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Arabs fear Iran may now up the ante in the Mideast

December 06, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The dwindling possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran is changing the dynamics of Middle East politics and raising Arab concern that Tehran may now feel emboldened to strengthen its military, increase its support for Islamic radicals and exert more influence in the region's troubled countries.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations opposed military action against Iran's nuclear program. But, analysts said, those governments were privately relieved that U.S. threats helped to further preoccupy Tehran, which had irritated much of the Arab world with its deep involvement in the politics of Iraq and Lebanon and support for the radical Palestinian group Hamas.

The U.S. intelligence report released Monday, which says Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program, has eased international pressure for sanctions and invigorated the Islamic Republic's hard-liners. This comes as the Arab world has been trying to counter Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and his government's influence over the presidential turmoil in Lebanon, the politics in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The report did not allay Arab fears over Iran's nuclear intentions and its program to enrich uranium.

The same day the intelligence assessment was made public, Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The meeting in Doha, Qatar, was hailed by many as a symbolic milestone to defuse decades of tensions between Shiite-dominated Iran and other oil-producing, mostly Sunni nations of the region. The Iranian leader, however, said little at the meeting to calm nerves about his country's regional ambitions.

Suspicion that Iran seeks to dominate the Persian Gulf region has prompted some Middle Eastern states -- including Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. regards as the leading Arab voice -- to increase military spending.

"There's no trust on the Arab side about Iran's intentions," said Christian Koch, research director for international studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "There are concerns of Iran's nuclear program for military purposes. There are concerns about Iran's influence in Iraq, over the unsettled political situation in Lebanon and over the dispute regarding" three gulf islands in Iran's control that are claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

Some in the region believe, however, that the U.S. report may soften the mistrust between Iran and its neighbors and lead to a degree of rapprochement. Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said the report may help Tehran "widen the rift" between Washington and its Arab allies, who had feared that if the U.S. attacked Iran, Tehran might retaliate against them.

"The report sends assurances to the gulf countries and particularly to the Saudi kingdom," Fattah said. "The gulf countries know that if the U.S. strikes Iran, they will turn into Iranian hostages."

The view across much of the Middle East is that Iran's refusal to give in to the Bush administration was clever policy that was, at least for now, vindicated by U.S. intelligence. It is likely to further enhance the image of Ahmadinejad, whose popularity in the Arab street is rooted in his defiance toward the West, a quality many Arabs wish their own leaders would show more often.

In Iran on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad was quoted by the state news agency as saying the U.S. intelligence report was a "final blow" to Iran's critics and was a clear message "that the Iranian people were on the right course. Today, Iran has turned to a nuclear country and all world countries have accepted this fact."

Many Middle East analysts believe the report signals that the U.S. is shifting its approach away from its combative approach toward Tehran, which has bedeviled Washington's diplomatic and democracy-building efforts across the region. This situation has turned more precarious because of Iran's brinkmanship and Arab nations' dismay at U.S. policy failures and what they perceive as Washington's weakness. Arab capitals blame the Bush administration for the continued bloodshed in Iraq and waiting for nearly seven years before aggressively committing to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"This report is a face-saving device for the U.S. It gives the U.S. administration a subtle way to backtrack on their stance regarding the Iranian nuclear issues," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center in Beirut. "What we are seeing is not a change in the U.S. strategy of reshaping the Middle East, but rather a change of tactics."

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