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Iran Threat Driving Arabs to Restore Egyptian Ties

November 05, 1987|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Feeling increasingly threatened by Iran, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf have decided, according to diplomats and other officials, to re-establish diplomatic relations with Egypt, the No. 1 military power in the Arab world.

"It would have happened sooner or later anyway," but the Iran-Iraq War has acted as a catalyst, one Middle Eastern diplomat said. "Their motive is fear of Iran and the need to find an Arab counterweight to the Iranians."

The move to formally re-admit Egypt to the Arab fold is expected to come as early as next week, when Arab leaders gather in Amman, Jordan, for an emergency summit of the Arab League.

Egypt, long considered the dominant member of this organization, was suspended from the league in 1979 for signing a peace treaty with Israel.

"It has already been decided to raise the question of Egypt's re-admittance into the Arab League at the summit," a senior Arab diplomat said.

Exactly how the issue will be raised and whether or not it will actually be put to a vote is not clear, this official said, as did others.

Syria, an ally of non-Arab Iran, and other Arab hard-liners are expected to oppose any formal attempt to vote Egypt back into the league. The summit was called to discuss the Iran-Iraq War, but Syria has already succeeded in blurring the focus by making its participation conditional on the discussion of other issues, including the Arab-Israeli dispute.

While some diplomats think that Syria's consent to Egypt's re-admission will be purchased with petrodollars from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, others believe that the issue is likely to remain a contentious one, especially in view of the anti-Iranian context in which it is being presented.

Within the Arab League, "those who want relations with Egypt are a very big group, and they want it very badly," one diplomat said. "Still, one should never underestimate Syria's ability to throw a spanner in the works."

Most Arab countries support Iraq in the long-running conflict. The Saudis and Kuwaitis, who feel especially menaced by Iran, hope to forge a common Arab stand against Iran at the summit meeting and may use the Egypt issue to pressure Syria into going along with a stronger anti-Iran resolution than they would otherwise accept, some analysts said. In that event, they said, the Egypt issue might not be raised formally at all.

Many States May Act

However, even if this happens, a number of Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, are expected to re-establish formal ties with Egypt in the near future, according to diplomats in the gulf and in Cairo.

"Egypt may not formally be re-admitted to the league this time, but the summit will leave members free to re-establish bilateral relations if they so choose," a Jordanian source said.

He said he expects this to happen "very quickly," within the first few weeks after the summit meeting.

Most Arab countries already have close ties with Egypt in all but name, but the importance of restoring formal relations now lies in the signal it would send to Iran that if push comes to shove in the gulf, Egypt "will be there to help its Arab allies," a Western diplomat said.

'A Symbolic Step'

"It's very important as a symbolic step," he said. "It sends a strong message to Iran . . . to think twice about antagonizing these countries."

Egypt is already the Arab world's largest supplier of arms to Iraq. Giant C-130 transports laden with munitions leave Cairo airport for Baghdad almost daily.

There have been recent reports that Egypt had sent 70 air force pilots to Kuwait to bolster that gulf sheikdom's defenses after several Iranian missile attacks against Kuwaiti sites and vessels in Kuwaiti waters. The reports have been strongly denied by Egyptian officials and discounted by Western and Arab diplomats. However, Egypt is understood to have a number of military advisers in the gulf, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last month proclaimed Egypt's readiness to "stand by Kuwait . . . with all our capabilities in the defense of its territory."

Opposition From Saudis

Among the Arab gulf states, the main opposition to restoring Cairo to its place in the Arab League has come in the past from Saudi Arabia, which has always contested Egypt's claim to the leadership of the Arab world.

However, the rich but traditionally timid Saudis have been forced to reconsider their position in the face of the widening gulf war, last summer's anti-American, anti-Soviet riots by Iranian pilgrims in Mecca--in which many Iranians were killed--and the more recent Iranian missile attacks on Kuwait. Faced with Iranian attempts to subvert their regime and that of Kuwait as well, the Saudis "have come to the realization that Egypt is the only Arab country apart from Iraq that is capable of acting as a counterweight to Iran," a Western diplomat said.

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