

“There is wide support for that within the region and certainly that’s not going to change,” he told reporters.

Bush, who will visit several Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt after his first stop in Israel on Wednesday, has said he will work with Mideast allies to develop a security plan to counter Iran.

But while they may welcome U.S. support against Iran, Gulf nations would likely be wary of signing a military or security pact with Washington — at least publicly — since they don’t want to be seen as collaborators in an American scheme against a Muslim country. Iran has already threatened to hit U.S. bases in the Gulf and disrupt oil shipping through the vital passage if the United States launches military action, and Gulf states don’t want to make themselves a direct target.

Saudi Arabia “won’t do it,” Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the leading Saudi newspaper Al Watan, said of any defense pact. “If the Americans want to fight Iran, that is their problem.”

Instead, Arab countries are focusing on diplomatic moves, keeping up communications with Iran while trying to blunt its forays into the region.

Egypt last month rebuffed an Iranian attempt to restore full diplomatic ties, cut since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ali Larijani, a top envoy of Iran’s supreme leader, was in Egypt for two weeks trying to negotiate a resolution, even offering generous incentives such as helping build nuclear power reactors for Egypt and providing it with low-price wheat.

But Egypt refused, apparently unable to ensure Iranian cooperation on a host of issues, including Iraq and Lebanon. “To have sustainable relations (with Iran) we should have a consensus” on regional issues, said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Steven Cook, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the Saudis and other Gulf states seem to be “hedging their bets,” and appear more interested in accommodating Iran than taking action against it.

“There’s a general, overall agreement in the region about the challenges that Iran presents,” said Cook. “But there’s also questions about what the U.S. intentions are.”

On Lebanon, Arab allies of the U.S. are worried that if the Syrian-backed opposition — particularly the Shiite militant Hezbollah — gains more power there, it will mean giving Iran an even stronger foothold in the country.

That, and Iran’s influence with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, would give Tehran greater ability to disrupt the peace process between the Arabs and Israel.

At an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Saturday, Egypt and Saudi Arabia pushed Syria into accepting a formula for resolving the crisis over Lebanon’s presidency. Syria signed onto a deal that backed naming Lebanon’s military chief Michel Suleiman as president and put off the question of the shape of the next government, in which the opposition is demanding more power.

While Arab countries may see eye to eye with Bush on concerns over Iran, they are deeply skeptical over the other goal of his Mideast visit — pushing the Arab-Israeli peace process. After the Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md., in November, Bush has said he hopes Israel and the Palestinians can reach a peace accord before the end of his term in January 2009.

But many in the Arab world see Washington’s new push on peace as too little too late and doubt the U.S. will pressure Israel to make the concessions they demand.

“We will be waiting to see what the U.S. offers during the upcoming visit of President Bush, who bears the responsibility of moving the process forward as the one who called the Annapolis meeting,” Arab League chief Amr Moussa said Sunday.


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